SERMON: Rev Mary Pearson. 18th October 2015.
This last week I was away at Hartzer Park just outside Bowral. Clive and I were co-leading a retreat for Illawarra Presbytery. Apart from the fact that it was a beautiful place, with lilacs and may bushes blooming, bluebells, daisies scattered across the grass with their happy faces, azaleas and so many other things, it was also a good time of heartfelt discussion about the church and the different congregational settings people came from. We wrestled and reflected on who Jesus Christ is for us today, where we are; what the gospel is saying to us where we are; what is not being heard; thinking about how attentive we are to discerning the work of the Spirit among us. These and many other things.
It is always a privilege to have time to stop and reflect, to allow God in, so to speak, in ways that our normal day to day activities don’t always seem to permit. It calls one back to thinking about the real basis of our faith: Jesus and his ministry of proclaiming good news, healing and forgiveness; the cross and resurrection and the centrality of that for who we are; the ascension and the consequent action of the Holy Spirit to enable, to guide and to inspire.
So, when I was also holding the readings for today in my head and my heart, I was also, I hope, allowing some of that thinking to permeate through. When I turned to Job, I imagined this man who has been sitting there, somewhat besieged by his friends who are trying their best to find the arguments that will persuade him, and themselves, about how God really is and how Job should respond to his situation of terrible loss and suffering. Job holds onto his integrity, his humanity, in the face of all their arguments as they too struggle to fit what has happened to Job into the framework of their beliefs and their faith in God. I don’t suppose there are many of us who don’t think we might have thought and said much the same as some of their responses. The lectionary doesn’t include the friends and their arguments, but stays just with God and Job. Job had cried out for a chance to make his case before God. Last week we heard his despair as God seemed to be absent. He could not find God anywhere. Now, God is there. But far from appearing and saying “OK Job, I’m here now. Say what you want and I will listen”, God speaks to Job out of a storm and asks Job who he thinks he is to be trying to get past God with his arguments, his words. “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.” We might well think “Poor Job!”
There is clearly some fundamental truth that is being made apparent here. It is a truth that strikes at the heart of our humanness in the face of the Almighty: we want to stand up for what seems to be our rights as God’s people as we claim a God of justice and mercy and grace. How could God possibly be so dismissive?
The reading from Job calls us back to a position of humility, to the kind of holy ground where we should take off our shoes in reverence, because we walk in the presence of God. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me if you understand.” Our humanness is just that, humanness. The fact that we are God’s children is mystery and wonder. It makes me think of Psalm 8: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place, what is humankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” Yet that is exactly what the gospel tells us: that “God loved the world so much that he gave his only son.” Meantime, Job is silenced before God, as God reminds this man of his otherness, the vastness of God’s creativeness and how all things owe their very existence to God. God is not doing this to put Job down, to demean or belittle him, but, quite literally, to put him in his place, his rightful place. When this happens, and is accepted, all is well.
The reverse is true for us also: when we give God God’s rightful place, then, as Julian of Norwich, that 13th century woman mystic said “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” Surely that is at the heart of our faith and what hold us as we step out in faith.
I was reminded in something I was reading recently of the person who asked “Do you have a tea-cup God?” In other words, is your God so small that it seems as if God can be contained within a tea-cup? When we read Job, that tea-cup is smashed to smithereens. (I wonder if that makes sense in Korean?!)
I think we continually have to hold that question up in our journey of faith. As Christians it asks us also how we understand Jesus in our life of discipleship. The reading from Mark indicates such an appalling lack of understanding. It is good to remember that this account is not only about Mark recording what happened in this episode of Jesus’ life with his disciples. It is also written from the perspective of what was happening in Mark’s time for his community. We hear it in our time, and there are resonances across all of these: a misunderstanding of Jesus’ ministry, the gospel he proclaimed in a society that was hierarchical and placed great emphasis on keeping the social structures of privilege in place. The poor and disadvantaged knew where they stood, and it was at the bottom of the heap.
No wonder that even his disciples had a hard time understanding what this kingdom of God might look like. No wonder, really, that James and John got so over excited at the momentum and energy that apparently surrounded Jesus. No wonder, really, that they totally failed to hear even his explicit warnings about what lay ahead for him: condemnation, mockery, spitting, flogging and death. Never mind resurrection. Yet their failure to hear or even begin to grasp shows such a painful misunderstanding that leaves Jesus even more isolated as he came nearer and nearer to Jerusalem, to face what lay in store there. We, from our distance, may feel quite indignant at their question, their seeming inspiration to get in there first before the others thought about it, and book the best seats in glory.
However painful their misplaced request was, Jesus was not indignant. He merely responded by asking them a question. Their response again reveals their lack of understanding of the terror ahead. “Can you drink the cup, the cup of suffering that I drink or be baptised, baptised into death, that I am baptised with?” Yes, we can, they blithely reply. We, from our distance, know how Mark’s gospel ends with desolation and fear, the disciples nowhere to be seen at the awful place of Golgotha. They had not understood what Jesus had meant.
We are left with an appreciation of our humanness again, our so frequent misunderstanding and lack of ability to hold onto the good news of the kingdom. Meanwhile, back on the road that will lead to Jerusalem, the other disciples show a response to James and John that we can understand: indignation.
So what does Jesus do with these friends who have been travelling the road with him? He brings them together, not to rebuke them, but to show them how the way they are thinking is not the God-way, but the way of the world, the way of political power and authority, the way of the structures of society. Here he tells them this extraordinary truth of God’s upside down kingdom. It is not about reserving places of honour and glory, but about becoming the servant of all, the slave of all. It is entirely counter-cultural then, and in Mark’s time, and in our time today. The bottom-line truth is that Jesus came to serve and that this service is ultimately about giving his life as a ransom for many. It is because of this we have hope.
This is not a romantic notion, something we can dress up as a nice ideal. It is something that places us continually on the edge of what is regarded as acceptable. That is what Jesus told his would-be followers was a consequence of walking his way.
We know, as we do our best from day to day, seeking to be faithful and to live lives of service, how hard and demanding it is. We also know that it is impossible in our own strength. When we try and live like this from our own resources we are quickly exhausted. And we fear to fail because then it seems that we have failed in our faith as well. We can end up with a kind of false humility that would have us continually demeaning ourselves, thinking that that is what we are meant to do. Jesus called his followers not to a living death by slavery, but to life in all its fullness. That is not incompatible with being a servant. It rather, I believe, asks us to remember who we are before God, dependent always on God’s grace which we are freely offered. It is freedom from the way of the world. And we only discover that as we live in it. We are not God’s slaves, but, more importantly, we are not slaves to the world either. This reading seems to remind us that the kingdom that we yearn for, that offers freedom and forgiveness, healing grace and mercy for all, is a kingdom that demonstrates to the world the gospel values. Jesus walked that road to Jerusalem trusting in God, right through apparent abandonment, to the end. And so we are freed to know that we are not alone as we walk along our often shaky path of discipleship, not for our sake and to book our seat in heaven, but because we have heard the call of Christ and want to offer him our living, even with all our misunderstandings.
And surprisingly, that is also a joyful thing because we know, from today’s reading, that our misunderstandings are themselves understood. Like the disciples, it is not with rebuke that Jesus responds but with words that remind us of the way of life and love. Jesus’ model of the servant king is a model of love being offered, not power being wielded. The cross is a demonstration of love accepting whatever power and politics could throw at it. The resurrection is a demonstration of love then turning power upside down, even the power of death. So, to be invited to share in this kingdom way of loving service, rejecting the other models we see around us, is an invitation to life, life that understands what we can and can’t do and proclaims that this is life in all its fullness.
This God is the God of mystery who is the source of all life, the God before whom Job sat in humility, yet the one, who in Jesus, acted with the deepest humility. How can we do other than respond with humility and trust and pray for God’s grace and strength?