First Presbyterian Church

”What To Do In The Meantime” (October 21, 2012)

FIRST SCRIPTURE LESSON: Job 38:1-7; 42:1-6
SECOND SCRIPTURE LESSON: Mark 9:33-37;10:35-38,43-45

We had just moved to Atlanta. Wade was around one. It would be about a year before Margaret would make her first appearance. Even then we knew that as parents we had a live wire. He liked to climb – he hated to sleep. One of his favorite toys was the water hose, which he would pull behind him around the yard. The patio was barely larger than a suitcase and not much taller. As he climbed up, he unfortunately fell off and the one tooth he had went through his bottom lip. Since this was the first emergency for the young parents, we knew the closest medical facility was the minor emergency clinic nearby so that’s where we headed. As I said, this was these parents first emergency. Here we had our one year old dressed in Tshirt and diaper on a summer day so that’s how we went. We never expected the minor emergency clinic would send us to the ER at the local hospital just in case he needed more than a couple of stitches but in fact a consult from a plastic surgeon. Full waiting room at the hospital and young parents with a one year old with a minor cut – certainly didn’t equal the accident victims – the heart attack patient or the stroke from the nursing home. Young parents with a one year old dressed in a Tshirt and diaper doesn’t take long for 1 year old to need a diaper change. The nurse appropriately asked all the questions and told us the Dr. would see us shortly. 20 minutes later the Dr. sent the nurse back in to strap our “never be held down Tasmanian devil” onto a papoose board so he could stitch his lip. 10 minutes went by, 15, then 25 and then Dad was becoming tired of trying to explain to a one year old why he was strapped to a board. 30 minutes came and went and no dr. By then I had had it. I unstrapped my son and held him the last 15 minutes before the Dr. chose to join us. 45 minutes after being strapped to a papoose board and the Dr. finally comes in. Without an explanation or an apology he barked an order to the nurse to reattach the child to the papoose board and ordered the parents back to the waiting room. I had had it. I learned some new words and tried them out on the Dr. who informed us there was no way he would stitch our son with us looking on. So retreated we did and 10 minutes later our sniffling and soaked son was returned to us and we finally found our way home. Rarely have I felt as out of control as I did that night. I suspect you have your out-of-control stories as well. I suspect most of them would have come in a hospital waiting room as well – or perhaps in a Dr.s office or on the end of a midnight phone call. Such is life that it sneaks up on us all too often and throws our control to the dirt if we ever actually had any at all. I had a young woman tell me Thursday (a single parent dealing an out of control ex husband with issues of abusive anger at her kids) but she is now hit with primary care for a grandmother recently diagnosed with dementia and whose home is filled with animal filth and dangerous guns. She asked me, “When does it get easier? When is God going to let me feel that I’m not climbing a high mountain? When life tumbles in, what then? No one writes a book called “Where Is God when It Feels Good?” No one wins the lottery and cries “Why me, Lord?”

Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, Job responds to his troubles by wishing he had never been born. But Job doesn’t get a visit from the portly, comforting Clarence the angel. Instead, at the end of the book, the One who appears to Job is none other than the LORD God Almighty!1 And God doesn’t come to comfort Job. Instead, God lays into Job, lecturing him from the center of a cyclone. 
Why do you talk when you don’t know what you’re talking about? 
Stand Up! 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 size– surely you know! 
God does not address Job’s situation or Job’s questions about justice. God does not even acknowledge Job’s suffering. Instead, God takes Job on a whirlwind tour of the cosmos, beginning with the earth. We want God to tell Job about the wager with the Satan. We want God to apologize for all of Job’s suffering. We want God to be at least, well, comforting. Instead, in the words of William Safire: “It’s as if God appears in a tie-dyed T-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Because I’m God, That’s Why.'”2

This is not the answer that Job (or we) expected from God. The world, as God describes it in the divine speeches, is not made for human beings; neither is it entirely safe for human beings. But what does all this have to do with Job’s situation or with Job’s suffering?

In the world Job describes in chapter 29, Job was the center of his universe, sitting in judgment at the city gate, surrounded by family and possessions and admired by one and all. Job thought that the world ran by a strict system of retributive justice: the righteous are always rewarded and the wicked are always punished. And Job was the most righteous person of all, as God himself acknowledges.
After all the troubles come on Job, his friends continue to hold him responsible: because Job suffers, he must have done something to deserve it. Job himself knows that this isn’t true. His world has descended into chaos. 
God’s answer breaks open Job’s world and expands his vision to include places and creatures Job never imagined in his former life. God speaks of freedom and grace rather than reward. The world is not centered on human beings, according to the divine speeches. It is not an entirely safe or predictable world, but it is beautiful and good nonetheless. And God invites Job to live in that wild and beautiful world. Job is the only passenger on this grand tour of the cosmos, and through it, God invites him (and us) to see the world from a God’s-eye point of view and to delight in its beauty and freedom as God does.

Is this an adequate response to Job’s suffering? It is not, in a conventional sense, very comforting. God would probably fail a present-day pastoral care class. Nonetheless, these speeches of God at the end of the book of Job accomplish something profound. They move Job out of his endless cycle of grief into life again.
Control! Who really is in charge? Of the world? Of your life? 2 guys named James and John struggled with the same thing. Jesus has announced for the third time his intention to carry his mission to Jerusalem and anticipated that this will culminate in his death. As with the previous two announcements, it is followed by the disciples’ failure to understand, not just his words but his very mission and character. The first time, Jesus’ disclosure comes immediately after Peter confesses him to be God’s messiah. But Jesus’ redefinition proves too much for Peter, who immediately chastizes him. The second time Jesus discloses his mission and destiny the disciples are soon debating who will be the greatest. In turn, Jesus scoops up a child into his arms and tells them that greatness rests not in great deeds but in receiving and welcoming a vulnerable child.
The third disclosure is followed by a self-serving move on the part of James and John. Apart from the rest of the disciples, they approach Jesus and ask whether, once Jesus has come into his glory, they may occupy positions of prestige in his kingdom. Jesus keeps talking about suffering and death and for some reason they can’t seem to get that through their heads. Perhaps punch drunk on earlier successes, they can imagine no other outcome than triumph and glory.

 They ask for seats of glory, as if they believe there won’t be enough glory to go around and so they’d better get theirs first. No wonder the other disciples are angry; they see that James and John are trying to edge them out.
And are we any different? When we feel under attack, or afraid, or anxious, isn’t the temptation always to move toward self-preservation, give into our fears about scarcity, and see our companions as rivals rather than friends? Jesus invites them not just to re-imagine but actually to redefine their understanding of power, prestige, status, and leadership. In this case he defines leadership as serving the needs of another. Which means that glory comes not from individual accomplishment but from service.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Then why is it so hard? Two reasons. First, given the witness of both Scripture and our experience, I think it’s safe to say that as a species we are just insecure enough to believe that there is not enough to go around – not enough money, enough time, enough love, you name it – and so we seem hardwired to look out for ourselves rather than our neighbor.

Second, we are bombarded 24/7 with cultural messages that play upon this insecurity by asserting that glory rests in possessions, or wealth, or fame, or individual accomplishment. Why else would we pay professional athletes and movies stars millions upon millions while school teachers and nurses – and for that matter pastors – such modest wages? Although we pay lip service to serving others, the fact of the matter is we have an entire culture encouraging us to “look out for number 1.”

How can we possibly combat these messages? If we’re honest we can probably admit that our stuff hasn’t made us any happier. We each have also had moments where we’ve experienced the truth of Jesus’ words. Moments, that is, where we have put someone else’s needs first – not because we wanted to please them or wanted something in return but from the sheer delight of serving. Each of us has volunteered, or helped out a friend, or encouraged someone down in the dumps, or lent a hand to someone in need, and when we did so experienced the joy of giving ourselves to another. Each of us, that is, has fought our insecurity about not having enough by making ourselves vulnerable to the needs of another and found that vulnerability rewarded not simply by the gratitude of the recipient but by our own increased sense of purpose, fulfillment, and courage.

Our discovery of what it means to be in love and service to another is perhaps the greatest discovery of our lives for it unleashes us from the illusion of power hiding in other forms. This week I want to challenge you to do two things you wouldn’t do ordinarily. First I want to challenge you to go out of your way to do something in the name of love and service that you wouldn’t do otherwise. Do something that no one would expect – that you yourself wouldn’t predict. Write a letter to a homebound person. Send a card or make a visit to someone that you haven’t seen in ages – all because they come to your mind and you feel suddenly that you need to reach out. And then second. What I want you to do this week is this. Take the “me” out of the equation. We’ve all done it. This is when we tell about something we have done in love and service for someone but also we add, “I’ve worked 15 hours a day this week. I didn’t get in until 8:00 every night and then I had to wash clothes. When you take the me out, you don’t say how hard it was. You don’t say anything about yourself making it happen because when you offer yourself in love and service to another, it isn’t about you. It’s about them!
In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, King Arthur and his knights have to get across a bridge to complete their quest. The bridge is guarded by an old man who tells them they each must answer 3 ?’s in order to cross. If they answer one wrong, they are plunged into the abyss. The first knight steps up. “State your name.” (he does). “State your quest.” (He does) “What’s your favorite color? (red) and he crosses the bridge, amazed that it was so easy. Second knights turn. He is asked his name and his quest, but his 3rd question is “What’s the capital of Assyria?” I don’t know that, and he is thrown into the abyss. The 3rd knight is terrified. He correctly gives his name and quest, but when asked the 3rd question. “What’s your favorite color?” Nervously he responds, “Red?” “Blue” Ahhhh…abyss. Now it’s King Arthur’s turn. Same drill on the first 2 ?’s. but when asked the 3rd question “What’s the air speed velocity of a coconut laden swallow?” Arthur replies, “That depends – is it an African or European swallow?” The bridgekeeper is befuddled, “I don’t know that and the bridgekeeper is thrown into the abyss.
Life presents us with some challenging questions. Most often we feel our best answer comes in how much we know, how in control we are, how often we’ve made our way to the President’s chair. But the truth is that real power, the best success comes when we learn what it means to be in service to another.
A small church has as their mission statement, “To identify our neighbors greatest needs and surprise our church into hilarious giving by providing impact-full, total happenin’ and celebratory opportunities to serve. Could that be your mission as well? To look for God’s hand in leading you to celebratory opportunities to serve. I guarantee you the world will not be the same if/when you discover this type of service.