Sermon for Evensong on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, 9th August 2015

Job 39:1-40:2 : Hebrews 12:1-17

‘Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks? or wings and feathers unto the ostrich?’ If you read tonight’s lesson from the Book of Job in a modern translation, you will miss several animals and birds in it. In the Authorised Version, there are unicorns (vv 9-10), peacocks (v 13), grasshoppers (v 20) and other splendid beasts, who have turned into rather more mundane creatures at the hand of those rather prosaic American scholars who produced the New Revised Standard Version, despite the best efforts of Professor John Barton, of my old college, to produce the ‘Anglicized Edition’. ‘Anglicized’ with a ‘z’. Humph. I do recommend that you have a look at Job chapter 39 in the King James Version when you get home tonight! It is indeed a ‘carnival of the animals’.

Job had suffered terribly. His business was ruined. His ten children had all died. But he had not done anything, so far as he could tell, to bring this terrible misfortune on himself. On the face of things, to use the vernacular, God was ‘doing a number’ on him, just to demonstrate how mighty He was, and how insignificant poor old Job – and by implication, his fellow human beings – are, in the sight of God. It’s striking how this passage, which must be 3,000 years old, could still within reason represent good science today. Who knows exactly when an animal is going to give birth? Who knows why ostriches bury their eggs in the sand? Why do animals look the way they do? Why are some animals capable of being domesticated, and others not?

When I think of my Bengal cats, bred from a wild Asian leopard cat (a small leopard), crossed with Burmese and Siamese to produce a cat which looks like a baby leopard – a wonderful idea which occurred to a lady in San Francisco (where else?) – expressions like ‘herding cats’ come to mind, but ramped up to a higher level. Bengal cats are even less biddable than their moggy cousins.

I know that, as somebody who had a classical education 40 years ago, whose scientific understanding is limited to a lot of useless information about what goes on under the bonnet of my Mercedes, I might be too easily impressed. Is it really the case that we know so very little about how animals work and where they come from, even after 3,000 years? The fascinating thing is, I think, that even Richard Dawkins wouldn’t really be able to give a convincing explanation for all the phenomena which we read about in these chapters in the Book of Job.

I’ve got a feeling that Richard Dawkins would brush a lot of it off as not being very important. What does it matter exactly when a mountain goat is born or a wild doe goes into labour? Why is it that a wild ass in Syria roams around wild rather than becoming domesticated? Why are ostriches stupid? Are they, in fact, stupid? Or are we getting too impressed with metaphors, burying our heads in the sand like an ostrich is supposed to do? The point is that there are things out there that we don’t know about fully, which are greater than ourselves. There is a Creator – Yahweh, God, answering Job out of the whirlwind, challenging him, taunting him with His infinite power. What has happened to Job is a catastrophe for Job, but in the wider compass of things, from God’s perspective, what difference does it make?

Think of what the psalmist says in Psalm 8.  ‘O Lord our Governor, how excellent is thy Name in all the world: …  For I will consider thy heavens, even the works of thy fingers: the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained. What is man, that thou art mindful of him: and the son of man, that thou visitest him?… Thou makest him to have dominion of the works of thy hands: and thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet, All sheep and oxen: yea, and the beasts of the field;  The fowls of the air, and the fishes of the sea: and whatsoever walketh through the paths of the seas.’ The Book of Job tends to go against this. Yahweh, God, throws it in Job’s face that he is utterly impotent. God actually calls all the shots.

And then we turn to the lesson in Hebrews, written 1,000 years later – albeit that  ‘A thousand ages in thy sight Are like an evening gone’  [Isaac Watts (1719), from ‘O God, our help in ages past’]. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews gives his explanation for trials and tribulations, disasters and reverses: the sort of thing that poor Job had experienced. The idea is to spare the rod, and spoil the child. God inflicts misfortune on us in order to strengthen our character. By tough training we become stronger and better.

I have a feeling that, whereas evolutionary biology and zoology haven’t actually told us anything much about the ins and outs of a unicorn’s life, or the exact moment when we can expect a wild goat to give birth, we probably would say that we know more about bringing up children than they did in the first century AD.

I can remember, when our first baby came along in 1987, we acquired a book called ‘Your Baby and Child from Birth to Age 5’ by Penelope Leach, which is, I think, still in print, no doubt in an updated edition. I’m pretty sure that Penelope Leach didn’t have a section entitled ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’. The writer to the Hebrews thinks that it is the mark of a kindly parent that he should chastise his children, no doubt by smacking them: ‘Speak roughly to your little boy And beat him when he sneezes. He only does it to annoy, Because he knows it teases’ as the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland said. Lewis Carroll was making fun of the Victorian way with children. But like all good satire, it had some truth about it. I think we have moved on.

It’s one for us to ponder. Why does a good God allow bad things to happen? There is a tension between determinism and free will. The story of Job is very deterministic. God has ordained Job’s fate and whatever Job does, he will not be able to affect it. On the other hand, the story of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, suggests that an explanation for the bad things that happen in the world is that, although God made us perfect, He also gave us free will. We can abuse our inheritance from Him, which in turn will bring down some form of punishment on us. Hebrews says that the fact of punishment shows that God cares for us.

The problem of evil is for another day. Tonight I think that the message is that God is emphasising how powerful He is; that there are things that we can’t know. The Lord is sticking it to Job: ‘Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him?’ Job replies, ‘Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth.’ It’s still a good lesson. I will lay my hand upon my mouth.