The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      11th July 2021
Born to trouble, Seeking God
Jeremy Fletcher

Job 5: 6-27
Eliphaz the Temanite is not necessarily the friend you would want if you were in a mess. Job was in much more than a mess. Everything had been taken from him, he despaired of life itself, and Eliphaz’s words here are in response to Job cursing the day he had been born. Eliphaz begins his speech by taking an enormous length of time to say that what he will have to say was directly inspired by the Spirit of God. 
So what word of all surpassing wisdom and pastoral sensitivity does God give to Job through Eliphaz? You think your troubles are special? “Human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward” he says. Well thanks a lot. 
The thing is, Eliphaz is not wrong. It is manifestly our lot to face trouble and devastation. If we don’t do ridiculous and catastrophic things ourselves, someone else will. Troublous things will come ‘out of the blue’. I last preached on this passage on the 25th anniversary of the fire at York Minster, which had come in 1984 came out of a clear sky. We will all know someone who has had a devastating diagnosis with no warning. One member of a previous congregation had to live with the complete disappearance, with no trace at all, of his adult daughter, and died still not knowing what had happened. Eliphaz is not wrong.  There is trouble, just as sparks fly upwards.
He may not be wrong, but it’s not what someone in the midst of devastation needs to hear at that moment. My ordaining Bishop had a saying that some things were ‘too true to be good’. Eliphaz told the truth to Job, but it did not do Job, or even Eliphaz, much good. Perhaps the words which follow are on better ground, inviting Job to consider the majesty and actions of God, who is great, and generous and gracious and unfathomable, who continues to relate to us in a world which is full of trouble and to enable creation to be sustained and develop, who is not absent. 
In the book of Job the jury is out as to why devastating things happen. Ultimately there is no knock-down piece of explanation. But the book wonders and asks and wories away and agonises, and in simply doing this recognises that human beings, even those who pray, are not immune from troubles. The arguing and agonising leads to the realisation that such troubles can lead us to greater wisdom and empathy and compassion and care, whether or not we believe that this s their reason for being. In continuing the dialogue, in always seeking to bring God into the conversation, the book of Job remains clear that God has not abandoned us, even in the middle of the greatest devastation. God, says Eliphaz, ‘saves the needy’. The poor ‘have hope’.
Eliphaz does not exhaust the purposes of the unsearchable God. But his advice is not unhelpful: in trouble “I would seek God…and to God I would commit my cause”. We should be careful about how and when we say that to people in the dust and ashes of devastation, but we can humbly say that in our prayers we will seek to remember, on behalf of the troubled, the God who in Jesus Christ was at the very epicentre of the troubles of the world, who was broken, devastated and put to death. And in our thinking, our asking “why?” (which we should) we should not look to be protected or immunised from trouble, but should look to God’s presence in the very heart of it. 

Sometimes the healed wound has more beauty and life than unblemished perfection. At York the south transept seems almost more special because it has been destroyed and rebuilt. That is a hard thing to say to those who are living with the most horrendous devastation in their own lives or the lives of those they love, but I have been struck time and again by the testimony of people who have said to me what I would not dare say to them: that God did not let them go, that there is comfort and hope in the tiniest glimmer of faith and the presence of friends, that there is life when the outward signs only point to despair.
It is probably best not to philosophise with the devastated, but simply to dwell with them in the place of grief. Explanation is tempting, but is rarely fruitful. The Christian Gospel is of a God who, in Jesus Christ, met devastation head on, and took death and destruction into himself, to take the sting and victory away from death. Those words may, at some point, be a part of our dialogue with the devastated. But in the crisis of cursing life itself may we simply hold out the wounded hands of Christ, and humbly invite people to call upon the God who, as Eliphaz says in faith, binds up, and heals, and delivers from troubles, to whom be all praise and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

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