Thought for the Day by Kevin Ward (St Michael’s)
Commemorating Richard Baxter, Puritan pastor and theologian (1615-91)
I know that my Redeemer lives (Job 19: 25).
These words of Job have been transformed into a jubilant assertion of Christian faith in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the firm hope for our own destiny: the resurrection of the body. Handel gloriously expressed it musically in Messiah
In the particular context of the Hebrew scriptures, however, Job’s words are not, in any straightforward way, so comforting and optimistic.
Job is bitterly complaining that his friends are simply adding to his sufferings. Job has undergone disaster in every aspect of his life. He must, therefore, not be the righteous, upstanding man we all thought he was. He must be guilty of some awful crime, otherwise he would not be punished by God in this way. Its the age old problem of the victims being blamed for their own misfortunes: ‘girls are to blame for wearing too revealing clothing’; black men are arrested for ‘driving while black’; sexual and racial minorities are persecuted – simply for not being ‘one of us’. Forms of discrimination are innumerable and persistent.
Job accused his friends of being in a conspiracy with God to undermine him. Job blames God for treating him unjustly. He demands a fair trial. He wants to defend his integrity. He needs an advocate who can adequately present his case. He calls for a ‘redeemer’. The Hebrew word is ‘goel’: a kinsman whose duty is to stand alongside and represent the victim, attempt to buy him back [redeem him] from slavery, restore his good name and reputation. Moreover, Job is determined to continue his case even beyond the grave – he looks forward to a great assize in heaven, where even though ‘my skin has been destroyed, in my flesh I shall see God’. Even in such circumstances, my Redeemer will continue to pursue my case for acquittal and restitution.
At times in his life Richard Baxter could well have put himself in Job’s shoes. Baxter was ordained by the Bishop of Worcester in 1641. He supported the parliamentary dispute against King Charles I. He remained the minister of the parish church in Kidderminster throughout the Commonwealth, urging an ecumenical spirit and inclusion of diversity of opinion in a national church. At the Restoration in 1660, he continued to urge the restored episcopal Church of England to be comprehensive of different opinions. Instead, he was offered a bishopric if he accepted the hard-line settlement actually imposed. He refused and was one of those ministers expelled from the established church. In his 70s, despite ill health, he suffered a harsh imprisonment of nearly two years for his dissent. He died two years after the 1689 Act of Toleration finally acknowledged that religious dissenters could not be forced into conformity. The Church of England has finally acknowledged, in today’s commemoration, the important part which Baxter played in fostering an eirenic* spirit among Christians. The United Reformed Church also recognises him as one of the great founders of the free church tradition.
Baxter is probably best known to most of us through his hymns. ‘Lord it belongs not to my care/Whether I die or live’ contains these words: ‘Christ leads us through no darker room/ Than he went through before’, which echoes Job’s longing for a redeemer who understands our suffering, because he too has suffered.
The most famous hymn is ‘Ye holy angels bright’. This expresses a very catholic understanding of the whole community of earth and heaven joining in singing the praises of our God and Saviour:
Let all thy days
Till life shall end
Whate’er he send
Be filled with praise.
* aiming or aimed at peace