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.