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.
Job 38:1-7, 34-41
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!