Let Me See- Again (10/25/15)

A Sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church of Palo Alto

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Text: Job 42:1-6; Mark 10:46-52

“Let me see again.” It seems to me that this is both the quest of Job and the cry of Bartimaeus and so we find these texts linked today. Last week, we reviewed the ancient story of Job – how he was on top of the world at one moment and crying out from dust and ashes the next. He seems to be the pawn in some cruel game played by Yahweh and the Satan. He neither understands nor accept the injustice of his pain and suffering, but he will not turn his back on God. He continues to speak out, pleading with God for answers. We considered how God finally speaks from the whirlwind, offering Job neither satisfaction nor comfort. I argued that it may be simply that God responds to Job at all that produces a measure of healing, transformation, salvation. At the very least God draws Job out of his self-absorbed suffering and gives him a new perspective. There is a powerful acknowledgement of Job’s worth in the encounter itself.

Now we come to the last chapter of the book. Job makes his second response to God, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted…Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” It is both a humble and a wise response. Job’s eyes are opened – in a great symbolic opening – to the majesty of God, the wonders of creation, the limitations and the possibilities of human capacity to know and understand. God let’s Job see again what it means to be a human being in relationship with the living God – but with new eyes, new insight, new understanding. “I had a vague idea but now I see in ways I never imagined before.”

The tension between Yahweh and Job, between God and humanity, between the holy and the lowly is unresolvable, but we have the capacity to live with that tension, to see beyond what we understand and follow the vision into God’s future. Samuel Balentine writes, “The idea that faith permits, indeed sometimes requires, one to argue with God is seldom endorsed by the religious establishment.” But, he continues, “I am…inclined to say that what Job has learned is that humankind may image God not by acquiescing to innocent suffering but rather by protesting it, contending with the powers that occasion it, and, when necessary, taking the fight directly to God. It is such power, courage and resolve that God seems to commend to Job…” (Samuel E. Balentine, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Job, p. 698, 697).

To say that Job “despises” himself and “repents in dust and ashes” is one very challengeable translation of the Hebrew original. It may be that this is a hyperbolic way of expressing his new-found humility. However, another, that makes more sense to me, is that Job sees himself clearly as a creature of value and repents, not so much of his pride as of his resort to living in “dust and ashes.” With renewed vision, he rejects his victim status and understands that, even in his distress, he is made in the image and likeness of God, a little lower than the angels. Of course that does not entitle him to see equality with the Creator as within his grasp. Still there is something uniquely wonderful built into his humanity that lifts him out of the “dust and ashes” and puts him on a different path. I relinquish dust and ashes to live in the light of your glory and the wonder of your ways, O God.

I’m skipping the epilogue today because I think it somehow cheapens Job’s great grasp of truth and wonder gained from his encounter with God. The epilogue leads us back to the very system of punishment and reward that Job’s friends tried to lay on him. “You must have done something wrong to bring on so much calamity. That system has been undone in what is spoken from the whirlwind. Let’s just sit with that magnificent insecurity of knowing and not knowing that in the end seems to satisfy Job. He has grown, matured, into a different sort of faith than the one dependent on rewards and punishments. He has been face to face to with God and lived to tell the tale.

It is another suffering one that Jesus encounters on the Jericho road, headed toward Jerusalem. Bartimaeus is a blind beggar, about as low as you can get on the social scale. We are not told how, but we no he was not born that way. Like Job, he may have been a man of wealth and position before he lost his sight. You can be sure that there were plenty who believed he had done something wrong to bring this fate on himself.

When Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” The answer, quick and sure, is “…let me see again.” He has at least some distant memory of what it’s like to see and he is desperate to see again.

Bartimaeus is like Job in that he insists on speaking out. He will not be quiet. Sometimes desperate situations demand desperate actions. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” The more the crowd tries to shut him up, the louder he cries. Job kept pleading his case until he got God’s attention and response. Bartimaeus keeps crying out until Jesus hears him and calls him over. What do you want. Job? To be seen and heard and made whole. What do you want Bartimaeus? To be heard and seen and made whole. It is an ancient and familiar story. See me, hear me, heal me. Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Have mercy on me, O God. Have compassion on me, O Christ.

Let me see again. In both stories the healing happens in the encounter. Indeed, each is brought to sight in his encounter with the Holy, though in different ways. If we forego the epilogue of Job, his healing comes in the way God takes him seriously, opens his eyes, gives him wisdom and understanding. If everything he lost is restored, that’s just icing on the cake. The real substance is his proclamation, ”I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you. You have come close to me, my God and now I know you in ways I never knew were possible. This is enough.” Like Jacob, Job has wrestled with God and come away both wounded and blessed.

In her commentary on the gospel of Mark, May Ann Tolbert suggests that one function of the story of Bartimaeus is to contrast the faith of the disciples and that of the blind man. Mark’s gospel recounts that this is Jesus’ last encounter before he enters Jerusalem to face his final week. She argues that the disciples in this gospel are exceedingly dense, slow to see and slower to respond to what Jesus is trying to teach them. As they approach the end of this phase of their journey together, she suggests that the disciples follow in fear. In contrast, Bartimaeus follows in faith. In seeing again, he sees further and deeper in the moment than the disciples have in three years. How many of the disciples were among those who ordered Bartimaeus to keep quiet? Don’t bother Jesus. He doesn’t have time for one like you. We’ve heard them utter such orders before only to be overruled by the Compassionate One. “Call him here” and they change their tune. “Take heart, Bartimaeus; get up, he is calling you.” What an unnecessary word. Bartimaeus is up and on his way before they can finish their extraneous instructions. He has already begun to see, even before Jesus opens his eyes.

The invitation is enough to help him see that this encounter will change his life forever. He is healed in his very recognition of Jesus’ power to heal. He sees the Messiah clearly in ways that the disciples do not yet see. Tolbert writes, “Like the disciples, Bartimaeus is named, called, and follows Jesus on the way; like the [other] ones healed, he initiates the action, expresses confident belief, is commanded to go, for his faith has saved him. He is the last who has become first, the epitome of the good earth and the faithful follower. He is what the Twelve are not, the fruitful ground, not the rocky ground” (Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary Historical Perspective, p. 192).

With Job, Bartimaeus can proclaim, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you,” except for him that is now both literally and symbolically true. Let me see again, not only with my eyes but also with the eyes of my heart. Let my seeing be both practical and visionary, functional and faithful. Is this a prayer we might share with Job and Bartimaeus – let me see again – perhaps for the first time or with new eyes or a deeper faith or higher hopes or Christ-like compassion or Godly grace? “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you,” and I am forever changed.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

“’Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” Amen.

Out of the Whirlwind (10/18/15)

A Sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church of Palo Alto

Sunday, October 18 2015

Texts: Job 38:1-11; Mark 10:35-45

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?

Pastor Rick: October 17

Rev. Rick MixonI had a very nice trip to Seattle this past weekend.   The weather was reasonable (for Seattle!)  The Evergreen meetings went well.  We were privileged to hear the excellent preaching of the Reverend Jacqueline Thompson, Assistant Pastor at Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, who urged us to remain faithful to our calling to be an inclusive community of people and congregations.  It was great to visit with old friends and a delight to preach at Seattle First Baptist Church on Sunday.  The worship service was lovely, the choir and organ outstanding and the day filled with many fond memories.

By all reports it was a good day at FBCPA as well.  Thanks to Tripp for preaching, to Carolyn for working with the children and youth and to Nana for hosting a “visit to Lebanon.”  I heard that her presentation was very good, the décor lovely and the food outstanding.  Of course, I knew it would be.  I’m sorry I missed it.

Sunday we will visit India under the guidance of the Hunwicks.  Worship will focus on the 38th chapter of Job at the point at which God begins to speak to the Job from the whirlwind.  What happens when we bring our grievances before God with an expectation that justice will be done?  Job is confronted with an order of reality that goes far beyond his comprehension, that challenges his conception of justice, and that teaches him a lesson about being a creature, albeit one attended to and loved by God.

After worship we will hold our Quarterly Business Meeting, which will include a Special Business Meeting to consider a change to our church constitution’s quorum requirements.  The sole purpose of this amendment is to make it easier for us to conduct church business, since current quorums are a burden to meet.  There is no intention to purge our roles or exclude anyone who wants to be a member in this process.  We want every member who is willing and able to join in making this decision and, more importantly, to engage in every aspect of our community life, including its business.

So don’t’ forget – 10:00 AM in the sanctuary for worship, sharing and learning and then stay for the business meeting.  Bring a family member, friend, colleague or neighbor (or three!) to join us.  Strangers are welcome, too!

May God bless us and keep us on the way,

Pastor Rick