A Big Silence
Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
7 November 2010, 10:30 (3 before Advent)
Job 19: 23-27a
I’m looking forward to the final programme in the BBC 2 series ‘The Big Silence’ tomorrow. Following on from the success of ‘The Monastery’ five years ago, The Big Silence is an attempt by Christopher Jamison, the Abbot of Worth, to help five people from ordinary backgrounds explore and appreciate the gift and discipline of silence, in a noisy and over-active world.
In last week’s episode, David – a dour, cynical Scotsman (there’s an oxymoron, surely?!) – is struggling to endure the early stages of a protracted 8-day silence. He finds himself becoming angry, and brings the question ‘how can a God of love allow suffering?’ to his spiritual guide. His guide, very wisely, deflects the question by asking him not to focus on a negative response to God, but on a positive challenge to himself: What can you do to make the world a better place, a place with less suffering in it?
After a week of further silence David is a changed man. It’s not that his question has gone away, it is that he has experienced God in a new way and this has rendered his question less important.
Despite the introduction, this sermon is not about silence. It’s about how we can live hopeful, optimistic lives when suffering is all around, and often within.
I’m going to focus on this extraordinary, but very difficult, passage in the book of Job – today’s Old Testament reading.
These verses from Job 19 have become part of Western cultural folklore because of Handel’s Messiah. Handel, reliant on the Authorised Version of the Bible, immortalised Job’s words in verse 25 as a Resurrection Song: I know that my Redeemer liveth.
But in truth this passage is so textually confusing that the Authorised Version’s well-intentioned attempt to write resurrection into Job’s words is almost certainly wrong. At least, the idea of resurrection as we understand it in the light of Jesus and Easter Sunday.
However ... what you do get in Job’s words is something equally profound and arguably more telling. For, despite the difficulties of translation, the meaning of this passage is crystal clear: there will be an end to Job’s present darkness. Suffering will be overthrown. Goodness and justice will win out in the end. Job will be vindicated by and before God.
Just as the problem with history is that it’s written by the winners, so the problem with suffering is that for the most part its story gets told by the survivors, which gives it a certain bias, of survivability. But what if you don’t? What if suffering destroys you?
Like me, you will have been cheered and heartened by the good news story of the rescue of the 33 miners from the San José mine in Chile. Quite understandably, they interpreted their rescue in religious terms, as a form of resurrection. I’m sure, if it had been me, I would have done the same.
But the more reflective pieces written about the San José rescue were prepared to ask the difficult question: what about the 800 people killed in the huge Chilean earthquake 6 months earlier? It does seem a bit disingenuous to credit God with the rescue of 33 men on one hand, but ignore any divine culpability in the death of 800 people on the other. Same country, same time, different interpretation.
And although for the most part it is unremitting in its painful reality and relentless in its questions about life, God and the universe, there are a couple of points – like this passage – where Hope erupts from the clouds of Despair.
Most people, given the choice, would choose comfort over adversity. But sadly, predictably, life is not like that. There is no escape from Shakespeare’s slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. So the test of life is: how will we respond when the road gets rough?
Job faces his hardship with a disarming honesty, but still manages to summon up a strength of purpose, and a calm resolve, to meet the worst that life can throw at him with faith and courage and hope. His words in Chapter 19, if not a statement of faith in an Easter Resurrection, are a declaration that he believes in a reality, seen and unseen, where right is ultimately vindicated.
Meeting suffering head on, and overcoming it, prefigures the Resurrection. Just as there can be no vindication without suffering, there is no resurrection without death. To believe that suffering and death do not have the last word is to believe that the universe – and by extension, God – is essentially moral. A belief Job questioned but ultimately committed himself to.
(Not that you necessarily require religious faith to regard suffering in a positive way. In primitive cultures, rites of initiation often involve the endurance of pain, trial or tribulation – pointing to the fact that suffering is for grown-ups, it’s part of the adult world, not to be avoided but to be faced down.)
Back to Job and that notoriously difficult reading. Those verses, 25 – 27, are actually a long way from Handel’s Messiah. Their sense is much more to do with a hushed courtroom in which finally, after all the waiting, all the silence and inactivity emanating from the halls of heaven, God finally arises to plead the justice of Job’s cause, to vindicate him, declare him innocent. The silence from God will be broken, and Job will once again hear God, feel God close, see him with his own eyes, and know the freedom of redemption and forgiveness. It is a vision of a relationship restored.
Whether Job believes this will happen, in this life or the next, is not important. The fact is, in the midst of painful, acute and insistent suffering, he somehow discovers hope.
I don’t know what you make of this? Pie in the sky? What psychiatrists might call ‘wish fulfilment’? Is this simply Job revealing his true colours, as the eternal optimist?
I see it like this. It is as if Job held heaven in his heart – an image, a picture, a vision of what God was really like, of how God would vindicate him in a world to come where all the shadows, ambiguities, and uncertainties of this world were stripped away. He holds on to the hope of God’s world as it is intended to be, the world as one day it will be.
Donald Coggan, a former archbishop of Canterbury, once described Hope as ‘Faith looking forward’ – holding on to heaven in our hearts, looking forward in faith to the pattern of life as God intends, as God will bring.
To bring this back, somewhat circuitously, to where I started, coming to a Job-like resolution of our questions about suffering is not, ultimately, about finding an answer. It’s about growing a relationship.
In The Big Silence, Glaswegian David’s questions about suffering did not go away. But they were overtaken by an experience of God, so intense that it changed the nature of his question from ‘how can a God of love allow suffering?’ to ‘how can I understand suffering in the light of my knowledge of the love of God?’ These are two very different questions.
And it calls forth from me, not the chatter of a thousand questions, but something more profound and faithful. A big silence.
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