Sunday, October 28, 2012

Crash Helmets (Sermon: Job 38 and Mark 10)

You all remember God’s words during the burning bush encounter with Moses, don’t you?

Moses was an ordinary fellow, trying to lie low and avoid the attention of the Egyptian authorities.  He was way out in the fields, tending his father-in-law’s sheep, when he happened upon a burning bush – God’s way of trying to get his attention so that God could explain to him that he’d be leading the Israelite slaves out of Egypt and toward the freedom of the Promise Land.

Startled, of course, is a word that  would not begin to describe Moses at that moment, and he, understandably, wanted to know who was speaking to him.  How was he supposed to explain this to his people; who was sending him?

“I Am Who Am” was God’s response.  “I Am Who Am.”  Clear enough.

Fast forward 3,000 years, and a great saint of the church, Catherine of Siena in Italy, a scholarly woman who had a great influence on the politics of her day, is reputed to have herself heard from.  And what did God say to her, echoing those long-ago words to Moses?

“I Am Who Am,” said God, “and you are She Who Is Not.”

I really did consider that those words were all I needed to offer you today in our reflections on Job.  I thought about just getting up and saying that God says to Job, “I Am Who Am, and you are He Who Is Not,” and sitting down.  Because that about covers it.

Job has lost almost everything, thanks to the Satan’s – the Accuser’s – determination to demonstrate that Job will, given enough provocation, turn from God.  But Job has not turned from God – Job has spent some 38 chapters haranguing God, beseeching God, expressing loudly and repeatedly his anger and hurt and bewilderment to God – and telling off his friends, who’ve tried to argue that he somehow deserved whatever he got.  No, Job has not turned from God at all.  Job has expressed, vehemently, much of the human predicament we experience when we find ourselves devastated by life and faced with a silent, seemingly impassive God.  And God has, indeed, been silent for all of those thirty-eight chapters.

No more, though. God emerges, loud and clear, out of the whirlwind of all creation, and turns everything around.  Now it is God who questions Job: “Who are YOU?” God wants to know. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.”

Now what can Job say to that?  Was he there when God created the earth?

“Can you create floods?” asks God.  “Send forth lightning?  Provide for the animals?”  Or, as God calls out in the portions we haven’t read, “Do you tell the sun what to do?  Have you travelled the earth, and been to the gates of death?  Do you control the weather?”

In  other words, “Am I not I Am Who Am, and are you not He Who Is Not?”

How does God answer Job?  God never mentions the wager with the Satan; God seems to have lost interest in that.  God does not respond to Job’s litany of complaints; God does not offer explanation, or clarity, or sympathy.  God deals in . . .  creation!  God pours God’s very own self out of the whirlwind and drenches Job in the story of creation.

We tend to think of “the creation story” as set forth in Genesis – where, by the way, as we’ll be discussing in Bible study next week, there are two.  Two creation stories. If we read or study or pray the Psalms, we may realize that they, too, sing of the power and glory and startling surprises of creation.  But how often do we engage with Job?  And so we may not know that there is, essentially, an entire creation story flowing out of the heart of God and through these last chapters.

What does God talk about?

The earth, the stars, the sea, the clouds, the snow, the hail, the rain, the grass, human bodies and minds, lions, ravens . . .

That’s how God answers Job.

God is a both-and kind of God.  God is both close friend and majestic creator.  God sends Jesus, and sends us one another, so that we can know the close companionship of a walk with divinity, and the touch of love and healing that come as whispers from heaven.  But God is also the powerful, the mighty, the sovereign, the mysterious – and that’s the God who answers Job.

What does that mean to us, sitting here comfortably in our lovely sanctuary, singing music that we love, admiring our windows, spending time in a community in which we know and care for one another.  What might God be saying to us this morning about who God is?

The brilliant writer Annie Dillard says  to us that:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

Is that what God is doing?  Drawing Job, and us along with his, to a place from  which we can never return?  For if we see God, in all God’s power and glory and might, we might surely need crash helmets, and we might never return to being who we once were.

Jesus, in today’s gospel reading, seems to be engaged in a similar process.  Jesus is listening to James and John, the sons of Zebedee – also called the Sons of Thunder.  Bold, brash, occasionally insensitive men.  Men who seem to have no idea what they could be getting themselves into when they announce that they want to sit with Jesus, at his right hand and at his left, in his glory?

Can’t you imagine Jesus thinking, “They really do thunder about without wisdom.  Do I need to remind them about Job?  Do I need to spell out who it is whom they getting tangled up with; do I need to instruct them to go out and purchase crash helmets?”

He kind of does tell them that.  He talks to them about drinking from the cup from which he will drink,   about becoming servants of all, about giving up one’s own life for that of others. He hints, rather broadly, that to walk with him and to drink from his cup doesn’t mean sitting next to him on your own personal throne of gold; it means going to a place of love and understanding that will change you permanently, change your understanding of creation and change your relationship with others.

Is it possible that we will discover, in that new place, that it is not all about us? That there is a mystery in which our personal suffering, unbearable as it sometimes seems to be, plays only a small part?   God, speaking to Job, doesn’t mention us in the whirlwind of words that swirl around Job’s ash-heap self.  Not only does God not seek, at least not in any way that we might expect, to console the heartbroken Job; God doesn’t even deign to mention humanity, or human suffering, or human beings as the crown of creation.  Not here. God seems to be focused on a much larger and grander vision. God seems to be caught up in the grandeur of the whole of the universe, all of which God intends to redeem.  

And yet  . . . and yet . . .

To whom is God speaking?  Not to the stars or the rain.  Not to the lion or the raven.

God is speaking to Job.  

In a book called Love: A Guide for Prayer, the authors tell us that

The God who spun stars into space has shaped with infinite care his human creatures. As insignificant as we might experience ourselves to be, we are in reality the creation with whom God most profoundly shares himself. He has given us the power to know and to love. This inestimable gift offers to each man and woman the extraordinary vocation to bring all creation into God’s service.

We might need crash helmets, if we are, like Job, to come face-to-face with the living God.  We might need seatbelts to keep us from being thrown into the nebulae and black holes of the sky that arches over us.  We might need to be careful about whose cups we drink from, because we will be changed.

But we are, below the billions and billions of stars out there, in the midst of the millions of animal species on our planet – we are the ones to whom God speaks.  Painful as it may sometimes be, we are the ones with the power to know and to love – and to serve.  We cannot do what God can do.  We cannot even understand who God is.  But we are the ones to whom God is present.  

Perhaps we are intended, with Job, to hear in God’s response the words of the writer of Psalm 8, who says in astonishment and wonder,

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.

So put on your crash helmets.  Buckle up your seatbelts.  If we seek the face of God, if we draw near to the creator of the universe, we will be changed.  When, still in the distant future for Job, God invades history in the form of Jesus Christ in order to redeem and restore all of creation into the beloved beauty God always intended, we will be altered.  We will be gathered into a love that extends far beyond the boundaries we imagine to be fixed for ourselves, and we will be unable to return to the place from which we began until we understand it to be completely transformed by that love.  We may be last in the ordinary human scheme of standards and hierarchies, but we will be made anew in vision and in hope and in love.


  1. This is brilliant and yet more than brilliant - incredibly motivating. It brings me to my knees in awe when I consider my insignificance and yet God chooses to be "mindful" of me. If we only utilized the power that God has offered us to change the world in partnership with God, we would definitely need crash helmets and seat belts. Blessings to you.

    1. Thank you, Lynda. At least one person liked it!

      I think my congregation would prefer uplifting sermons that conclude with a concrete application or suggestion for action.

    2. Robin, I guess we all see things differently and I saw a great challenge in this sermon: "If we seek the face of God, if we draw near to the creator of the universe, we will be changed." I need to seek the face of God.

  2. That is my favorite, favorite Annie Dillard quote...and so apt for this sermon.

  3. After my first Eucharist some friends and I went to the local cathedral where the apse and the tabernacle within were marked off by caution tape; so appropriate, I felt.

    I really loved this sermon, and the quote, which worked so well with it. An encounter with God is indeed a shocking both/and.

  4. I find it refreshing that there is this kind of logic, this "school of thought", if you will, among Christians. I spent several years among a group of folks who tried to make God the big Dad-in-the-sky. I know it's difficult to relate to God without anthropomorphizing God, but I think we get into trouble when we forget/ignore exactly what God is.

    You've made a good case here, counselor! I'm impressed! :)

    1. Lisa, it is always frustrating to me to hear that people have abandoned the Protestant church because they've been offered only watered-down drivel in lieu of actual Christianity.

  5. "He talks to them about drinking from the cup from which he will drink, about becoming servants of all, about giving up one’s own life for that of others. He hints, rather broadly, that to walk with him and to drink from his cup doesn’t mean sitting next to him on your own personal throne of gold; it means going to a place of love and understanding that will change you permanently, change your understanding of creation and change your relationship with others."

    I love this quote as much as the Annie Dillard one. Very thought-provoking post. I wish I had better eyes and ears to see and hear God, but reminded again to do it with zeal.