Trinity 21: Questions and More Questions!

Here is tomorrow’s offering – still feeling pleased with myself! I find that the questions in the lectionary this week are stirring and made me reflect on the way I ask questions of God and the people around me. 

Trinity 21
Job 38:1-7, 34-41
Psalm 104:1-9,25,37b
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

Questions, Questions and more Questions!

I am going to start this sermon with a question!

Are you the kind of person who asks a lot of questions? There are little questions, big questions, easy, hard, dumb, unanswerable, unaskable, rhetorical, revealing, innocent and embarrassing questions that we all carry around in us and have asked of us.

We all ask questions for different reasons: some people are naturally curious, sometimes we need better or clearer information, instruction or directions, some of us might be a busy-body, a nosy Parker. Questions though form the basis of most conversations and communication.

If you spend any time with children, you can be asked a multitude of questions on any number of subjects in a very short amount of time! I am sure that many of us have had the experience of being asked a question that we didn’t have answer for! That awful feeling when the teacher asks you and you have no earthly idea what the answer is.

In the story of Job, Job asks and has been asked many difficult questions all the way through his ordeal. Questions about the nature of suffering, how God works (or doesn’t), what did Job do to cause his current suffering – surely it is his fault according to the logic of his friends.

Job struggles to give them an answer that satisfies because he knows there is nothing that he has done to end up on the ash heap. Job has been lamenting his current condition and trying to make sense of it. Finally, after 37 chapters of lament, complaint and moaning, Job hears from God for the first time.

In last week’s reading Job was demanding to see God. ‘Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling!’ Literally banging on the door of God’s house to have a word. Feels like a reasonable request to make as Job is on the literal and figurative ash heap. I think that I, too would want a word with the person – God or not – who put me there.

You get the feeling that God has almost had enough of Job’s questions so starts with a few of his own. 11 questions in 15 verses. God starts easy – ‘who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?’ This one is easy to answer – it is Job.

Job now has to ‘gird up his loins like a man!’ I love that! God telling him off in such common language.
God’s next questions are much harder:
• Where you there when I laid the foundations of the earth?
• Can you make it rain?
• Who gave you wisdom or understanding to the mind?
• Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
• Can you feed the lions, satisfy the young ones?
• Can you feed the baby ravens when they are crying and there is no food to found?

If you read the last few chapters of Job, you see God fire a barrage of questions at Job – most of which he cannot answer! Job has not, in fact, been in the storehouses of the snow or hail, or sent forth lightening, nor was he present at the birth of the mountain goat and he is unfamiliar with the ordinances of heaven. As we are too.

In the last chapter of Job, after all the conversation and questioning, Job’s first remark is ‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.’

Do you know this truth about God? Whatever we throw at him – whatever questions we have about anything, wherever we find ourselves, whatever the situation we are in – no purpose of his can be thwarted!

Now fast-forward a few centuries and we see Jesus and his disciples on their way to Jerusalem. Jesus is trying to tell them about what awaits him – being handed over to the chief priests and scribes, condemned to death, handed over again, mocked, spat on, flogged and killed; and after three days rise again.

These may be familiar words to us who live on the other side of the resurrection – but to the disciples they would have been shocking, incomprehensible. But – remember Job – no purpose of God’s can be thwarted!

In the midst of this daunting teaching, James and John put forward their request (that is actually a demand) to Jesus. It is often dismissed as a foolish or arrogant question ‘oh those silly Sons of Thunder!’ and there is some truth to that, but James and John have done a couple of things right.

They preface the request with: ‘we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you’. They say this before they actually tell Jesus what it is that they want him to do. I think there are very few people whose request I would grant before I knew what the request was!

Jesus does not rebuff or get angry with them as the disciples did. No – Jesus welcomes the question, invites them to ask it, but has some questions of his own for James and John. Questions that are not easy to answer!

‘What is it that you want me to do for you?’ asks Jesus. The first thing James and John did right was that they have come to Jesus – generally a very good starting point. They have their faith in the right person! James and John clearly trust Jesus, despite what he has just told them about his torture and death. James and John believe that he will come through in the end even though they skipped over that tricky middle bit!

How is our trust this morning? Do we live like we believe that Jesus will come through in the end? Jesus should be, wants to be, our starting place – the safe place where we can take our questions.

Jesus invites them to ask and what do they want? The reply: ‘Sit at the right and left hand in your glory.’ James and John are not criticized for this request, not at least by Jesus. James and John believe that Jesus will win; Jesus will be in glory and they want to be right there with him. They are ambitious for God! They expect Jesus to be glorified. Jesus redirects these ambitions, wants to reset their priorities and motives.

How ambitious are we for God? The real danger we face as a congregation, as a parish and the church more widely is: apathy, cynicism and complacency. These are the roadblocks to abundant living and transformation! Jesus wants us to want more, seek more, hope more and need more of him. This, I think, is why he didn’t get annoyed with James and John as they were doing the right thing: going to him and asking but they needed some redirection.

Now the confident and bold request of James and John is rather tacky, somewhat ignorant and immature, the motives were more selfish than not. But they ask! They engage in real relationship with Jesus. They want to stay close to him by being with him in his glory! Save us seats Jesus! We want to be with you!

This reminds me of the all the times that I don’t ask, don’t engage and don’t lean into what Jesus might be trying to say to me. I might throw my own questions his way – but how often do I stay around for an answer? Am I willing to wait even if it takes a long time?

The answer to the request of James and John does get answered – Jesus tells them that it is not his request to grant – but it is for those whom it has been prepared. Sounds a little cryptic – but Jesus is completely deferring to God. This is not Jesus’ decision to make. The purpose of God will not be thwarted! But neither can they be fully understood beforehand.

It is prepared for those who want to serve. This is what James and John fail to recognize and probably the other upset disciples too. Jesus calls them together for a lesson of ‘supreme importance’ as one commentary put it. Jesus is not going to operate like the world does, ruling with tyranny and a heavy hand.

Jesus came to serve and not be served. You want to sit on my left and on my right? Then you must be the servant. Want to be first, then be last! Give up your entitlement, move downwards. This isn’t about rules but a way of life.

The real questions we need to ask is ‘What can I do for you?’. This is a question to ask of God but also to each other. Be prepared for more questions and more answers – not always what you want to hear – but always loving and always true.

Like Job – we may find ourselves in difficult situations and circumstances where we ask hard questions, demand answers – lament and call out to God. Be prepared for questions but also for answers. His plans and purposes cannot be thwarted! He knows the questions before you ask them!

Like James and John, we might want God to do something for us. Ask away! Go to the Father in faith, in confidence – he will take your questions, your ambitions and desires – he may re-route them to line up with his will.

Don’t be embarrassed, Job certainly wasn’t, and neither were James and John. Their questions were heard. The answers may have been unexpected, even unwanted but they came away changed from these conversations, hopefully understanding more of how God operates for Job and what Jesus came to do for James and John. He came to serve and we should be willing to do the same.

You won’t ever get anything if you don’t ask!

So friends – ask the questions, expect to be heard and be ready for an answer!


Trinity 20: Seeking Change: Job & The Rich Young Man

What is better than a Sunday morning sermon on a Monday morning?! Still getting my autumn act together. I am very fortunate that I have been able to set aside almost every Monday from now until Christmas Eve as Study Days. I am entitled to – it has just taken me 2 years into my Curacy to actually do it. It is a time of change and this sermon reflects some of what I said in my Harvest sermon last week. Some credit to Debie Thomas’ wise words from the ‘Journey with Jesus’ lectionary essay.

Trinity 20

Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Psalm 22:1-15
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

We have some big readings this morning! So much going on in each of them and so little time to really dig in!

Autumn has always been my favourite season of the year – I love the smells, the colours, the change of light and mood. I also love the change that autumn brings to life more widely as activities and programs start again, kids back at school.

Our bible readings in church bring stories to challenge us and stories of celebration. The people in the readings today want a change of circumstance. Maybe some of us do too.

How many of you are good with change? Some of you might embrace it with enthusiasm while others might be slower (ahem) to embrace. I am good with change – you know that I was a nurse before I was a Priest. As a nurse you learn early that sometimes things change quickly, and you need to response to change really fast.

Not all change is bad or negative either. Sometimes change is actually a very good thing – we may not see it at the time though. I also find that those things I want changed – never seem to change. And the things that I don’t want to change – always do!

In our readings this morning we see two people – Job and the rich young man seeking change in their lives. Both are calling on God – a very good thing to do. But neither of them gets the answers that they want!

Starting with Job – he is in some real trouble! He has lost everything – children, money, land, possessions, status and reputation. Job is described as a blameless and upright man in chapter 1 – just living life. Then one day some heavenly beings presented themselves to God and they brought Satan with them. They had been wandering around the earth and decided to test God. A conversation ensues and before we know it – Satan could do whatever he wanted to Job (except kill him) to see if Job will curse God.

It all goes badly wrong for Job and he is left with his 3 close friends and his wife for comfort. The friends start well – come and sit with him in silence for 7 days and 7 nights. Then they start to talk. The rest of the book of Job is the back and forth conversations between Job and his friends. This morning we find Job at a really low point – ‘today my complaint is bitter’ he starts off.

Job has this battle going on inside of him. He is asking big questions like ‘Who is God?’ ‘Where is God?’ What can human beings reasonably expect from a life of faith?

For Job, God is nowhere: “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him.” And yet God is everywhere: “His hand is heavy despite my groaning… I am terrified at his presence.” Job also wants nothing more than to confront God face to face: “Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling!” Job wants to literally bang on the door of God’s house! Yet he’s desperate to leave God’s sight: “If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!”

As this inner battle rages on, Job maintains that he has followed God’s rules: “I have not departed from the commandment of his lips.” I did all the right stuff – Job is saying. And yet he finds (to his bewilderment) that this goodness, following the rules, will not protect him. The formula Job had organized his life around (If I do A, God will do B) has failed. Either he must step into change or lose his faith altogether.

Job wants God to change his situation – but that is going to require a big change for Job and how he views life and God. His friends are trying to help – but the wisdom they offer is stale and old as they still believe that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. To suffer mean to experience God’s displeasure. This doesn’t hold up!

Eventually God shows up to meet with Job and the end of the book they have a conversation and Job begins to be restored – both in his relationship to God as he sees life and God differently. He is also given back some of the things that he lost.

Let’s fast-forward a few centuries as we see the rich young man kneeling at Jesus’ feet. This young man is looking for a change too. Like Job, he has all the material goods and does all the right stuff but unlike Job he still has it all. I think that having the stuff and doing the right stuff has made life boring for this young man. He wants more of something – so he goes to Jesus!

Jesus looks at him and loved him. I love these little verses that get tucked in – we almost always overlook them. Jesus loved him. He loves you.
Now Jesus could have gone a few ways with this young man’s question of how to have eternal life. It would have been easy for Jesus to secure a new convert. ‘Great!’ Jesus could have said ‘come on! You already follow the commandments, you’re already calling me ‘good’ so you must know who I am because only God is good. You’re in!’

Jesus could have also worked him in more slowly – easing the young man into the values of God’s kingdom. ‘How about you write a small cheque to charity this year? Nothing scary – just a token?’

But Jesus is not interested in convenience or comfort. That is what I (maybe we) are concerned about. Remember that Jesus loved him – because he loved him and said the truthful thing, the hard and unwanted thing he knew would cause the young man’s excitement to disappear on the spot. “Sell what you own, give to the poor and follow me.’

This was not what the young man wanted to hear and so he goes away shocked and grieving. This was not the change he was looking for! He was probably shocked because he considered his wealth an entitlement – a symbol of worldly accomplishment and of God’s favour.

The young man had not found true happiness despite the trappings of life. He seems to be after life in its fullness as we all are. Maybe he thought that he could buy his way to eternal life by observing a special commandment.
Jesus welcomes his desire but also knows his weakness – his attachment to possessions and this is probably why he invites him to give it all to the poor – so that his treasure and his heart – will be in heaven and not on earth. But the young man decides (as far as we know) to hang on to his wealth which will never give him happiness and eternal life.

In this season of change – God is offering us change. Following Jesus will challenge us to lifetimes of change where we are invited to encounter God in new ways apart from tradition, memory and resting on history.

Like Job we might be tested by a change is our circumstances beyond our control. When this happens, do we shake our fist and walk away – like people seem to do when they realise their idea of God is not that of a fairy godmother just waiting to grant whims and wishes? Or do we stand firm and seek out what God might be trying to stay.

Like the rich young man, we might want more from God but may not want to give up what God wants us to. We might choose to hang on to the familiar – even if it doesn’t bring us happiness or eternal life because it is comfortable.

Are we willing to risk being disappointed with the answer God gives – but choose his way regardless?

With this season of change – are we ready for the changes that God may have for us or are we wanting to make some changes ourselves? Like Job and the young man, we need to go to God.