The print on the front of the order of service is one of twenty-one paintings that William Blake produced to illustrate the Book of Job. He followed the narrative and did engravings at significant points in the story. I think the National Gallery of Victoria has an important collection of William Blakes illustrations on Dantes Divine Comedy. William Blake was an 18th century English poet, painter, illustrator and printmaker. He was also a visionary. It is said that many of his works were painted from images within his imagination, or visions that he had experienced, rather than painting using models and scenes as most artists do.
Blake produced this series of illustrations on the book of Job when he was at the end of his life. He died at 69 years. Taking the narrative of Chapter 38 that Gary read earlier, Blake interprets these powerful words with visionary symbolism. Remember we are at the end of Jobs long, tedious and painful journey. Its a journey of struggle for both his body and his soul. He has been consoled, berated and judged by his friends. He has been rendered almost speechless by the enormity of his calamity. Jobs final words to his friends before they give him their final summation of why they believe he is in this predicament are these:
How I long for the months gone by, for the days when God watched over me, when his lamp shone on my head and by his light I walked through darkness! Oh, for the days when I was in my prime, when Gods intimate friendship blessed my house, when the Almighty was still with me and my children were around me, when my path was drenched with cream and the rock poured out for me streams of olive oil.
Let the Almighty state his case against me!... I should plead the whole record of my life and present that in court as my defence.
Jobs speeches are finished.
Be careful what you ask for, because you may get it!
The story of Job gives no clear answer to human suffering. Its not that suffering is a mystery; it is that it is woven into the very fabric of life. Nor does this story attempt to lay blame on God, or Satan, or Job or his friends. Instead the narrative finds Job in the middle of his life experiencing terrible loss. The loss of all he loved and valued. He certainly didnt ask for this, nor did he expect it. Rather it came to him like a desert storm destroying everything in its path. But, and here is the rub, it came as a gift to Job. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote these lines in the poem titled When in the soul of the serene disciple:
There is no longer any need of comment.
It was a lucky wind
That blew away his halo with his cares,
A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.
Now lets be honest, I would find it very hard to have my reputation drowned in the sea. And I know I would see it as bad luck rather than good luck. And I prefer to have my halo firmly and squarely placed on top of my head. But what is happening in this great drama of which Job has the leading role is that he will see life as he has never seen it before. He will be wonderstruck by the heights and depths not only of human existence, but the earth and the world and all that sustains him. After the words of Job, his wife, and his three friends come the words of God:
Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the whirlwind. He said: "Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.
"Where were you when I laid the earths foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?
The sheer power of those words, full of awe and wonder, challenge us to live within a grander picture of life and the universe. And most importantly, they call forth a kind of humility from us, a willingness to see and to take our rightful place in the great chain of being. We are not called to cower or to cringe but to live into this bigger world of which we are but a small part. I am reminded of some lines from Annie Dillards book Teaching a Stone to Talk, where she picks up the need for a sense of wonder and awe in our lives and particularly in our places of worship. She writes:
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offence, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
We dont take our place in the wonder and awe of this world very seriously, do we? We offer our prayers, sometimes expecting answers, other times not. We expect that everything will turn out OK in the end, and most often it does. But we dont often tend to mine the depths of our being; seek out that remarkable connection between ourselves and the divine, or the holy or the sacred, or the living God.
Fr Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, has said that significant change in a persons life comes either through great pain or great love. So be careful what you ask for because you dont know the pathway that you may have to tread to get there.
The Overly Enthusiastic Disciples
Wasnt that the problem with the request of those two brothers James and John?
"Teacher," they said, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask."
"What do you want me to do for you?" he asked.
They replied, "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory."
Oh dear, they have no idea what they are asking for. Maybe they think they will be transformed by being so close to the one who is anointed, to the beloved.
I remember as a child saying to my mother, "Please, please, thats all I want. Why wont you let me have it?" "Because you are not ready for it and when you are older you will know why!" she replied.
"You dont know what you are asking for," said Jesus. "Can you drink the cup I drink or be plunged into the baptism of fire I am to be plunged into?"
"We can," they answered.
Jesus said to them, "You will drink the cup I drink, and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared."
What is hidden from these two disciples, but is known to us the listeners, is that Jesus is to be plunged not into great love, but into great pain, into a place of suffering which will be the path to transformation, the way to his glory. We the listeners to this story know that that place on the right hand and the left hand of Jesus is already reserved not for two disciples but for two criminals who will be crucified with him. Be careful what you ask you because you may get it.
As Job discovered and as the disciples James and John would later learn, there is no simple way to know what is the right thing to ask for. If there is an answer then it has something to do with the life-long seeking of wisdom. To find that wisdom we will need to live into life and be less fearful of suffering; and to have the courage to go deeper into our own life and soul and being; to learn from both experiences of great pain and great love and perhaps to cultivate an open humility in the face of mystery and the unknown.
Remember the story last week of the angel who asked to be allowed to run the world and eliminate suffering? Heres a modern parable on that theme.
A young executive asks the owner of his company if he can spend a year on developing an idea he believes will revolutionize the product they have produced for 20 years. The owner agrees and gives the young man the resources and the capital he needs for the project. He works diligently on his innovative idea. At the end of the year the young executive had spent one million dollars and the project was a spectacular failure. Dejected and downcast, the young man goes to the owner of the company with his resignation in his hand. The owner looks at the young man and says to him, "Why would I accept your resignation when I have just spent one million dollars on your education?"