A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson
Job 38:1-7, 34-41
In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.
We were walking in Deep Creek Conservation Park on a perfect spring day. The sun was shining and there was a coastal breeze. We walked on a track from Trig Camp Ground heading downwards to the sea. We saw bush and flowers, familiar wildflowers, spider orchids and many forms of pea flowers, including the red Running Postman, and lilies, small flowers with six petals, purple fringe lilies and the little blue squill. We saw one flower, though, that I had not seen before. It stood on a tall stem and had about a dozen flowers. We saw two stems with buds as we walked along looking out at times towards the sea, and then we saw one stem with twelve blue flowers open. It was a sun orchid – sun orchids come in pink and yellow and, like the flower standing blowing in the wind beside the bush, blue.
Walking in the bush gazing at the sea, we find ourselves sensing something bigger than us. That we are made and belong in something bigger than us. And, we find ourselves wondering about that. We find ourselves, perhaps, with questions. Who made this beauty? When did the blue sun orchid first blossom here, I wonder? Will it ever flower for the last time? And how many generations of walkers will wonder at it … and the bush … and the birds … and the sea?
The scriptures nurture our reflections in nature, giving us the words to speak. This morning’s psalm, Psalm 104, was the psalm we read each Saturday on our live-stream Morning Prayer service during the September Season of Creation. The psalm begins with creation, the psalmist speaking to God:
The psalm then zooms in on aspects of creation speaking of the waters, beginning with the seas and then the rains, the springs gushing forth in the valleys and then to the creatures that drink from those waters …
You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal;
the wild asses quench their thirst.
By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.
Later in the psalm in verses beyond those we heard sung this morning we read of humanity and humanity’s place in this –
People go out to their work
and to their labour until the evening.
We belong, in all this creation, in other words.
Our Old Testament reading from the Book of Job also speaks of nature but this time we hear God’s voice. Adrian, Lynn and Joan have all preached beautifully on the Book of Job and we have learnt so much about its insights. The passage we heard read this morning is from Chapter 38, a passage where we hear questions, this time from God.
The book of Job engages with the problem of the suffering of the innocent. In the heavenly places, a mythical character, the Satan, challenges God about the good man Job. The word Satan literally means the accuser. The Satan places his accusation to God. He suspects Job’s motivation. Job is only loyal to God in order that things will continue to go well with him. The Satan puts before God a challenge. He asks God to allow him to revoke Job’s good fortune to test Job’s loyalty. With God’s permission the Satan inflicts much suffering on Job
After exploring the response of Job’s friends to his suffering, the writer of the Book of Job explores how Job’s relationship with God fares in this situation.
Job bewails the absence of God in his suffering. God has deserted Job – ‘if I go forward, he is not there,’ Job cries, ‘or backward, I cannot perceive him…’ (23:8) Job begs God for vindication, for the opportunity to ‘lay [his] case before him.’ (23:4) Finally, Job cries out, ‘let the Almighty answer me!’ (31:35) Job longs for God’s presence, for an encounter with God. It is as if Job wants to take God to court! To challenge the theology that says his suffering is punishment for sin.
God’s response is a symphony of questions.
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
2 ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
3 Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
4 ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
6 On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
7 when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
‘Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
or have you seen the storehouses of the hail,
23 which I have reserved for the time of trouble,
for the day of battle and war?
24 What is the way to the place where the light is distributed,
or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?
25 ‘Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a way for the thunderbolt,
26 to bring rain on a land where no one lives,
on the desert, which is empty of human life,
27 to satisfy the waste and desolate land,
and to make the ground put forth grass?
The questions could have been written with psalm 104 in mind, reflecting the details of creation from the laying of the foundation of the earth to the blessing of the earth with the waters that cover the earth and nurture life there for plant and animals. But God’s voice in response to Job is not giving a reflection as is offered by the writer of the psalm but a challenge – questions – where were you? Where were you? Who made this? It wasn’t you, was it? We’ll hear Job’s response to this barrage of questions next week but for now what we might notice is the power of the engagement. The wrestling Job experiences with God. The strength of the presence of God. What Job is given is encounter.
Jesus encounters those with whom he finds himself, his disciples and the strangers who meet him on the way, and his response is often to ask them questions.
This morning’s Gospel reading tells of Jesus’ conversation with James and John.
They are walking on the road to Jerusalem, with Jesus walking ahead of them; Jesus takes the twelve aside again and begins to tell them for the third time in Mark’s Gospel account what is to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come forward to him and say to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he says to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’
‘What is it you want me to do for you?’
This is the great heart question. The question spiritual directors ask. The question many spiritual writers love. The question that exposes us. The question by which we are undone. And, my goodness, this question of Jesus exposed James and John. By it they were undone.
What do they ask of Jesus? ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’
He’d understand them of course, he always understands us. What motivates our answer to this most holy question. What did he expect of them, after he’s just predicted his death for the third time. They wanted a messiah who would sort things out, make them safe, and here he is saying he will be defeated and that very soon. They don’t really hear the words of Jesus that he will rise again. It doesn’t mean anything to them. What they hear about is his death.
And so they ask to be safe and more than safe … to be given positions of glory.
Yes, Jesus’ question exposes them. And of course he can’t give them what they ask.
‘What is it you want me to do for you?’
The holy question.
Next week, we will read on in this Gospel according to St Mark. We will read the next few verses and we will hear Jesus asking the very same question again. Of a man called Bartimaeus who is blind.
‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ Jesus will say.
And we will see Bartimaeus’ heart exposed. He longs to see.
We needn’t think we’re James and John or we’re Blind Bartimaeus who has the faith to ask Jesus to heal him. We can be pretty sure that we are both on different days and at different times.
And we can be pretty sure that Jesus will be asking this question of us.
‘What is it you want me to do for you?’
God seems to engage with us through questions. With Job longing for God’s presence, with the disciples struggling with fear, with strangers who cry out longing for healing. And with us. We might approach with care when we hope to engage with the living God.
For, my goodness. What questions God asks of us. What questions God asks.