Evensong OS 19B Job 39: 1-40- 40: 4, Hebrews 12: 1-17
When we lived on the West Coast we enjoyed some tramping up the rugged rivers around Harihari and climbing some of the lower mountains around the town and further south. It always felt quite an achievement to get into some of these places, and perhaps the most challenging was one day with a friend when we got to the Blue Lookout where you can see into the Garden of Eden ice-fields in the centre of the Southern Alps.
When you are in these kinds of places you suddenly feel very small in relation to the mountains which are very large. You feel very vulnerable. (This was before the days of Emergency Locator Beacons.) I think this feeling is something like the fear of the Lord. Trips into such places are not an option for most people, and certainly not for someone like Job weighed down with all his problems. God tries to re-create such a context through stimulating Job’s imagination. He calls Job to consider the function of the natural environment, the foundations of the earth, the sea and clouds, light and darkness, snow and rain, and the constellations of heaven. Tonight’s passage follows and adds the complexity of the lives of some of the creatures, mountain goats and deer, wild asses and oxen, ostriches, mighty horses, and soaring hawks. The purpose of this is much the same as a trip into the mountains. Job finds that his problems are placed in another perspective.
The writer to the Hebrews also seeks to help a disheartened people find a new perspective. After recounting the heroes of faith and their deeds, he reminds his listeners of the cloud of witnesses which surround them and encourages them to persevere with their race. He recalls Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross. He wants to put the trials of his listeners into perspective, that they might see them as discipline. He observes that in their struggles against sin they have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. He contrasts the discipline of parents who disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, with the discipline of God for our good so that we may share his holiness. Discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
The suffering of Job appears to him to be random. He’s not aware of the contest going on between God and Satan over his motivations for righteousness. Life just suddenly falls apart and he can’t see why. That happens and the ability to gain perspective and context in such circumstances is helpful. The temptation to ask ‘why?’ is this happening to me is real, but it is an unanswerable question in many instances and leads away rather than towards finding peace.
The letter to the Hebrews addresses a different kind of trial that is the consequence of Christian faith. The trial is a struggle against sin (estrangement from God): it comes with the territory. This might be personal struggles, or it could be a struggle as you seek the pain and suffering of others in the world. Without faith, you don’t get this struggle. You might have other struggles, perhaps more like Job, but not this kind. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Save us from the time of trial.” The trial here is a spiritual struggle against sin and God allows some trial, in spite of our prayer, in order that we might grow up into holiness. This is a little bit like subjecting the children of the school to an ice cold river crossing that caused numbness and pain. Afterwards they know some things about trusting each other, about their own ability to endure things they never thought possible. It contributes to them growing up.
God is not satisfied with an immature Christian who could grow, any more that a parent is satisfied with a 12 year old acting like a six year old. Our struggle against sin is also a struggle towards peace and holiness. Roots of bitterness cause trouble and people lose perspective and sell their birthright for a single meal, like Esau.
In pastoral care discernment is very important. Job’s friends saw his suffering as some form of discipline on account of his failure or sin. This was not the case and added to his suffering. God’s approach was to expand Job’s theology. God might have said, “Your idea of me is too small.” The letter to the Hebrews addresses people who have drooping hands and weak knees. They are losing heart and are living between the trials of sin and the promise of peace and holiness as they grow in faith. There is some purpose to their endurance for the sake of growing in peace and holiness. They are on the right track but need encouragement.
At the heart of it, both these readings point to the grace of a God who loves us abundantly and will meet us in whatever the circumstances of our life may be, and lead us forward to all that we can be. As we pray tonight before the sacrament, let us place before God the one thing that concerns us most at this time and seek God’s grace and mercy, his peace and his holiness.