The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      18th July 2021
God alongside us
Graham Dunn

"Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested."
May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
As you will know I have been the Curate of Hampstead Parish Church for the princely sum of 14 days. However, even in this very short time, I have begun to experience the wealth of activities that are part of the life of this community.

One of the regular features of our week is the session that happens after evening prayer on Thursdays to look at Art and Faith.
This week, the session was led by our beloved Jan and she focused on the extraordinary life and works of Caravaggio. As we looked at some of his key works on our screens, one of the things that Jan brought home to us was the striking way in which Caravaggio portrays the painful, broken and sometimes brutal reality of the biblical narratives he is illustrating. His is not an exercise in sanitising his subjects or putting them on pedestals. Quite the opposite. Across the sweep of his biblical works we get a sense of a God who does not stand far off but instead is down in the trenches of life, alongside us.
In our first lesson from the Book of Job, we see Job at a very low ebb indeed. Part of this passage is sometimes referred to as Job’s Prayer of Despondency. At this point, Job has been tested, struck by disasters and brought down with illness. He has been deprived of his possessions, his animals, his servants and his children. After these things have happened, his friends arrive. The friends, beginning with Eliphaz the Temanite whom we heard last week, give their views on the reasons for Job’s suffering. As far as they are concerned, it must be on account of something Job has done wrong – because bad things don’t happen to good people.

In our passage this evening, Job is crying out despondently to God, mystified as to why everything has collapsed around him: “How many are my iniquities and my sins? Make me know my transgressions and my sin – why do you hide your face?”

Of course, as we all know, the hard reality of life is that tough things happen in the lives of everyone.
There are some schools of Christian thought that run the risk of suggesting that faith in Christ somehow inoculates us from difficulty. Real life experience says otherwise. Christian communities contain just as much brokenness as any other and our faith is not a magic wand that makes everything instantly better. 
However, as our second reading from the letter to the Hebrews shows us, our Faith is in a God who, in Jesus, has experienced the harsh reality of human life first-hand. In the midst of pain and turmoil, of grief and loss, God shows up. God walks the walk alongside us. In the passage we have heard this evening, there is reference to the Glory of Jesus, the Son of God but this glory is only attained through sharing in humanity and its suffering. 
“Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”
As we wrestle with the challenges of our world, our community and our own lives, this message can be good news for us in two ways. 
Firstly, when we are in the midst of pain, distress, when we’re feeling exhausted or overwhelmed, when we feel like we’ve been let down, when we reach out to God, we are not reaching out to a remote, far off entity; we are holding out our hand to one who knows what it is like to suffer, to be exhausted, to be betrayed. The one who came to dwell among us. The one whose death and resurrection gives hope to all humanity.
The second way in which this can be good news for us is in what it means for our own role in God’s mission. It can sometimes be tempting as Christians to think that we’re not good enough, that somehow we don’t meet God’s standards and we’re not really worthy to take the message of Jesus to others. I can vividly remember arriving at theological college in Cambridge and thinking – am I really holy enough to do this or am I really just an imposter?
Now, I don’t in any way believe that God somehow causes suffering so that we can be better Christians. But there are many occasions in which it is precisely our own experiences of pain and brokenness that allow us to walk alongside others and to share with them something of the God who himself has been there alongside us. I know that in my own ministry, I’ve often drawn as much on the times in my life when I have fallen short or when I’ve experienced pain as I have on the times when things have gone well. 
As we go out from this place, may we do so in the knowledge that whilst life can be and is tough, we do not struggle alone. As a community we can support and strengthen each other in our times of trial; and as Christians we can place our hope in a God who loves us, who suffered alongside us and who, through the saving work of Jesus Christ, lifts us ultimately out of darkness and into the light of his presence.

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