Is it worth it?

Sermon from October 21, 2008
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
Principal texts: Job 38:1-7; Mark 10:35-45

Let the little children come...

Me, at the pulpit with my son, who ran up while I was preaching

Even though the other disciples were annoyed with James and John’s request, it’s important to remember that at the time they made it, they were committed. They were all in, and there was probably no going back. It reminds me of a movie from my youth. Any of you remember Jerry Maguire? Tom Cruise, Renee Zellweger, and Cuba Gooding Jr.? It was about a sports agent’s quixotic quest for meaning, love, and some modicum of success. It was a silly movie that knew it was silly, but it was also strangely touching. Anyway, after the title character, played by Tom Cruise sort of quits and is sort of fired from his job at a successful firm, he gives this impassioned speech about how he is going to start his own company that will be more devoted to people than profits, and he hopes that half the room is going follow him out. Alas, only one nobody employ is particularly stirred by the theatrics, Renee Zellweger’s character, Dorothy. In this painfully awkward scene right after they’ve walked out, there’s no going back. But it starts to become clear that he has no real plan, and Dorothy needs to ask him a few logistical questions, such as whether the new company will have dental insurance.

James and John seem a bit like Renee Zellweger’s character here. Or at least that’s one aspect of what’s going on. They would probably have some explaining to do if they went back to the family’s fishing operation. Or at any rate, they can’t unsee what they’ve seen. But things are getting harder, and Jesus has been talking weird of late. He has said that he is going to be handed over and killed, and that anyone who wants to be his disciple has to follow him. So while it’s possible to see this episode as a power play, an attempt at a backroom deal, I’m inclined to take a gentler view of it. After having now been through a lot with Jesus, and with promises of greater difficulties on the horizon, perhaps they are asking him for something pretty understandable, to which most of us can relate. “Jesus, you’ve just said that nobody is going to get rich off of this venture. You’ve said that any houses and fields that do come our way will come with persecutions. Your talking an awful lot about death and rejection.” Maybe in asking Jesus to promise that they will be enthroned next to him, what they’re really hoping for is a promise that there will be an enthronement at all. That this whole venture they’ve given their lives to for the last year or so really is going somewhere. “Jesus, can you at least promise that it’s going to be worth it?”At our church podcast club last week, we talked a bit about the problem of emigration of Palestinian Christians. Shadia told us that whereas an older generation of Palestinians were absolutely steadfast in their determination to remain in this land and their people’s struggles, many younger Palestinians, especially Christians, don’t want to spend their one life fighting. They have seen their parents and grandparents struggle and suffer for a liberation that was supposed to have come several times over by now. But all that has come is sorrow heaped upon sorrow, and the prospects now seem dimmer than ever. You can endure a lot if you think your cause has even a fighting chance of success. But what do you do if it doesn’t? What do you do when you can’t go back, but you begin to suspect that there is no enthronement at the end of this story, not for you, nor for anyone else.

Unlike James and John, we do know how the gospel story ends. We know that Jesus is not kidding, or mistaken, or telling yet another riddle when he says that his way is one of defeat and death. The whole system of power and sin will work brilliantly. Local elites will turn the people against their deliverer, and the occupying power will crush him and scatter his movement, and it will hardly be a blip on the radar of the ancient world. Oh sure, he will rise. And in his resurrection is our hope of our own, as well as for the defeat of the powers of sin, including in their present manifestations, and the healing and redemption of all who have suffered. This is an accomplished fact if you chose to believe the gospel, or find that you believe it. But it’s also taking a really long view. Sure, he’ll come to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end. But in the meantime, the toll of the suffering is astronomical. My own country now puts two year olds on trial even as it lifts a credibly accused predator to the Supreme Court. My family’s other country, Germany, languishes in a debilitating drought that we fear may be the new normal as climate scientists revise their productions from bad to worse. Here, we anticipate the worst news out of Khan al-Ahmar any day now, while the daily indignities of occupation continue. How could this possibly be worth it?

If I am honest, then much of the time, I want a different messiah, and perhaps a different God. I want a savior who doesn’t just interpose his precious blood to rescue me from eternal danger, but who also stands between the bulldozers and the villagers in a pillar of cloud and fire! But in the Bible, there are lots of calls for God to rend the heavens and come down, but not many occasions on which it happens. There was this one time though… Once, a man named Job made a demand of God, and God answered.

Mark and the other gospels take place here in this land, under a different occupation, but recognizable. Job is set somewhere else, in a far away fictional country. We don’t know about its history or its present. Just that Job was a good guy. By all accounts, his life was enviable, and then he suddenly loses everything. He lost his possessions, he lost his children, and he lost not just his health, but the relationship he had with himself and the world through his body. And then he and his friends talk for about 50 pages. It’s impossible to summarize; you just have read it yourself. I’ll warn you, if it’s your first time, that it doesn’t always make a lot of sense, and that’s partly the point. Job is sometimes very angry at God, sometimes he wants nothing to do with God. But sometimes there are long passages where Job basically gives the right answer. You see, Job’s friends insist that God is obviously just and wise, that the suffering on earth must be part of God’s just administration of the world’s affairs. The bad guys always end up losing and the good guys win. And if you’re suffering, even if you don’t know what sin you might have committed, you should acknowledge that God is in control and everything is all right, or will at least be worth it.

Job, though, says that the ways of God are hidden from human beings. We can mine gold and silver from the depths of the earth, but there is no place to find wisdom. It is known only to God. God tells human beings what to do, at least some of the time, but never tells us why: “Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.” Where Job will not give into his friends is in his refusal to say in any way that everything is all right. He insists that whatever game God is playing with him, he is not being punished for his sins. His suffering is unjust, and if there is fault to be found, the fault is with God. Job may continue to trust God, at least in some of his moods. What alternative is there, after all? But he doesn’t just grant that this is obviously all worth it.

He wants God to show up and explain! Well, God does show up, but doesn’t explain anything. Now like I said, I think what Job says about God, the hiddenness of wisdom, and how he can trust God without believing that it’s all okay or even worth it is as close to a right answer as you can get. In fact, God even says that Job is right at the end of the book. Yet what does God say when “the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind”? “Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” It’s as though Job’s answer is right, but something about the question is wrong. Job asked for a vision of God and got one. It wasn’t the vision he wanted, because it didn’t explain anything, but it somehow changed everything. It’s as though everything Job said was right, but he still didn’t know what he was talking about. He probably still has the same questions at the end, and I’d wager he has the same feelings. But what he does with them now is pray.

James and John also got an answer from Jesus. And just as I’m now inclined to take a gentler view of their question—that maybe what they really wanted was to be sure there would be an enthronement at all—I’m also starting to think that maybe Jesus’ answer isn’t so much of a reproving slap as a gentle and even generous promise. They want to be enthroned next to Jesus. Jesus doesn’t say they were wrong to ask, just that they don’t know what they’re asking. We who have the luxury of being able to read the gospels know that they most certainly do not actually want what they are asking for. Jesus has a procession into the ancient royal city after all, where there is a coronation and an enthronement. It’s just that the the crown is made of thorns, placed on his head by soldiers who mock him but speak the truth: “hail king of the Jews!” And the throne is a cross, and the places John and James requested are given to two nameless criminals.

But will Jesus give some token to James and John that this is all going to worth it? Worth it to follow Jesus? Worth it to spend your one life fighting a lost cause? Worth it to be alive at all? Not the token they’re asking for, but look what he did say: “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” Now Jesus’ cup and baptism obviously mean the suffering he will endure. But they also mean something else, something only apparent to those who know who Jesus really is. Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity! Jesus is God from God. Jesus receives the fullness of who and what he is from the one whom he called Father. And though there is no way for the human mind to conceive it, the fullness of who Jesus is, is the fullness of who and what God is. The cup of Jesus is the life, and being, and power of God. And this life is in no way diminished by anything that Jesus suffered. The baptism of Jesus is the Holy Spirit, also the fullness of God, who reveals Jesus’ perfection to us, and joins his perfected humanity to our broken humanity.

Just like Job, Jesus doesn’t actually promise James and John that what is happening or will happen makes any sense. He doesn’t say that there will be a rhyme or reason to their sufferings, or the sufferings of their world and their people. He doesn’t even insist that the path through inevitable suffering is worth it, or that there will be a better seat at the end because they went through it.

Jesus is promising James and John they will participate in this fullness of God as though it were there own, and they will bring others into it. They will drink Jesus’ cup and imbibe his life and power in their joys and in their sorrows, in their victories and in their defeats, in their life and in their death. They will drink it in it their living upon this sanctified and occupied land. They will drink it in their communion with their people and all people whose causes are lost. They will drink it and share it with others even if they should get the wish they made in ignorance, and be enthroned with Jesus like those nameless criminals, and like every hopeless, crucified nobody in this hopeless, crucified world. They will drink it, and live in it, and overcome the world through it. But this promise is not just for James and John.

My friends, we will sing a hymn, say a creed, pray God’s peace upon one another, and offer God such gifts as we can. And then that cup will be offered to you. Amen.