Posted by: owizblog | October 7, 2012

Hard Things: Sermon, UCB, 7 October 2012

Readings: Job 1:1, 2:1-10;Hebrews 2

1

Here’s an insight! Different people find different films compelling! If I didn’t know that, I could discover it from a quick half-hour on what must be one of the biggest websites out there, The Internet Movie Database, possibly the movie website for film geeks, packed with all sorts of information, facts and opinion about films.

“…and opinion…” I say. Every one of the tens of thousands of films for which there’s an entry has a section of reviews from users of the website, often tens or hundreds of reviews for the better-known movies – and it’s fascinating to see how widely opinions can differ.

opinions

Each reviewer is invited to give each film she reviews a star rating from zero stars (irredeemably terrible) to ten (celluloid legend).

I could usually find lots of reviews that agreed with me about films I think are really good. But sometimes, mysteriously, reviewers hated “my” films for the very reasons I loved them.

One like that was a film I esteem very highly; the 2002 Richard Gere/Laura Linney movie The Mothman Prophecies. You may know it; an eerie, unsettling “psychological horror” film.

Most people really rated it; a minority really hated it! Reviews on the Internet Movie Database have a very brief title, which can sum up the gist of the plot, the “feel” of the film, or, quite often, what the reviewer thought of it. Some of these for The Mothman Prophecies were: “Surprisingly entertaining” (seven stars); “Great Suspense” (eight stars); “Horror Fans: It’s What We’ve Been Waiting For!” (ten stars – but I think he missed the thoughtful aspects of the film that appealed to me!) “One of the most beautiful films I have ever seen!” (ten stars – and a sentiment I’d echo).

But then, there was“You will mysteriously lose 2 hours and $7.50 on this dud! (one star); “Truly, truly awful beyond belief” (one star) “Should’ve been called the ‘Boredom Prophecies’”, (one star); you get the picture. You could take from this that there’s “no accounting for taste.” I take from it that some people simply don’t have my exquisite taste…

But there was one review-title that stopped me in my tracks. It wasn’t a snappy piece of adulation, and it wasn’t a snippy dismissal. It simply said:

“Bad things just happen. We usually can’t stop them.”

That was all.

2

“Bad things just happen. We usually can’t stop them.”

And that, if you know it, is actually what the film is about. If you know it, if you have it on DVD, go back and look at it in that light. If you don’t know it, it is worth a look.

One one level, it’s about mysterious beings who appear before catastrophes, to warn of impending disaster – but the people who see them can make little sense of their warnings, beyond a mounting dread as communities are visited by the apparitions of the “Mothmen.” There are stories of “mothmen” – whatever status you accord them; legend, urban myth, folk tale.  And the film itself focuses on one such impending disaster, and a community plagued by appearances of the Mothmen, of which they can make no sense.

You don’t need to buy into the Mothmen legend to enjoy the film. And you don’t need to buy into it, either, to see Mothmen stories, and the film itself – which is, in inverted commas, “based on real events” – as semi-fictionalized explorations of the human experience of powerlessness.

“Bad things just happen. We usually can’t stop them.” That’s the film in a nutshell.

 

The helplessness of people caught up in helplessness. The way in which such experiences change us – but also make us look at the precariousness of being human beings. That’s what The Mothman Prophecies is about.

I won’t give you any plot spoilers. But it opens with a professional couple, in early middle age, newly married, looking at, and deciding to buy a house, one dark, cold American evening. Elated, they drive off from their meeting with the estate agent at the home of their dreams – their new house.

And she is distracted by an apparition that he doesn’t see, and swerves and crashes the car, hitting her head. Admitted to hospital, a scan reveals that she is suffering from a pre-existing fatal condition, and has only weeks to live. Her distraught husband, Richard Gere’s character, in a scene shortly after, says to a friend:

“Two weeks ago, we were house hunting. One day you’re just driving along in your car, and the universe just points at you and says, ‘Ah, there you are, a happy couple. I’ve been looking for you. I’ve been looking for you.’”

happy couple

“Bad things just happen. We usually can’t stop them.”

 

3

And then, there’s this.

Now there was a day when… there came a messenger to Job, and said, “The oxen were ploughing and the asses feeding beside them; and the Sabeans fell upon them and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you” … While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house; and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness, and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you.”

Then Job arose, and rent his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon the ground, and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”

“Bad things just happen. We usually can’t stop them.” The Book of Job is certainly an exploration of that. But it goes further and deeper than just our powerlessness in a cold, unfeeling universe. It asks, unremittingly, where God is in all of this.

Job’s faith is the asking of that question: where is God in all of this?

[Break: Hymn 32: “Immortal, invisible God only wise…”]

4

Job’s life as he’s known it has been destroyed, swept away by events, by bad things that just happened, that he couldn’t stop.

Immersed in his own scalding pain, with no reason to believe that he’s done anything to deserve the horror that’s befallen him, with incredible detachment, Job realizes that he had no reason to believe that he deserved the good, rich life that came before it.

He could say, at this point, “It’s all random, all chance.” He could, as his distraught wife, immersed in the same pain, urges him, “curse God and die.” But he doesn’t do either. In some of the most astounding words in all religious literature, Job says:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”

Job is juggling two things:

“Bad things just happen. We usually can’t stop them.”

and

“The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”

And that inevtably raises a third thing. A question that we’ll look at with Job next week, but is in our minds, and implicit in his story, this week.

“Where is God in all this?”

And that’s the connection between the two-chapter prose introduction to the book of Job, and the vast almost forty-chapter poem that follows. Job accepts everything from the hand of God. But what Job doesn’t do is to stop asking, desperately, and with a sense of agonized, tortured injustice, “Where is God in all of this?”

5

What about us, right now? Perhaps we’re thinking such thoughts about our own lives. Perhaps we, too, feel powerless. Perhaps we are thinking of other people’s lives, and asking that same question. Where is God in all of this? Or perhaps all of this makes us feel uncomfortable, because things are going reasonably well for us at the moment, and we don’t want to think about the possibility that they might not, don’t want to rock the boat, don’t want to – who here, in their heads, just completed this sentence with “We don’t want to tempt providence!”?

“Bad things just happen. We usually can’t stop them.”

So we don’t look at them. We are scared to death of them. Our living is cramped by them, and our faith in God is distorted by them, twisted into an attempt to keep in with an inscrutable, implacable God we don’t know, and can’t make sense of. And could easily turn to hating.

But sometimes we have to look at these things. In others’ lives, or our own.

And where is God then?

6

There’s a strange passage in the second chapter to the Letter to the Hebrews.

It starts off with a very Job-like question. You might recognize it as a quote from Psalm 8.

But someone has said somewhere, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?”

Why would God be bothered with human beings? Why would the God of all the universe take any notice of us? But he does; the psalm goes on:

“You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honour, subjecting all things under their feet.”

We do matter…

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control.

…says the author of Hebrews. “Aye, right!” we say. After everything we’ve said about “Bad things just happen. We usually can’t stop them.”

But in fairness, whoever wrote Hebrews is going there already.

As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them…

That is, us. That is, we’re not in control. That’s not our experience of existence in the world. “Bad things just happen. We usually can’t stop them.”

But, says the author of Hebrews:

…we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death…

We see Jesus, as Christians have from the first, looking back on that first Easter, in faith. But is this really, can it be, a faith that looks at things the way they are, and, like Job, won’t give up on God, but won’t either, give up on the angry questions, on the asking “Where is God in all of this?”

Jesus, says Hebrews, suffered death

…so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone…

Ugh! “By the grace of God”!  Qne of those “Shut up and believe what we tell you to believe, because we’re comfortable in our faith, and you’re shaking us in our complacency with your questions!” phrases?

But actually, there’s every reason to believe that that’s not what the author of Hebrews originally wrote.

There are several manuscripts – hand-written very early copies of the New Testament, much more than a thousand years before the invention of printing – which say something very different.

…so that, having been separated from God, he might taste death for everyone…

And that implies something quite different.Not a protected Jesus, who died a protected, sanitized death, protected by some special knowledge of what it all meant. That’s the way many Christians still present Jesus’ approach to Good Friday, through Holy Week. He knew exactly what was going to happen, exactly what it all meant, he knew all the doctrines that later ages would wrap around the event. He only had to hang on for a little while, and he’d be through it all, and resurrected.

That’s nonsense. No truly human human being could think like that, or live like that. Those are symptoms, not of divinity but of insanity.

Yes, the Gospels present a Jesus who went out of his way to challenge, to provoke – and to forgive and befriend and even heal when he knew that this was bound to make conventionally religious people with lots of power hate him. And he must have had more than a rough idea of what that would lead to. And what just living out in honesty his relationship to God would lead to.

But there was for him no special protection. No special exemption.

(You can see why a pious, churchy little scribe, copying a manuscript of Hebrews in some room, coming across a line that said that Jesus died “separated from God” would have thought “What? That’s too much! Obviously wrong! We’ll put that right, right now!” And changed one word in the Greek, which is all you have to do to go from “separated from God” to “by the grace of God”…) Phew! That’s better! I can live with that! No challenge there…

But that’s not what Luke’s Gospel means by saying that in the Garden of Gethsemane he sweated, and his sweat fell on the ground like great drops of blood. That’s not what Mark’s Gospel means when it says that he “began to be greatly distressed and troubled.”

That’s not what Hebrews means by saying

…so that, having been separated from God, he might taste death for everyone.

Experience it as we must experience it. Experience all that we experience. So that, for him as for us,

“Bad things just happen. We usually can’t stop them.”

As for us, so for him. So that, for us, after Jesus, something profoundly different is also true.

We ask “Where is God in all of this?” And we can point to Jesus, to his Good Friday, and be able to say “There’s God.”

The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth puts it exactly. Jesus on the cross is “godforsaken God.” “God at the furthest remove from God.”

God, in other words, where people sometimes have to go; where we might have to go…

 

The Christian experience of God in Jesus Christ takes us right up to the limit, the edge, that Job’s experience does. To the gulf between us and God, where all we can do is acknowledge that God is God, and we are not.

But it also lets us start to talk about something that Job couldn’t. About God coming from there to here. About God with us. And about God knowing and understanding – which is another way of saying that, wherever we are now, whatever is happening, even bad things that we can’t stop – God is in it with us. In Jesus Christ.

How? Well, that’s what we need to use the Book of Job and the Letter to the Hebrews to explore over the next few weeks.

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