The King of Glory

God’s people in Crafton Heights gathered on Sunday March 26 to consider the truth that God revealed himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  We spent some time on the boat with the disciples in the midst of the storm (as recorded in Mark 4:35-41) and remembered the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 24.

It’s 1000 BC in the ancient city of Joppa, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Canaanite children are being tucked into bed, and as they are, they hear stories of the gods of their people.

They may listen to scary stories, such as those having to do with the deity named Moloch. Moloch, they say, demands that the lives of children – particularly first-born children – be offered to him. Those who take their children to be passed through the fire, as it is called, are promised large families and financial security.

Or maybe tonight they’ll hear the story about the battle between Baal, who is said to be the god of the storm, and wind, and rain, and Yamm, the god of the sea and the rivers. Yamm wanted more power, and so he challenged Baal; when he lost, he was cast into the deeps and forced to limit his trouble-making powers there.

Transportation of the Ark of the Covenant Containing the Tablets of the Law, Luigi Ademollo, 1816

About 30 miles away, there are some Israelite children being sung to sleep by their mothers in Jerusalem. Perhaps they are singing one of the Psalms that they’ve sung in worship at the Temple Mount – songs that talk about their God, YHWH.

These kids have heard the stories about Moloch and Baal and Yamm, but they don’t need to be frightened because they know the truth about YHWH. They know that these local deities are no match for the God who has called to them, and in fact compared to YHWH these other so-called gods are nothing. It’s all in the song that their mothers are singing to them tonight: The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it; the world and all those who live in it…

That’s a statement of ownership. If YHWH is the rightful owner of all, then nobody else can be the owner. If God is in control, then anyone else who claims to be is simply lying. Moreover, the song goes on to declare that when YHWH built the world, he built it on top of the waters. YHWH, not Yamm, rules the sea. The power of YHWH, not Baal, is in the heart of the storm.

The song of the faithful that those children may have heard that night three thousand years ago and you surely heard five moments ago goes on to say that YHWH invites all to come and worship – and to come with clean hands and pure hearts (which is to say, having done right by our neighbor and been humble before God). Those who come to the Temple to worship will receive not a spirit of fear, but rather a blessing and deep comfort. And the song ends with an entrance liturgy that declares YHWH as the source of all power and might in the world – YHWH, and no one else, is “The King of Glory.”

Christ and the Storm
Giorgio de Chirico, 1914

Now, a thousand years later, we find twelve men who had grown up singing Psalm 24 all their lives sitting in a fishing boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. They’ve been following a Rabbi who has indicated the rather curious intention to go across the Sea to where “they” live – the non-faithful, the ones who are not like us. It’s odd, because this Rabbi and his followers have been attracting large crowds; apparently, though, the teacher from Nazareth wants to leave the throngs behind and venture into the unknown. I’m not so sure that this man’s followers are totally sold on the idea.

To make things worse, they find themselves in the midst of a terrible storm. In fact the word that Mark uses for it, lialaps, is the same word that is used for the “whirlwind” in the Book of Job. These are not gentle showers…

In a panic, these men turn towards the Rabbi – one of the few, incidentally, who is not a professional fisherman – and find him asleep in the boat. They shake him awake, and then he calms the storm before their very eyes.

Now, pay attention to what you’ve heard, and note this: that these men were surprised that Jesus was able to speak into the intensity of the storm. The wind and the waves obey him! Who knew?

Because Jesus calms the storm and then challenges the disciples’ apparent lack of faith, I’m tempted to read this passage as if the disciples are upset with Jesus for not saving them from the storm. That’s not the case.

The disciples never ask Jesus to save them. The reason that they are frustrated is not because he’s not saving them – there is no indication from anyone that they think that’s even a possibility. Listen: are you mad at me because the Steelers didn’t win the Super Bowl last year? Of course not. How could you be angry with me because the Steelers didn’t make it to the big game? I had nothing to do with that – that was totally beyond my control.

In the same way, I think, we can’t presume that the disciples are irritated with Jesus for not stopping the storm. There’s no evidence to support the idea that they think Jesus could even come close to stopping the storm.

But it’s clear that they’re agitated. Why?

What’s the question that they ask? “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

The disciples are angry with Jesus because he is not as afraid as they are. They are running around the boat screaming, “Arrrrrrgh! We’re going to die! We’re all going to die!”, and they are irritated because Jesus is not running around the boat screaming. “What’s wrong with you, Jesus? Can’t you see this?????”

“Of course,” he may have answered. “Of course I see it. And I remember a song that my mom used to sing to me when I was little. She sang a song she learned at the Temple about the One who made the whole earth and established it on the waters; my mother sang about the One to whom every storm is accountable.”

Jesus calms the sea and quiets the storm and in that very moment the disciples are reminded of the truths of Psalm 24. In the same instant, they are brought face to face with the reality that all of the power, majesty, and authority of YHWH is present in and available to Jesus of Nazareth.

We have the advantage of 2000 years of history, as well as the fact that we are sitting on dry seats in a warm building on a balmy day. It might be fairly easy for us to look back at our older brothers, the apostles, and think, “Wow, you guys really missed that one, didn’t you? I mean, sure – Jesus acts with the authority of YHWH. Come on, everybody knows that! Relax. He’s got this.”

But what about when we’re not sitting on dry seats in a warm building on a spring day? What about when we find ourselves in the middle of the whirlwind? I find it hard to believe that there’s a person in this room who hasn’t at one time or another looked heavenward and asked, “Hey! Jesus! Do you see this? Don’t you care that this thing is happening over here?”

And if for some reason you have not yet asked this question, I predict that you will.

Does Jesus care about the particular whirlwind in which you find yourself lost today? I guess it depends on where you think Jesus is. I’ve already noted that think it’s premature to ask the disciples if they believe Jesus can do anything to fix the situation – they do not appear to believe that he even gives a darn. Because, after all, he’s sleeping. He’s not freaking out, the way a “normal” person might.

Peace, Be Still, Arnold Friberg (1913 – 2010)

But pay attention to one thing.

Where is Jesus?

During this whole story, where do we find Jesus?

He’s in the boat, isn’t he?

He may be silent – but do not ever mistake the silence of God for the absence of God.

It’s the same for you and me, you know. I’m telling you friends, Jesus is in your boat. And I don’t care whether it’s been smooth sailing since day one or if you’re currently dealing with an “All hands on deck!” kind of moment. Jesus has not left the boat.

Do not ever, ever presume that simply because Jesus does not share your anxiety about the current circumstances that he does not care about you, or your pain or your fear.

And some will say, “I hear your words, Dave, but I can’t swallow them. I mean, after all. That person’s storm was stilled. Her baby lived. His job was not lost. Their marriage was saved. They made it through the storm, Dave. But didn’t God care about my child, or my job, or my marriage? What’s that Dave? I can’t hear your answer because the storm is too fierce. Are you trying to tell me that God cares about this mess?”

The short answer is, “Yes. Yes he does.”

Why is it that YHWH is not acting in the way that you desire? I do not know. Why does it seem as though Jesus is sawing logs right next to you while your world is being turned upside down? I cannot say for sure. And that breaks my heart.

But this thing I know: He is the King of Glory. The earth belongs to him. And while he may be silent, he is sitting right next to you.

The best and wisest thing that your pastor can tell you in this situation is that if you find yourself in the midst of a storm and Jesus seems to be sleeping right through it, reach out and hang on to him for all you’re worth until he calms the storm.

It’s who he is. It’s what he does.  Thanks be to God!

Who’s In Charge Here?

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. On February 28, we from that work (Job 2:1-7) and thought about the ultimate source of power in the universe.   We also considered wisdom from The 46th Psalm.

If you were planning a trip to Los Angeles and Googled “Things to do in Hollywood”, you’d come across a slew of advertisements for a “behind the scenes” tour. My sense is that you’d know what this is, right? Whether we’re talking about making movies or automobiles or factory farming, if I offer you a “behind the scenes” look into something, you’d expect what? A glimpse into the reality that underlies the finished product. Instead of seeing only the feature film or the 1965 Mustang or chicken breasts at 3.98/pound, you’d see what has to happen to make those things possible in our world, right?

Our reading from the Book of Job is one of the places that presents a “behind the scenes” glance into the Divine realm. What does God do all day, we wonder? How does eternal wisdom work?

Satan Before the Throne Of God (William Blake, 1825)

Satan Before the Throne Of God (William Blake, 1825)

Job 1 and Job 2 both contain narratives describing a “heavenly council” – a gathering of Divine or celestial beings at which the affairs of creation are discussed. As we consider these passages this morning, let me remind you that we’re approaching the book of Job as an important story that tells us something that is ultimately true. The point of this story is not so much in the specific details, but rather its attempt to describe for us the underlying reality on which our lives are based.

And having said that, before I consider the story as we hear it in Job, I’d like to mention at least two other stories that point to what happens behind the scenes of the intersection of the unseen eternal reality and our day-to-day lives.

In the world in which Job was written, the ancient Near East, most religions held to the notion that all of the various gods got together once a year – often on New Year’s Day – and determined the fate of individual humans for the year to come. In Mesopotamia, this meant that dozens and dozens of gods would gather in some heavenly location. Each of these gods was associated with a particular city or region, and each of them also had a particular area of expertise or dominance.

The gods of Mesopotamia

The gods of Mesopotamia

For instance, Enlil was the god of air, wind, and storms, and was associated primarily with a city called Nippur. Inanna, who was tied to the region of Urik, was thought to be the goddess of love and war (I wonder why, in ancient religions, these two jobs often fall to the same diety?). Nergal was the god of the underworld who brought famine and destruction into human reality, and was from Kuthu. And perhaps the best known of the lot was a fellow named Marduk, who is often associated with natural disaster and vegetation. Since Marduk was thought of as being the god of Babylon, when that city rose to the status of an Empire, you won’t be surprised to learn that people came to think of Marduk as the most powerful god.

This pantheon, or assembly of gods, reflects a view of reality wherein religion is based in our image, and we create a divinity who is like us – or like we want him or her to be. It also presents us with a “behind the scenes look” at a divine council that is a cacophony of competing voices and claims and counterclaims; a spitting contest full of braggadocio and accusations and conniving – a scene not unlike some sessions of congress or some presidential debates, in fact. In this view of reality, if you were to ask the question, “Who is in charge here?”, the answer you’d wind up with is, “Well, nobody is actually or always in control, really. You just can’t tell with these guys.”

Who's in Charge? I am!!!

Who’s in Charge? I am!!!

So that’s the ancient Near East, or at least part of it. Now fast-forward in history through till today, and let me offer a contemporary American understanding of the divine council. For many of the people in our world, the meeting of the gods looks like those old comics where a person is seeking to make a decision and there’s a little angel on one shoulder and a little demon on the other, each whispering into an ear, urging a specific course of action. Both the tempter and the encourager provide input, but at the end of the day, who is in charge? I am. Because in America, the individual is the ultimate authority.

In Job 1 and Job 2, however, we see a different depiction – one that is at odds with both the ancient Mesopotamian and contemporary American views of divine reality. Each chapter contains the claim that “the angels came to present themselves before the Lord.” That is, heavenly beings come into the presence of One who is clearly supreme and offer who and what they are to that One. This is not a debate; it is not a congress; YHWH is clearly receiving reports from those who, while powerful, are less powerful than he. The very first question that is asked in both chapters 1 and 2 is from God himself: “Where have you come from?” In other words, “Are you doing your job? Tell me about how you have been exercising the authority that I gave to you.

Although this might look really cool painted on a black velvet hanging above your sofa in the man-cave, it never happened.

Although this might look really cool painted on a black velvet hanging above your sofa in the man-cave, it never happened.

There is a huge truth contained in this account of the Divine Council, and one that we oft en forget in our own lives: Satan is not the opposite of God. We do not live in a universe where competing deities vie for power, attention, and ultimate control of the cosmos. Satan is clearly described as a creature who is accountable to God and subject to boundaries that God establishes. If this is true – and I think that it is – that means that good is more powerful than evil; that love is stronger than hate; that hope is superior to memory. Always.

But if we claim that to be true, that presents us with some uncomfortable realities, doesn’t it. We haven’t yet talked about all of the horrible things that happened to Job, but I don’t think that I’m ruining the story for you to tell you that just about everything that Job loves and values is taken away, destroyed, or killed. And in the readings we’ve had this week and last week, YHWH clearly owns the responsibility for this. When Satan presents his report, God holds up Job as an exceptional human being. Satan fires back and says, “Of course he’s good – you treat him like he’s your favorite.” And twice, God gives Satan permission to afflict Job. In our reading for today, after the first round of calamity afflicts Job and his family, God says, “You incited me against him to ruin him for no reason.”

Did you hear that, beloved? God says, “Satan, it was your idea, but the ultimate power at work was mine.” Job is incited against YHWH because Job understands that there is only one ultimate power and authority in all of creation, and it is God. And here in chapter two, as Satan wants to push his theory a little further, he asks God to cause more trouble for Job. In effect, we have a picture of Satan praying to the Lord for horrible things to happen in Job’s life. And in verse 6, we see that God delivers Job into Satan’s hands, although he does set limits – Satan is not allowed to kill Job.

The next logical question, at least to me, is, “Holy smokes? Is YHWH some kind of a jerk?”

If we see the divine only from our experience and only with the facts that we can undeniably “prove” in some fashion, then I’d have to say that it’s entirely possible to conclude that the Almighty is an inconsiderate power-monger who more closely resembles some of our current political figures than the One from Galilee who gave us the Sermon on the Mount.

And yet, precisely because of this man of Nazareth named Jesus, we can see clearly that God’s perspective is not ours, and that our experience of life, of death, of love, of God – of anything, really, is not ultimate. Our experience is limited and therefore faulty. Both Job and Jesus point to a God whose experience and Being and presence is faultless and ultimate and perfect.

The Good News from today’s reading is that there is no such thing as “karma”. While we often use that word as a shorthand to say that “what goes around, comes around”, when we talk about karma in religious language we are referring to the notion that the things that we do and the reason that we do them determine our ultimate fate. To put it one way, karma holds that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. While there may be lots and lots of times where we nod our heads and say, “of course, that’s true”, take a look at the lives of Adolf Hitler or six million Jews or the 2,996 people who were killed on 9/11 or whichever selfish and arrogant celebrity or athlete comes to mind… Take a look at Job, in fact. Everything that we’ve read about Job tells us that if karma were true, then he’d experience nothing but good. And yet this man, who is described by everyone who knows him as unfailingly pious and good and generous and kind, experiences tragedy upon tragedy upon tragedy. What’s up with that? We’ll talk about that question next week.

My second huge truth for today is that humanity is not doomed to some sort of transactional faith wherein “we get what we deserve”. Instead, the Book of Job presents a reality – seen and unseen – in which humanity experiences evil and trouble and calamity and yet somehow, with God’s help, gets through it.

This affirmation is made plainly and boldly in our reading from the 46th Psalm this morning. God is our refuge and strength. God is for us. No matter what our experience of yesterday, today, or tomorrow is, we can hold to the unchanging reality that “The Lord almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

As we walk through our own worlds this Lent, let me remind you that Job is filled with creational language – that is to say, there are echoes of Genesis that pervade this book. I believe that they are there to remind us that we do not exist in a static universe that is filled with robots or irrefutable forces, and we do not live in a world that is ruled by the selfish whims of competing deities. God invested the creation with a series of relationships and some level of freedom. That leads to some level of cause and effect that is not necessarily tied to our own specific actions, yet is subject to the eternal and ultimate will of the Creator – one whom we believe to be ultimately good, supremely loving, and all-powerful. We do not have the power to know how all of that fits together in our world or in our lives, but the fundamentally Good News that ought to ring forth from every page of the scripture is that God is in control, and that God is with us at all times – even in the midst of tragedy and pain – and that God will bring reconciliation and healing and re-creation that is in line with his eternal intentions and ultimate goodness and beauty.

So know this, beloved: the notion of God’s ultimate power and authority as described here in Job mean that you will never, ever find yourself in a situation of pain or tragedy or distress or dis-ease wherein you call out to God for help or assistance, only to look over and see the Creator shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Jeez, I’m just not sure. I mean, wow – that’s really horrible. I wonder what will happen? I’ll do what I can, but…” The fact that God is in control means that God’s original act of creation – bringing order out of chaos – continues to this day. To your life, and to mine. You are not now, and never will be, powerless or alone. God is with you. God is for you. Thanks be to God!