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Sunday, 25 October 2015

Change happens

Today's readings are all about change. Things changed for Job, and things changed for Bartimaeus.

So, then Job. It's a funny old story, isn't it? Do you know, nobody knows anything about it – what you see is totally what you get! Nobody knows who it was written, or when, or why, or whether it is true history or a fictional story – most probably the latter! Apparently, The Book of Job is incredibly ancient, or parts of it are. And so it makes it very difficult for us to understand. We do realise, of course, that it was one of the earliest attempts someone made to rationalise why bad things happen to good people, but it still seems odd to us.

Just to remind you, the story first of all establishes Job as really rich, and then as a really holy person – whenever his children have parties, which they seem to have done pretty frequently, he offers sacrifices to God just in case the parties were orgies! And so on. Then God says to Satan, hey, look at old Job, isn't he a super servant of mine, and Satan says, rather crossly, yeah, well, it's all right for him – just look how you've blessed him. Anybody would be a super servant like that. You take all those blessings away from him, and see if he still serves you!

And that, of course, is just exactly what happens. The children are all killed, the crops are all destroyed, the flocks and herds perish. And Job still remains faithful to God: “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

So then Satan says, well, all right, Job is still worshipping you, but he still has his health, doesn't he? I bet he would sing a very different tune if you let me take his health away!

So God says, well, okay, only you mustn't kill him. And Job gets a plague of boils, which must have been really nasty – painful, uncomfortable, itchy and making him feel rotten in himself as well. Poor sod. No wonder he ends up sitting on a dung-heap, scratching himself with a piece of broken china!

And his wife, who must have suffered just as much as Job, only of course women weren't really people in those days, she says “Curse God, and die!” In other words, what do you have left to live for? But Job refuses, although he does, with some justification, curse the day on which he was born.

Then you know the rest of the story, of course. How the three "friends" come and try to persuade him to admit that he deserves all that had come upon him – we've all had friends like that who try to make our various sufferings be our fault, and who try to poultice them with pious platitudes. And Job insists that he is not at fault, and demands some answers from God!

Which, in the end, he gets. But not totally satisfactory to our ears, although they really are the most glorious poetry.
Here's just a tiny bit:

“Do you give the horse its might?
Do you clothe its neck with mane?
Do you make it leap like the locust?
Its majestic snorting is terrible.
It paws violently, exults mightily;
it goes out to meet the weapons.
It laughs at fear, and is not dismayed;
it does not turn back from the sword.
Upon it rattle the quiver, the flashing spear, and the javelin.
With fierceness and rage it swallows the ground;
it cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.
When the trumpet sounds, it says "Aha!"
From a distance it smells the battle, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.
Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
and spreads its wings towards the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high?
It lives on the rock and makes its home in the fastness of the rocky crag.
From there it spies the prey;
its eyes see it from far away.
Its young ones suck up blood;
and where the slain are, there it is.”

Wonderful stuff, and it goes on for about three chapters, talking of the natural world and its wonders, and how God is the author of them all. If you ever want to rejoice in creation, read Job chapters 38, 39 and 40.
My father is on record as saying he wants Job 39 read at his funeral.
Anyway at the end, as we heard in our first reading, Job repents "in dust and ashes", we are told, and then his riches are restored to him.

But would even more children and riches really make up for those seven children who were killed? I doubt it, which is one of the reasons it’s probably a story, rather than actual history. But the point I want to make this morning is that God intervened in Job's life, and things changed. At first they changed for the worse, but then they changed for the better.

And the same thing happened to Bartimaeus, as we heard in our Gospel reading. Jesus touched him, and his life was changed beyond all recognition. In John's version of the story, we're told a little bit about the consequences of the healing. For Bartimaeus life changed immediately. My sister-in-law, who is blind, says that not only would he have been given his sight, but he would have been given the gift of being able to see, otherwise how would he have known what he was looking at? He wouldn't have known whether what he was looking at was a person or a camel or a tree, would he? But he was given the gift, so he knew.

And he could stop begging for his living, he realised, and he went and did whatever the local equivalent of signing-on was. And, of course there were lots of mutterings and whisperings – Is it him? Can't be! Must be someone new in town, who just looks like him!

“Yes, it's me,” explains Bartimaeus, anxious to tell his story. “Yes, I was blind, and yes, I can see now!”

“So what happens?” ask the neighbours.

“Well, this bloke put some mud on my eyes and told me to go and wash, and when I did, then I could see. No, I don't know where he is – I never saw him; Yes, I'd probably know his voice, but I didn't actually see him!”

And the neighbours, thinking all this a bit odd, drag him before the Pharisees, the religious authorities of the day. And they don't believe him. Not possible. Nobody born blind gets to see, it just doesn't happen. And if it did, it couldn't happen on the Sabbath. Not unless the person who did it was a sinner, because only a sinner would do that on the Sabbath – it's work, isn't it? And if the person who did it was a sinner, it can't have happened!

They got themselves in a right old muddle. Now we, of course, know what Jesus' thoughts about healing on the Sabbath day were – he is on record elsewhere as pointing out that you'd rescue a distressed donkey, or, indeed, lead it to the horse-trough to get a drink, whatever day of the week it was, so surely healing a human being was a right and proper activity for the Sabbath. But the Pharisees didn't believe this. They thought healing was work, and thus not a proper activity for the Sabbath at all.

So they decided it couldn't possibly have happened, and sent for Bartimaeus's parents to say “Now come on, your son wasn't really blind, was he? What has happened?” And his parents, equally bewildered, say “Well yes, he is our son; yes, he was born blind; yes, it does appear that he can now see; no, we don't know what happened; why don't you ask him?” And the Bible tells us they were also scared of being expelled from the synagogue, which is why they didn't say anything more.

Actually, they must have had a fearful mixture of emotions, don't you think – thrilled that their son could suddenly see, scared of the authorities, wondering what exactly Jesus had done, and was it something they ought to have done themselves, and so on. And, of course, wondering how life was going to be from now on. Very soon now, their son probably wouldn't need them any more; now he was like other people, he could, perhaps, earn a proper living and even marry and have a family.

So the authorities go back to Bartimaeus, and he says, “Well, how would I know if the person who healed me is a sinner or not? All I know is that I was blind, and now I can see!” And then they asked him again, well, how did it happen, and he gets fed up with them going on and says “But I told you! Didn't you listen? Or maybe you want to be his disciples, too?” which was, of course, rather cheeky and he deserved being told off for it, but then again, I expect he was still rather hyper about having been healed. And he does go on rather and tells them that the man who opened his eyes must be from God, can't possibly not be, and they get even more fed up with him, and sling him out.

And then Jesus meets him again – of course Bartimaeus, not having seen him before, doesn't actually recognise him – and reveals himself to him. And Bartimaeus worships him.

But life for Bartimaeus had changed beyond all recognition.

Change happens. This has been a year of enormous changes for Robert and me, some of them good, and some of them less good. Robert has retired, which has meant enormous change for us both; we have had a new kitchen installed, and we have bought ourselves a motor home. That's all good change, although very stressful while it was happening. And it was a very sad change when my parents sold their home of nearly sixty years to move into a smaller house in the village. As my mother says, although they have settled down, it isn't home, and they feel as though they are permanently staying somewhere.

Like many people, I don't respond well to change. I get very stressed and cross, and I feel rather sorry for Robert and the rest of my family who have put up with me this year.

But the thing is, we often don't have a choice about changes. They happen. In our two readings, life changed enormously for two people. And these changes were instituted by God himself into their lives. In the end, it was a change for good for both of them, but it must still have been enormously stressful while it was happening.

Not all change is from God, of course. But with any change, whether we instigate it, or whether it seems to come on us out of the blue, we can't see the long-term consequences. We don't know what is going to happen, as we can't see the future. We can't see round “The bend in the road” as one author put it.

But God can. Nothing that happens to us can surprise God, as God sees all times as now. When we say “No” to God, when we block God from acting, God always has a plan B. God knows – but does not influence – how we are going to react.

And when changes happen, when we are overwhelmed by change, that is when we can most trust God. God can see round that bend in the road. Good things may be on the way, as they were for Bartimaeus, as they were for Job, or bad things may be about to happen – as, indeed, they did to Job for a time. But either way God knows, and God will be there with us through them. Even when it feels as if God's just slapped us in the face and left us to cope. That's only what it feels like, not what really happened.

So, of course, we need to practice trusting God while things are on a fairly even keel, so that when the upheavals happen – and they will – when they happen, we can go on trusting God, and knowing that God is with us, even in the midst of the storm. Amen.