Texts: Job 38:1-11; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:26-34
Theme: Spoilt for choice again this week. "Reality" has to be in there somewhere. All three readings tell us that God is REAL – and not some sentimental, wish-fulfilling creation of our own! Perhaps "Reality Check" would do it.
Introduction. The sheer gutsiness (earthiness) of the readings needs to be stressed this week; or perhaps I mean, they need to be allowed to speak for themselves. The temptation might be to try to tone them down a bit, but that temptation (like all others!) should be vigorously resisted. If there is a rival for Isaiah as the most valuable book in the Old Testament it must surely be Job! The last vestiges of Sunday School theology must surely be blown away for anyone who seriously reads this great book. The whole book could be called A Guide to Spirituality for Adults. Do we really love and trust God (the essence of faith) or do we not? That is the question, and for Job (and the rest of us) there is no hiding or fudging possible. And just in case we think we have survived that onslaught similar questions are fired at us by the other two readings. Would our professed love for God hold firm if we suffered even half the things that befell St Paul? Or when we found ourselves in the middle of a storm in a boat showing every sign of imminent sinking?
Background. Not long after the tragic Boxing Day tsunami I found myself facing this passage from Job as I prepared a sermon. Before you read on, refresh your memory of verses 8-11. Do you see the problem? Part of my solution was to let off steam by writing the following poem:
Job Answers Back
Then out of the tsunami
Job railed at God:
'Have you not heard, have you not seen,
do you not know what the sea has done?
It has rebelled against you and against us.
It has charged your feeble bars, and
kicked down your puny doors;
it has gone where it would,
its waves prouder than before;
it has thrown off your flimsy garments
and streaked across the land
brazen and unashamed.
So may the terrible cry of the drowned
come unto you:
the pitiful wailing of those who mourn
assault your ears;
the wounded silence of those who have lost everything
break your heart.
Speak for yourself if you can,
for I am tired of making your defence.'
And Job stormed off, his usual calmness
washed away by the torrent
of heaven's words,
picking his way through slabs of broken faith
lying upturned and scattered
in heaven's violent wake.
Darkness came. And with it a stench.
Stirring stuff, and not bad psychology, but awful theology! In the poem I am making the very mistake that Job finally makes. He attempts to hold God to account – speaks to God as an equal He's got it back to front as God makes clear at the start of today's passage: I will question you, and you shall answer to me. [v. 3] But in my own defence(!), what the poem does do is capture some of the force of the impact when we grab this passage of Scripture by the scruff of the neck and bring it into contact with real stuff, in this case a natural disaster of monumental proportions. How quickly the passage ceases to be a wonderful example of dramatic poetry and becomes a screaming question: "What do you really feel about God now?"
To get a handle on Job as a textbook on spirituality we only have to look at two verses, one almost at the beginning of the book, and the other almost at the end. In 1:1(b) we learn: This man [Job] was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? It reminds me of all the times someone has told me that X was such a good person, there's no doubt she/he has gone to heaven. But now turn to 42:5. My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Through all the terrible things that have befallen him Job has discovered that he knew God only be reputation – by what he had been told. Now he knows God: before he knew only about God. And his reaction is to recognise his own unworthiness and repent. In coming to know God we come to know ourselves as we really are. When we achieve that we are ready for a real relationship with the real God, which is what real spirituality is.
The book also starts with that great question posed by Satan: Does Job fear God for nothing? It is debateable whether we ever get an answer to that question. But what we do get is a very clear statement about human pride: even those who are blameless and shun evil cannot stand before God on their own merits, much less call God to account. Only when we know God as God really is do we realise the truth of that. In the meantime we remain committed to the gospel of good works and self-improvement, even though we would never say so.
I mentioned briefly last week the curious placement of the story of the Calming of the Sea, which comes immediately after a long passage of teaching by and about parables. The oddity is accentuated by the chapter divisions, which were not, of course, part of the original text as Mark wrote it. But the order of the material was his. What was he up to?
Judging by Jesus' questions to his disciples, the issue is about "intellectual belief" and real belief; that is, having heard Jesus' teaching and giving mental assent to it, has it permeated into their inner being, so that they would hold firm in the storms of life? The answer, of course, was no. Faith is not about what we believe, but in whom we believe. The disciples were part way there: presumably they woke him up in the hope that he would be able to do something, but when he did they were completely unprepared for it and became even more terrified (of him rather than the storm!) But that was real progress; they had moved from physical fear to holy fear.
Job. Notice the wonderful opening phrase: God answered Job "out of the storm". But what storm would that be? If we just start here we will assume that there has been some preceding reference to a storm. But there is none. The storm, I suspect, is inside Job. The other, more obvious, point to note here is that "answered" might be better understood as "responded to". In purely human terms God doesn't answer Job' questions, he responds with a volley of his own.
Taking It Personally.
· Reflect on my poem: where do your sympathies lie? Are you with "Job" or is he way out of line?
· Are you inclined to demand answers from God when things turn to custard? Have you ever received any answers?
· As you ponder this passage, how do you feel towards Job, and towards God? Is God "answering" Job or being evasive?
Corinthians. This passage always calls to my mind a helpful little story I was given when I was going through a very difficult time in my personal life. A priest in England in the early years of the twentieth century went to see his bishop to tell him that he had no alternative but to tender his resignation. His unmarried daughter had become pregnant, and this would soon become known in the parish and be a cause of great scandal. The Bishop would not accept the resignation. "Your parishioners have seen all this before and can cope with it. What they are waiting to see is how you cope with it. Now go and continue to be an example to them in this hard time as you always have been in easier times." At first glance, today's passage could come across as one long belly-ache, St Paul wallowing in self-pity. But it's clearly not. He is dealing with the honest facts. Christianity is not a soft option, an easy and trouble-free lifestyle, especially in times of persecution. What commends the faith to others is not that we seem to have a charmed life avoiding all troubles, but that we seem to have an extra power to cope when trouble strikes.
Taking It Personally.
· Read slowly through this passage, noting the different kinds of adversity Paul has faced, including physical and emotional suffering. Call to mind some of your hardest times. How did you cope? Were you aware at the time of "an extra power" helping you? In retrospect, are you aware of it now?
· Review your present circumstances. Is there any particular difficulty you are facing today? Take it into prayer. How might today's readings help you?
Mark. This story works well at both the literal and the metaphorical level. The Sea of Galilee was and is infamous for sudden squalls and storms, so that the situation described in this story sounds real. The reaction of the disciples rings true, and is part of their ongoing struggle to grasp Jesus' true identity. As noted above, it gives us a wonderfully clear illustration of the difference between physical fear and holy fear: remember Peter's reaction when he saw the size of the catch in another story set on the Lake: "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man." At the metaphorical level, the story would have had great value to the early persecuted Church. The church is the little boat, in grave danger of being destroyed; but Jesus is with them so all will be well. All they have to do is hold on to their faith. That's why the words Jesus spoke to his disciples are so stinging.
Taking It Personally.
· This is a classic passage for the prayer of imagination. Place yourself in the boat with the disciples. Hear the wind, see the waves, taste the salt in the air. Feel their fear. Now look at Jesus calmly sleeping: how do you feel towards him?
· Do you sometimes feel in your hard times that Jesus/God is sleeping on the job? Do you call out to wake him up? What happens then?
· How do you feel about Jesus' rebuke of his disciples? Are those words addressed to you?