The Resilience of God

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Kaniva-Serviceton for Sunday 28th October 2018, the twenty-third Sunday in Pentecost in Year B.  This was my first sermon to the people of Kaniva Shared Ministry and the second to the people of Serviceton Shared Ministry.

Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34:1-9

Good morning Church!

Last week at Serviceton we read together the story of God’s interruption of Job in his grumbling and also the false comfort of his three friends; today we hear Job’s response to what God said.  (Hopefully here in Kaniva you know about Job because I don’t want to preach last week’s message again and then give you this week’s as well.  Suffice to say that Job has had a rough time of it in his life and has said some pretty challenging things about God.  Recently God has pulled Job up on those things, asking Job who he thinks he is to speak about Almighty God in such a way.)  Job has had an intense experience of God in that someone he had heard about he has now met in person (Job 42:5-6).  What Job has now seen and heard from God when God spoke to Job personally has somewhat reset Job’s perspective of God and who Job is in comparison to God (Job 42:6).  Last week at Serviceton I made a comment, which a couple of people followed me up on after church, that I sometimes think that studying Theology at University has actually made me know less than more; well today I find myself in that situation.  One of the subjects I studied, and this subject was part of my studies towards my Masters degree rather than my Bachelors degree so it was pretty high level, was “Old Testament Wisdom”.  During that course I studied Job alongside a few other books, so today I’m caught between wanting to bring God’s wisdom to you for this day and place, and teaching you what I was taught about this particular passage, and I wonder how helpful that might be.  So, let’s leave Job’s conversations for a bit and come back after the other reading.

In today’s Psalm, 34:1-9, we read how David responded to God’s deliverance of him from a tricky situation.  Something that is an original part of what was written in the Bible but has not been included in the verses is a note which describes what was going on in David’s life at the time that he wrote this psalm: basically he’s been on the wrong end of a coup and he’s in hiding from a mutinous son who has seized his throne.  David had been captured by his son’s army, but through faking illness he has been able to make his escape and now he is hiding and can praise God who delivered him.  Unlike Job, who in his story is still in trouble and doesn’t know what God is going to do to or for him, David has been saved and he is up to the part of his story where he can say thank you.  And just look at what he says as we read Psalm 34:1-5.  God is magnificent, faithful and true, strong and mighty, compassionate and protective, and to be embraced with all the senses.  David is obviously having a better time of it than Job is right now, but if you look at this Psalm you will notice that it’s actually not addressed to God.  This Psalm is about God, so it’s a testimony or a declaration, rather than a prayer or an act of worship toward God.  Job is talking to God, but David is talking about God.

I wonder, are the stories of David and Job familiar to you?  I don’t mean have you read them in the Bible, but does their story relate to yours?  Can you think of a time when you have been where Job is, where the whole thing went pear-shaped for you and then it got worse?  Can you think of a time where you have been where David is, when everyone and everything turned against you but God did the impossible and got you out, and you were ready to tell everyone how amazing God is?  Can you?  I can.

During much of the first decade of this century I lived in England, specifically the first nine months of 2001 and then from October 2002 until January 2009 with two trips back to Australia in the middle.  That first nine months was great, and I don’t have much to say about it.  The first year of that second visit, so November 2002 until December 2003, was one of the worst seasons of my life.  “Character building” doesn’t come close, “terrifying” and “soul destroying” are closer to the truth, with small doses of “horrific” thrown in.  You will hear a lot about my time in England if you stay on at church in the next few years, but I promise not every story will come from this year of my living dangerously.  But today’s stories do.

So, I had a bit of a Job year.  Funny thing about the pronunciation of his name, and Carla brought this to our attention last week; my year of being Job involved me not having a job.  Also, somewhat unlike Job, my turmoil was kind of deserved, or at least it was my own fault because of reasons I’d rather not go into right now.  It’s not that I’m embarrassed, it’s just that I’m actually still working through what the actual sort of hell was going on and I’m not sure what to say.  But I do admit to being foolish, and I acknowledge that my foolishness lead me to a situation where my life was a mess.  My family was far away, I was in England but my parents were in Darwin and then Pt Lincoln and my siblings were in Hobart.  God was very close, but very, very inactive, at least in the ways I wanted God to act, and I let God know all about it on several occasions.

Let’s look at Job 42:1-3.  Open your Bible if you have one.  (And if you don’t then please be sure to bring one next week; I like to preach from the Bible most weeks, so it’s good if you can read along.)  In the Bible that I use when writing sermons this passage has an added heading, not part of the Bible but part of the editing of the modern book, and this heading says “Job is humbled and satisfied”.  Let’s see shall we as we read Job 42:1-6.

In this passage Job declares straight off the bat that God is sovereign and that nothing any human does or is capable of doing can thwart what God wants to do.  Then Job acknowledges that God’s questions cannot be answered with anything other than humility: Job does not know what God knows and therefore Job is better off not speaking.  When God is speaking, (indeed when anyone who actually knows what he or she is talking about is speaking), it’s a good idea to listen to what is being said so that you can learn.  When Job decides to listen to God rather than yell at God, Job learns about God.  We can see in hindsight that Job learns that he was actually correct about God’s character, that God is just and fair and does not punish the undeserving, but we also see that the way God does this is beyond human understanding and things are neither as simple nor as straightforward as we would like them to be or as Job thought them to be.  But in learning that God is so much bigger, so much more complex, so much far beyond his understanding than he ever imagined, Job actually gets to understand God more.  One way of reading Job 42:6 is for Job to say “I never knew how much about you LORD that I didn’t know, but now that I know how much I didn’t know I actually know you more”.  Does that make sense?  In a way Job is heading toward where David is in Psalm 34, he now has a better idea of just how majestic and awe-inspiring God is.  Job now has a better idea of how God cannot be fit into a box, or plugged into an equation where faith plus obedience equals blessing.  Job’s recent experience was that faith plus obedience equals disaster, but what Job has learned is not that God is false or unreliable, but that the equation was too simple.  It’s the maths that’s broken, not God.  It’s the theology that’s faulty, the way we talk about God and the way that Bildad and Zophar and Eliphaz talked about God that is at fault, not God.  Job doesn’t know what the new equation is, but he does know that the old formula is broken.  So in Job 42:6 he’s decided to stop talking rot and to pull his head in around God.  So, is Job “humbled and satisfied”? Is he?

Meh-yeah, I’m not sure.  One thing I have learned from reading Job, and not just at university, is that with God you are allowed to be not sure: indeed much of my life experience as a Christian, and my devotional and academic work, has pointed me toward understanding that we are allowed to be not sure far more often and about far more stuff than we think.  So I don’t think Job actually is satisfied at all, I think he’s just agreed to disagree, and I think this because of two things.

So, thing one is that God never actually answers Job’s complaint: Job actually doesn’t get from God what Job wants from God.  You see, Job never actually asked God “what did I do to deserve this?” because he knew all along and with absolute certainty that he didn’t deserve the calamity of his life.  Self-righteous Zophar, Eliphaz and Bildad were happy to ask Job what he did to deserve this, and they pressed him to find an answer, but Job kept telling them the same story.  And Job didn’t tell them “I don’t know, I can’t remember how I sinned”, no, Job said “there is nothing, this is all completely undeserved”.  Job’s question is not “what did I do to deserve this,” which God does answer, telling the friends that Job did nothing to deserve this, Job’s question is…anyone??…Job’s question is “why did this happen at all?” and God never answers that question.  God doesn’t even acknowledge that question: what God says is “who are you to question me?”  So Job is humbled, God has got right into Job’s face and shown how awe-inspiring God is, but Job is not actually satisfied.

Thing two is that Job never actually apologises.  Read closely; throughout the big story of Job and not just in the last two weeks of readings Job says “why all this?” right?  Last week God said “who are you to ask me questions?” and this week Job said “God you are too big to argue with, so please let me learn from you instead.”  What Job never says anywhere in the big story is “sorry Adonai, forgive me for my presumption”, and what God never says anywhere in the big story is “I forgive Job”.  God does call the three friends to repentance, and to ask Job to intercede for them, but Job is never pronounced guilty and Job never repents.

Which makes Job 42:6 interesting, doesn’t it?  We are Christians reading a Jewish text, but even so we can assume, I believe, that God would not leave Job unforgiven if he’d asked for forgiveness, right?  So since we never read of God forgiving Job, this verse cannot mean an apology.  But we don’t want to know what this verse doesn’t mean; we want to know what it does mean, don’t we.  Don’t we?  (Yes Damien, tell us.)  Well you already know what I’m going to say: I don’t know.  Well I don’t know enough to build a doctrine out of it at least, but here’s what life in Hertfordshire in 2003 and some book-learnin’ in Adelaide in 2016 learned me.  I’m not sure what the original Hebrew, or the Greek of Jesus’ day would have said, and my Church-History-specific Latin lets me down here so I’m gonna have to tell you in English, what Job 42:6 means is “there’s no point sooking about it.” Job acknowledges that God is not going to answer his question, God is not going to give an explanation, and that even if God would explain Godself to me (which God won’t) I’d probably not understand it anyway.  So it’s time to get up off the dirt, have a bath, put on some fresh clothes and the kettle, and get on with what comes next.  In other words perhaps a bit more in line with how the Bible puts it, “after taking a good long look at myself I see that I’m a bit of a dill, so I’ll go forward in humility but without further humiliation.”

And that’s where I got to in December 2003.  I’m not sure that my theology was that well developed then, but my Christian faith got to the stage of saying, literally, “thank God that’s over with now, now let’s move on with the new thing now that I’m safe”.  So, basically where David was in the cave where he wrote Psalm 34.

So, what does this mean for you?  Well what this means for you is up to you, I can’t tell you how you are supposed to respond.  What I hope you’ve heard is that God is bigger and wiser than you could ever imagine, and that all of that is good.  I’m not going to give you the gooey message that all that God is, in all of that exceeding abundance, is focussed entirely upon you or even upon creation, because I think that God is not limited in attention to just us.  But I do think that God is attending to us, in all of our life’s turmoils and celebrations, and that God is good.

So if you are in the mood to celebrate God, celebrate God with all that you have for all that God is.  If your mood for celebration comes out of a recent story of deliverance then all the better – go hard!  And if your mood is lament and confusion, then chase God with all that you have for all that God is.  If you are still in the midst of trial, if your future is pregnant with possibilities but it’s only the second trimester, drill in to God and be held.  Ask God whatever you want to ask, and trust whatever answer God gives you.  Even if what God gives you is silence.

Amen.

 

The Honour of God

This is the text of the message I prepared for Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 21st October 2018, the twenty-second Sunday in Pentecost, Year B.  It was my first sermon in my new placement.

Job 38:1-7, 34-41; Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

Good morning Church!  It’s good to be with you at last.  Today’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary (to give it its full title), a series which I see KSSM follows because it is published on the newssheet, come from Job, Hebrews, and Mark.  Two of those books are anonymously attributed in that Bible scholars are undecided about who wrote them, and some traditions say that the other one was written by a secretary.  Regardless of who wrote what, and whether the writers wrote on behalf of some specific patron or another, the points made by these writers intersect beautifully.  You will hear as we get to know each other better that I am a fan of the lectionary; not just because it encourages me as your primary preacher to make use of the Bible each week, but because the women and men who chose which readings go with which week, and which readings go with each other, set us up with some interesting ideas.  So it is today when we read about God speaking to Job and Job’s friends, about Jesus speaking with his disciples, and about who Jesus is with regard to the Jewish God in the mind of a Jewish person who has come to see Jesus as a unique revelation of God.

I have not been here in the past weeks; you know this, so I don’t know how much of Job’s story you have been told since the beginning of October.  So I hope you know who Job is, and the basic gist of his story, because I don’t want to go into it now.  Suffice to say that Job has had a hard life of late, and his God-fearing friends have not been entirely helpful in their well intentioned support, wisdom and counsel.  In today’s reading, from assorted bits of Job 38, we get to hear God’s response to all that has been said by Job and by Elihu, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar: and God is immediately on the offensive.  “Who are you?” asks The LORD over and over again; “who are you to question the Creator, the Almighty One”, and “what do you know about anything”.  Job 38:1 makes it clear that what God says is addressed to Job, but I wonder whether God speaks to Job while Job’s friends are still there, and God means for them to also hear what God says.  God somewhat takes the role of barrister for the defence and cross examines the prosecution witnesses, looking for humility in their responses.  Not only is Job brought to account for his constant whining, but God’s “who are you” questions are pointed at the friends.  “Who are you to presume to speak on my behalf,” asks God, “do you really know more about divine will and justice than Job?”  God makes it clear who The LORD is, and who isn’t The LORD.  God alone is God, God is the only god in the room, and not one of the five men in the room is correct in his own theology.

Last week at the induction service I said in my brief remarks that I’d been to the Salvation Army corps that morning.  A song that we sang was “I am a friend of God”, a song I’d not sung in Australia but which was familiar to me from my time at Hillsong Church London a decade ago.  Today I am reminded that even though the song is written about you and me and our relationship with God through Jesus, and that the song uses the language God used of Abraham, that Job was also friend of God.  All that God says to Job is true, correct and trustworthy as every word from God is, and so too are the words overheard by the friends.  God is not who you religious types think God is; suffering is not a sign of divine displeasure and grief is not a deserved condition for sin elsewhere.  The word of The LORD to Job is the same as the word to the four, and that word is “pull your head in, mortal one”, but the application is different.  Job was questioning God’s character, but the four friends were presuming to speak on God’s behalf to rebut Job’s complaint.  Job says that God is unjust, the friends say God is just and Job is a sinner, but God says that God is just and Job is not a sinner, but that God is God sometimes what God does is incomprehensible to human rationale.  If you don’t know how to make it rain, the how do you presume to comment upon the way that God does it, when only God knows how to do it?  You don’t know what you’re talking about, so stop talking about it, all of you…yes him, but especially youse mob.  That’s rather humbling to hear as a leader of faith: as it should be.

The Psalm set for us today, 104, declares that God is all that God claims to be.  The LORD who spoke to Job is indeed divine creator and the one who sustains all that was made, and The LORD is wise beyond human understanding.  Furthermore, Creation is for its own sake, not primarily for the purposes of humankind, and is an act of wisdom and an activity of the Spirit.  God’s care for creation is ongoing; humanity has stewardship of the world, but God retains ownership and abiding love.  God also retains control; the creation continues to exist because God continues to uphold it.  The messages of the Psalmist are clear when we think of Job, firstly that God is God and no one else is, but also that God remains interested and involved, there is no divine watchmaker here who set the world going by clockwork and then walked off.  God is just, God does care, and all that God does is done with wisdom and love.  This is the bit that the other four seem to have forgotten.

So when we get to Mark 10, where we read of James and John asking for places of honour beside the throne of Jesus, we have been brilliantly set up by the compositors of the lectionary.  I mean, who chooses this story as a match for the interruption of God into Job’s lament?  I am a preaching nerd, proudly so, and this kind of thing makes me excited about God’s message to the Church.  God is awesome and above any responsibility to answer to human complaint, and God is creator and sustainers of the Universe for God’s own pleasure and the Universe’s own purpose, and here two random Galileans ask to be Deputy Messiah in the caucus of the Kingdom of God.  The temerity of it!  The utter arrogance!  Or did they really not know what they were asking?  I hope they were confused about God rather than thinking that they were actually worthy of such an honour.

It can be a comfort that this story tells us that the other ten disciples were enraged and indignant at the request of James and John.  At least they know who Jesus is and what an insult to his majesty the brothers’ request was; unless of course they were actually angered by Jesus’ response.  I wonder, did they assume thrones in the Kingdom by virtue of their being the first disciples, first as earliest and first as superior, and now Jesus has dashed that assumption.  If you understand that the time when Jesus came into his glory was when he was lifted upon the cross, it is interesting that in Mark’s account that at the right and left of Jesus were two criminals who mocked his glory from their own crosses.  In today’s reading from Mark 10:42-44 Jesus speaks of what lay ahead of him and of those who followed him: discipleship of the Messiah is not a life of thrones and lording it over heathens but of service and suffering.

So what does this mean for us?  What should it mean?  I like the way that the writer in Hebrews 5:1-10 has reminded us that everybody who serves God serves at God’s invitation.  As someone God has chosen, and who the Church has confirmed, and someone for whom there was a very recent reminder of these two callings within the past week, it’s good to remember that.  In all of the congratulatory emails and phone calls from family and friends I am reminded that, yes, congratulations are in order and I have been given the great privilege of ministering in my first placement as a pastor.  A good thing has happened to me, and congratulations are in order, but where some people have kindly offered that this placement is “much deserved” I’m taking that with more than a grain of grace.  I acknowledge and agree with what they are saying, yes I have worked hard and yes I have completed my university courses and practical ministry experiences with diligence and long hours.  Yes I have stuck with the Church and particularly with the system when it seemed that I was facing roadblocks and detours, and the occasional dead-end.  But do I deserve this role?  Do I deserve you?  (Do you deserve me?) No matter how hard I have worked, no matter how much I have stayed the course and run the race thus far, I am here because it is God’s pleasure that I am here, and when God moves me then I will move.  I am here because I offered myself to God, and God gave me to you, because God loves you.  So my first thought is not that I am “God’s gift” in the arrogant sense of that phrase, but that if I am an offering of God’s grace to you then I’d better make sure I stay under God’s lordship and instruction while I am here.  The author of Hebrews reminds us all that God chooses the fallible to mediate between humankind and God lest the priestly overestimate their worth and abilities.  I am here as your pastor because I possess certain gifts, gifts appropriate for the exercise of ministry within the Uniting Church as we heard last week from Marjorie.  Yes I have worth and abilities, and yes I have worked hard to increase those; but I am here because God chose me and not because I have earned this place.  I wouldn’t be here if I’d not worked so hard, but that’s not why I’m here.  I’m here because God is gracious and generous and God chose me for you and you for me for the next three years or so.

So while I am here I want to act and think like Jesus.  Jesus did not presume the commissioning of God, as if his selection for ministry was a foregone conclusion and God would be stupid not to choose him, so why should any of us?  In the same way that God questioned the arrogance in the philosophising of Job’s friends, and their distance from understanding his suffering, the writer of Hebrews says that Jesus does understand human suffering.  Our high priest would never spout platitudes or half-baked theologies of prosperity for righteous.  Jesus whose greatest glory was seen in his greatest suffering, his greatest identification with all who have been rejected, abused, insulted, and murdered by systems and corrupted powers, is the great model for Christian life and Christian leadership.  I sincerely hope that in 3 or 5 or 10 years time I get to drive away from Kaniva & Serviceton to move to my next placement within the Church, wherever that may be, and that my time here will not end with me crucified somewhere public, painful and embarrassing.  But if I’m not willing to die for Christ here, then I’m not worthy of the calling God and the Presbytery and you have trusted me with.

But then, as the Church in this place, neither are you.

So as the Church in this place let us each and all listen for God, obey God, and speak for God only when the Spirit is speaking through us, and not from our memories of Christian clichés.  Let us ask Jesus how we can bring him honour rather how he can honour us, and let us live in and enjoy the world created by God for God, but a world in which we have a place as the apple of God’s eye.

Amen.