God may you be present in my words, and if not may you be present to those that listen. Amen.
The first and most important thing I must begin with today is an acknowledgement. I struggled a bit to write this sermon this week, but my wife Natalie crystallised the key insight that helped me finish writing. It wasn’t simply that she talked through some of my questions. Rather, her insight and the embodied wisdom of her commitment to help vulnerable, and often suffering people, served – yet again – to remind me to be a better person, and so, I hope, a preacher.
One of the great difficulties in reading the Bible is that there are many different ways to read the various texts that are cobbled together to make what we call ‘Scripture.’ In the Bible there are many different texts, and different kinds of texts, written at different times, to different audiences, in different languages. We therefore have to come to terms with the context, or background information, that frames the text. If we want to understand a text, like our reading from Job, we have to understand something of the ancient conversation of which it is part. And then we must find the points of connection that allow us to make sense of such an ancient text today.
You can begin to see why I found this a bit difficult, and needed some help from my wife.
The ongoing conversation that Job participates in is really a question: How do I know if God is present in my life?
This question of the presence of God is what drives the book of Job, and animates the section we heard from today: a section with the heading “My Complaint is Bitter.” The question of God’s presence is what sits behind the question of the Rich Man in Mark’s Gospel: how do I know that I will be in the presence of God when I die? Finding the reign of God present in our lives is at the core of the conversation between Jesus and his disciples about sacrifice and faithfulness.
The hard edges of sacrifice, loss, and suffering make the question of the presence of God more pressing, and more serious. We cannot provide simple or glib answers.
If we take the story of Job seriously, then we are forced to confront the trauma, and suffering of unjust loss. We are forced to confront a bitter – and legitimate – complaint against God.
If we take the encounter with the Rich man seriously, then are forced to experience the discomfort of how much we have in the rich-white-West, and how unjustly we use our wealth.
If we take the teaching of the disciples seriously, then we may have to forgo not just our comfort, but our assumptions about God, the world, and how we make sense of ourselves.
Let me then tread carefully.
The section of Mark’s Gospel in which we find today’s reading collects reflections on the nature of discipleship. From Peter’s confession that Jesus is, in fact, the Christ, we are forced by the story to confront what it might mean to make good on the commitment to follow this Christ.
These reflections prepare us for what is to come: the Passion. The arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death of Jesus.
When we read the story of the Rich Man we must keep in mind the flow of the broader narrative in which it sits. The Rich Man tells us something about the path to the cross.
The question the Rich Man asks at first glance seems simply to be a question about how to get to heaven. The response Jesus gives unmasks the question. Within the context of ancient Judaism, for Jews that believed in an afterlife, the question of getting to Heaven was a non-question. Follow the law, and if needed offer a sacrifice in the temple. Problem solved.
Jesus shifts the question, revealing that it was not so much about the future. But the present. Jesus’ reply challenges the Rich Man not simply to be good, and follow the law, but to follow Jesus himself. There is a certain unease in the Rich Man. Why ask the question about how to get to Heaven when the answer is well-known? The challenge Jesus offers was not one the Rich Man was able to meet. The Rich Man was willing to do what seemed to expected of him, but was not willing to sacrifice.
The disciples in the reading today are set up as an alternative to the Rich Man. Where he was unable to give up what he had in order to follow Christ along the way, the disciples declare boldly that they have sacrificed in order to follow Jesus. The disciple’s faithfulness had allowed them to give up family, and jobs, and houses, and property.
Surely, then, the disciples would inherit eternal life. They were able to meet the challenge that the Rich Man could not.
Jesus grants that the disciples have sacrificed much, and so says that they will receive much. And if we stopped reading Mark’s Gospel at the end of today’s reading we might walk away and summarise the Gospel simply in terms of self-sacrifice. Now, don’t get me wrong, the Gospel is about self-sacrifice. But it turns out to be a little bit more complicated, and more beautiful than simply that.
Jesus adds a catch at the end of his conversation with the disciples: “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
This cryptic saying of Jesus leads into the third prediction Jesus makes about his death in this section of Mark’s Gospel – just after our reading for today. And from there the disciples continue to argue about who will be first. The self-sacrificing disciples disappear from the story very quickly, replaced by the self-serving disciples who are ready to step back in.
The point here is that neither the Rich Man, nor the disciples, understand the core of what is about to happen as Jesus enters Jerusalem, and is led towards his death. Both the Rich Man and the disciples seem still to operate on the basis that achieving salvation (whatever that means) comes from ticking off the items on a list: following the law, or being self-sacrificing. And of course these are good things in and of themselves, but they don’t get at the depth of the issue Jesus’ death actually solves.
If we go back and read Mark’s Gospel from Peter’s confession to Jesus entering the Jerusalem in the next chapter, we see a pattern emerging. Jesus is identified, Jesus predicts his looming suffering, and the disciples fail to understand what’s going on. Throughout these three chapters the ones who are upheld are the demon-possessed, children, and a blind man. It is to people suffering, people who don’t have a clear place in society, to people who are in need that Jesus comes.
All of this serves to prepare us for what is to come in Jerusalem.
Jesus is arrested, tried, crucified, and dies. In Jerusalem Jesus does not die a remarkable death: but dies the unremarkable death of victims of political, religious, and ideological violence that has killed millions.
What the Rich Man and the disciples do not understand is that the road to self-sacrifice, to loss, to suffering, is not something that can be boasted about. It is not a simple fix to the pang of guilt. For many, for most, it is not a chosen road — just as it was not a chosen road for Job. The human experience of suffering and loss that is reflected back to us in Job is rightly told, in part, as a bitter complaint.
In Job the absence of God in the midst of suffering demands a response. It upsets the tradition of Wisdom in the Hebrew Bible that sees God pulsing through the rhythms of life, the order of society, and the grace of creation. Job’s story demands to know where God the presence of God is.
What Christians claim, in claiming that Jesus truly is the Christ, and truly is God, is that God is found among the suffering. God becomes one among the countless sufferers. God binds Godself to humanity in the life and death of Jesus. God comes to the vulnerable, and the sick, and the oppressed. God in Christ stands with them on the unremarkable cross.
There on the cross Christ himself experiences the absence of God. Crying out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” In that cry God is separated from God. Jesus forgoes his connection to the one he calls Father, in order to be more fully bound up with us.
The Rich Man and the disciples do not understand that the self-sacrifice that is needed is not easy. It disrupts who we understand God to be. The self-sacrifice of Christ stands with the vulnerable of humanity even in bitter complaint against God.
… And the hope that we can at times only whisper, is that mystery of resurrection. That Christ having bound himself to us, forsaking God, is yet brought into new life. The hope that many can barely whisper is the hope that having received the solidarity of faithfulness, that new life might be possible.
This is the Gospel: that God chooses to bind Godself to us, even if it creates a rupture within the very being of God, and yet we hope that the solidarity God shows us would lead to a new life. Where the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.