Hope in a broken world (Job 23; Pentecost 20B)

The second in a series of sermons on the book of Job, by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine; Tuggeranong Uniting Church, 10 October 2021

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Last week, we left Job engaged in the task of theodicy, the theological examination of why a just and all-powerful God could allow suffering and evil to exist. Job had become convinced that God was not particularly reasonable and was personally responsible for the suffering of the world. Just to remind you, Job’s words about God were as follows:

To paraphrase the words of David Hume, Job seems to have accepted that God must be somehow malevolent (able, but not willing to prevent evil), as he doesn’t understand why suffering should exist if God is able and willing to prevent it.

When Job’s friends arrive to comfort him, this spirited debate continues as they all decide join in the exploration of theodicy and whether God is just, as well as defending Deuteronomy’s assertions that the wicked are punished and the righteous are rewarded.

The lectionary has made a big jump here from last week with 21 intervening chapters left out. These chapters have largely been poetic speeches by Job and his friends, where they assert Job must have some secret sins, and where Job responds by strenuously denying this. Job’s friends are convinced that God rewards the righteous and punishes the guilty, so they try to convince Job that he must repent of his secret sin. Job, however, refuses, as he believes that he is innocent, a fact we readers know is correct.

This lament of Job reveals his anger, loneliness and frustration. God has become very distant to him, and he cannot find God no matter where he looks.

His grievance at his suffering spurs him to call out to God to demand a day in court where he can put his case to God about the injustice of his treatment, and he is convinced that he will be vindicated. His well-intentioned friends have failed to satisfy him with their orthodox answers, indeed have failed to listen to him.

So even if he is being rebellious, Job decides that he needs to take a risk and deal with God directly, and he therefore becomes much more insistent and increasingly frustrated as God refuses to answer. Karl Jacobsen, in his article on Working Preacher, points out that “Job is clearly ready for his day in court. But therein lies the problem; Job can’t find his way to the courthouse…[and] God is nowhere to be found. God’s hand, it seems to Job, neither leads him nor holds him fast.”

Until God appears in the whirlwind, we have an impasse. Job has scorned the counsel of his three friends. He has decided that he they see blindly and listen deafly. They, on the other hand, cannot understand his stubbornness. They do not recognise that in his suffering, it is Job who actually approaches a closer understanding of God, as distasteful as that understanding might be. Though God might crush him, Job, almost defiantly, still declares his trust in God.

Throughout Job’s speech, there is a great sense of longing for God’s presence, for God’s attention and for God’s caring. This is surely a feeling that can resonate with us all and many of us may have experienced in tragic circumstances.

All of us have sought comfort in disturbing times through prayer, and even today, in the uncertain times of climate change, pandemics, warsand natural disasters, we continue to seek the presence of God in the midst of suffering and injustice. Suffering will always challenge a person’s sense of relationship with God, but it does not need to destroy that relationship. As Christians we believe that, in the midst of suffering God, does come to the afflicted and affirm the presence of grace.

Spill the Beans this week suggests that Job’s anger, like that of the author of Psalm 44 (“Wake up, Lord! Why are you asleep?”), raises important questions about what is and is not permissible to say to God in prayer. Are we honest with God? Do we allow ourselves to lament to God about the unfairness of the tragedies we encounter in life?

Surely it is important that such questions can be voiced before God. There is an honesty in Job’s story that challenges the superficial type of faith that crumbles when tragedy strikes, and there is a freedom here that gives us permission to say what we need to say to God even if we need, like Job, toapologise later. God can take it, and surely God’s grace and love will be there waiting for us.

Part of the power of the book of Job is the fact that it realistically addresses addresses the painful questions of life. Tragedy and suffering are never simple issues; they challenge faith and can create a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Like Job, we often find that there is no shortage of opinions from others trying to explain the pain they are not suffering, and simplistic answers are offered in response to life’s most painful questions.

The strength of Job’s book is that it allows all sides of the issue – the simple answers of the friends and the emotional turmoil of Job – to be heard and heard again. So though it seems to go on and on, repeating the same arguments over and over again, and then failing to provide any answers, this is often the way the problem of suffering is experienced, especially when it comes to the enormous issues of world poverty and economic injustice.

We need to sit as long as we can with those who have suffered and are suffering from injustice and immense suffering. And perhaps, as we ponder our own tragedies, and the fate of the uncounted and unnamed men, women and children who have died in war or ethnic violence, or pray for the current victims of poverty, famine and disease in our world, we might find our thoughts connecting with experiences and the suffering of Job.

And while we cannot measure how God heals, or answers every sufferer’s prayer, or upholds us in the experience of pain, grief or fear, as Christians who understand the grace of God we can surely still believe that God is there waiting for us, even if God seems momentarily absent, in the midst of God’s suffering people.

So from the paradox of faith, we remember:

from silence, comes the song of praise;

from darkness, shines forth the light;

from mystery, comes the kingdom of God.

It is this that allows us to continue to praise God, and to continue to seek out hope in a broken world.

For other sermons on Job, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/02/living-through-lifes-problems-job-1-pentecost-19b/

For other sermons on Wisdom, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/12/in-the-squares-she-raises-her-voice-lady-wisdom-in-proverbs-pentecost-16b/ on Lady Wisdom, and https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/17/in-order-that-all-the-peoples-of-earth-may-know-your-name-1-kings-8-pentecost-13b/ on the wisdom of Solomon

Mental Health Day, 10 October

Every year in Australia, the month of October is designated as Mental Health Month. It encompasses World Mental Health Day, which is 10 October. This year, Mental Health Foundation Australia is running an Awareness Campaign with the very relevant theme of “Mental Health: Post Pandemic Recovery Challenges and Resilience”.

The focus for this month provides an opportunity to bring mental health out in the open, to improve understanding of mental health issues, and to remove the stigma associated with mental health. The aim is to showcase mental illness as a source of strength for people.

Each year 1 in 5 Australians experience a mental health issue. Approximately half of all individuals (45%) will experience issues with mental health in their lifetime. This could be anyone we know: a loved one, a family member, a friend, a colleague, a neighbour. It could well be ourselves.

People struggling with mental health issues often find themselves isolated, lonely and left to cope on their own. This month reminds us how important it is to reach out and support those in the community who suffer in silence. Simple things, like paying attention, listening carefully, and offering support, can mean much to someone having a mental health episode.

The best guidance for attending to someone struggling in this way is not to judge, not to dismiss their concerns as trivial, and not to try to cheer them up. Deep listening, quietly empathising, compassionate support, are the best things to offer such a person.

Curiously, recent data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicates that suicide rates are the lowest they’ve been since 2016. This aligns with what is being observed in many countries around the world, reversing a climbing trend prior to COVID-19. It is thought that the pandemic has fostered a deeper sense of connectedness or shared societal worry about facing the pandemic together. Alongside that, the JobKeeper payment and other economic support measures provided by governments may well have had a protective effect.

A recent ABC report indicates that younger people have been disproportionately affected by many of the pandemic’s negative consequences, with declining mental health outcomes reported by an increasing number. They are more likely to be unemployed or in insecure work, given they account for a larger proportion of the casual or gig workforce. Younger people have also had to encounter mass upheavals to their education, social connection and future employment or study prospects. This trend was already evident before the pandemic. It has increased over the past 18 months.

The Black Dog Institute, in partnership with Mission Australia, reports that one in four young people reported experiencing psychological distress in 2020, with the prevalence of this twice as high for young women than young men.

We have known for a long time that more men take their life than women each year. However, the data indicates that women engage in self-harm at a higher rate and make more suicide attempts than men. While rates of suicide overall have declined in the 2020 data, sadly the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people dying by suicide has increased in the past year.

Within the Uniting Church, we have a long partnership with Lifeline, which provides Australians experiencing emotional distress with access to 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention services. In fact, Lifeline started as a ministry outreach from the Methodist Church, a precursor to the Uniting Church; it began in Sydney as an initiative of the late Alan Walker, superintendent minister of the then Central Methodist Mission. Lifeline (13 11 14) is always just a phone call away. See https://www.lifeline.org.au/

On their website, Lifeline states that when you ring them, you will talk with a person who will: “Listen without judgment — Provide a safe space to discuss your needs, worries or concerns — and Work with you to explore options for support”. That’s a model that we each can seek to implement in our own interactions with people we know who may be experience a mental health episode.

Miriam Parker-Lacey, Minister in placement at St Columba’s Braddon and Canberra City, and UCA Chaplain at ANU, is a Mental Health Matters trainer, and she has provided this training to people within the Presbytery in recent times. Being aware of how we can help friends or family who are facing the challenge of mental health is an important skill for us to learn.