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Readings: 3rd Sunday before Advent

01 November 2013

3rd Sunday before Advent

Remembrance Sunday

Job 19.23-27a; 2 Thessalonians 2.1-5, 13-end; Luke 20.27-38


Almighty Father, whose will is to restore all things in your beloved Son, the King of all: govern the hearts and minds of those in authority, and bring the families of the nations, divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin, to be subject to his just and gentle rule; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

THE fictional but truth-telling story of Job is, at one level, all about words. Having recognised the force of honest words (Job 6.25), Job railed against his friends' "windy words", which had no limit (Job 16.3). Then, in words people who are bullied online today might use, he protested: "How long will you torment me and break me in pieces with words?" (Job 19.10), before echoing Habakkuk's lament (Trinity 19; Sunday's readings, 4 October) that even God did not heed his words: "Even when I cry 'Violence!' I am not answered."

It is in that desperate context that we hear Job's yearning: "O that my words were written down! O that with an iron pen and lead they were engraved on a rock for ever!"

We take it for granted that words are written, but in Job's society this was rare. Most words were spoken, and, although the oral culture was reliable as a means of transmission and remembrance, there was not the permanence or the potency of the written word.

This explains the impact of Hilkiah's discovery of the written book of the law which led to Josiah's reforms (2 Kings 22), and Jehohoiakim's determination to destroy the written words of Jeremiah, which challenged his rule (Jeremiah 36.20-32). It helps us to understand the depth of Job's desire to record his words for posterity.

Paul also knew the power of words. He wrote to warn the new Thessalonian Christians not to be shaken in mind, or alarmed by words or letters purporting to come from him. Knowing how words could deceive, he wanted them to stand firm and hold fast to what they had been taught by him, by word of mouth and by letter.

What words did Job want to write? If we can resist humming Handel's aria, which lifts the words out of Job's context, we hear his sublime protestation in the face of total disaster and misunderstanding by his friends. His defiant hope, "I know that my redeemer lives," rings through the centuries as a bold affirmation of confidence in God that transcends circumstances. It made the entrusting of his bitter complaints to writing an act of robust faith.

We have seen the power of the written word in Durham this summer. For three months, the World Heritage Site hosted the Lindisfarne Gospels (Features, 9 August). Written on Holy Island, kept for a century at Chester-le-Street, and then at Durham Cathedral for several more centuries, they have been displayed and interpreted again in their original north-eastern context.

More than 100,000 people have come from all over the country and overseas to see the Gospels, alongside a stunning collection of similar writings, including the Durham Gospels, which are still in the Cathedral's care. Seeing all those handwritten and illustrated words side by side has been a powerful testimony to the enduring word of God.

Through written interpretation, pilgrimages, and talks, we have reminded people what a Gospel book is, and have told the story of Christianity in the region. We have prayed regularly that people coming to the exhibition would encounter the Lord of whom the words of the Lindisfarne Gospels speak. Many people have told me of weeping when they saw them.

When Eadfrith wrote the Lindisfarne Gospels, and Aldred later inserted a translation into Old English so that people could understand it (long before Tyndale and others sacrificed their lives so people could have the Bible in their language), they were writing for the glory of God, but also, as it has transpired, for posterity. Like Job, the community of St Cuthbert knew the power of written words, and left us carefully written words as testimony to their faith and worship.

On Remembrance Sunday, we will hear Laurence Binyon's familiar words: "They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old. . . .", and we will be stirred by the evocative power of a very few well-chosen words. The war poets have left us a terrible, disturbing beauty in writing. Job has left us his written words of defiantly daring faith. Cuthbert's community has left us a breath-taking, life-giving Gospel book. In a world where we tweet and blog almost mindlessly, if we could leave only 20 or 30 words for posterity, what would they be?

Forthcoming Events

18 May 2021
Lift Up Your Voices, Lift Up Your Hearts
Speakers include John Bell, Noel Tredinnick and Helen Bent.

27 May 2021
Book launch: God is not a White Man
Chine McDonald in conversation with Sanjee Perera.

More events

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