How often do you ask God questions, but don’t get the answers you hoped for or longed for, or even got answers you thought you understood? That is where both our Old Testament and our Gospel readings are today. Job has struggled mightily with all of the calamities and suffering that have come upon him, and yet he knows he is a good and faithful person who has done nothing wrong and has not offended God in any way – so how come he’s getting all this bad luck?
Throughout the book Job has verbal jousting with his friends and his family members, and he wants to come face-to-face with God in order to put his case before the divine judgment. Surely God will find Job not guilty and grant him restitution and vindication! But when it finally comes to it, that’s not the way it works out. God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind – a symbol for God’s power and forces of creation, as well as destruction. Instead of Job questioning God, as a prosecuting attorney at court, God questions Job: “I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”
God’s address to Job goes on like this for another two chapters, describing God power and the world that he has brought into being. God has shifted the meaning of the question, and is basically saying to Job: This world and the way it works was not set in motion solely for your convenience or pleasure or even comfort. There are things here beyond your understanding or your imagination. Your view of me and the world and my purposes are too small. In a real sense, Job is being out in his place – that of one of God’s creatures. It doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care for or about Job, but rather that God is sovereign, and Job is not.
In the Gospel James and John ask to share in what they imagine to be Jesus’ coming power and glory – and this is after Jesus has told the disciples three times that as Messiah he will suffer and die. But James and John – ever the hotheads, the “sons of thunder” – seem to hear only the word “Messiah” and nothing else, assuming that Jesus will rule over an earthly kingdom in the way his ancestor King David did. James and John want a piece of the action; they ask Jesus to promise that they will have the places and roles of honor in the Kingdom. Jesus questions them about their understanding – can they face up to what Jesus will face? drink the cup that he must drink? be baptized with the same baptism? James and John don’t hear, or don’t want to hear, the suffering and death that Jesus is referring to, and so they promise rashly and boastfully that they can certainly face up to whatever their Lord and Teacher will face.
OK, Jesus says, you’ll get what you ask for – you’ll face suffering and trial as well, but glory and status? I’m not so sure. Jesus is shifting the focus of the conversation, redirecting James and John – just as God did with Job; he’s trying to make it clear that the status and honor and power and glory that count in the world’s eyes don’t amount to anything in the Kingdom of God. God judges the human heart by very different standards. And so if you want to follow Jesus, if you want to be on God’s team, play for the Kingdom of God, then you have to put others first; you must be willing to serve, just as Jesus served; to be open to the needs and humanity of those around you – neighbor and stranger alike.
And just as God questions Job, just as Jesus turns around James’ and John’s question with one of his own, so God questions us. Do we know that in fact God is the author and giver of life – and not us? Do we know that power comes from the heart of God – and that we do not create it ourselves, but instead depend on God’s power? Do we know that the way of Jesus is not a path of status and honor – but rather a road of humility, of serving others, and in that way serving Christ who lives in each person?
These questions and their answers are very different from what our society assumes to be true. But this different path, this different story is one that brings us freedom from self-focus and self-centeredness; it gives us purpose and meaning; it draws into right relationship with God, where we know we are at the same time God’s limited, fallible creatures, and also his beloved children, the apple of God’s eye. Where were we when God laid the foundation of the universe, when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings sang for joy? We were there in the mind and heart of God, waiting to take our place in God’s creation and God’s purposes for the world that came to fruition in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
October 21, 2012