Thursday, July 1, 2021

What can we say October 17? 21st after Pentecost

   Again, it’s unwise to land on Job 38:1-7 without retracing the steps of how Job got to this point, an extended period (years?) of flailing and wailing against God, who never said a mumblin’ word until now. 

   I wrote a short commentary (just 23 pages!) on the whole book of Job - and it is a whole, not just parts! - for the Wesley One Volume Commentary. Check it out!

   When God finally speaks, it’s hardly a word of comfort or answers or pledge that all will be well. A whirlwind, then a megapoem?

    God asks – rhetorically? – “Who is this?” God knows, of course. Then God urges Job to “prepare yourself” (or better, the King James Version’s “gird up your loins”). Brace yourself – not for answers, but a barrage of rhetorical questions. “Who is this speaking darkness?  Where were you when…? Do you know…” What is God’s tone of voice? A thundering, intimidating Wizard of Oz type bass? Something more plaintive, and gentle? Could we imagine a feminine voice? Is God squashing Job, hushing him? Or ennobling him, expanding his mind and soul? Francis Anderson: “That God speaks at all is enough for Job. All he needs to know is that everything is still all right between himself and God…. It does not matter much what they talk about. Any topic will do for a satisfying conversation between friends.”

   But Job had to have been befuddled at first, just as we are, because of the topic God chose to cover. God takes Job on a jaw-dropping tour of all of creation, far up in the sky and under the sea, millennia back in time, to the hidden haunts of fabled creatures. Job does not know how the world came to be, or how weather happens, or how eggs are hatched up in rocky crags; the smartest among us would have only the vaguest notions of such things. God knows. God makes it all happen.

   In God’s tour, human beings are omitted. Humanity isn’t the center of creation! God has vastly larger enterprises than people and their issues. To understand life, we listen to the world. The intrepid John Muir, who chronicled his journeys through previously unknown places like 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.” We need guides like Annie Dillard, who in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek went out and noticed the world teeming with variety and life, or Carl Sagan and then Neil deGrasse Tyson in their Cosmos productions, exposing us to the breadth, depth, immensity and minutiae of the universe.

   Lots of birth going on out there, and not just when God is referring to mountain goats, deer or ostriches giving birth. The oceans “burst out from the womb.” Ice and snow come forth from the womb of the world. Light emerges from darkness, portrayed with language reminiscent of an infant emerging from the dark womb into the light. Job had cursed the day of his birth, and wished himself dead. God replies with life, which is all over, and always has been, everywhere.

   There’s also death, and darkness. The lights of the heavens, are set against a backdrop of extreme blackness in space. Lions have their prey; young eaglets gobble up bloody flesh. Karl Barth pondered the profound truth about God’s reality:

   “Light exists as well as shadow.  Creation has not only a positive but also a negative side.  It belongs to the essence of creaturely nature, and is indeed a mark of its perfection, that it has in fact this negative side.  In creation there is not only a Yes but also a No; not only a height but also an abyss; not only clarity but also obscurity; not only growth but also decay; not only opulence but also indigence; not only beauty but also ashes; not only beginning but also end.  In the existence of man there are hours, days and years both bright and dark, success and failure, laughter and tears, youth and age, gain and loss, birth and sooner or later its inevitably corollary, death.  In all this, creation praises its Creator and Lord even on its shadowy side.  For all we can tell, may not His creatures praise Him more mightily in humility than in exaltation, in need than in plenty, in fear than in joy?  May not we ourselves praise Him more purely on bad days than on good, more surely in sorrow than in rejoicing, more truly in adversity than in progress?  If there may be praise of God from the abyss, night and misfortune… how surprised we shall be, and how ashamed of so much unnecessary disquiet and discontent, once we are brought to realize that all creation both as light and shadow, including our own share in it, was laid on Jesus Christ, and that even though we did not see it, while we were shaking our heads that things were not very different, it sang the praise of God just as it was, and was therefore right and perfect.”

   The animals God selects for Job to see not only live in remote, mysterious places. There’s a “wildness” about the lion, the raven, mountain goats, deer, the wild ass and wild ox, ostriches and eagles. None are tamed or tamable; none are domestic. God doesn’t ask Job to consider the house pet or the mule who pulls your plow. There is an unpredictability, an utter lack of control about creation. And your life. In creation, God brought order out of chaos. And God left a lot of chaos out there. God speaks to Job from a whirlwind, not a placid pond. Our fantasy that things are ordered, controlled, fixable or fair? The very idea of such a thing is laughable – as comical as the ostrich, an awkward, gangly bird with spindly legs and goofy wings. God chuckles, and so might we – at the astonishing variety of creatures God dared to make, but also at our pet ideas of justice, and even at ourselves.

   Hebrews 5:1-10. All the priests Jesus’ listeners and Hebrews’s readers had ever seen wore showy regalia, signs of their priestly authority, almost like decorated soldiers. Hebrews envisions a priest “clothed in weakness.” Jesus wasn’t merely dressing up as weak, pretending for a time. He truly was weak – just as we are. I keep alluding to my book, Weak Enough to Lead, which I think captures the weird biblical dynamic that weakness isn’t a condition God helps you overcome. It’s just who you are. It’s not a bad thing, either. And it’s certainly the realization that enables not just Jesus our high priest to “deal gently,” but for us to be gentle with others.

   Notice Jesus, this humbly attired, weak priest, was known for his “loud cries and tears,” and probably not merely in Gethsemane. I want to ponder that Jesus was “heard because of his fear.” Was Jesus fearful? Isn’t this more of a trembling awe before the powers of life in the universe – perhaps the way a new parent has a bit of a trembling fear when first holding a newborn. You aren’t afraid of the baby – but you do realize what’s at stake, how much tenderness, patience, longsuffering and time will be required.

   Mark 10:35-45. Feels a little brash, Hey, powerful one, do whatever we ask! But hadn’t Jesus invited them to do just this? “Ask and it will be given to you” (Matt. 7:7), and “I will do whatever you ask” (John 14:13). Maybe they’re missing the underlying clue of “in Jesus’ name,” which isn’t a formula to make sure a prayer works. It obviously indicates being in alignment with Jesus and his ways. Here, they mistakenly imagine there’s a hierarchy within the kingdom.   There isn’t – unless it’s that the least, the lost, the lepers, the unwanted rank #1. We’re different: in the world, one lords it over another. But not among us – and then the first, last, servant, lowliest, humble lines. Sarah Ruden renders v. 44, the son “didn’t come to have attendants but to be an attendant.”

  Matthew blames it on their mom, Mrs. Zebedee! There are pressures we feel (as pastors, as do our people) from others to succeed, to rise up. Even the zeal to be a righteous sufferer with Christ can scramble the soul. He asks if they can drink his cup – an allusion to Psalm 116:13 to make you shudder. Naively they exclaim, “We are able.” My intro theology professor at Duke, Robert Cushman, called “Are Ye Able?” the worst in the hymnal, as the point is you most assuredly are not able – which they proved in a few days by hiding out and denying Jesus at his trial and cup-drinking on the cross. Who wound up on his right and left that day? Common, despised criminals.


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