On October 14, 2012 I preached for the Episcopal Church at Yale. Our lectionary readings for the day were Job 23:1-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; and Mark 10:17-31. The post below is based on the sermon I gave that evening.
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. (Hebrews 4:12-13, NRSV)
This sounds like it come straight from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” doesn’t it? Or at least it does so far. Listen to the change in tone that happens next:
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16, NRSV)
So I ask you, is God a righteous judge with a piercing gaze? Or is God a sympathetic companion who empowers us to stand even in our weakness?
Or perhaps the answer is “both”?
But then how does that work? How do we squeeze these two conflicting images of God together into one?
I think Job knew something of this struggle. Our reading from Job this evening starts off with a bold and eager Job seeking to find God so that he might argue his case. Job claims that “an upright person could reason with [God],” or at the very least get an explanation of his suffering. But by the time we get to verse 13 something has changed:
But [God] stands alone and who can dissuade him? What he desires, that he does. 14For he will complete what he appoints for me; and many such things are in his mind. 15Therefore I am terrified at his presence; when I consider, I am in dread of him. 16God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me; 17If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face! (Job 22:13-17)
Where has Job’s boldness gone? Where has his confident arguments gotten him? Is God one who can be reasoned with? Or is God one from which we should hide in darkness? In the end, Job doesn’t seem to know.
Nor does the Psalmist. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the Psalmist cries as he starts a lengthy lament. He contrasts his current position with what he perceives to be the norm:
4In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.
5To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
6But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. (Psalm 22:4-6)
I joked earlier that I was going to preach about being a worm. But I really do think that this is an integral part of the message of this Psalm. What I think both Job and our Psalmist are struggling with is a mis-match between their expectations and reality. The Psalmist has a pre-formed notion about the ways in which God has acted toward his ancestors, and because of that he has a deeply held expectation about what God does for God’s people. When he finds himself in a reality that defies that expectation, he makes this drastic conclusion: If God is going to let things get this bad for me, it must mean that I am a worm!
Similarly, Job has an expectation that God is someone who can be reasoned with. There must be a rational explanation for why God does the things God does, and if you could only hear that explanation everything would make sense. Or if you could only argue your case, then God would clearly see the reason of it and adopt your plan. But as Job looks around at his circumstances he realizes that he cannot make sense of anything that has happened to him. And suddenly his expectations about God are called into question and Job is left terrified and wishing he could find some dark cave to hide in.
In our gospel passage this evening a similar dynamic is at work. The man who approaches Jesus has his own expectations about what Jesus will say. The sense I get from the story is that he approaches Jesus looking for validation. He has kept the commandments all his life, he claims. And yet he is asking how to get eternal life. The expectation is that Jesus will praise him for his good works, validate his efforts, and promise him a guaranteed result. What Jesus does instead is challenging. The text says that Jesus loved this man, and then immediately after saying Jesus loved him, the text records Jesus asking him to sell everything he had, give his money to poor, leave his entire life behind, and follow Jesus. Try to wrap your mind around that a bit. Jesus love for this man does not lead Jesus to validate his quest for eternal life. Instead Jesus demands the man give up everything, leave behind the life he knew, and follow Jesus to some unknown end. Something of the terror that Job felt must have been part of this man’s response as he walked away.
Our gospel reading reminds me of some of the things we have been talking about in our Bible study this semester on the book of Romans. In our discussions of the book of Romans we have talked a lot about the distinction between faith and works. This man comes to Jesus with a wealth of works, a commitment to the law and a reverence for Jesus as a teacher which makes even Jesus a tad uncomfortable, and he is hoping for validation of his works. What Jesus challenges him to do is show his faith.
When Paul talks about the distinction of faith and works in Romans, its important to note that the works he is referring to have to do with the law of the Old Testament. For many of his readers, this law had become a pre-requisite to finding favor with God. It established boundaries- those who kept the law and those who didn’t- and set up expectations about God’s subsequent relationship to those two groups- either favorable or not. Paul wants to argue for something very different. Paul wants to claim that whether we are on the inside or outside of a particular group doesn’t matter because favor with God is something that comes not through the law but through faith.
But what does it mean to have faith?
Thankfully, Paul gives an example, and its this example that I think illuminates our gospel reading today. The example Paul gives is of the faith of Abraham. When God comes to Abraham, Abraham is living a very comfortable life in the city where he grew up. But then God calls Abraham to leave that life, leave his family and all that he had known, and go to a distant “promised land” where God claimed he would make the old and childless Abraham the father of many nations, a promise that seems to defy all expectations about what can and cannot happen. Paul says that Abraham’s faith is his willingness to do just that, to leave everything behind and follow God even when following God seemed irrational or the promises of God unbelievable.
When the man comes to Jesus in our gospel reading, he is expecting validation of his life of works. Instead, Jesus challenges him, much as God had challenged Abraham, to leave everything he knows and follow Jesus. The faith that Jesus asks this man to have is pretty astounding. This is a difficult, challenging commitment Jesus is asking this man to make. And yet, this is, I think, exactly the kind of commitment that faith entails.
One of my favorite writers is the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who spends a good bit of time thinking about this kind of faith. Kierkegaard contrasts faith with understanding: our expectations about how things should work. What Kierkegaard claims is that we must be willing to take those expectations and set them aside in answering the call of faith. God is not what we expect God to be, Kierkegaard argues, and the life of faith God calls us to is not the life that we expect it to be, either. God is in the business, Kierkegaard suggests in reflecting on the story of Abraham, of asking us to set aside our expectations and follow where God would have us go.
Why does faith conflict with our expectations, why does it involve a commitment to things that we may not currently understand, may never come to understand?
I think a significant part of the reason this is the case is because to let our expectations about what God will or should do dictate our faith is to make a god in our own image. When we have rigid expectations about what we think God should or must do, we are effectively creating a new God, one that fits nicely into the picture of what we believe life should look like. But what our readings today remind us of, whether it be the Psalmist who doesn’t understand why God hasn’t vanquished his enemies, or whether it be Job whose expectation that God acts in strictly rational ways has been shattered, or whether it be the rich man who comes to Jesus expecting his works to be validated, these readings all remind us that God doesn’t fit nicely into anyone’s picture of life. Instead, God challenges our expectations and calls us to set them aside and follow, and that requires a choice. Will we continue to hold onto our expectations of how the world should be, making those expectations into a God after our own image, or will we leave our expectations to the side and accept the challenge of faith?
This is certainly a difficult task. Kierkegaard thought true faith was perhaps the most challenging thing one could ever undertake. But, now we can return to Hebrews and perhaps make a bit of sense out of what is being said there. The word of God pierces us deeply because it challenges the most fundamental expectations we have about how life should be and how God should act. And yet, at the same time, it emboldens us because through the life of Christ, a life full of its own tests and challenges, we can see that God sympathizes with us in this journey, and thereby enables us to stand before the throne of grace without fear. God sympathizes with us, and Jesus is aware of just how challenging this journey is. He also shows us where the strength to meet the challenge comes from:
For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.