Sunday, November 21, 2010

I Know That My Redeemer Lives

Job 19.23-27
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5 & 13-17

The other day I went for a very minor hospital procedure. But it did involve being on the operating table under a local anaesthetic, watching on a screen, as someone messed with my heart, and feeling my own surprisingly hot blood spilling out on my thigh. The other patients waiting for the same procedure confessed afterwards that they had been worrying about it. One hadn’t slept all night. It’s reassuring in those circumstances to be able to think to oneself, ‘I know that my Redeemer lives and that, at the last, my eyes shall behold him.’

These words are part of Job’s confession of faith, which comes towards the end of a long argument with his friends about the reasons for his misfortune. Job feels there isn’t any good reason why his life has been turned upside down and he even goes so far as to suggest that if God has a plan then it can’t be a very good one because everything he has been made to endure is undeserved.

Basically, the Book of Job concludes that life owes no one a living. Our existence is fragile and it can go wrong or come to an end at any time. This is something that we simply have to be prepared to accept.

And then, second, the Book of Job argues that God does have a plan, but it’s a long term plan. It doesn’t guarantee us happiness - or even freedom from suffering - here and now, but it has the best interests of all creation at its heart.

Finally, the Book of Job also argues that God’s ways are not our ways. The scheme of salvation is so big that inevitably it’s beyond our understanding and we simply don’t know what constraints God is bound by as he brings the plan to completion. However bad things may seem for us at any particular time, overall we can still believe, therefore, that we live in the best of all possible worlds - even if that means suffering and fragility are a necessary and inevitable part of the package.

Ultimately, the Book of Job concludes that God is a sympathetic and caring figure, who is always on our side, a creator who cares deeply about his creation and has invested part of himself in it. But nonetheless God is still only a sympathetic onlooker, someone who has designed a world which sometimes torments us and who can then only feel compassion for us when we suffer.

For Christians, however, God is far more than this - he is someone who is immersed in our world and shares our suffering. If affliction and adversity are inevitable, even in a good world, then God is caught up in their inevitability and is himself a victim of the delicate balance he has created. I think this knowledge enhances the power and beauty of Job’s confession of faith, for we know that it is more profoundly true than the author could have realised.

‘I know that my Redeemer lives,’ says Job. The word ‘redeemer’, which could just as easily be translated ‘vindicator’, refers to a custom in tribal societies where the most powerful or influential member of the clan is responsible for rescuing, or vindicating weaker members when they’re in trouble. In fact, the redeemer has a sacred duty to come to the aid of other clan members. If they’ve lost some of the tribe’s land, for instance, it’s his job to redeem it or buy it back. If they, or members of their family, have been taken prisoner or enslaved, he must pay the ransom to set them free. If their reputation needs defending, or they need someone to testify for them in court, he must speak up for them.

Job is definitely in trouble. He’s the last member of his clan, so there’s no one else to defend him. Even his friends seek to explain away or justify his suffering instead of getting alongside him. But he knows that he has not been abandoned. He still has a redeemer.

Job is not the first Bible character to see God as the ultimate redeemer of the needy. Psalm 78 says that the ancestors of the people of Israel ‘remembered that The Most High God was their redeemer’ when they were wandering in the Wilderness. The Prophet Isaiah had promised the exiles in Babylon that their redeemer was ‘The Holy One of Israel’ and he would send someone to Babylon to break down all the bars that were holding them captive. And the Prophet Jeremiah says in one of his oracles, ‘The people of Israel are oppressed, and so too are the people of Judah: all their captors have held them fast and refused to let them go. But their Redeemer is strong; the Lord of Hosts is his name. He will surely plead their cause.’

Job takes this idea just a little further, though. God isn’t just the redeemer of the nations of Israel and Judah. He’s the redeemer of every individual believer who is suffering. And just because nothing seems to be happening at the moment to make things better, that doesn’t mean God is powerless to intervene or dead. It just means that, in the grand scheme of things, our redemption still lies in the future. Job knows that his redeemer lives and at the last God will stand upon the earth and Job will see himself vindicated. In other words, God will be the last power standing when all the other forces at work in our world have been quelled and put in their rightful place.

This may not happen in our lifetime. Job is sure that one day he will see this happen, but by then his skin may have been destroyed. Is he talking about an after-life? If so, it’s quite an unusual idea in the Old Testament, but we can’t be sure because the meaning of the text is obscure. Psalm 103 contains a similar idea. It talks about God redeeming us from death - but probably not after death, only from the risk of dying. So again, Job could be breaking new ground here.

Job’s philosophy is a great source of comfort for individuals going through various times of trial, but what has all of this got to do with the Church?

People often say that the Church is the people of God, not the building where they meet. And that’s true. Fundamentally, the Church is a community of believers, whether it’s a local church gathered in one place or the Church Universal, the community of all believers past, present and future, wherever they may be. But church buildings are a witness to God’s enduring love as well. If the Bible is a written record of salvation history, church buildings are an attempt to engrave the message of God’s redeeming love on rock.

All the war memorials in our towns and villages are grasping at the same idea. ‘Their name liveth for ever more,’ they say, not just in the memories of those who knew and loved the soldiers who died but because their names have been engraved on rock forever, with an iron pen.

Last week, because I’m a sucker for all things supposedly historical, I watched an episode of Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett’s historical drama about the building of a cathedral in the early middle ages. It wasn’t very uplifting but there was a moment of truth in it, when the villainous Bishop Waleran, played by Ian McShane, went into the half finished cathedral, the only building of its kind that he could ever have seen in his life. As he gazed up at its vaulted ceilings and wonderful arched windows you could see that he was immediately overwhelmed by a sense of its greatness and splendour. He had spent most of the episode trying to prevent it from being completed, but in that one moment he knew that he was in the wrong, that it was - in fact - an attempt to engrave in rock for ever the message that our Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.

You may feel that Methodist churches must inevitably struggle if their aim is to achieve the same vaulting ambition. But it isn’t. Even in a world of competing church denominations a diocese really needs only one cathedral. But nevertheless, in our own neighbourhood, our church buildings and the communities that meet within them and minister to local people from them, are still trying to replicate - in their own small way - that same message, that our Redeemer lives. We are trying to create holy spaces where people can glimpse an alternative way of living with a bigger agenda than the ordinary day-to-day one.

In the chaotic and messy world of medieval civil war which Ken Follett aims to bring to life in his book, that message of God’s bigger agenda to save the human race from destruction would have been just as vital as it is in our own time - threatened as we are now by things like global warming, terrorism and economic recession. Paul was writing at another time of great uncertainty, and some of his readers in Thessalonica thought that the Day of the Lord, when God’s people would finally be vindicated and redeemed, might already have arrived. Paul warns them not to be deceived. Hadn’t the words of Jesus himself, as well as a host of apocalyptic Jewish writings, including the Book of Daniel, made very clear that things would have to get a whole lot worse before God intervened?

A power-crazed world ruler would first have to make a bid for eternal recognition so audacious that it would clearly be designed to eclipse God’s true majesty and put him permanently in the shade. You might think that sounds a bit far-fetched! ‘What mind altering substances must Paul have been using when he wrote these words?’

But actually, there have been plenty of contenders throughout history for the role of the rebellious self-promoting world leader whom Paul seems to be predicting. But none of them has turned out to be powerful enough to rule the whole world and challenge God’s authority. So other people have wondered whether Paul might really have been thinking about an ideology, rather than an individual - something like atheism or secularism - both of which have certainly challenged God’s authority and tried to supplant him.

But, more importantly, Paul says that - instead of trying to predict the future - we ought to concentrate on celebrating the present. The Church community is meant to be the first fruits, or the blueprint if you like, for the future society that God has promised to bring about when he redeems the whole world.

In other words, whereas for Job redemption was a future idea, for us it is both a future and a present reality. We must still expect to face trouble and suffering for the time being, but in Jesus God has already neutralised part of their effect and shown us what the future will be like. In the Church we can not only create an example of what God’s redemption is going to look like, but we can also begin to feel some of its benefits as we’re sanctified by the Spirit, and this assurance should bring us comfort, strength and hope and inspire us to proclaim the good news in every good work that we do and every word that we speak - as God’s people - to those around us.

We know that our Redeemer lives and that at the last he shall stand upon the earth and we shall behold him. So let us always give thanks to God.

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