Trinity 20 - Were you there?

A sermon preached by Fr Martin Breadmore at St George's on 21 October 2012

Job 38:1-7; Heb 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

"Let me tell you - when I was standing there on top of the world, you become so humble. You don't think about breaking records anymore, you don't think about gaining scientific data - the only thing that you want is to come back alive.”  The Austrian Felix Baumgartner said these words having become the first skydiver to go faster than the speed of sound.  I am sure that many of you have seen the amazing footage of this jump.  He also spoke of wishing that everyone could have seen what he saw as he stood on the edge of his capsule before launching himself into the air.  In a sense we were there; able to witness this spectacle via the video footage.  However, I must say that as someone who does not like heights, I certainly did not want to be where he was!

Many of you may know the song that begins, ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’  ‘Were you there,’ the Lord enquires of Job, ‘when I laid the foundation of the earth?  The answers to both of these questions is of course ‘No’; but for different reasons.  ‘No I wasn’t there when they crucified the Lord, because I was born too late!’  ‘No I wasn’t there when the Lord laid the foundation of the earth, because I was born a human creature’.  However, both these questions are invitations and not simply put-downs.  You need to ponder what you have missed. 

Of course, in Job’s case it is a put down as well.  The Lord’s question to Job, as he speaks out of a storm, is the beginning of a long verbal tour of the whole of the created order which charts the glories of creation, including the magnificent beauty of the stars, the vastness of the sea, the force and power of the weather, the diversity and complexity of the lives of animals and birds, and then finally the wild and untameable Leviathan itself.  Prior to this Job has been asserting his innocence and integrity.  He has wept and raged, been in despair and anguish of his soul.  His body, mind and spirit have all been troubled.  He has constantly struggled with this tension in the very fibres of his being: he is being treated unjustly, and yet there must be justice in this world!  Again and again he has called on God to make himself known.  Why is God so unfair, so distant, and so silent?  And so God speaks from the whirlwind.  God’s response compels Job into appropriate humility.  In a sense God does not answer his question, but gives more of a statement as to why the question cannot be answered, or at least not yet.  It’s a way of saying that God’s ways are not our ways, and that the right path lies in total submission to the one who has created all things and continues to be the one who sustains all things.  Whilst we, or Job, may not be able to understand the way in which the world was made and the way in which the created order hangs together, we are nevertheless called to be a people of trust and humility.  In the end Job responds to the Lord by saying, ‘Surely I spoke of things that I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know’ (42:3).

In some ways we might say that Jesus became Job.  The writer to the Hebrews in our Epistle this morning wrote, ‘During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.  Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered’ (Heb 5:7-8).  God was able to save him from death.  But we are reminded here, that Jesus spent time shouting and weeping in prayer – almost certainly a reference to the agony of Gethsemane.  It was through this pain and suffering that Jesus fought his way to costly submission to God’s divine purpose which was taking him through death and into the world of new creation.  Jesus, like Job, learned obedience to his Father through his pain and suffering.  God’s purpose in Christ is to lay the foundation of the new heaven and new earth and to tame the wild beast which is Leviathan, at last.

James and John, like Job come with the wrong question.  They weren’t there when God determined the plan of salvation, anymore than Job was present when God laid the foundations of the earth.  In addition to this, James and John won’t be there when their Lord is crucified.  They’ll be hiding like rats in a hole, unable (for the moment at least) to drink the cup or share the baptism.  The cup was an Old Testament symbol for suffering, especially one for enduring the wrath of God.  Interestingly, Jesus explicitly uses this imagery in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Baptism is again an Old Testament picture of one undergoing the wrath of God, although of course in later times in Judaism it took on other meaning of a purificatory nature.

The other ten disciples continue to squabble with James and John about their place in glory, and like Job’s so called ‘comforters’, all this achieves is to ensure that everyone continues to miss the point! They would do well to be silent!  For before them stands the One who is Wisdom and who brings to bear the upside down nature of the Kingdom.  The world goes about things one way; God does it differently.  We have seen this over the last few weeks in Mark’s gospel.  Who would ever imagined in that culture that children would be welcomed into the Kingdom of God – but they are! Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these’ (Mark 10:14).  Who would have thought that a rich young man who so wanted to be a member of the Kingdom of God would not enter it!  How could anyone have imagined that the rich and powerful as a group would not be needed in the Kingdom of God!  Who would have believed that ‘many who are first will be last, and the first last’?  Jesus says, ‘Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first, must be slave of all’ (Mark 10:43-44).  Such is the upside down nature of the Kingdom of God.

When Jesus explains the necessity of the cross he starts with a political point.  Leviathan, whether the sea-monster or the political ‘absolute state’, must be tamed.  However it can only be tamed by the God revealed in the suffering Son of Man.  One of the other readings set for today is one of Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant songs’ in chapter 53.  Speaking of the suffering messiah who is to come, Isaiah writes, ‘Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Is 53:4-6).  Indeed Isaiah’s vision of this suffering servant will be fulfilled in Jesus; but this was never simply about sinful souls being saved by an arbitrary substitute.  The gospel is more than this.  Jesus’ death and resurrection was always more than just about saving individuals from their sinful ways.  It was always about God, the sovereign one, defeating the gods that have enslaved his people over the centuries.  It has always been about God redeeming his people and renewing not only the covenant but creation itself.  As the apostle Paul writes in Romans 8, ‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved.'

Were you there?  No, but follow Jesus and you will be.  ‘Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:43-45).
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