If you ever have the misfortune to travel on the M25 between the A3 and the M40, you’ll often encounter what are known as variable speed limits. The theory is that these stop the traffic bunching together by slowing traffic down, so that it doesn’t catch up with the traffic ahead and start bunching. Opinion seems to be divided between those who think they only make matters worse, and those who think they help significantly when people follow the instructions.
The thing is, no-one really knows what causes traffic to bunch together on motorways. Various ideas have been proposed, but none of them account for everything, and the basic answer is that nobody knows why it really happens.
I don’t know about you, and perhaps it’s the scientists within me, but I find it quite unsettling not knowing why something happens. I don’t like the idea that things can happen with no cause and no purpose. But, if I’m being honest, life can feel like that sometimes. There are times when it feels like we’re speeding down life’s motorway, making good time, purposely going about our business, when suddenly things happen which we can’t explain or control, indeed sometimes they can even cause life to appear totally meaningless.
That’s what happened to Job. This is one of the oldest books of the Bible. As the book opens, Job’s really making good time on the motorway of life, things are great. Wife, kids, job, spiritual life; everything’s wonderful! Then it all grinds to a halt, the wheels fall off, and he’s left sitting on the side of the road in the burned out shell of his life.
No rhyme, no reason, no poetic justice, no novelistic irony, no cinematic climax; just meaningless disaster. His friends explore a number of theories about why Job finds himself in this predicament. Most of these ideas have to do with either Job’s hidden sinfulness or God’s lack of justice. Even Job’s wife tells him he should just curse God and die.
And yet, it is at this particular moment that Job makes his impassioned statement of hope that we heard today,
“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 forever! For I know that my redeemer lives.”
In the midst of his darkest night, Job holds on to hope.
That there was life beyond death, though, was rather a novel idea. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is asked a trick question. There are many questions to which every answer is wrong, the most famous example being “have you stopped beating your wife?” The question that Jesus is asked is about on this level. The people asking the question don’t really care about Jesus’s answer. They don’t believe in the resurrection. They’re simply trying to trap Jesus into saying something objectionable; the way news reporters ask leading questions trying to get public figures to say something that will offend somebody enough to make news.
Jesus, of course, realised this, and his answer to the trick question was a firm affirmation of the promise of God that there is life after death, there is a resurrection. Yes, his answer offended some, but gave assurance to others. After his wife of just a few years died of cancer, C.S. Lewis said, “You never really know how much you believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life or death to you.”
Many of us find ourselves facing the same kinds of questions raised by today’s readings: is life meaningless, like the unexplainable fits and starts of motorway traffic? Was Job a fool to continue to hope for redemption in the face of his suffering and loss? And, how much do we, here, today, believe, really believe, the gospel we read and preach and hear and pray Sunday after Sunday? Is the Gospel of Jesus Christ a matter of life or death to us?
The story is told that at the funeral of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1982, his widow stood motionless by the coffin until seconds before it was closed, then, just as the soldiers touched the lid, she performed an act of great courage and hope, a gesture that must surely rank as one of the most profound acts of civil disobedience ever committed: she reached down and made the sign of the cross on her husband’s chest. There in the citadel of secular, atheistic power, the wife of the man who had run it all, hoped that her husband was wrong. She hoped that there was another life, and that that life was best represented by Jesus who died on the cross, and that the same Jesus might yet have mercy on her husband.
I know that many of us carry within us, some more than others, burdens, fears, anxieties, tiredness, low spirits. Yet to me and to you, Jesus showed us, dying on the cross and rising again, how much God loves us. This is the most important truth we know; that God is love, and God’s love is so deep and so true and so endless that God came and lived, and loved, in Jesus. God is. God is as he is in Jesus, therefore there is hope.
The over-riding purpose of the Pilgrim Project is to develop new ways to show the world outside this church the hope of the new life in Jesus; to show the community that God is, that God is as he is in Jesus, and that there is hope. Can there be anything more important people need to hear, in a world where so many suffer, where so many carry burdens, that there is hope?
We have a clear idea of what we’re doing, and why we feel called by God to do it. It’s my belief we do that best with as many other people who share our vision and want to walk that way with us, so it’s my belief that we will do that best by working with Farnham Methodist Church. We stand poised to take another step forwards on our journey with God.
Whether you’re thinking about our church, our community, or things going on in your own life, there is new life, there is hope, there is good news. However hard we might find it, God still calls us to open our hearts and souls to him, and to cry out with Job, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and until the day when he shall stand upon the earth, I will serve him.”