Proper 24 (2009) Year B RCL Principal
The Big Picture
Have you ever seen a sunset so striking that it stops you in your tracks – not literally perhaps as this might not be a good thing when driving! But I have a vivid memory of a sunset which came at one of those moments when I was feeling rather jaded and found myself driving up towards our vicarage when we lived in Eltisley near Cambridge. Of course it’s rather difficult to put into words, but that won’t stop me trying – the Sunset was dramatic, colourful, beautiful – the clouds were gathered in such a way in one part of the sky that they seemed to be pointing to something in the distance, as they changed colour from grey to white, to purple, to red, to orange – there was something quite overwhelming about them.
And on that theme of sunsets, I remember vividly a Sunset on one of the last days of our holiday in France a few years back – it was certainly as beautiful, if not more so and very striking. So much so that Jo (my wife) and I tried to take some pictures of it – knowing that we couldn’t capture the wonder of such a sight, but wanting something to hold on to the memory with.
I only bring this up because we had a trawl through our vast collection of photos a few weeks back, and when we had the film of that sunset which we had been desperate to capture developed – knowing that the photos would be inadequate to sum up that evening, we were even more disappointed to discover that we had put a black and white film in the camera and all of our holiday shots, including the sunset, were monochrome – they didn’t even begin to offer any idea of how that Sunset had thrilled and impressed us.
I mention this because it seems to me that, like a black and white photo of a beautiful colourful sunset, our picture of God is often woefully inadequate – not even beginning to measure up to the reality of God, the splendour and awe of our God or the many shades and nuances of God which we glimpse in scripture and through the history and teaching of the Church. Nor can we grasp the difficulties and depths of holding fast to God through any event until we really experience.
It is such a limited understanding of God that can cause us to question what God does – and why. I encounter many people who ask ‘why did God do this to me’ or ‘why does God let x or y happen?’ when the only answer is that God doesn’t manipulate our lives like a divine chess player and when he does act it is often to remind us of his love and presence in both the joys and acts only for our best when he does.
This understanding of God, one in which God is shown to be manipulative, punitive and even capricious, is one which seems to echo through the story of Job, this story of is prefaced by a discussion, which was one of our readings last week, between God and the devil in which Satan is offered leave to test Job and see if he will remain faithful through adversity. What you may not know is that the preface is probably a later addition to the story of Job – an attempt to make sense of Job’s experience for the later readers of the piece. The original story has no reason for Job’s trials and no happy ending.
In many ways thinking of the story of Job without the easy to understand beginning is a more honest way of approaching the reality of suffering – the original writer of this ‘parable of suffering’ (for there is no indication that this is meant to be seen as a relating to real events, but a kind of fable to consider the difficulties of suffering, and why the righteous seem to suffer as much as the ungodly) – wanted us just to consider the mystery of suffering, and that no matter what the faithful go through they can retain their faith in God – as Job does.
But our later interpretive extras have taken the mystery, the struggle, out of the story, and they have limited its perspective. To a certain extent they have attempted to take the mystery away from God. We are determined to find reason in everything, questioning God and demanding from God answers. It is as if we are trying to sum up a sunset in black and white photographs. Job resists this, honest about his pain and his distress he does not try to explain it away, or give easy answers. Instead in today’s reading he is honest about the mystery of God and about his own struggle with all that he has gone through. He acknowledges however the limit of his ability to understand, and doesn’t try to force his view of God into some kind of pre-decided way of looking at things.
How often do we try and contain God – expecting God to be a certain thing, trapping God in our images and stereotypes and claiming that this or that is what God would want. People use their own version of what God is like to justify all sorts of activity and behaviour, and often miss the challenge contained in Scripture that reminds us that we are made in the image of God, yet we are so ready to make God in our own image…
And so we are reminded today not to limit God by expecting God to fit into understanding, or to even expect to be able to know the mind of God. We are reminded that to even know the little we do of God is a great privilege and a responsibility – a privilege because, as we were reminded in last week’s lessons – ‘ what are mere mortals that you are mindful of us’ and a responsibility because our calling as Christians is to spread the knowledge of God, to proclaim the ‘Good News’ of a God who loves us and who gives us of himself and cares for us.
So instead of demanding from God – demanding answers, demanding reasons, demanding justification, demanding that things stay the same, that we have comfortable lives, demanding things our way – we are called to consider again what God demands of us…
And our Gospel for today brings that home to us. Here we have another well known passage from the Gospel of St Mark we see Jesus challenging a rich young man as to his attitude to his wealth. I don’t believe (and some of us have heard me say this before) that Jesus is making a blanket condemnation of the wealthy, but he knows that for this one young man, who is seeking God, his wealth is a barrier to truly knowing and following the living God. Jesus explains that God is not know in religious observation, or even in devotion to the scriptures and to the principles of faith. Jesus explains that God is known in the heart.
I have talked with many people about faith, and been asked many times why I stay with faith. Those with intellects considerably greater than my own have rejected Christian faith on the grounds that nothing can be proved. My only response is that I am not simply concerned with knowing about God, I want to know God. To know God as my father and creator. I don’t want to know about the theology of who and what Jesus was and is, but I want to know Jesus. To know him as my saviour and my friend. I don’t want to know about the Holy Spirit but I long to know the Holy Spirit and the power of the Spirit at work in me, changing me and making me more like Christ.
This is the demand made of us, not that we decide what God is like, an inadequate black and white sunset picture of God, but that we open ourselves up to a God who longs to know us and to change us.
And the demands on all of us are the same – if we ask to know God we should beware of what that might mean. If we truly want to know God we should be prepared to have our world changed. If we truly seek to follow Christ then we should be prepared to give all we have to follow him. If we are truly open to the prompting of God’s Holy Spirit, then we should be ready to embrace the mystery of God, and to be led into new places as we explore that mystery.
We cannot continually ask of God, without expecting God to ask something of us. Perhaps we need to consider that which prevents us from truly following God, perhaps we need to see our faith in a new way, perhaps we simply need to sit down and read our scriptures to see again the God who is there and who longs for us to know him. Then we will embrace that mystery and be drawn on to be more like our saviour Jesus Christ. May God grant us grace that it might be so. Amen.