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Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Job 1:1, 2:1–10; Hebrews 1:1–4, 2:5–12 & Mark 10:2–16

Do you think it’s easier for someone to have faith if they’ve been blessed with good fortune in their life? Do you think that some people have faith, because they think that if they do they will receive blessings in their life? Or do you perhaps think that faith might be an expression of gratitude because someone has been blessed in their life? And what happens to a person’s faith when it appears those blessings are no longer present? Why is there suffering, and what effect might that have on one’s faith? These are just some of the many questions posed for us by the Book of Job.

I suppose it can be easy to have faith when everything is going well in our lives; when we are financially secure, when we are in good physical and mental health, and when our relationships with loved ones, family and friends are stable. But what if some, or indeed all, of those things were lost or threatened? Would that change how we think and/or feel about our faith and about God?

We are told that Job is a good and decent man, who prioritises his relationship with God over everything else. However Satan believes the only reason Job does this, is because God has blessed Job with wealth, considerable livestock, good health, and a large family. Satan contends with God that if Job were to lose all of this, then he would no doubt blame God, and turn away from God. So God accepts Satan’s challenge, and He allows Satan to do what he wants in order to test Job, short of killing him.

In the events that ensue, Job basically loses everything: his livestock are stolen or destroyed, his children are all killed, and Job himself is afflicted from head to toe with painful, open  sores. Job’s wife believes that God is to blame for all of the tragedies that have befallen them, and she is critical of Job for maintaining his trust in God. She tells Job to just curse God and die. Job’s response is to say to his wife, “Do we only take the good things from God and not the bad?” This raises another question: Do people ever take the time to thank God for the good things that they have received in life, or do they only lay the blame at God’s feet when something bad happens?

Job’s wife is not the only one to criticise Job. His three closest friends suggest the reason for the spate of tragedies that have beset Job is obviously the result of sin or offence that Job has committed against God, and that God is now punishing Job for it. I wonder how many people associate tragedy or suffering in their lives with some sin they think they must have committed? I’ve known at least one person of faith, who believed that certain troubles they experienced in their life were the direct result of sins they had committed.

Job however never completely loses faith in God, although he does eventually reach the point where he questions God on what he has done to deserve the awful events that have occurred in his life, justifying himself by citing all of the good things he has done for others. At this point God responds to Job, challenging him on his right to question God. 

God poses a great litany of questions to Job in relation to all of the various aspects of God’s Creation, and Job, admitting his mistake, acknowledges that it is beyond his capability to understand God’s actions and purpose.

There are a number of helpful messages that we can take from the Book of Job, and for me the following three are key:

  1. We must always remember to give thanks to God for the blessings we receive in life.
  2. When suffering or tragedy strike in life, it is not a punishment from God for something we have done to offend God. It is not an indicator that we are somehow bad people.
  3. We cannot comprehend God’s purpose. We just need to place our trust in God, regardless of what happens, or doesn’t happen in our lives.

God demonstrated how different His ways are from the ways of human beings when he sacrificed his Son in order to provide salvation for humankind. Restoring humankind to God’s original intent required cleansing from sin that could only be provided by the sacrificial death of Jesus, a thought that proved to be so counterintuitive and countercultural to the Jewish people of Jesus’ day.

We see another example of that in today’s passage from the Gospel of Mark, when the Pharisees attempt to trap Jesus, this time by asking him if it is against the law for a man to divorce his wife. Jesus knows the answer to their question, so he puts it back on them by asking them what Moses commanded them in the Torah, to which they reply that Moses allowed for a man to divorce his wife, but there was no similar provision for a woman to divorce her husband.

Jesus then says that the only reason Moses gave that commandment was because of their ancestors’ resistance to God’s will, not because it was God’s intention. God’s plan in creating male and female was that the two would become one flesh and reproduce. Therefore, since God’s intention was oneness, and since divorce severs that unity, the actions that lead to divorce constitute rebellion against God.

However there is also more to Jesus’ interpretation of the law concerning divorce than just this. Jesus was also concerned for the wellbeing of wives who were divorced by their husbands. In the time of Jesus, women were largely reliant on their husbands to provide for them. If a woman was divorced by her husband she was essentially left without a means of sustaining herself, unless of course she was to turn to activities such as begging or prostitution. So by challenging the Pharisees on the question of divorce in the way that he did, Jesus was protecting the livelihoods of women who faced the prospect of being divorced and left with little or no way to care for themselves.

Following on from this discussion about marriage and divorce, which indirectly implies family life, people bring their children to Jesus in order that he might bless them. The disciples, who once again demonstrate their failure to understand what Jesus has taught them, try to turn the children away, as though somehow they are a nuisance or bother to Jesus. They forget that Jesus had already told them that whoever welcomes a child was actually welcoming him.

Jesus uses this incident as an opportunity to provide further teaching about the nature of the Kingdom of God. Young children in the time of Jesus could not really earn money or perform any useful work, so any benefit they received came to them as a gift. If children then are recipients of God’s Kingdom, then that means it comes to everyone as a gift from God, complete with all of the blessings that entails. Which brings us back to the story of Job.

God does not bestow blessings on people as a reward for being good. God gives His gift freely to all who are open to receive it. And God doesn’t punish people for being bad. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. It is beyond our comprehension to fathom the reason why. But if we trust in God, all will be well in the end.

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