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Monday, 25 October 2021

Grace, or the power of possibility

Job 23.1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22.1-15; Hebrews 4.12-16; Mark 10.17-31

The Book of Job has been called the most perplexing book in the bible, and with good reason.  It is the story of a prosperous man who is righteous before Yahweh even to the point where God boasts about him before a gathering of the heavenly powers.  We learn, in chapter 1, that an ‘Accuser’ approaches Yahweh to ask if Job would really be quite so virtuous if he lost God’s obvious favour and protection.  I quote:  ‘Does Job fear God for nothing?  Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?  You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land.  But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has and he will curse you to your face’ (1.9-11).  Yahweh’s response is to grant the Accuser power to destroy the man’s possessions, his health, and even his family.  At first, Job righteously refuses to question God’s purposes in any of this.  But very soon, as the injustice of it all seeps into his being, Job’s resolve falters.  In all the words that flow from Job’s lips thereafter, in all the lament and heartache, the careful reader will discern that Job is searching for one thing, and one thing only:  the opportunity to wrest from God a convincing explanation or reason for his suffering.  But that reason, as much as God himself, eludes Job to the very end.

And that is where we find Job in the lection for today. Searching for an elusive God.   ‘Oh that I knew where to find him,’ says Job.  ‘I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments.  I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me . . .  There an upright person could reason with God, and I would be acquitted forever by my judge.’  Note that the primary cause of Job’s distress at this point is not so much his suffering in itself, but rather the incomprehensibility of that suffering, the lack of an understandable story or framework in which his pain might be placed, and therefore begin to make sense.  Note also Job’s deeply held belief and expectation that God should provide such a framework, that God ought to guarantee and assure the meaningfulness of Job’s apparently innocent suffering.  It is crucial that we understand this point.  The naked suffering of Job, his loss and his shame, are terrible enough.   But what distresses the man even more is the fact that the God he desires, a God who gives meaning to suffering, refuses to present himself.  I quote again:  ‘If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.’

This distress of Job is repeated and finds its echo in the lament of Psalm 22:  ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.’  Like Job, the Psalmist is suffering, this time at the hands of evil men.  Yet, as with Job, his greatest pain is not physical, but existential.  Why doesn’t the God of Israel, the God who saved Israel from slavery in Egypt, now save this servant of his, a servant God has always looked out for, even from birth?  Here, again, we discover that the suffering body also initiates a suffering of the mind and soul, a veritable crisis in human meaning as such.  And God, who is supposed to guarantee the ultimate meaningfulness of things, again presents as one strangely absent or indifferent.

Now, this is all too familiar, is it not?  Most of us, I know, have faced exactly these questions. Some of us are perhaps facing them right now.  If God is a God of love, why does God leave us on our own at times of pain and suffering?  If God is a God of justice, why do the apparently innocent suffer, even the most vulnerable, who are unable to protect themselves?  Any way one might look at them, such questions are revealed as desperate enquiries into the ultimate coherence or meaning of our human lives. And we ask them of God, because we expect and believe that God is one who, in the final analysis, is able to undergird and support the meaning-structures we work with.  In that context, what I am about to say to you will probably sound like bad news, very bad news.  But it isn’t really, and I hope to show how that might be so in a just a moment.  For now, allow me to state what I have to say nakedly, as it were:  According to the Gospel of Jesus, God does not guarantee the meaningfulness of our lives.  Let me repeat that, in case you missed it.  According to the gospel of Jesus, God does not guarantee the meaningfulness of our lives.

What is meaning anyway?  Or, to put things a little differently, how is meaning made?  Meaning, I suggest, is that sense one has of there being a fundamental coherence between what is happening with oneself and what is happening with the rest of reality.  It is the capacity for seeing that one’s life is recognisably part of a more expansive schema, story or history which itself presents as ultimately meaningful.  If the story as a whole makes sense, and I can find my own role or place within it, then my own life can make sense as well.  Christianity is often said to be a kind of super-story in which all of us have a meaningful role.  Because each human being is loved by a God who is big enough, and powerful enough, to guarantee that the story will have a happy conclusion, then every single life engaged by that story is also guaranteed with regards to its own meaningfulness, even if there are tragic or perplexing moments to be negotiated as the plot marches towards its ultimate conclusion.  

Now, while I agree that a sense of narrative coherence is ordinarily crucial to both our sense of meaning and to our mental health, I must confess to being troubled by the theology so often invoked to support such a stance.  Namely, that God is the guarantee of human meaning.  For this is a theology which the bible itself cannot support.  We have seen, already, how both Job and the Psalmist desired such a God, a God who would eventually present himself as the foundation upon which their suffering would become meaningful, the ultimate guarantee that their suffering would contribute towards some higher or nobler end.  But we have also seen how neither text is able to deliver what its protangonists longed for.  In the Psalm, while God indeed shows up at the end as a saviour and liberator, it is certainly not explained how that God meaningfully coheres with the absent and silent God of earlier experience.  In Job, even though the opening chapters set the reader up to expect that God will eventually explain to Job that his suffering was a test of character, no such explanation takes place.  When God arrives on the scene, it is certainly not to explain, but rather to question Job’s desire for a God who explains.

Further evidence for the point I am making is plentiful in the gospels, although it usually takes a more positive form.  This is where the apparently bad news begins to look like good news.  Take today’s gospel, for example, where Jesus proclaims that while, from a human point of view, it is indeed impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, such a thing is not impossible for God.  Those who read this passage for ammunition against the rich (I am, myself, one who is constantly looking for such ammunition) are of course missing the point entirely.  The young man who turns away because he cannot give what he has to the poor and follow Jesus is not condemned by the evangelist, but rather held before us as an example of that person whom God may choose to save against all rhyme or reason of human justice.  Do you see the connecting theme, here, with Job and the Psalm?  In all three cases, human beings have a view of how things should work in the world.  They have a system of ethics which says that there are bad people who should suffer, and there are innocent people who should not suffer.  And in each case, God or his representative is called upon to guarantee that the ethical system, so established, will accomplish what it was designed to do: to punish the guilty and make them suffer; and to vindicate the righteous cause of the innocent against their foes.  In each case, God is called upon because God is believed to be the author and origin of the story in which these human beings live, and move, and have their being.

I put it to you, however, that each of these stories shows us only that God is not the author or origin, and certainly not the guarantor of any of our stories, whether they be personal beliefs, legal conventions, or even our most deeply believed religious myths.  Because they are not God’s stories, but ours.  And that, I think, makes the apparently bad news sound rather better, as the gospel reading clearly shows us!  Because none of us have a handle on God, because none of us can call on God to guarantee our own agendas in the world, God is free to treat people differently than we ourselves would.  Very differently.  God is free, for example, to treat those we would call ‘sinners’ like saints.  God is free to welcome those whom we would call ‘shameful’ or ‘ugly’  into the company of the honourable or beautiful.  God is free to make many who are running last in the rat-race, first, and many who are running first, last.  Doesn’t that fit our experience of God?  Isn’t it true that God often says ‘no’ to us when we are sure it should be ‘yes,’ and says ‘yes’ to us when we are sure it should be ‘no’?  The good news of the gospel is that God’s ways are not our ways, that God does not do for us according to what we either deserve or expect.  In this perspective, the story of Job takes on a new spin.  One can then see that Job’s prosperity was a gift in the first place, and when it is returned to him twofold, at the end of his story, this was not because he had virtuously passed a test of character.  His second round of prosperity is like the first.  Undeserved.  A gift, pure and simple.  Without reason or foundation.

There is a single word that sums up all this beautifully divine unreasonableness, and it is a suitably beautiful word:  Grace!  Grace is the opposite of karma, that most ancient and persistent of human laws which proclaims that we get what we deserve.  We do not get what we deserve, and thank Christ we don’t!  Grace, as Bono from U2 says, grace ‘travels outside of karma’.  Grace finds beauty and goodness where we see only ugliness and evil.  Grace grants redemption where no redemption seems possible.  Grace, as Eberhard J√ľngel has written, is the bountiful surplus of possibility over inevitability.  Some of you will recall that classic scene in the first Matrix movie where Smith, the agent of the Matrix, has Neo Anderson, the messianic figure, in a headlock.  A train approaches, and Smith intends to throw Neo onto the tracks to finish him off.  ‘You hear that, Mr. Anderson?’ asks Smith, ‘That is the sound of inevitability’.  At the last moment, Neo throws himself clear, though it seems impossible that he should do so, and it is Smith who is collected by the train.  There is a parable in this for any who have the eyes to see!  The Matrix is our myths, those stories which tell us how things work, what is necessary and inevitable, and how we shall all get what is coming to us.  But the good news is this:  that the Son of Man has come to shatter all of that, to proclaim the unreasonable freedom of God to save those whom the world would condemn, and to make all that seems impossible to us, very, very possible indeed.  

Garry Deverell

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