Tuesday, October 5, 2021

October 17, 2021 - 21st Sunday after Pentecost

                         Biblical Words                      [738]

Job 38:1-7, (34-41); Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

Whether to Job or to Jesus in Gethsemane, God’s reply to prayer may be continued suffering and a life of serving. 

Job 38:1-7, (34-41). 

The next reading from the Scroll of Job is the opening part (and optionally a later section) of Yahweh’s answer to Job. 

NOTE:  It is Israel’s God – Yahwéh – who speaks here, not the generic deities El, Eloah, or Shaddai, which are the names for God used in the preceding debates between Job and his friends. 

The passage begins by saying that Yahwéh “answered” Job.  However, what follows certainly does not grant Job’s wish expressed in 23:3-7 (last week’s reading).  There Job had said, “Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?  No; but he would give heed to me.  There an upright person could reason with him and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.” 

Job’s hope is to bring God down to human scale, to secure from God the services of a good counselor and a friendly court.  

The “answer” to Job in chapters 38-41 rejects this possibility.  This response overwhelms the small scale of Job’s humanity, and never hints at issues of justice and morality.  (Only in 40:8-14 does God ironically invite Job to run the world in a way that would include punishing the wicked, but Job’s own innocence or righteousness is not addressed.) 

The content of God’s reply to Job in chapters 38-39 is seventeen questions (implied question in 39:13), of which our reading is the first (and the optional addition has the tenth and eleventh questions). 

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth…?” 

“Have you entered into the springs of the sea…?” 

“Can you hunt the prey for the lion…?” 

Each question is elaborated in the rest of its stanza (as laid out in the NRSV), often with sarcasm (“Surely you know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great!” 38:21).  Each question is a challenge to Job’s knowledge or power.  The questions are about the vastness, awesome power, intricacy, and mysterious diversity of the cosmic and animal worlds.  This vast panorama overwhelms a mere feeble human being.  (Note:  none of the questions has to do with the human social world.) 

There is a somewhat unconventional treatment of the Job scroll in my Study Bibles blog (Study Bibles blog – August, 2021, “The Job Project.”)  

God’s reply to Job, particularly the opening words that make up our reading, sets the vastness of the creation against Job’s personal concerns.  

We may get some feeling for this vastness from our modern knowledge of the physical universe – its incomprehensible distances and times. 

Randomly picked, the distance from our earth to the next closest galaxy, the Great Nebula in the constellation Andromeda, is 1.7 million light years.  (Preston Cloud, Cosmos, Earth, and Man, Yale University Press, 1980, p. 30.)  That means that light now reaching earth from that galaxy started before modern human beings even existed (traveling at the speed of light!).  And that’s only the closest galaxy! 

There are similar incomprehensible relationships in the minute structure of the atom.  (Cloud, “The Structure of Matter,” pp. 12-24.) 

Such distances and times are so vast or minute that nothing human has meaning in those perspectives.  Both the macrocosmic and the microcosmic worlds have no “space” for human meaning.  All causes of human right and wrong become meaningless against such immeasurable backdrops. 

Humans are “mesocosmic” creatures!  We cannot conceive our great injury – or our great sin – as marking a moment in the life of the total universe. 

Job's response is, "See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?  I lay my hand on my mouth." 

But perhaps God's “answer” to Job, and Job's humble response are not the last word of Biblical wisdom on human destiny and hope!

When I contemplate the universe as a whole, I come away with the conviction that the most incredible thing of all is the self.  Human self-awareness; the “I” of my inner monologue.  (Also, the ability, through language, to communicate meaningfully with other selves!)  How did everything since the “big bang” bring such a thing as self-consciousness into being?  This is the ultimate mystery of God's creativeness!

Rather than Job's submissiveness, I would prefer to respond to the overwhelmingness of the universe by singing the refrain from Carrie Newcomer's popular song, Gathering of Spirits, which was sung at my wife Pat's recent memorials:  

Let it go my love, my truest, let it sail on silver wings,
Life's a twinkling, that's for certain, but it's such a fine thing!
There's a gathering of spirits, there's a festival of friends, 
And we'll take up where we left off when we all meet again! 
(Lyrics by Alison Krauss; Carrie Newcomer's album of 2002, Philp/Rounder Records.)
[Familiar to University Church Chicago folks as strummed and sung by Andy Carter.] 

 Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c. 

The Psalm selection also describes the intricacy of God’s creation, particularly praising its harmony and design.  The whole psalm moves systematically from God’s personal dress downward to the harmony with which humans and wild animals share the open fields (verses 22-23), followed by broader praise for God’s wisdom and the psalmist’s urge to sing that praise. 

The selected reading focuses first on God in heaven:  putting on a robe of light, providing oneself a residence by erecting the heavens over the flood, and establishing various natural forces as ones transport and messenger services (verses 1-4). 

Next God turns to the earth, where the central work is water control.  At first the earth is covered with water, then at a great blast from God the waters hasten to separate, make dry land with clouds above mountains and springs in valleys, after which the waters assume their proper places within the boundaries set by God (verses 5-9). 

The psalmist celebrates and exults in God’s care for creatures through the created world.  How people fare in the social world, where the need for justice and mercy appears, is the theme of other psalms. 

Hebrews 5:1-10. 

The Epistle reading continues the announcement in Hebrews that Jesus is the great high priest who leads his followers to the throne of grace, “so that we may receive mercy and find grace…” (4:16, NRSV).  This Sunday’s passage emphasizes the humanity of the Anointed One, even though he was declared by God to be the Son and a priest “after the order of Melchizedek.” 

Reading this passage together with the Job situation leads especially to the description here of Jesus’ plea to be spared from death.  Jesus is portrayed as virtually groveling to escape his doom:  “with loud cries and tears” he begged to be spared death.  With what result?  “...and he was heard because of his reverent submission.  Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:7-8).  Note!  He “was heard,” but was sent on to his death anyway. 

The description seems to assume the story of Gethsemane, as we have it in Mark 14:32-36.  Jesus prayed to be spared death, but concluded his prayer, “yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36).  As a very part of his identity as Son of God, and as a carrying out of his unique, once-for-all, priesthood, Jesus accepts the human agony of giving himself as the sacrifice atoning for the sins of all who will follow his approach to the throne of grace. 

Jesus possesses one key thing that was lacking in Job’s situation:  an anointing and a priesthood, which turned Jesus’ suffering and death into a saving event of world significance. 

Mark 10:35-45. 

The Gospel reading presents Jesus’ teaching on leadership within the community of his followers. 

The keynote is struck by the fact that the whole passage moves from disciples looking forward to Jesus “in your glory” to the final word about the Son of Man who came to give up his life as “a ransom for many.”   The two things, Jesus in glory and giving up his life, are not incompatible, as this Gospel and the Letter to the Hebrews show.  However, when confronted by this strong reminder of the humanity of the disciples – their ambition to be Jesus’ right- and left-hand men when the kingdom comes in power – Jesus makes clear that for now leadership consists in diakonein, to serve, to do the menial tasks of the household. 

James and John seem to be activists (Jesus called them “Sons of Thunder,” Mark 3:17) and realists.  There is a time ahead when power is going to be exercised, and it is important that it be properly and well administered.  Jesus already has a cabinet, in the Twelve, but he will need number one and number two men to channel the decisions and handle the press.  They have thought ahead and have plans for how to exercise those positions. 

Jesus’ response is that the road to glory is not a straight line, not an expressway or freeway.  The road to glory goes through suffering and death, which Jesus euphemistically speaks of as “the cup” that he will drink and “the baptism” he will pass through.  Since James and John want to be his close companions in glory, they must – and will – pass through the suffering and death. 

James was executed by King Herod Agrippa about ten years after Jesus’ death, Acts 12:1-2, but John may have lived to a very old age, bearing testimony in Ephesus in the 90s CE.  As for sitting in the seats of power, when in fact that does come, it is God who will organize the staff rather then Jesus himself, and God already has a short list prepared (verse 42). 

The real clarification about the leadership, however, comes after the other ten disciples react to the request of the Sons of Thunder.  (There are no secrets in a close-knit staff.)  To all of them Jesus makes very clear that the foreseeable future of their leadership is to be “deacons” of the community.  They will not exercise power and management like all the other corporations around them, who have and use clearly defined authority structures and even tyrannize a bit over their subordinates.  In this new community, headed toward eventual glory, the “great” will be the servant, even “the slave of all.”  

The glory will take care of itself. 


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