... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Pentecost 20 Year B,
Message October 14, 2012

Obedience Justice and Faith

Text: Job 23:1-9,16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

Two weeks ago my sermon was on the theme of obedience to God’s call and in a series of four scenarios showed that in obedience the scriptures promised rewards of peace tranquility humility and prosperity. The final caveat was that our obedience had to be absolute and all-encompassing. In many ways today’s readings reinforce this position but as a corrective rather than as an affirmative of reward.

In Mark’s Gospel the rich man is neither referred to as young or as a ruler. He is rich. Yet he is seen as pious devout and earnest. He has it seems great integrity. Coming before Jesus he kneels and asks perhaps the greatest existential question anyone could consider, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This rich man while often portrayed as the caricature of the proud, the self-righteous, the wealthy or the privileged should not be regarded as such. Instead the man ought to be regarded as the mirror for all Christians who have found success in anything, be it wealth, job satisfaction, relationships, family, hobbies or for that matter spiritual peace.

In a series of three conversations: Jesus and the rich man, Jesus and the disciples and Jesus and Peter, we are encouraged to witness the barriers we all face in trying to gain eternal life. The rich man is never mocked by Jesus for his wealth or his question. What Jesus does is to look on him and love him. He is a devout man having kept all the laws and no doubt having given charity openly and freely. However he lacks one thing: the total absolute commitment and obedience of giving up of self. His barrier is his wealth. But it could just as easily have been his work, his family, his hobby his leisure or his faith journey itself. What he had to do was to submit himself totally into God’s keeping – give up of his very raison d’etre and let God. Jesus’ advice was not in and of itself a declaration against wealth but the dependence we put on those things we set as giving us identity and security. That is truly the impossible. The rub is that while it is impossible for humans to do it – it is possible with God. And with God all things are possible.

To this truth scripture offers many witnesses. Unfortunately we have often corrupted those witnesses to ease our own existential questions. As we looked at the results of obedience we saw how scripture often promised joy peace humility and prosperity. And in truth there has been and is a high percentage of this as people align their wills to that of God’s. yet it is not to be taken as a certitude or a quid pro quo. In face scripture also teems with witness that despite faith and obedience bad things do happen to good people and good things happen to bad ones. The doctrine of retributive justice so frequently preached and promised in most congregations is certainly thrown out the window in texts such as Job and Psalm 22. In fact these two particular readings are a complete downer to any congregation coming to church to find optimism or strength to cope with society’s turmoil or as an affirmation of identity and life style.

The psalmist in perhaps the second most well-known passage from Psalms cries those words which Jesus was to also use upon the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Despite his life-long trust and faith in the Lord, this psalmist is now suffering and God is nowhere to be found. This is the primary complaint and it is the same complaint voiced by Job. If the truth be told it is also the same question we all think but are loathe to give voice to, “Where is God?” We behold the turmoil of the world, of the nation of the community and of the family; we watch as horror story after horror story is aired on TV; we listen to the politicians offering cures and regimes for corrective programs ; we work to save the life of a 15 month old drowning victim and we shout, “Why God?”

As we read the book of Job, the hero suffers all the atrocities the world has to offer, and his friends each in turn express the various and conventional words of consolation. Three times each of his friends give advice and reasons for his suffering and each time Job counters with insistence of his own innocence and wonders why he can’t find God to argue his case before him. Eliphaz Bildad and Zophar each in their respective turns explore the ramifications of the questions raised by the doctrine of retributive justice. The presumption that God will always reward righteousness and punishes sin has shaped human understanding of faith trust and spirituality. Yet there is something else present which in this world seems to counter this doctrine and to attribute this something other as the result of human falleness is simply to ignore the reality of another force; a force not within the scope of humanity to understand or fathom.

The doctrine of retributive justice hinges on two forces: human and divine. In this Job’s friends argue that since Job has suffered greatly he must have sinned greatly. If he would but repent of his sins and turn his faith and trust he would be restored to health wealth and prosperity. Job’s response is rebellious as he knows in his heart he has not sinned. He has been obedient, has had faith and it is God who needs to be found so that he might have justice. Like the rich man of the gospel Job becomes the mirror for most congregations and people of faith – floundering in the dark trying to justify himself.

Despite his floundering there is an important aspect to Job’s response we all need to observe. Whereas his friends bid him to acquiesce to repent or to let things go, Job’s faith becomes bold and questioning. He knows full well his position in relationship to God but he is still prepared to question, to have his case against God. Too often we forget that a questioning faith, a bold and searching faith can be often more meaningful than one which Eliphaz would proclaim.

To seek God, to question, to process through the darkness is often life rewarding and restorative, but usually not to that which was before. The life restoration is to change to a closer connection with God and a better understanding of what God has been offering us. It was to this change that Jesus challenged the rich man, and it is the challenge which all the scriptures challenge us. Perhaps as we work together especially on our congregational development exercise we might come to meet the challenge.