Tonight it was our privilege to welcome the the leader of the worldwide Baptist family to share in our worship and bring the Word of God to us. The Revd Neville Callam, originally from Jamaica, is the General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance and was in Melbourne for the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the formation of the Baptist Union of Victoria.
Who among us hasn’t read the book of Job? What a marvellous story we find there!
It is a story of indescribable pain and suffering, a story of anguish and loss, a story of an innocent man caught up in the throes of woe, facing trial after trial, on the seemingly unstoppable path to destruction. From the citadel of wealth, this man is reduced to a seat on an ash heap contemplating his fate. Yet, his friends do not abandon him. They draw near to him and eventually, they make a valiant, but failing, effort to make sense of Job’s suffering. Many who have read the book of Job come away with a strong sense of the mysterious character of innocent suffering and the deep human need of communion with God when we are in the midst of life’s trials and crosses.
The passage we read earlier in this service – Job 23:1-9, 16-17 – appears at the point of the story when, in the third cycle of speeches, one of Job’s friends, Eliphaz, has just finished trying to explain the reason for Job’s predicament. Eliphaz goes beyond what he earlier offered as the reason for Job’s suffering. He adds another charge to the arsenal earlier heaped on Job’s head: the presumptuousness of Job. According to Eliphaz, was God not punishing Job for the piety he claimed in spite of his failure to live righteously – not helping the poor, not helping the widow and the fatherless, and so on. Far from making claims based on the alleged manner of his past life, Job, Eliphaz says, must submit to God, follow God’s will, and so find peace.
As he did, when earlier his friends gave their explanation for his suffering, Job makes a bold and honest response. And what a moving response this is. He wonders whether there really is justice in the moral order, but he affirms his readiness to put his faith in God even when experience seems to canvas strenuously against the wisdom of so doing.
As we reflect on this text in Job 23:1-9, 16-17 when Job makes his response to Eliphaz’s offensive against him, let us note a lesson we may learn.
Quest for Explanation
Whenever we experience or witness inexplicable pain – pain that appears so clearly undeserved, so indubitably unmerited – what is our first response? Is to not to reach out in search of understanding?
We are so steeped in the culture that is influenced by the Enlightenment that we believe we have the capacity to ferret out the nexus between action and its consequences, between malady and its source. We are confident that we have it within us to engage our analytical powers to seek, find and articulate reasoned and reasonable explanations for the events of our lives.
Yet, whatever the accusations we may bring against Job’s friends – their rigid traditionalism, their jaundiced perspective, their stubborn denial of the facts staring them in the face, their rehearsed, predictable and heartless conclusions – yet, it appears that Bildad, Eliphaz and Zophar tried their best to explain the dilemma Job faced. Despite their best efforts, these three friends of Job could find no plausible arguments to account for Job’s lot. And, if we are interested in speaking the truth, nor can we!
There are just some issues in life that seem to defy full human understanding, that surpass total human comprehension. We can grasp aspects of these occurrences, but we simply have no adequate grasp of their dimensions. In the face of the formidable challenge that we face, our best efforts turn out to be utterly feeble.
Does this mean that we should not try to find solutions? Does this mean that we must not make a passionate search for answers to the dilemmas of life? Of course not! We are rational human beings and hardly can we help endeavouring to comprehend life’s trials. A mistake we so often make is that we sometimes conclude that we have the answers even before we commence the search for understanding. Another mistake we often make is that we assume that we have the answers even before we commence the search for understanding. Another mistake we make is that we assume that there is an answer that can be found if we apply ourselves rigorously to considering the matter at hand.
The story of Job and his friends tells us to mark the limits of human comprehension, to acknowledge the boundaries of our knowledge and our wisdom. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). Ours now is limited sight that cannot always pierce the darkness; ours now is limited knowledge that cannot always comprehend the contours of paradox and produce answers to many complex issues of life.
So what might our text for today teach us? It clearly offers, in place of a quest for full understanding, a quest for real communion. From the depths of his heart, Job reaches out for communion with the divine:
“If only I knew where to find him;
if only I could go to his dwelling!
I would find out what he would answer me,
and consider what he would say.
But if I go to the east, he is not there;
if I go to the west, I do not find him.
When he is at work in the north,
I do not see him;
when he turns to the south,
I catch no glimpse of him.
Here is the message I bring you: In times when we strive to see but cannot, when we struggle to understand and can find no satisfactory answers in the face of issues that confuse us, we can still search. What, however, must be the object of our search? We must search for communion with the one who knows all things, who understands all things. We must be content to thrust ourselves completely on divine providence.
This God of wonder, who appears to be absent when we pass through the valley of despair, actually waits with arms outstretched to embrace us, with sustaining grace to empower us, with amazing power to preserve us in our time of adversity. For all of us, God is but a breath away. God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in time of trouble.
We each must face our own dark night when we feel unable to climb any mountain and overcome any trial. We each must face our own noche oscura, our dark night when cannot rest of the certitude that hitherto we found so comforting.
In those dark nights of ours or of others who we know, shall we not strive for communion with the Holy Other? Shall we not seek rather to be embraced than to comprehend? Shall we not endeavour to fill our minds with memory of times when the loving but mysterious God took care of us? And in total abandonment to this mysterious God, shall we not find the sweet repose that words cannot describe, eyes cannot always see and minds cannot fully comprehend?
It is not surprising that, by the time we get to the end of the book of Job, Job makes a final response to the God who is beyond our capacity totally to comprehend. In the face of the self-revelation of the mysterious God of wonders, with whom Job is allowed to enter into relationship, Job repents in dust and ashes (42:6). Job concludes that he ought to worship God because God is God and God’s presence is promised to those who put their trust in God whatever their life’s situation. And we can do the same. Thanks be to God! Amen.