October 21, 2018

Job and the Whirlwind

Passage: Job 38


Oct. 21 Job and the Whirlwind Job 38:1-7 (34-41) * Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c (UMH 826) * Hebrews 5:1-10 * Mark 10:35-45

Last weekend our kids and I travelled to Kennewick to visit my parents, while Kristen stayed home with the dogs, her version of a vacation. We left Troutdale a little later than I had planned, and crossed at Biggs Jct. so we could stop for coffee and baklava at the Greek Orthodox monastery on the other side of Goldendale. Not a particularly pretty time of year to be driving through the asparagus and hop fields, but it is home, and everybody there is OK. I went to the church I grew up on Sunday, which always makes me think about how much things have changed since I was a kid. Back then, there was one building project after another, and new people came without much effort needed to get them there. I first learned how to sing “Jesus Loves Me” in a small room that has long since disappeared. The people have changed too, but it is a church that has always taken pride in the higher than average number of people involved in ministries both in the church and outside of it. My parents modelled for me a life of active church involvement, and were always involved in something, including working at the foodbank, cooking for the weekly men’s breakfast at church, serving in an organization that helped people pay their bills, as well as singing in the choir for over 40 years now and being involved in small groups, committees, and serving as church lay person to Annual Conference. My parents and that church of course were crucial in my development as a follower of Jesus, along with many others along my path of faith.

Today we are celebrate Laity Sunday, as we give our thanks to all those who give sacrificially to our church, both in visible ways but also those who quietly contribute without anyone noticing, except God. In a society that stresses individuality and putting oneself first, we celebrate those who give to something much bigger than themselves. The challenges we face today are so huge, we may fear even getting involved, but we thank all those who have the courage to work towards making a better world, as we seek to further the Kingdom of God in whatever way we can.

The insert today was provided by the Office of Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church, which you might find useful although you may need a magnifying glass to read it. Listed here are the four basic steps of “transformational discipleship,” which spell the word “hope”. This is something we all need to be doing as we seek to be faithful. I am really lousy at remembering such tools, but hopefully this will be meaningful to you. The first step is Hospitality, as we reach out to and welcome new people. Getting folks to visit is hard work, but getting them to stay can be even harder. Younger folks in particular are looking for ways to participate in making our world better, so we need to make our worship meaningful and support them in getting involved in the church and in the community. In Methodist terms, we call this “Offering Christ” as we share the story of Jesus, invite folks to join the conversation, and help them find ways to live out their faith journey. Third, we all need to have a sense of Purpose, and that is one of the most important things the church can provide, as each of us works on our own discipleship, and, fourth, Engages with our larger community as we seek to live out our faith.

Actively belonging to a church is not something you do just for yourself, it is something we do for all people, even those not here, even non-believers, even those we may never meet but who will be touched by our efforts, as we give sacrificially of our time and treasure to the sacred purposes of God that he has called us to perform. To put it into fancy church words, we pursue discipleship, growing in faith and obedience to God. Our model and inspiration of course is Jesus, who gave himself freely on behalf of all people. As our reading from Mark says:

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

Our most important question is: “How am I to respond to what Jesus has done for me?” In today’s world, most people only ask “what’s in it for me?” Short-sightedness is one of the greatest illusions of our day, as few people are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to prepare our world for those who will come after us.

I struggle with the concept of how we are to present God to a world that does not know him, going back and forth in my mind between the various aspects of God that are meaningful for me, but realizing that we need to be highly individualized when we talk to people about God, seeking explanations that will be meaningful for them. We know that some people will refer to science, claiming that there is no empirical proof of God. But then we also live in a culture that sells stories of vampires, superheroes, and just about everything that will bring a profit for the creators and anyone seeking to make money from such things. In some ways, it seems like people these days are more willing than they used to be to believe things contrary to reason. Of course, we also have famous people feeding us blatant lies, in this age of “fake news” and “alternative facts”, people trying to force their version of reality onto us even when it is obviously false, but knowing some folks will accept it without much thought. Into this minefield we wander, seeking to share the Good News of Jesus, not knowing who might listen to us, or who might explode in anger.

Jesus gives us the example of the suffering servant, who even though power was his to grasp, he took the route of suffering and compassion. But not for the sake of discipline or perfectionism or some rugged boot camp or some torturous diet plan, but on behalf of all people. We too make sacrifices on behalf of others, even those we may not know well, worrying about each other, praying for each other, loving even those who are hard to love. We are here to serve God and serve our neighbors, giving our hearts fully to both.

When you read all of Psalm 104, one of the oldest writings of the Bible, you will find a similar portrayal of God that we find in the Book of Job, also one of our most ancient writings. God is the creator of this world, as well as the one who sustains it and directs all its creatures and natural phenomena. I know that you will read Psalm 104 as soon as you get home, so let’s look at the end of Job instead. For most of the book, we read of Job and his so-called friends argue over the nature of God and the reality of suffering, amongst other things, to the point where Job stops listening to them and turns his anger to God. Job has sought to put God on trial, as it were, but God turns the tables and asserts his ultimate power and authority.

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, 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? Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, 'Here we are'? Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?

If we are talking to a non-believing friend, what kind of response would you expect if we use this in support of our belief in God? Most likely, they will respond using a “scientific” approach. If we are talking to someone who has left the church and has bad feelings towards it, they will probably talk like Job, complaining and pointing fingers, and even though Peter tells us to be ready to make a defense at all times, sometimes we just don’t have the right answers. We rely on logic and theology, but those answers often sound thin in light of the bad experiences and the emotions involved. God is beyond anything we can put into words, sometimes we just have to pray for God to make himself known, and step aside so he can enter into the conversation.

Job complains and complains, railing at God and railing at his friends, on and on beyond what we might have the patience to endure. But in the end, God speaks, and he doesn’t supply simple “answers” or any smooth theological explanations of why bad things happen to good people. He doesn’t do those things we try to do. He doesn’t explain how things work, rather he points us to creation, especially the wild parts. Yes, nature can be peaceful and breathtakingly beautiful, but it can also be ferocious and dangerous. What can be sublime can also be puzzling and inaccessible. God’s speech here at the end of Job reminds us that he is beyond our conception of him, and that when we talk about him, we usually reduce him into words that make him sound more  like us.

Nature is a place of danger and death, but it is also a place of new birth and new hope. In the wildness is life, where God’s creativity is revealed. In the end, Job has his treasures returned and then some. After a harsh ending comes a new beginning. In these ancient writings, we find God in nature, a place many of us still look when we are in need of connection to God. We can hear his voice in both the quiet places, as well as in the rushing waters and storms. John Muir, after exploring Yosemite, wrote “As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near to the heart of the world as I can."* In nature, we get a taste of how things should be, as things once were in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.

Martin Buber once summarized the revealing of the character of God in the Book of Job as first guiding us away from the view that God is cruel (chapters 1-2) to a God that pays back what is due based on our actions (the friends’ speeches in 4-11), to a hidden God (the one who simply refuses to respond to Job through chapters 3-37), and finally then to a God of revelation, a God who is present and relational.* We, like Job, sometimes don’t get any answers. We don’t understand why or even how bad things happen to good people, we don’t get any answers when we ask why our world couldn’t be better than it is, or when God will send Jesus back to set things right. But what we do get is God himself. He isn’t somewhere far away occasionally sending us gifts and blessings that we happen to come upon, he is here with us now. This is the One we seek to lead people to, admitting our weakness but pointing to his strength. He may be the greatest of mysteries at times, but he still calls us into a relationship with him. He may be as big as all creation, but he comes to each of us in a way that touches our hearts. Living a life faithfully to him, a life of discipleship, requires us to respond to God touching our hearts, as we seek to grow in Christ and reach out to our neighbors with God’s grace and love. As we come together as God’s people, His Spirit is amongst us, and we carry that same Spirit out into the world as we leave this place. In the Lord’s Supper, we celebrate God breaking into our world in Jesus, and we partake of his very essence, and carry that with us, also. We may not always see where God is, we may search for our own whirlwind sometimes, but our world was not only created and sustained by God, his presence permeates our lives, his goodness and grace permeates all of creation, and he is with us wherever we go.

*From https://www.ministrymatters.com/preach/entry/9304/weekly-preaching-october-21-2018. Accessed Oct. 19, 2018.

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