The Absence of God
We continue our focus on Job. Last week we dealt with the question of suffering, considering God’s and humanities role and the question why. We considered Suffering and the Question Why. This week we look at the absence of God during our time of suffering. You may wish to read Preparing for Sunday: Surrounded by Darkness before reading or listening to the sermon.
Text: Job 23
The Absence of God
“Good morning.” Those were the first words you heard when the service started. Good morning, welcome to St. Andrew’s. Happy thanksgiving. We are glad that you are here worshiping this morning. After the service there is a time of fellowship, please come and enjoy. If you are guest please sign the guest book so we can mark your presence amongst us. There are many announcements this morning, please read them.
Thank you for coming and worshiping at St. Andrew’s. God is also here in this space, indeed God is with us and makes his presence known to us at all times. Except when he doesn’t.
“How I wish I knew where to find him and knew how to go where he is.”
Thus the complaint of Job is laid at our feet and I wonder how many of us have made the same complaint.
If you have never heard a sermon on Job before, on behalf of the church I apologize. I can only recall ever hearing one. Having read our passage this morning perhaps it is easy to understand why preachers skip over this book of the Bible. Considering that this passage lands on Thanksgiving you can understand that in most church’s another passage will be preached on. Maybe I should have done the same. When talking about the sermon with Kate this week, she made the comment ‘you do know it’s Thanksgiving, right?’ Yes, I know. I know that normally on Thanksgiving Sunday the focus is on our blessings. We give thanks for what God has given to us. However, if we are going to consider Job then we can’t take a week off so that we can feel good and I’m not sorry about it.
Today we contend with the absence of God and if we are honest we don’t really know what to do about it. All I know is that this is a question we can’t ignore and so I’m not going to. Today we deal with Job and the absence of God.
Now, I could reassure you of the promise of Jesus Christ. Of the one who came so that we might have life and have it abundantly. And this is true and it is comforting. However, last week I promised you no easy answers. Sometimes the good news of Jesus Christ feels very far away when we are slugging it out in life. When we are wandering through the dark night of the soul and God’s absence is keenly felt. When our stomach is tied in knots and we know that gut wrenching feeling of despair. Our sleep is broken and we lie awake for countless hour’s worried sick.
I imagine that we have all felt God’s absence. Let’s not lie about it or pretend otherwise. Let’s not let our neighbours think that any of us is a super-Christian, always aware of what God is saying. That’s not real. Each of us has cried out to God in our own way and at various times we have heard nothing in response. We have searched, we have sought, we have listened for God and we have come home empty handed. In doing so our sense of despair, our anguish has been magnified because all we want is an answer. Some glimpse or glimmer of God that will reassure us that everything will be alright. We’ve all been there. Let’s not pretend that we haven’t.
This is how we find Job in our passage. Raw, with everything stripped away. Job is as low as anyone can get. He has sat and conversed with his friends and they have not comforted him. Rather they have accused him, have indicated that somehow this must be his fault. Except we know it isn’t, but that doesn’t change Job’s predicament. It doesn’t change how he feels, and Job knows the truth of it too, he knows he hasn’t done anything wrong.
We can all think of those situations where a friend tries to comfort us. However, all that happens is that the guilt we feel over our situation is enlarged. Surely there must be something we did or something we could do to make things better. If only we had or if only we could. We’ve all been there and in that moment we have felt the absence of God.
Our passage ends today with words so obscure that no two translations really agree on what is being said. Today we read in the Good News Translation, “Almighty God has destroyed my courage. It is God, not the dark, that makes me afraid – even though the darkness has made me blind.”
The NRSV translates it this way, “God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me; If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!”
The NIV translates it as, “God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me. Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.”
Three very different translations of a very difficult piece of scripture. What is clear is that Job is low. Job is alone and he is surrounded in darkness. He is terrified by the absence of God in his life.
We have all experienced that dark night of the soul. We know the dread that it contains. We can look to Psalm 23 and read “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me.” In Psalm 23 there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but here in Job 23 there is no light. There is only darkness and we need to find a way to deal with it.
We wonder where God is. Is God busy? Does God have better things to do than to help us?
In his questions Job argues with God. However, he never argues against God. He argues with God. Job does not fit into that category of people who say “Well it must be God’s will, let’s just accept it” or as we say jokingly in our house “that’s the way the cookie crumbles.”
Nor does Job abandon his faith. He doesn’t give up on God. Instead Job finds a third way. He is unwilling to accept suffering passively. Unwilling to sit idly by while he is made to suffer. He also refuses to abandon his faith. In his arguments and grievances against God Job shows us that third way. He demonstrates that it is ok to be angry with God. That it is ok to be frustrated by God. Arguing with God is an act of deep faith, perhaps deeper than passively accepting things for the way they are. Remember Job stands up for things as they should be.
Friends, the absence of God is seen and felt in society routinely. This isn’t because God is absent, but because society has willed God to be absent. Society has stopped listening. If you’ve ever wondered why God’s will isn’t done on Earth as it is in heaven, it’s because people aren’t interested in doing God’s will. They’ve stopped listening and they aren’t interested in hearing it. People would rather do their own will and then complain when life gets hard or when trying circumstances confront them.
In the same breath that we complain to God we need to acknowledge that we do not trust in God’s justification but want to justify ourselves. We don’t trust God’s judgement. Like a lawyer at trial we want to justify ourselves! Surely this is how things ought to be, because that’s how we would like them to be. But is God a judge? God is so much more than a judge. If God where only a judge God would have to listen, but God is more than that. If God is a judge the Job will have his case heard, he will gain a measure of control over his situation and gain control back over his life. Isn’t that what each of us wants? Just a measure of control? We just want to be heard. We want someone who will understand because we don’t understand. Our minds cannot process what has happened and we cannot put into words how we feel.
What is worse is we will have well-meaning people telling us that it is our sin that is in the way. All we need to do is repent and then blessings will return to our lives like a wildfire.
Except that Job 23 and the Psalms of Lament don’t work that way. They don’t provide neat and tidy answers. The fact is that some perfectly good people will sometimes endure a dark night of the soul. When this happens any attempt to line things up and make sense of things will usually fail.
Friends, there is little to no comfort in Job 23. In fact the first twenty odd chapters of Job bear witness to the fact that trying to make quick sense of life’s trials or to provide a simple solution to divine absence or silence only makes things worse. Sometimes when we find a family member or friend in pain the most compassionate and responsible thing we can do is to admit that we don’t know the answer. Then we can sit with them in silence on the ash heap. This is one of the hardest things we may ever be called upon to do. It is also perhaps the kindest, the most compassionate and Christ-like thing we can do. Amen.