Monday, 22 December 2014

Christmas day talk 2014: the emptying of God

Luke 2.7,12

What did Jesus bring with him when he came from heaven?

I have with me his suitcase. It is a big suitcase because we are talking about the Son of God. There must be a great deal of pretty precious stuff in it!

So could you open the case for us

[Have pre-arranged helper open large suitcase in which you have put an empty wallet and some strips of cloth]

1. Where will he stay?

Somewhere in that suitcase there must be a key – a key to a place where he is going to stay. I suspect that it is a big key, because he is the Son of God. He is the ruler of all rulers, the leader of all leaders, the king of all kings. He is the person who is one day going to come back to judge the world and to rule the world

[helper puts head in case and searches in vain]

Look harder. There must be a key in there. Maybe it is a small key?

It will be the key to a glorious palace, designed by the greatest of architects. This is God we are talking about: when you come into his palace you will know that this is the throne of God. On the walls will be the most precious and most exquisite works of art. The furniture will have been crafted by experts. It will be priceless. This palace will make the Palace of Versailles look like a rabbit hutch.

There is no key. Well, where is he going to stay?

2. What about money? How will he live? Is there a purse in there?

[helper brings out purse]

Yes, I thought so. Open it up. I’ve always wanted to see what a divine debit card looks like. It will be made of sheer gold. This is the account of the one who owns everything. Not just in this planet, but in the whole universe. With the divine debit card there is nothing that you cannot buy.

[helper shakes purse upside down and shows it is empty]

There is nothing?! Not even £5?

3. Well this is a suitcase. It must have some suits in it.

This is the Son of God, this is the one who has come to earth to show us what God is like. He will wear impressive clothes, made from the most expensive fabric, designed and embroidered by angels. His first baby grow will be glorious. It will be the trend setter for centuries. And you, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls are going to get the first sight of it.

[helper looks in case and shakes their head]

What? No clothes?

[helper has been pretending to search inside case and triumphantly pulls out some strips of cloth]

What is that? Strips of cloth. What are they for?

4. Is there anything else in the case?

[helper holds up case to show it is empty]

It is not what we would expect.

God comes to earth, and there is no key. He has no palace. He doesn’t even have a home. He is born in a cowshed.

God comes to earth and there is no celestial credit card. He comes not with wealth, but with nothing. He was born in abject poverty: to a peasant family who had no money and who had been ordered to come to a strange town where they had no family support structure.

God comes to earth and there is no divine baby grow. He is wrapped, swaddled, bound in strips of cloth.  

God comes to earth with nothing.

Luke 2.6ff: ‘While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and Mary gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in an inn’

And just in case we think it all might have been a mistake, we hear the angels say to the shepherds, ‘This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger’ (Luke 2.12)

This is what God planned.

One of the greatest preachers who ever lived, a man called Chrysostom (Chrysostom is a nickname – it means in Greek, ‘golden mouth’) said over 1600 years ago,

‘Surely if He had so willed it, He might have come moving the heavens, making the earth to shake, and shooting forth His thunderbolts, but such was not the way of His going forth. His desire was not to destroy, but to save, and to trample upon human pride from its very birth.’

We think that life is about where we live, about wealth and what we wear and what we have.

But that is not what life is ultimately about.

God shows us in baby Jesus what life is all about.

God leaving heaven and becoming a human being, not at our highest but at our lowest, not at our richest but at our our poorest, not at our best but at our worst. He came so that we might get to know Him. It is about relationship, relationship with the living God.

Christmas shows us the heart of God – a heart of love. He freely gives up all that he has, in order to come to us so that we might come to know him.

And because he was born in a cowshed and not a palace – we have prepared for us heavenly mansions, palaces beyond our wildest imaginations.

And because he became poor – he offers us a treasure that is priceless: intimacy with him, love, joy, peace, fruitfulness, fulfilment and hope.

And because he was bound in strips of linen – he offers us a royal robe. 

To quote from another ancient writer, this time someone from this land, the venerable Bede:
‘He who clothes the whole world with its varied beauty, is wrapped up in common linen, that we might be able to receive the best robe. He by whom all things are made, is folded both hands and feet, that our hands might be raised up for every good work, and our feet directed in the way of peace’. 

And Bede goes on to point out that Bethlehem means literally ‘the house of bread’. And is it not strange that the one who was laid in a cattle feeding trough – is the one who tells us that he is the bread of life, that he is the one we are to hunger for, and to feed on?

Because he had nothing - he offers us everything. He who became a human child offers us, human children, the right to become children of God.

May God give us this Christmas a profound and humble gratitude for what he has done for us, and may he give us a deep hunger for him – and as we meet him now, and take his words deep into our lives, as we feast on him, may you know the freedom he gives, the joy he gives and the abundance he gives. 

Friday, 19 December 2014

Carol service talk 2014: the big mess

You will probably be aware that on Angel Hill, beside the old Abbey wall, there is a crib scene. It shows Mary, Joseph, a couple of shepherds and the baby in a manger. couple stopped and looked at it, and one was overheard as he asked the other, 'Who is the man in the bed?'

It is a reminder. The story of Jesus is not as well known as it once was. For Christians that is an amazing opportunity. We can tell the story of Jesus and it really is good news.

For those who don't know, the man in the bed is not a man but a baby. The bed is not a bed but a cattle feeding trough.

The crib scene is a reminder that the astonishing gift of Christmas was God giving us his Son.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born as a baby on earth.

It was a mess.

Being born is a messy business. In the film Nativity (the first one), Mr Poppy and Mr Maddens take their class to go and see a baby being born. I’m a governor at Guildhall Feoffment Primary, and I’m not sure that our outings policy includes visits to maternity units. For the children it is like watching a horror movie. Mr Poppy and Mr Maddens faint

And Jesus wasn’t born to privilege and status. He wasn’t born in a palace, wrapped in precious robes and laid in a golden cradle. He wasn’t cared for by the best midwives or Norland nannies. He was born in a cowshed, wrapped in linen cloths and laid in a manger.

We could not get further from our antiseptic birth-suites or from the sanitised ‘religious’ stable scenes of those few Christmas cards which do tell of the birth of Jesus.

I'm sure Joseph, the inn keeper and his wife tried their best to make things clean for Mary, but it would still have been a mess. A bit of a pigsty.

And the first visitors to this baby: they were shepherds. Shepherds for us are those men or women who can make clever dogs do clever things. But in Jesus’ time, shepherds were outcasts - they told jokes about shepherds.

Jesus told a joke about a shepherd. He had 100 sheep and he lost one. So he abandoned the 99 and went to find the one lost sheep. Duh! Brain ache! You don’t leave 99 to go and find 1. Yes, people would have laughed; shepherds would do that.
But then Jesus turned it right round. ‘God is like that’, he said. ‘You are so precious to him that he would leave 99 others in order to seek you. You are so precious to him that God would come down and be born as a baby, no – to become a tiny egg in the womb of a peasant girl who lived in Israel – in order to save you: the one lost sheep.

It was mess.  Jesus was born in a country which was under occupation. They had their tyrants and their terrorists. Their land was torn apart by deep inequality, by exploitation, by hatred and greed, and by religious and political extremism. Some of the renaissance paintings of the nativity show Mary and Joseph in a stable and behind them are crumbling buildings.

He was born into a mess.

By the age of 2, Jesus had survived state sponsored child genocide and his parents had fled. He was a refugee in a neighbouring land.

He was born into a mess. 

But God came into human history in order specifically to come into our mess:

He came to tidy it up.

I’d like you to think of some imaginary child whose room is a mess. This I am sure applies to nobody here. When I say mess, I mean mess. Clothes on the floor, half chewed boiled sweets stuck to the carpet, broken bits of toys and useless things strewed around, and a cup which probably once had what you suspect to be hot chocolate in it but now contains something green and slimy and definitely alive. I mean it is even too messy for the cockroaches. They take one look at the place, pack their bags and leave. 

Well mum gets to the end of her tether. She tells this imaginary child to go up to their room and tidy it up – and she is coming in half an hour. Our imaginary child says how delighted they are to be asked to do this task, and eagerly run up the stairs to get on with it! But as they go in, they look at the mess. It is overwhelming. They think I can’t do this; it is too big for me. So they throw a few other clothes that were on the bed onto the floor, and lie down and start to play with their phone. I could even tell you the game they play, but I won’t because they are imaginary. Half an hour is a long time and mum will probably forget to come.

But she does not forget. And as the door opens, and they are still lying on their bed, they think, ‘I’m in big trouble’. And they are!

John says that when God sent Jesus into the world he did not come to condemn the world but to save the world. He opened the door and walked into the mess.

But astonishingly, even though he had asked us time and time again to tidy up, he didn’t come to punish us for the mess. He came with his big black bin bag to deal with the mess – and he did that by taking the mess onto himself, into himself.

The good news is that the baby born 2000 years ago in Palestine grew into an adult.

He lived the sort of life that I should have lived.

He lived a life of love. He loved God and he loved people. He brought the life of God to earth. That was why he was the most beautiful of people on the inside. Everything about him was true. He lived life as we were made to live it.

And because he brought the life of God to earth, he was able to begin to show signs of how – one day – he will finally clear up the mess. He healed the sick, cast out evil, fed 5000 people with a boys’ picnic lunch, turned water into wine, walked on water and calmed the storm. It was why he could bring people back from the dead. It was why he could bring forgiveness to some of the most crushed people, new life to people who were despairing and hope to men and women who were crushed.

He did it not by being superman and simply zapping whatever and whoever was wrong. I’m grateful for that because I would be on the wrong end of the zap.

Instead he did it by taking all the muck into himself. He took the hatred and the lies into himself. He took the abandonments and the betrayals into himself. He took the abuse and the mockery into himself. He took the cruelty and the violence into himself.

He took it onto himself because he both suffered as the victim of the muck; but he also became the muck. He became sin for us. One of the first people to think about these things writes, ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us’. (1 Cor 5.21). It is an astonishing statement. Jesus Christ took into himself my sin and he died the death that I deserve to die. No wonder when he hung on the cross the sky turned black.

But that is not the end of the story. He rose from the dead. He appeared to his followers. They saw him, doubted him, touched him, ate with him and then worshipped him. And when, 40 days later, he was taken away from them he gave them this promise: I will never leave you. My Spirit will come and live in you.

And for anyone who comes to him, who asks him for his Spirit, he will come into the cowshed of our lives and the manger of our hearts.

Because, if we are honest, it is a bit of a pigsty: mixed up motives, shifting standards, resentments, betrayals, unforgiveness, anger, jealousy, dishonesty and the fear which grips us. 

But this is good news. He says, 'I know what it is like to be born in muck. And if you let me I'll be born in you. I will come and live in you and we will begin a tidy up job. I know you can’t do it on your own – but I can help you.

That is how it is going to happen: individual men and women who are messes who turn to me and allow me to tidy them up.

‘I want’ – he says – ‘to turn you into an army’.

‘Not an army of people who strap explosives to their bodies, pick up automatic weapons and massacre school children.
The army I have in mind is an army of people who are learning to love, to be honest about themselves, who will make themselves vulnerable, who will kneel down and wash the feet of the lowest and most despised.
="color: #333333; font-family: "Arial","sans-serif"; font-size: 12.0pt; mso-ansi-language: EN-US; mso-fareast-font-family: "Times New Roman";">I want you to be people who make a difference in this world: who love God and who see this world not as their playground but as my world, and who see other people not as rivals or competitors or servants or nobodies, but as people who are deeply beloved and precious to Me.
I want to make you men and women, girls and boys who will love other people – even your enemies – and be prepared to die for them, to be crucified for them, so that they might find My love.

And I want to give you the assurance that you are deeply and profoundly beloved, membership in a new family, knowledge of forgiveness, a deep peace (even in the face of dreadful tragedy), a power at work in you that is not you and joy’. 

So I do pray that many of us will turn to the one who was born in a manger, and invite him to come and live in us. Don't worry if you are a mess. He came for people who are in a mess. Don’t worry if you are not religious. He came for people who are not religious. Don’t worry if you have done stuff of which you are dreadfully ashamed and nobody knows. He does know, he has taken it into himself and dealt with it and he still loves you.

And he will begin the really big tidy up.

I’m not asking you to make an on the spot decision to put your trust in Jesus Christ tonight. If you do, I won’t object and I would be delighted! But what I would ask you to do is to take one of the stories of Jesus that we have available on a table at the back of church. It is the story of Jesus told by Luke. It begins with the Christmas story. Read it – jump over the bits that are boring (there aren’t that many). And ask yourself, is this the person that I could trust to come into my life and tidy me up.

And I pray that we all will know a peaceful and joyful Christmas. 

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The light of your life

A talk for a LIGHT UP A LIFE Hospice service

We talk of someone as being the light of my life. It means that they are everything to us. They are the one who gives our life meaning; they are the one who is there when it gets dark and difficult; they are the one who shows up the colours and make it all so bright. With them we can be completely honest and ourselves. We can weep with them and we can laugh with them. They make us who we are. They bring out the best in us. 

And when that light is taken, our lives become very dark and very empty.

WH Auden wrote, 
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

I am very conscious that for many of you the light of your life has been extinguished. You've been in very dark places, and some of you may still be in those dark places. And Christmas just makes it worse. Each fairy light can be yet another stab of emptiness, of aloneness, of darkness. 

But there is hope. 

The title of this service is 'Light up a Life'
We hold lights to remember those who we have loved but who are no longer with us.
We remember that they were a light in our life or even the light of our life. And we give thanks for them, and we realise that even though we have lost them, we will never be able to lose what they were to us

But there is another sense in which this service is called 'Light up a life'. And the lives that are to be lit up are ours. It is about offering hope. It is about saying that in the darkness there is light. It is about taking that dead wick and bringing a light to it which means that it will begin again to flicker. 

There is one who can be the light of our life, in a way that no other human person can possibly be. He is the one who the prophet Micah foretold (Micah 5.1-5) - the one who would be born in Bethlehem. He is the one who will stand and feed his flock: and we will be secure and safe and know peace. 

600 or so years after Micah, Jesus Christ was born. John writes of him, 'What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it'.

It is only when it is night that the light will be seen.

It was night when the shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks - and that was when they saw and heard the angels declaring the glory of God. 

Of course the darkness tried to put the light out. When they hammered him to the cross, they used the nail of hatred, and the nail of lies, and the nail of viciousness, and the nail of death. It seemed that they had put out the light for three days - but like one of those magic candles you can put on birthday cakes, it suddenly flickered back into life.

And for 2000 years people have tried to extinguish this light. The story of Jesus has been abused, twisted, mocked and ridiculed. Those who have faithfully put their trust in the light have been, and today in many countries, are being persecuted. 

But nothing, nothing on earth and nothing in heaven, nothing in life and nothing in death, can now extinguish that light. 

So I do invite you to turn to this light. 
Last week I visited an older person. They had not been well and were struggling to come to terms with a body that was growing older and weaker while in their mind they remained young. And we prayed, and they wept.  

The light of whom I speak is the only one who can give us hope when we weep or want to weep but the tears won't come, and when the night is at its very darkest.

And Jesus, who John describes as the light of the world, was born that first Christmas; he suffered and died on the first Good Friday and he rose from the dead that first Easter. He is alive. He is burning brightly. And we can turn to him. 

And he will be our friend and walk beside us. One of the most famous passages in the bible says: 'The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want for nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul'. (Psalm 23) And the writer goes on to talk about how the Lord will anoint us with joy. But he will not just lead us and guide us and give us joy. He will come and live in us. 

And he will be the light of our life.

He is the one who gives our life, every life, meaning and significance. 
It is because of him that the person we have loved and lost really does matter. 
He is the one who is there when it gets dark: we have his amazing promises – promises of forgiveness, of strength, of peace, of eternal life.
He is the one who shows up the colours of life; who comforts, protects and guides us. 
He is the one in whose presence we can weep, and know that our tears really do matter, and in whose presence we will one day laugh and laugh and laugh with freedom and joy. 
He is the light who is our strength and our courage, who gives us purpose and who gives us hope. 

Several years ago I was on a ferry from Le Havre to Poole. The sea was rough and I felt dreadful. Some of you will know the feeling. You could quite happily die. Outside it got dark. But that was a mercy, because then I saw in the far distance a light. It was the light at Poole Harbour. That light is the first site of home for men or women who have been at sea for many days. In years gone by, it was the light that guided ships into that harbour. And for me that light was a sign of hope. While everything else went up and down and this way and that, it was the one fixed point. And so for about 2 to 3 hours I sat in the front of that ferry and I fixed my eyes on that light. And it got me through.

I pray that as you walk through the night, God will open your eyes and light up your life; that you will see the light - not something, but someone - and that you are given the grace to fix your eyes on Jesus. On the Jesus who lived, who suffered and died, who rose from the dead and is alive, and who promises that one day he will return to establish his kingdom of peace, justice, mercy and joy - where there will be no more sickness, no more suffering and no more death. 

And you will discover that he can be, in a way that no human person ever can, both now and then, the light of your life. 

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Children's questions about God

These questions were asked by children (aged 7-8) at the Guildhall Feoffment Primary School

Some of these questions are very difficult to answer because when we are talking about God we are talking about someone who is bigger than what we can think of. So, for instance, asking who made God, is a bit like Elsa and Anna of the film Frozen asking who drew Walt Disney? They live in a world in which everything and everyone is drawn. They would not be able to imagine a world where people are not drawn. Or describing what God is like is like trying to describe the colour blue to someone who has never been able to physically see.

Did God make Jesus?
Yes and no! No: in the sense that Jesus is the eternal Son of God who has always existed. There never was a time when he has not existed and there never will be a time when he does not exist
Yes: in the sense that at one particular point in our history, Jesus became a human being. He grew in his mother's womb and became a human baby just like us, with skin and bones, and so God made him in the same way that God made each of us. 

If so how? And why?
Jesus was born on earth so that we could become friends with God. We couldn't get to God, so God comes to us. He came so that we might become like God. It is a bit like swapping coats in the playground. He offers to take on our dirty, messy and torn human-coat, and he offers us his fantastic God-coat.

How do Christians know God has powers?
The most clear way that the power of God was shown was when Jesus was raised from the dead. God has more power than death
I also see God's power at work when I look at a flower, or a mountain or a human person. If God can design and make that, he must have some pretty special powers.
We also sometimes see God's special power when we pray. On one occasion I prayed for a lady who had a bad back. I put my hand on her back and, to my astonishment, felt her back straighten up. She then did some pull ups on the door. But there are many times when God doesn't heal in that way - and in those times we need to trust that God does have the power even if we don't see it.

Why did Jesus bother to help sick people?
Jesus healed sick people because he cared about them, and because sickness should have no part in God's world. But he also heals because he is giving us a glimpse of what it will be like when Jesus comes back and the Kingdom of God is established: then there will be no more sadness, sickness or death. 

How does God heal?
Most of the time God heals through people, doctors and nurses and people who care for us. He heals us through the natural healing processes of the body. Sometimes he heals us in amazing ways that people don't understand - and people will call them miracles. 

Why did God chose Mary?
I don't know. It was not because she was particularly special, pretty or good. She was an ordinary girl from an ordinary town. What does make her special, though, is that she was willing to say 'Yes' to God when God asked her to become the mother of Jesus - even though she knew that it would be very hard and that people would say bad things about her.

How did God make the world? 
I don't know! The bible says that in the beginning there was nothing, and God said 'Let there be light', and there was light. Perhaps that is the big bang that the scientists say everything came from. But perhaps scientists will change their minds and think of some other theory which works better. Most of the time God seems to use the scientific laws of this universe to do his works. Somebody once said that scientists are trying to discover the way that God has worked. 
Does he have a job?
God doesn't have a job. He is absolutely free to do what he wants all the time!! But because God is beautiful and true and good and loving, he delights in making things that are beautiful and true and good and loving. The bible says that when he made us, he looked at us and said 'it is good'. The problem is that we ignore God and live without God - and we look at things that are horrible, false, bad and hateful - and because of that, things have gone bad in us and bad in the world. 

Someone put it this way. Imagine someone loves you. They love you so much that they give you an incredibly precious present - perhaps the most amazing X-box or most beautiful and precious ring. We look at the present that they give us, and we love that present. We spend all our time playing on the X box or showing people our ring, and we completely forget and ignore the person who gave us that present. 

That is why Jesus was born in our world: to tell us that God still loves us even though we have forgotten him and ignored him, and to help us find God.  

Is Jesus married, does he have children? 
No, he didn't marry and he didn't have children. However he does have many brothers and sisters! The bible says that anybody who puts their trust in Jesus and in what he says is a brother or sister to Jesus. He is our older brother. He is the Son of God and we have been adopted into God's family as sons and daughters.
What is his favourite colour and food? 
I wonder whether his favourite colour is blue  - he used so much of it in making this world. 
I suspect his favourite food is fish. He ate fish after he rose from the dead to show his followers that he really was alive. 
What does he look like?
We don't really know what he looked like. There are some people who say that we do have a picture of Jesus which goes back all the way to him, which shows that he has a beard. But I don't know. 

Is Jesus the way of God coming to earth? Or is he God's Son?
Yes, Jesus is God coming to earth.  And Yes, Jesus is God's Son. 

Is Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit the same thing?
This is one of those difficult questions! No they are not the same thing. There is God the Father, God the Son (Jesus) and God the Holy Spirit - but there are not three Gods but only one God!

One way of trying to think of it is like this. 
Imagine three people. They are triplets. They are the same age, and they all have the same face. They are the best of friends. They like the same things and they think the same things. They have the same DNA. The thing that each of them most wants is what is best for the other two. But they wear different coloured clothes and do slightly different things. 
Imagine that they are having a group hug. 
You glance at them and all you see is one brightly coloured 'hug'. It is a single unit. But as you look more closely, you see that this bright coloured 'hug' consists of three people in perfect harmony with each other. 
Or maybe you glance at them and you see three people sharing a hug. But then you look again and you see something that is one 'hug'.
[this is far from being a perfect illustration. It is just one way of helping us try and think through the mystery of what Christians call the Trinity - based on a famous icon of the Trinity painted by a man called Rublev]

Who is more inspirational?
God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit have always existed. There never was a time when they were not. They are all as inspirational as the other. However, the particular work of the Holy Spirit is to come and live in us and inspire us to love God - so I guess we could say that, for us, the Holy Spirit is the most inspirational

What is God like? 
It is impossible for us to know what God is like because he is so much bigger than what we can think. Just as ants cannot imagine what an 8 year old girl is like, so we cannot imagine what God is like. So God became one of us in Jesus. When we look at Jesus we see what God is like: his love, his compassion, his power and the things that make him angry.The amazing thing is that although we can never fully know what God is like, we can begin to get to know God as a friend.

Does he have friends? 
God doesn't need friends because he already is three! But he wants us to be friends with him. 

Is he strong?
Very. We can trust him because there is nothing or nobody that is bigger or stronger than him. 

Is the Holy Spirit real? Who is the Holy Ghost? Who invented him?
Nobody invented the Holy Spirit (the Holy Ghost is another name for the Holy Spirit):  Holy Spirit has always existed along with God the Father and God the Son. Although we cannot see the Holy Spirit, he is completely real. We can ask Holy Spirit to come and live in us. And because wherever Holy Spirit is, there is God the Father and Jesus Christ (think of the 'hug'!), they too will come and live in us. We will become part of God's family and will know that we are beloved children of God, and we will begin to change and become more like Jesus. 

Thursday, 4 December 2014

When bad things happen to good people

The book of Proverbs teaches us: live well and life will go well.
But while we know that may happen say 80% of the time, we also know that life doesn’t always work like that.
Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people.

That is probably one of the biggest reasons why many people fall away from faith. They say, ‘God I've served you faithfully – and look what has happened to me. How can I trust you when so much muck happens to me?’

So let’s look at a brief outline of the story of Job: because in Job, bad things happen to a good person.

In ch 1 we are introduced to Job. He is upright, wealthy and he took God very seriously. And God is proud of Job (1.8): ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.’

But we are also introduced to Satan. Satan is like a teenager. God says to Satan, ‘Where have you been?’ Satan says, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it’. Or, in other words, ‘Hanging around. Doing stuff!’
God says, ‘Look at Job’.
But Satan challenges God: ‘Of course Job fears you – look at the stuff you have given him. It is in his interests to follow you. He is a ‘rice’ Christian: in it for what he can get out of it’
And God says, ‘No. That is not the case. You take that stuff away from Job, and he’ll still fear me’.
So Satan does. And Job’s response is: 1.21 ‘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’ (it is a verse often used in the funeral service)
So Satan again challenges God. ‘Yes, but while he feels OK he will trust you. Take away his health. Skin for skin! ‘All that people have they will give to save their lives’. So God gives Satan permission to afflict Job – and Job is covered with sores.
And Job’s response is 2.10, when his wife urges him to curse God and to die, is ‘Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad?
‘In all this’, we are told, ‘Job did not sin with his lips’.

Three friends then make their appearance: Eliphaz the Terminite, Bildad the Shuhite, Zophar the Naamathite. At first they sit with Job in silence for 7 days. They saw his suffering.

And then, in ch 3, Job speaks: Basically he is saying, ‘I want to be dead’. V20: ‘Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it does not come, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures’.

The friends answer him. Their basic argument is the message of Proverbs. Job you must have sinned, because otherwise none of this would have happened to you. Examine yourself for conscious or unconscious sins. Don’t claim that you are innocent before God. Repent and he will restore you.
Job defends himself. He says, ‘No. I am innocent. I do not deserve these things’. And these arguments climax in ch 31 – which some have said is the highest point of Old Testament ethics – where Job goes through all the things that he might have done wrong, and he says, ‘No. I am righteous’.

After that the three friends are silent, but a younger man steps in and takes up their case – his name is Elihu, and his speech is in chapters 32-37. He repeats what they have said earlier, with greater earnestness.

What is interesting in Job is that he has lost his stuff – and he can handle it.
He has lost his health – and yes, he wishes he were dead rather than suffering, but there is nothing wrong in that, so long as he still entrusts himself into the hands of God – but he still trusts God.
But it seems that it is the loss of his reputation and his sense of integrity which drives him. And it is this last which he was not going to lose. And so he demands justice. He wants a meeting with God. He doesn’t want his stuff back. He doesn't even necessarily want his health back. But he does want his integrity back. He wants to be vindicated.

So for instance Job 23.1-7

‘Today also my complaint is bitter;
    his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
O that I knew where I might find him,
    that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
    and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what he would answer me,
    and understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
    No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him,
    and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge.

Or Job 31.35-37

O that I had one to hear me!
    (Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!)
    O that I had the indictment written by my adversary!
Surely I would carry it on my shoulder;
    I would bind it on me like a crown;
I would give him an account of all my steps;
    like a prince I would approach him.

And within this crying out for a meeting with God, for justice, there is a glimpse of hope.  

Job 19.23-27 (in words which come in Handel’s Messiah)

‘O that my words were written down!
    O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
    they were engraved on a rock for ever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
    and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
    then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
    and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
    My heart faints within me!

The window depicting Job on the south side is tiered: at the bottom we are shown Job hearing of the death of his sons. But in the upper window, we are shown Job holding a banner with those words on it: ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’. It is his hope – that he will meet with God and be vindicated.

That cry for vindication is strong. We hear it today from the black community on the streets of America. We hear it from the victims of sexual abuse. This week there has been a docu-drama about Christopher Jefferies, the man falsely accused of the murder of Jo Yeates and publicly tried and found guilty by the media. He wanted his name cleared. He wanted to be vindicated. And heaven hears the cries of men and women, boys and girls who suffer in other parts of the world because of our wealth.

Well Job does get his meeting with God.

But in getting his meeting, he gets far more than he bargains.  

God speaks to Job out of a whirlwind. ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?’ (38.1)

As one commentator puts it: Job is demanding vindication, and God says, ‘Let me tell you about making the hippopotamus’.

It is not an answer to Job’s suffering. For that, we will have to wait another 600 or so years. But what Job does have is a vision of God, of the glory of God. It is a partial vision, for he only sees the power of God. He does not see the love of God.
But that is enough.

And it changes him.
In 40.1-2 The Lord says to Job, ‘Shall a fault finder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond.’ Then Job answered the Lord: ‘See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.’

And he continues in 42.2-6

‘I know that you can do all things,
    and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
“Hear, and I will speak;
    I will question you, and you declare to me.”
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
    but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
    and repent in dust and ashes.’

The story of Job is not the answer to the question of unfair suffering.
Yes, in the final chapter, Job does get his stuff back, his health back and his reputation back. But that is a footnote.

But the story of Job is the story of how someone, even in the pit of hell, cries out for a meeting with God, has a vision of God, and discovers a new way of looking at things. And amazingly – because it is a vision of God – that is enough.

The artist who designed the window about Job gets it.  

As I mentioned, at the bottom, we see Job on his knees, learning of the death of his children. Surrounding him are the three friends and his wife. That is the human situation. It is the muck of the world in which we live – in which there is dreadful, and unfair, suffering. It is the also the world where we stand accused.
But it is not the final word.

In the higher tier, Job stands with his declaration of hope: ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’. It is one of the very few explicit references in the Old Testament to a conscious life after death. And it is the hope that sustains so many people when they go through times of trial. Hold on, because there is justice and the best really is yet to come.

But above that – almost unnoticeable – even though it is the crown of this window, are two angels holding a banner: ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty’. They are the words spoken by the angels when Isaiah has a vision of the glory of God.
And it is ultimately the vision of the glory of God which both silences Job but which enables him to see the whole thing in a completely different light.

There was, of course, another who came after Job who suffered dreadfully even though he had done no wrong. He cries out, as he hangs on the cross – with Job and with countless men and women who have been to hell: ‘My God, My God why have you forsaken me’. In Job’s case God hadn’t abandoned him – even though it seemed like it. In his case, God really did abandon him. But Jesus entered the God forsaken pit, so that when we go there, we know we are not God-forsaken and we are not alone.

Bad things happen to Job even though he is a good man. But in his suffering, Job holds on to his faith and sees the vision of the power of the God who is up there. And it transforms him.

When bad things happen to us, we hold on to our faith, and we see in the face of Jesus the vision of the love of God who is here right beside us. And as he comes down and identifies himself with us and becomes like us, so we can hold on to him, and identify ourselves with him, and become like him – both in his suffering and in his glory.