Oct. 21, 2018
Job 38:1-7, 34-41
A friend of mine told me the other day how he keeps getting these really inspired sermon ideas. He shared some of those ideas with me and I agreed: they were fantastic. The churches where he had been preaching agreed too. “They really responded,” he said. “How are you getting these ideas?” I asked. He said he was getting them in his dreams. They were waking him up at night.
God works in funny ways. I had a stretch of productivity like that one time. I had suffered an injury and was experiencing pain that could only be called chronic. It was a huge change in my plans and I wanted so much to get rid of it. I prayed and prayed for healing, but what I got instead was sermon ideas. The inspiration just flowed into me even as I was looking for something entirely different.
Well, this week’s not quite been like that. There’s one word that stands out to me above all the others from our gospel text, and that word is “glory.” It’s not so much the word’s inspiration that captures my mind; it’s the word’s strangeness. Glory isn’t a word we use in common conversation. It’s more of a churchy word, yet even at that, it’s not been uttered often by any of the churches that I’ve ever been a part of.
I still recall the visiting congregation that shared its Pentecostal style with the worshipers at YDS. They were big, strong people; both the men and the women, and they dressed like they meant what they were doing, and they sang like they meant it too. As their choir sang, they sang along these songs that seems to stir their souls, and the woman in front of me, much like some other women scattered through the sanctuary, raised her hands and screamed with all her conviction the world “glory!” I never quite knew when it was coming, but she would sway and tilt and proclaim that word with such enthusiasm that at times I thought that she was actually going to fall on top of me. Glory was a part of her consciousness in a way that hadn’t been part of mine.
James and John, in a sneaky kind of way, come to Jesus when the other 10 aren’t looking and they make this rather bold request, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” It’s not really clear what they mean by glory. Are they thinking of heavenly glory, as if they understand this whole bit of death and resurrection and all that hasn’t yet happened? Or, are they speaking of political glory, the earthly glory of a leader who has liberated his people from Roman oppression, as if they didn’t already know deep down that this was not the journey that Christ was taking them on? What’s clear is that they don’t know what they are asking. They don’t know yet what glory means.
I think it’s telling that when you read the rest of this gospel story and you come to its horrifying climax the people you see on his right and on his left are not disciples at all. Instead, he’s crucified along with a couple of thieves. There he is, side by side with sinners on his right and on his left. Mark reminds us that God’s vision of glory is unlike the glory that the world so often seeks.
I found myself receiving that reminder as I read on. Jesus says, “to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” I thought of Jesus in heaven reigning forever. Wouldn’t it be cool if at the end of ends there I am, some glorified saint beside our savior? It’s got to be somebody right? But, then I thought that it’s likely to be somebody who isn’t so self concerned. It’s likely to be somebody whose aspirations aren’t so shaped by his own exaltation. That’s the irony of it. In case we find ourselves getting annoyed by the disciples’ persistence in missing the point, their remarkable inability to apprehend the kind of messiah they have, I share my own little story there too. God’s ways are just different than the ways of the world in which we are shaped, and so learning to be a disciple isn’t such a simple thing; it’s the kind of thing that takes effort and a whole community of people engaged in the process. God’s glory just isn’t the same as the world’s glory. It’s never going to be power, and status, and wealth the way we so often see it. God’s glory is a picture of the cross. It’s a divine-human hung between two sinners who mock him, and whom he forgives.
But, of course, we also have resurrection. The cross is never the cross without also the resurrection. There’s victory over all that would kill God’s plans or get in the way of God’s will. And, there’s this word that Jesus uses as he talks to James and John. “But it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” “Prepared!” It’s as if a bigger kind of glory is out there too, as if there’s a kind that endures forever, whose sovereignty simply is, who makes you throw your head back and scream “glory” or fall to your knees in wonder.
That’s what we get in Job and in Psalm 104 today. I won’t rehash the story of Job whose sufferings, he rightly insists, aren’t an indication of his faithfulness. Rather than “curse God and die” as he’s been advised, he challenges God to offer an account. Why do the good suffer? Today we read God’s answer. It reminds me of the opening quote in a book I just picked up called, “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.” Neil deGrasse Tyson writes, “The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.”
“Neither is God,” as God says to Job. But, in God’s defense God says a bit more, actually 4 chapters more, and the gist of it is expressed in our reading today and reiterated in the psalm. God doesn’t answer Job’s questions as much as God overwhelms Job with awe in light of God’s presence. God has power over all the forces of nature and tends to the detailed needs of every living creature. In the Psalm God controls the waters, that symbol of primordial chaos, and sends them running at God’s own command and sets their boundaries according to a wisdom we cannot possibly understand.
The psalmist says, “Bless the Lord, O my soul,” except “soul” isn’t quite the right word. In response to the overwhelming presence of God’s glory the psalmist says, “Bless the Lord with my whole being, my body, my mind, my soul.” “Bless the Lord with all that I am” in response to the awareness of the vast and beautiful mystery that is God.
And so, glory remains a weird kind of thing. There’s the psalmists “glory” of a sovereign beauty and wisdom that is contingent upon nothing we do, to which we can only ultimately surrender. And, then there’s the glory of Christ, which is revealed in the giving of self for the salvation of others. I see it like two parallel worlds almost. There’s the essential glory of God that simply is, and there’s the world in which we live where we’ve substituted Godly glory for self-worship and all the power and wealth and influence we can amass. Godly glory is there to be found, but not the way we commonly expect.
Jesus continues, “For the son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” A better translation would be “as liberation for many.” But, pay attention to the verbs. Jesus came “to serve” and “to give” and he tells us to go and do likewise. That is what it means to be great in the kingdom of God. It is to serve and to give. And, it’s great not only because it blesses others; it’s great because these are the actions that bridge those two worlds. These are the actions that tie us to the sovereign glory of God. We’ll not know it by climbing any ladders or winning any awards. The weird glory of God is revealed to us as we serve and give, or in other words, love.
A colleague of mine shared her story of Cindy, a woman whom she thought of as great. When my colleague was a child she began playing her flute in church and Cindy always made it a point to say that she was her biggest fan. Cindy is now 88 and she’s lived a life of humble, generous, life-giving love. She’s taught Sunday school, she’s helped at the soup kitchen, she’s visited the sick, she’s welcomed so many to her table, she’s served so many, and in her 88 years she’s been a force of God’s goodness and glory for so many. Yet, the “kingdom of this world” is blind to her power.
I think of Delores. She’s probably the same age as Cindy. I used to call on her at small group at the end of our discussion sessions, which had a habit of flowing every which way. “Delores, how might we wrap this up?” I would ask. In her quiet and humble way she would bless us all as something simple, and honest, and faithful would come out of her mouth.
She was the first parishioner I’ve ever had to tell me she loved me. I was shocked when she said it. She was in a hospital bed, still waiting in the ER to be admitted. As her pastor I rushed down to offer her some comfort and company. We talked and prayed, and then she said it. “I love you.” Such a simple thing to say. It came so naturally for her and it touched me like a huge hug, and it opened my eyes to the truth that I wasn’t her pastor performing a function. At least, I didn’t have to be just that. I could be someone who loved her back, just one child of God to another. It’s hard to describe why, but there was a gift in that, a kind of discovery and a certain taste of glory.
Honestly, this is why I’m so big on us doing Nourish Bridgeport. It’s an opportunity for us to practice the ways of God’s kingdom. It’s an opportunity for us to serve and to give and to make a difference in the lives of others. It’s an opportunity for us to really love our neighbors and to see that we are all children together of the same God. It’s an opportunity for us to bridge God’s big enduring glory and the glory we might know right here and now.