A Sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church of Palo Alto
Sunday, October 18 2015
Today’s texts focus on power. Power is a complicated concept in its many manifestations and applications. To begin, the dictionary defines power as “The ability to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality; the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.” I am especially drawn to the second of those definitions: “…the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.” We need some form of power in order to get anything done. It may be electrical power that lights our homes or petroleum products that fuel our transportation or nuclear power that arms our weapons or political power that shapes our social order or the power of persuasion that feeds our souls and creates our culture or the personal power to get out of bed and fulfill the duties of the day. I’m sure you could name many more instances of power that fit this definition. In today’s texts we get two illustrations of power from seemingly opposite extremes that bookend the definition of power in our faith tradition.
We’re familiar with the ancient tale of Job. Job was a patriarch loved by his family, respected by his community, fair and just in all his dealings, a man of deep and abiding faith. He was also very well-off. He had just about everything a man in his time could desire. Conventional belief in that period argued that Job was blessed because he was a good man. When the satan appears before Yahweh in the heavenly council meeting, he presses that argument. “Of course Job is your dedicated servant, Yahweh. You’ve given him everything a man could want. Take it all away from him and you’ll see how quickly his faith fades. I’ll wager that it is just about a mile wide and an inch deep. Surely he’ll turn against you.” In the old story, Yahweh gives the satan leave to do his thing.
And we know the satan spares no effort to undermine Job’s faith – taking his wealth, his family, his respect, even his health. From the trash heap of his suffering and despair, Job cries out to God but he refuses to “curse God and die.” As much as he does not understand what has happened to him or why, Job continues to confront a non-responsive Deity with the injustice of his situation. Now we could argue that this old story is a way people tried to explain why bad things happen to good people. And that may be true of the story itself which frames the material that fills the center of the biblical book. But in Job’s struggle with his unhelpful friends and the magnificent poetry of his conversation with Yahweh, there is more here than the recounting of an ancient myth.
We’re 38 chapters into the book before Job’s cries evoke any response from Yahweh. It takes a lot of time and effort to waken the sleeping giant. And, once the giant is awake, one wonders at the wisdom of disturbing his sleep. Out of the whirlwind comes the voice of God. The voice crackles like lightening and resonates like thunder. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” I don’t know about you but to me it’s a pretty frightening scene. Look at the cover of the bulletin. Imagine standing alone, sick and suffering, in the midst of such a storm, called to account for challenging the creator of the universe.
It is the same sort of theophany that Moses experienced, enshrouded in the cloud on Mt. Sinai or Elijah lived through, huddled in a cave, before God spoke to him in that still small voice. But no such luck for Job. The voice is neither still nor small. “Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.” On the surface this certainly seems like Yahweh is exercising power to intimidate, to put Job in his place, to shut him up.
Clearly God holds and exercises power beyond our comprehension. To lay the foundations of the earth, to determine its measurements, to set the bounds of the sea, to create all that is out of the roiling fecundity of chaos is power far above our pay grade and beyond our understanding. God, you have made us from the dust of the earth. Who or what are we that you might be aware of us at all. And yet…And yet…
Much has been written on the book of Job. Today I want to draw two points from the text. One is the insight it gives into the power of God. We use language and imagery – limited as they are – to try to say something about God, especially the power of God. It is beyond our comprehension. In one sense we can only bow in awe before the power and the glory. ”The capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events”? If you capitalize and underline every letter of THE, perhaps. THE ultimate capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of all and the course of every event.
So how is Job to stand in the face of such overwhelming power? The tradition teaches that none may see the face of God and live. The great lawgiver, Moses, was only allowed to catch the trailing trace of the hem of God’s garment as The Holy One passed by. I think what is remarkable in this tale of Job is the encounter itself. Surely One who holds such power is in no way accountable to any aspect of what that One has created, human or otherwise. And yet…And yet…Out of the whirlwind the voice of thunder is leveled directly at Job. No one can argue that what God has to say is either apologetic or comforting. In truth, there is no direct address of Job’s complaint at all. God makes sure that Job knows who is in charge, who is boss. Still, there is something strangely wonderful in God’s willingness to see this creature, to encounter him directly and to take him on an illuminating tour of creation. Whatever Job has been through and will yet go through, he matters to the Holy One. He has significance for his Creator who will not simply let him go.
Kathryn Schifferdecker writes, “For all God’s silence concerning human beings, God gives humanity, in Job, a singular place in creation. Job is the only passenger on this grand tour of the cosmos, and through it, God invites him (and us) to see the world from a God’s-eye point of view and to delight in its beauty and freedom as God does. Is this an adequate response to Job’s suffering? It is not, in a conventional sense, very comforting. God would probably fail a present-day pastoral care class. Nonetheless, these speeches of God at the end of the book of Job accomplish something profound. They move Job out of his endless cycle of grief into life again. They enable him to live freely in a world full of heartbreaking suffering and heart-stopping beauty, and to do so in a way that reflects God’s own care for the world.” (Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, “Commentary on Job 38:1-7, (34-41).” October 2, 2012, workingpreacher.org).
It’s a rugged reality, a harsh truth, a difficult scene, especially for those of us who want to emphasize the love, the compassion, the motherly grace and fatherly concern of the God we serve. It reminds me of C. S. Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia who draws a vision of the Holy One in Aslan, the lion, that bridges both the grand and the tender power held in eternal tension. As loving and compassionate as Aslan can be, we are reminded more than once that he is no tame lion. Nor can we be so arrogant as to think we might tame the great God of the universe. God cares but in God’s own time and way, which we don’t always understand
But then, there is Jesus. What are we to make of him and his exercise of power, “the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events”? Clearly his disciples did not know what to do with him. In Mark’s gospel, we see them trying to get him to play favorites and then acting out their petty jealousy in anger. They believed he had power. Hadn’t they left jobs and homes and families to travel with him, compelled by his magnetic call to come and follow? They even thought they would be able to walk his trail of tears long before they actually ever would be. This was the Messiah, wasn’t he? They just knew at some point he was going to call down his army of angels, drive out the Romans, put the turncoats in their places, right every wrong – oh and put them all in positions of power and authority. Just wait until he came into his glory! They just couldn’t wrap their minds around servant leadership, the strength of the weak, the power in letting go. It went against their all too human nature.
In a month or so, we will come again to the season of Advent in which we wonder at the Word become flesh. How could it be that the great God of the universe, the Holy One who rattled the cage of Job just by showing up, would take on human form in Jesus, the Christ, and dwell among us? If the power of God that laid the foundations of the earth is beyond our grasp, is it not even more baffling that that great God would come so close as to be embodied and live among us? Out of the whirlwind comes the baby born in Bethlehem, the Jesus who asks us to follow, the Christ who calls us to servant leadership. “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
As you have heard me say before, friends, this is the power of love. I believe there is no greater nor more mysterious power in all the universe. I think it can be at times fierce and then tender. It calls us together to engage one another and to care for one another and, indeed, for all creation. “What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to set aside his crown for my soul?” And yet… and yet…there it is – “…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Out of the whirlwind comes the power to create a universe, to build a world, to lay and to shake the foundations, to embrace and contain the fierce wildness of chaos, to love and to serve. Wonder of wonders! All this and more is available to those who will follow. Are we able?