King's Acre Church, 11 November 2007
“I know,” said Job, “that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God.”
We are all very familiar with those words, whether we know them from Handel’s Messiah or from Martha’s reprise of them in John’s Gospel, or even from this bit of the book of Job, which is where it came from originally.
It's a funny old story, isn't it, this story of Job. Do you know, nobody knows anything about it - what you see is totally what you get! Nobody knows who it was written, or when, or why, or whether it is true history or a fictional story - most probably the latter! Apparently, The Book of Job is incredibly ancient, or parts of it are. And so it makes it very difficult for us to understand. We do realise, of course, that it was one of the earliest attempts someone made to rationalise why bad things happen to good people, but it still seems odd to us.
Just to remind you, the story first of all establishes Job as really rich, and then as a really holy type - whenever his children have parties, which they seem to have done pretty frequently, he offers sacrifices to God just in case the parties were orgies! And so on. Then God says to Satan, hey, look at old Job, isn't he a super servant of mine, and Satan says, rather crossly, yeah, well, it's all right for him - just look how you've blessed him. Anybody would be a super servant like that. You take all those blessings away from him, and see if he still serves you!
And that, of course, is just exactly what happens. The children are all killed, the crops are all destroyed, the flocks and herds perish. And Job still remains faithful to God: “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
So then Satan says, well, all right, Job is still worshipping you, but he still has his health, doesn't he? I bet he would sing a very different tune if you let me take his health away!
So God says, well, okay, only you mustn't kill him. And Job gets a plague of boils, which must have been really nasty - painful, uncomfortable, itchy and making him feel rotten in himself as well. Poor sod. No wonder he ends up sitting on a dung-heap, scratching himself with a piece of broken china!
And his wife, who must have suffered just as much as Job, only of course women weren't really people in those days, she says “Curse God, and die!” In other words, what do you have left to live for? But Job refuses, although he does, with some justification, curse the day on which he was born.
Then you know the rest of the story, of course. How the three "friends" come and try to persuade him to admit that he deserves all that had come upon him - we've all had friends like that who try to make our various sufferings be our fault, and who try to poultice them with pious platitudes. And Job insists that he is not at fault, and demands some answers from God!
Which, in the end, he gets. But not totally satisfactory to our ears, although they really are the most glorious poetry. Here's just a tiny bit:
“Do you give
the horse its might? Do you clothe its neck with mane?
Do you make it leap like the locust? Its majestic snorting is terrible.
It paws violently, exults mightily; it goes out to meet the weapons.
It laughs at fear, and is not dismayed; it does not turn back from the sword.
Upon it rattle the quiver, the flashing spear, and the javelin.
With fierceness and rage it swallows the ground; it cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.
When the trumpet sounds, it says "Aha!" From a distance it smells the battle, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.
Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings towards the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high?
It lives on the rock and makes its home in the fastness of the rocky crag.
From there it spies the prey; its eyes see it from far away.
Its young ones suck up blood; and where the slain are, there it is.”
Wonderful stuff, and it goes on for about three chapters, talking of the natural world and its wonders, and how God is the author of them all. If you ever want to rejoice in creation, read Job chapters 38, 39 and 40, And at the end, Job repents "in dust and ashes", we are told, and then his riches are restored to him.
But would even more children and riches really make up for those seven children who were killed? I doubt it, which is one of the reasons it’s probably a story, rather than actual history. But even still, Job makes one of the central declarations of our faith: “I know, that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God.”
Job may or may not have been only a story, but we do believe that much of the Old Testament, by and large, is historical. Jesus certainly believed that. When he talked to the Sadducees, he mentions the story of Moses and the Burning Bush as though it were historical fact. And he comments that “even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’. He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”
For Jesus, it was history; Moses said this, and it proved that. And I think that, because it is Remembrance Day, we, too, need to look a bit at history this morning.
The thing about history is its continuity. God is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob today, just as much as in Jesus’ time. And just as much as in Moses’ time, come to that! God doesn’t change. And there are other continuities, too – including the pyramids in Egypt, which Abraham might well have seen, which Moses probably knew well, which Jesus might have been taken to visit, and which one can still see today. I find this gives me a sense of continuity.
And so, too, the particular bit of history we celebrate today, when we honour those who gave their lives or who were wounded in the service of their country. I know our troops are still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, but for the past sixty years and more, it hasn’t impinged on our daily lives unless we happened to have a relation serving with the armed forces. In the two wars we call world wars, last century, it was very different. Everybody’s lives were affected in one way or another.
The horror of it all came home to me very vividly one holiday some years ago now, when we toured Northern France. We wandered around Alsace and Lorraine, parts of France which were part of Germany within living memory, and which changed hands twice in not-quite-living memory. People who were born before 1870 and died after 1945 would have forcibly changed nationality no fewer than five times!
Battles were fought in this area. We visited a fort on the Maginot line, which the French had hoped would be impregnable in the 2nd World War. And we visited Verdun, a town which has been destroyed and rebuilt so many times within the past hundred and fifty years that it is a wonder anything is left of it today!
And I remember realising how lucky I am. There hasn’t been a battle fought on British soil since Culloden in 1745 – not a pitched battle, anyway. Yes, we were blitzed in the Second World War, and you can still see the scars today, that block of newer flats in Glenelg Road, for instance, showing where the original houses were destroyed. I wasn’t around in those days, but those of you who were will, I know, tell me how terrible it was.
But since then, although there have been wars of all kinds, they’ve all taken place in someone else’s back garden. The tanks have rolled through other people’s streets. Yes, we have been attacked – I walk past the place in Tavistock Square where the bus blew up in the 7 July 2005 attacks, and of course Russell Square Tube Station, which is directly opposite where I work, is about the nearest station to where the bomb went off on the Piccadilly Line.
But we didn’t have foreign soldiers walking in our streets, swaggering around imposing their will on us, perhaps even raping every woman. And maybe that’s one of the reasons we continue to remember those who fought and died for their country so long ago. My grandfather was badly wounded in the First War, and my father in the Second. Actually, the First World War must have been really terrible – I’ve read my great-grandfather’s diaries. His elder son was wounded so badly nobody thought he would live – although he did, or I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale – and my great-grandfather got permission from the War Office and went over to France to visit him. And then it became clear that he would live, after all, so my great-grandfather came home again, only to hear that his other son had been killed on the Somme.
My other grandfather was a career soldier, involved in both wars – my mother and grandmother didn’t see him for years during the second world war. One of his brothers was killed in action, too – he was a flyer, and the life expectancy of fliers over the Western Front was measurable in minutes.
But this is all history. Kids study it in school. Even the oldest of us here weren’t much more than children when the Second War finished. I wasn’t even born. I don’t remember having a ration book, although I’m told I did. I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t buy anything I wanted in the shops, whenever I wanted it – although naturally Tesco’s has always run out of, or stopped stocking, the one thing you go in for, but that’s rather different.
There are those who say that Remembrance services glorify war. I think not. They are not easy, of course. For those who have been involved in war, whether actively or by default because their whole country was, they bring back all sorts of memories. For those who have not been involved, they can seem irrelevant.
Many Christians, too,
think that all fighting and killing is wrong, and refuse to join the
armed forces, even in a time of conscription. I’m inclined to
agree, I have to admit, but for one thing –
do we really want our armed forces to be places where God is not honoured?
That’s the big problem with Christian pacifism –
it leaves the armed forces very vulnerable. We must, of course, do all we can to bring peace.
But almost more important is to bring hope. To bring the good news that Job, and then Jesus proclaimed. “I KNOW that my Redeemer lives.” “God IS the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”
We all find the concept of eternal life enormously comforting, of course. We’ve known people who have died very suddenly – remember Viera Gray, for instance, or Robert’s father. We may have known people who have been the victims of terrorist attacks, or just the random shootings that seem to have happened far too often recently. And we wonder, as Job must have done, where God is in all this. Job, we are told, never lost faith – but many people did when they saw the horrors of war.
But if God grants people eternal life, if this life is not all there is, if the best bit is still to come, then death isn’t a total, unmitigated disaster. Of course it is a disaster. Of course we hurt, and ache, and grieve, and miss the person who has gone. But we can know they haven’t gone forever, and it does help!
I certainly believe in eternal life! Some preachers will say that God limits those who can get into heaven to those who have professed faith in Jesus, but I think it is rather we who exclude ourselves than God who excludes us. People who are seriously anti-God, seriously anti-faith, wouldn’t be comfortable in eternal life, would they? God is a God of love, a God who delights in us, who loves each and every one of us so much that Jesus came to die so that we can have eternal life. “I KNOW that my Redeemer lives and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God.”
Return to sermon index
Return to home page