“For everyone will be salted with fire” (Mark 9:49)
I am very happy to be with you at your worship this morning at St. Augustine’s while Canon Wilde is absent on church business in Toronto. My name is Martin Hattersley, I am the honorary assistant priest at St. Peter’s church. I am also the father of Catherine Greeve, who died tragically at the beginning of August this year.
Which brings me to our lessons for today, of which mention the story of Job—that rich man who suffered the loss of family, health, wealth and reputation as the result of what seems, at first, like a strange and heartless bargain between God and the Devil. Job’s story is one of a faith put to the test, as is the faith of anyone who sustains a tragedy such as he did: it is a story with a happy ending of restoration, but not until Job had gone through much suffering and pain.
Religion is our way of understanding the Universe in which we live. We need it so that we can live with purpose. If the universe has a purpose and a destination, then we can understand not only the universe, but also ourselves as part of the Eternal Plan. Thus, we find direction and marching orders for our lives by fitting into the place that God seems to have assigned for us.
What we do not always realize however, is that the ‘religion’ we say we believe in is not a simple thing. Rather, it is a pilgrimage towards the development of our character, and the trials and testing that we go through are important stages of the development of the finished product.
Religion as we find it in the Bible is a bargain—a ‘covenant’, or a series of deals, made between each of us and God. We make these bargains as we go through life. Once we find that a relationship to God through prayer is possible, the simplest and most elemental deal is one where we say to God—“God, I’ll follow you if you make it worth my while.” It is the theme of many evangelists who promise healing, wealth, peace of mind and the like, for those who ‘accept Christ’.
A good example in the Old Testament is the religion of Jacob. Jacob, dishonest fellow that he was, was on the run from his brother Esau, from whom he had stolen his father’s birthright and blessing. At Bethel, he had a vision from God of a ladder with angels ascending and descending on it into heaven. Impressed by the presence of God, he struck a bargain which must take the prize for economic self-centeredness:
“If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God…”
When all is said and done, of course, there is no sense at all in coming to God unless, as human beings, we think it is all going to be worthwhile. “He who comes to God,” says the writer of Hebrews, “must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that seek Him.” So a faith such as that belongs at the beginning—in the babyhood of our religion. It is the attraction that first interests us in the things of God. God, however, needs us to go from babyhood to maturity. So the honeymoon period of this simple faith does not always last. Trials such as those faced by Job will certainly test so simple a faith to the limit!
Jacob, for the sake of finding bread in a time of famine, led his children down into Egypt. The long term result of this was a nation in slavery. That is in fact the end product of Religion Number One. We find ourselves forced to go further, if we are not going to abandon religion entirely.
So we go on to Religion Number Two, if I may call it that, which is the religion of the Law. We restrain our natural greed, which otherwise will lead to a society of dictators and serfs, by rules as to the way in which we treat our neighbours, and they treat us. If we all follow the Law, we won’t get into fights, and we will have a peaceful, law abiding nation, blessed with social justice and economic prosperity. Moses, the Lawgiver, is the deliverer of the children of Israel from oppression. He established the legal framework of peace, godliness and justice in the Ten Commandments. It is the religion of childhood. In St. Paul’s words, ‘the Law is our schoolmaster.’
The covenant here between God and man is that if man keeps God’s laws, man will receive blessings. If man fails to do so, then the later chapters of Deuteronomy give us an ample list of the troubles that will befall. This is just what Job’s friends insisted was the case. “You must have done something wrong, Job, for God to punish you like this. So confess it, and God will make everything all right again.” But the facts of the case don’t fit. Job has not only not done anything wrong—he has been super righteous, and still he suffers calamity. So also, in the history of Israel, experience showed that the law, enforced under the Judges, was not enough to bring peace to Israel. It could not deal with the problem of external enemies, whose iron chariots and organized armies sometimes reduced the Israelite people to a condition of near slavery, no matter how righteous they were. In spite of the brave face put on the situation by many prophets, the truth is that, in the short term, those who broke the Law did better than those who didn’t, and the good guys very often finished last! We have to go further.
Religion Number Three is the next step—political religion. Under this religion, the people are led by a king, ruling in God’s name, and the objective is not so much faithfulness to the Law, as loyalty to the established religion organization. Those who throw down the altars of the false God Baal are good kings, and the people prosper. Those who re-establish the worship of Baal are evil kings, and the kingdom goes to ruin. So, if it happens that the kingdom is conquered, it must be the result of immense and secret disloyalty on the part of Israel’s religious leaders. (Ezekiel 8).
This is the space occupied by Job at the outset of the book, and it is the reason of his continued wish to argue with God. Because of his preconception of what God is like, and his knowledge of his own determination to do the right thing, he cannot understand the horrible things that have happened to him. God’s answer comes in the passage you have heard as our first reading. It comes in the form of a question—“Will you condemn Me, that you may be justified?” Stop complaining that God is not what you thought He was. There is more to God, in fact, than Religion Number Three tells us. We have to go still further.
Religion Number Three is commonest, and perhaps is the most dangerous form of religion to be found in the world. It is the religion of triumphalism, of victorious armies, of nations converted at the edge of the sword. One sees it in the Islamic fundamentalists. One sees it in the fights between Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland. One sees it in the Inquisition, as well as in the Marxist persecutions of religion. One sees it whenever denominations, sects or cults demand unquestioned obedience from their members, and can see no good in others whether or not they call themselves ‘Christian’. It is an adolescent religion—the religion of the gang and of the peer group. It is a dangerous religion of bloodshed, of murder—all from the best religious motives.
The classic example of such a believer is Saul—the future St. Paul—before his conversion. Well-schooled in the Law and in party spirit, and ‘filled with threatenings and slaughter’, he was the persecutor of the infant church in his zeal for the Law of God. Jesus warned his followers that “The time will come when whoever kills you shall think that he is doing God service.” (John 16:2) Saul, filled with ‘zeal, but not with knowledge’, a loyal member of his church, had made a box that God had to fit into—and if God’s new religion did not fit, then its followers had to be put to death for blasphemy.
The lesson of the Book of Job, therefore, is that there is yet a further step to be taken—Religion Number Four—and that it is somehow connected with the mystery of the design of Creation, and with the patient and faithful bearing of undeserved suffering. That is as far as the Old Testament can take us. We only see Religion Number Four fully revealed in Jesus Christ.
The great news of the New Testament is the news of the New Covenant. By it, man accepts the complete forgiveness of God for all his sins, expressed in the love that took Jesus Christ to the cross at the hands of sinful men. The only price is God’s demand that man treat his fellow man in the same way. Jesus puts this new covenant very simply in the Sermon on the Mount, when after teaching his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, he says “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Paul, of course, once he realized and repented of the terrible sin he had been guilty of through Religion Number Three, became the apostle who preached Religion Number Four throughout the then known world. Yet it was not all clear sailing. We can see from some of his letters, and even more from the letters of other church leaders of his time, that some of his hearers took the Good News in quite the wrong way. “God is so loving that we don’t have to do anything” was their theme. If God’s free grace is such a wonderful thing, then “Let us sin, that Grace may abound!” In Thessalonica, lazy Christians sponged off their hard working fellows, waiting with religious fervour for the second coming of Christ, until Paul had to say “If a man will not work, neither shall he eat!”
Just because we have a head of knowledge of something even more wonderful than we have had before, does not mean that all we have learned to date has to go out of the window! The problem of preaching to the Gentile church was just that the foundations of commitment, law and loyalty had not always been laid—so the superstructure of the Gospel lacked the support essential to its true understanding.
It was to correct this irresponsibility that we have the letter of James. Possibly the ‘lesser James’ of the twelve apostles, he obviously knew his Sermon on the Mount. For him, religion is not just belief, it is action. “Faith without works is dead!” We must give up the pursuit of riches and worldly goals. We must treat the poor with human consideration, in the church and outside it. We must curb our tongues, avoiding swearing and gossip. We must bear our misfortunes with the same patience that was showed by Job. True religion is to visit widows and orphans in their affliction, and keep ourselves unspotted from the sins and ambitions of the world.
James put his finger on what can be the greatest barrier to our faith—the eighteen inches that can be such an enormous distance between our head and our heart, and the thirty six inches that can be an even greater distance between our hearts and our hands. If our religion is genuine, it has to go ‘all the way’. Belief is not enough—“the devils believe, and tremble.” By contrast, Job’s action and his sufferings permeated his whole body. So their arguments are seen as empty words. Job’s story and his sufferings come close to the story and sufferings of Christ.
The explanation of it all is simple: suffering is the process by which Christian character is developed. The trial of our faith works patience, and well developed patience makes us perfect, wanting nothing. So James tells us to rejoice when the time of testing comes upon us. It came too, upon Jesus Christ, who “though he was a Son, yet learned obedience from the things that he suffered.” We should “rejoice in that we share Christ’s sufferings,” for it is the character that we develop that we will bear triumphantly into eternal life in heaven.
I hope that our study of Job and James will make us pause and examine ourselves. How far have we come in the pilgrimage of our religion? Have we made any covenant with God at all? Is it simply step one—following our self-will? Or step two—following the rules? Step three—following the organization? Or step four—following Christ, to the Cross if need be? How far is our religion no more than that of our head? Does it reach our hearts? Does it reach our hands? “By their fruits ye shall know them,” said Jesus. What fruits do we show: in our tongues, what they say; in our feet, where they travel; in our hands, what they do?
“Count it all joy when you fall into temptations” says James. He is right. For suffering begets patience. And with patience, the bitter bud of suffering develops into the ripe fruit of character. Truly, in the perfection of the fruit is found the whole purpose of the life of the plant. From the patient bearing of the sufferings of our lives, comes the wholesome fruit of character that one day we will triumphantly bear into life eternal.