Where Were You?

October 18, 2015   Job 38: 1-7   Mark 10: 35-45

Rev. Catherine Purves

      People have an amazing ability to get caught up in the immediacy of their own experience.  When things are very good, as at a wedding or the birth of a baby, or when things are very bad, as at a funeral or when a relationship is breaking down – that is when we seem to zero in on our own feelings and needs and perceptions of things.  And in general, even when our lives are not caught up in drastic change, we humans have a remarkable capacity to view the world out of a center in ourselves.  What makes sense to me is sense.  What seems true to me is truth.  We tend to be both shortsighted and inward looking, not to mention stuck in our ways and pigheaded about what we think and the way we see the world.  In today’s readings we encounter three characters who are good examples of this, Job, James, and John, and we see how they are led out of their narrow, self-centered perspectives.

       It’s hard to feel anything but sympathy for poor old Job.  We’d all probably agree that he experienced more misfortune than anyone should have to bear in one lifetime.  We might not even blame him much if he followed his wife’s advice when she told him to curse God and die.  Certainly, Job was wallowing in his misery, and after enduring the condescending speeches of his three so-called friends, Job rose up in self-righteous indignation and demanded that God explain and justify his unbearable suffering.    

     Have you ever felt like that yourself at an especially low time in your life?  Have you felt that God owed you an explanation when, after careful reflection and soul-searching and some wallowing, you decided that your suffering was not justified?  And the more you looked inward, feeding on your feelings of despair, the less sense it all made, and the more blame you piled up at God’s door.  This is just what Job did.  And then his view of things, and our view of things, gets narrower and narrower, more and more self-justifying. This just doesn’t make sense, we think.  The good should not suffer like this.  What kind of God allows that to happen?

     Now James and John were at a very different place in their lives.  In spite of the fact that Jesus had already declared three times that he would have to suffer and die, they held on to the idea that they were going to Jerusalem to celebrate the coming of God’s Kingdom.  They were riding a high of expectation and excitement.  Because there they were, part of the inner circle, the trusted disciples of Jesus.  Surely, they thought, when he comes into his Kingdom, we will be given places of honor and get to sit on the right and left hand of Jesus.  It was only fair.  They deserved that, but, just to be sure, maybe they should try to get Jesus to promise them that, and then their future would be secured.

     Have you ever felt like that yourself, at an especially good time of your life?  Have you wanted to hold on to your good feelings, to stop the clock and control the future?  How joyful we feel at a wedding or at the birth of a child or grandchild.  But again, our focus is narrowed, we see only what we want to see and our minds are filled with thoughts about ourselves and how good we feel at just this moment.  We may even think that this is payback, a well-deserved joy after some struggles and some suffering.  After all, we are people of faith, why shouldn’t God bless us, and why shouldn’t the blessings keep right on coming?

     Job and James and John thought that they were ever so clever.  From their very limited experience they had figured everything out.  They had, in a self-serving way, decided how the world should work, and how God should rule.  And Job decided that he should remind God of that.  And James and John decided that they should remind Jesus of that.  And so too, we, from time to time, feel the urge to remind the Almighty of our wisdom, and of our feelings, and of our perceived needs, and of our just rewards.  And we don’t really want God’s truth to get in the way of our opinions or God’s will to challenge our will.

     How can we break out of this myopic, shortsighted, self-centered view of the cosmos?  How can we keep from turning into Job when things get bad, and how can we help turning into James and John when we experience pure joy for a moment and only want to hold onto it for eternity.  How can we resist the temptation to tell God how to run things?  How can we restrain ourselves from spelling out for Jesus what we’d like the future to look like?

     The answer to these questions is to be found in both of our readings.  And the answer is actually quite simple.  Stop talking!  The more you tell God and Jesus what you think and what you want and how you interpret the universe and how it should work in your not-so-humble opinion, the more you are missing what God and Jesus might be saying and doing.  So, stop talking, stop pontificating, stop creating a view of the world based solely on your own experience.  And start listening!

     When Job finally stopped talking, the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:  “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”  Who is this who speaks without understanding, who complains and corrects and advises the Almighty?  And who are we to tell God how to run his creation?  “Where were you,” God asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”  Were you there overseeing the inner wisdom that holds the world together, the sheer creativity of God that brought into being suns and minnows, mountains and giraffes, oak trees and human beings?  Where were you, God asks us, “when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” 

     Well, when you put it that way…  Suddenly Job is thrust up and out of his own wallowing self-indulgent pontificating.  The presence of God in the whirlwind and the thundering words of the Almighty shook the fragile foundation of Job’s limited experience and his simple self-made world of ideas and judgments.  When God speaks and when we listen the cycle of self-righteousness and prideful talking at God is broken.

     In the same way, we have seen that James and John had not been listening to Jesus as they walked along the road.  They were too busy plotting and scheming and trying to manipulate Jesus to pay any attention to what he was saying about his suffering and death.  From their self-centered perspective, they had decided that Jesus was about to be named King and they wanted seats on either side of his throne.  Like Job, they too were speaking without knowledge.  Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.”  They had to stop talking and start listening if they were going to understand how Jesus’ life and their lives were going to play out.  So Jesus set them straight, in no uncertain terms, “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.”

     Well, when you put it that way…  Suddenly, Jesus had turned upside down their idea of how the world worked.  Their desire for honor and recognition were shown to be contrary to God’s way of suffering and sacrifice.  The cross must come first, then the resurrection and glory.  When James and John finally looked at the world through the eyes of Jesus, it looked different.  When they finally listened and understood what being a disciple of Jesus meant, their lives and their future looked different.  And they were, like Job, awed and humbled in the presence of the Son of God.

     Where were you when God set the earth spinning, ordering the universe with a word, and creating out of nothingness all that is?  Where were you?  And where were you when the Son of God hung upon the cross, when the skies were darkened, and the earth shook, and the curtain of the temple was torn from top to bottom?  Where were you?  Listen to the words of God who is clothed in a whirlwind and who speaks the truth.  Listen to the words of Jesus who gave his life for all of us and who calls us to a life of faithful and sacrificial discipleship.  Stop talking about your own limited experience.  Stop thinking out of a center in yourself.  And listen.  Listen, and you may begin to understand the mysteries of our holy God and gracious gift of our salvation in Jesus Christ.