PSALM 34:1-8 (19-22)

I will bless the Lord at all times;
    his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
    let the humble hear and be glad.
O magnify the Lord with me,
    and let us exalt his name together.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
    and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant;
    so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord,
    and was saved from every trouble.
The angel of the Lord encamps
    around those who fear him, and delivers them.
O taste and see that the Lord is good;
    happy are those who take refuge in him.

19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
    but the Lord rescues them from them all.
20 He keeps all their bones;
    not one of them will be broken.
21 Evil brings death to the wicked,
    and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
22 The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
    none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

“Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.” Really?

Of course, we must allow for the possibility that this as well as all the other psalms were written for use as the liturgy and songs of the temple during worship. If that is the case, then such idealistic and exaggerated language was not intended to explain or justify anything, but merely to carry the faith and aspirations of the worshiping community godward. Perhaps all the poet is wanting to say is that God helps and saves those who look to Him in their afflictions, by giving them hope for deliverance and the strength to endure. “God is our ever-present help in times of trouble,” is another hymn of faith found among the Psalms.

It may well be that clear-cut simplifications and black-and-white exaggerations are necessary to produce the kind of belief that holds in force our human worldviews. If there is to be meaning to our idea of God, for instance, it must have clear lines and definite content to distinguish it from all that to our minds is not God. In the biblical worldview lying behind much of Western culture, God is nothing if not the saving power that delivers us from evil, damnation, catastrophe and death. At some deep level we need to know that someone, and someone very able, is watching out for us.

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JOB 42:1-6, 10-17

Then Job answered the Lord:

“I know that you can do all things,
    and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
    I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
    but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
    and repent in dust and ashes.”

10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11 Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. 12 The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. 13 He also had seven sons and three daughters. 14 He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. 15 In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. 16 After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. 17 And Job died, old and full of days.

In a way, it is unfortunate that the author of Job brought his story to such a bright, happy … and unrealistic conclusion. All of his wealth is restored and doubled, his family is perfectly replaced, and a good long lie is awarded to him. When exactly does that happen in real life?

A better ending, because less like a fairytale, would have Job come to realize the present grace of God in the midst of his suffering, bringing him the kind of wisdom that is won only be coming through the fire of trials and tribulations. There is literary evidence, in fact, that the ending of Job as we have it (42:10-17) was added later by the same editor who inserted the early episode of the heavenly wager between God and the Accuser (1:6-12). Take these two additions out of the text and you have a deeply challenging yet much more realistic exploration into the problem of undeserved suffering.

While the patience of Job is typically upheld as his chief virtue, a still more worthy attribute that receives little attention is Job’s persistent demand to have an audience with God. Relentlessly he pushes through the brambles and blockades of his friends’ theological advice, insisting that his “case” be heard directly by the divine executive-in-charge. In the end, it wasn’t reasonable explanations that he got, but he did come face to face with God. And that was enough.

JOB 42:1-6, 10-17

Then Job answered the Lord:

“I know that you can do all things,
    and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
    I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
    but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
    and repent in dust and ashes.”

10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11 Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. 12 The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. 13 He also had seven sons and three daughters. 14 He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. 15 In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. 16 After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. 17 And Job died, old and full of days.

God’s invitation to Job to expand his mind so as to understand all the mysteries of the universe and to serve as its governor if he things that he can do a better job of things, sufficiently humbled Job – and we are careful to say “humbled” and not “humiliated,” since the effect was to bring him “down to earth” (the literal meaning of humility) and out of the abstract real of theories and explanations.

This is the point of the narrative where God has been traditionally understood to say something like, “I have my reasons and your mind is too small, so just let it go at that.” Some such phrase has been used, and abused, in countless situations of tragedy and loss in order to justify the sovereign will of God with the raw fact of personal suffering. In order to save the idea of an all-controlling God, condolences are gently extended along with a pious shrug over “the unfathomable purpose of God.”

When Job repents in dust and ashes, it is not for the now-discovered sin that is the real reason for his catastrophe. “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear” – that is to say, God had been only a rumored reality haunting the vocabulary of religion: creator, lord, most high, ground of being. “But now my eye sees you” – or in other words, God has become for Job an experienced reality, a vibrant and awesome presence, the mysterious Other beyond the reach of words yet profoundly near.

What Job repents of is his earlier presumption that he could find comfort in theology (talk about God) rather than find God in his suffering.

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MARK 10:35-45

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The “cup” and the “baptism” that Jesus refers to  here are the ordeal and death that await him farther down the road. In fact, these metaphors were widely understood throughout the Greco-Roman world of Jesus’ day. We find them in the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, for example. The cup represents one’s destiny, in the mixture and amount of wine one has been given – by fate, according to Aeschylus; by God, according to Jesus.

And baptism, the ritual washing whereby one is submerged in the water in a symbolic death and “raised up” to newness of life, often stands for a particularly profound and severe crisis which deeply transforms and drastically rearranges one’s priorities and perspective in life. Jesus knew that full commitment to the call of God would eventually lead him into the desperate violence of others, of those especially who had vested interests in the present world-system of spiritual abuses and moral imbalances.

The Son of Man came to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. A ransom is what is given up for the sake of securing the release or redemption of something (or someone) else. Jesus “gave up” his life not only on the cross, in his death, but throughout his ministry, as he “gave up” his time, energy, security, and comfort in the service of human hope and salvation. In doing this, he set free all those many who perceived in him the authentic life, who would find the faith and courage, then and now, to take up their cross and follow.

In truth, we are giving our lives up every day for something or other. The question we must ask ourselves is whether or not the object of our sacrifice is supremely wholesome and worthy.

MARK 10:35-45

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

James and John were brothers by Zebedee, and are elsewhere named the “sons of thunder,” suggesting they were of the type that bring down storms. At least it is fair to say that these boys were not quiet and withdrawn; when the spirit moved them, they spoke up and acted out. Firebrands might be another name for such personalities. These are the movers and the shakers of the world, and no doubt the early Christian movement benefited from their aggressive involvement.

Another word that can apply to such extroverted and energetic individuals, however, is impulsive, which names their tendency to act on impulses coming up from the place in our human psychology below rational reflection or careful consideration. When James and John cornered Jesus for his promise of their superior positions in the coming kingdom, they were clearly not speaking out of a balanced and accurate understanding of his teaching.

It is as if, after Jesus has just revealed the Diamond Truth of his gospel, about the way of authentic life through the voluntary “death” of self-interest for the sake of another person’s wellbeing, these two then take Jesus aside and demand, “Uh-huh, but we’d like to be on top when everything shakes out.” If they had grasped his Truth they would have understood that as long as such ego concerns as status, power, recognition, and superiority are preoccupations, the call to go past the self in compassionate service, redemptive justice, and sacrificial love will not be heard.

HEBREWS 5:1-10

Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.

So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,

“You are my Son,
    today I have begotten you”;

as he says also in another place,

“You are a priest forever,
    according to the order of Melchizedek.”

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, 10 having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

Jesus became “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” by opening the path through the jungle of human experience, not to some alien world in the afterlife but into the heart and higher possibilities of our life in the present world. He didn’t say, “Just hang in there, and it will be over soon.”

Rather, the refrain of his good news message was that we are all of us in the evolutionary throes of becoming. He said that by God’s grace we can enter into the fullness of life before we die, but that if our death comes early we can die into this self-same grace, like a child falling asleep in its mother’s arms.

How did Jesus discover that unconditional grace is always and everywhere available, if not for the fact that he outlived his last doubt and out-loved his last fear? Because he was subjected to the toils and mortal condition of our shared human experience, and kept his spiritual balance through the gauntlet of rejection and physical trauma, Jesus was “made perfect” just as we are “made perfect” (finished, complete, whole) in the fire on the altar of life. The author regards Jesus as our high priest who offered his example as our way through and his living spirit for our present comfort and strength.

Melchizedek was the mysterious higher priest-king of Salem (Jerusalem) who offered Abraham communion, with a blessing over his enemies. In return, Abraham gave Melchizedek a tenth of everything he possessed.

PSALM 104:1-9, 24, 35c

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
    Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty,
    wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
    you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
    you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your messengers,
    fire and flame your ministers.

You set the earth on its foundations,
    so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
    the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they flee;
    at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
    to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
    so that they might not again cover the earth.

24 Lord, how manifold are your works!
    In wisdom you have made them all;
    the earth is full of your creatures.

35 Bless the Lord, O my soul. Praise the Lord!

When the divine voice answered out of the whirlwind of Job’s suffering experience, it was not in defense of God’s justice or in prosecution of Job’s sin that it spoke. Instead it lifted Job’s attention to the larger context of his experience where far-off supernovas explode and seed new planetary systems, unpredictable weather patterns devastate entire regions with flood or drought,  hungry lions chase down gazelles, and this moment dies to give way to the next.

What would existence be if suffering in its countless varieties were completely eliminated? There could be no life, for life of one thing requires the death of another for its metabolism of energy. There could be no growth, for growth necessitates the termination of one phase for the next to begin. And since to exist is to survive in time, gradually reaching maturity but then winding down to extinction, time itself would have to be removed – leaving what?

Admittedly it’s not a remedy to the vexing problem of human suffering, but a widened view on the universe can be remarkably effective in helping us cope with our own burden of existence. Once the aperture of your perspective has opened up to take in the countless marvels of creation, it almost always happens that wonder, awe, and gratitude awaken in your heart. In wisdom God has made them all. Praise the Lord!

JOB 38:1-7, 34-41

38 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
    I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

34 “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
    so that a flood of waters may cover you?
35 Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go
    and say to you, ‘Here we are’?
36 Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,
    or given understanding to the mind?
37 Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
    Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
38 when the dust runs into a mass
    and the clods cling together?

39 “Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
    or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
40 when they crouch in their dens,
    or lie in wait in their covert?
41 Who provides for the raven its prey,
    when its young ones cry to God,
    and wander about for lack of food?

Why didn’t God come clean and just confess to Job that He had made a bet with Satan, and that the poor chap had performed admirably throughout his ordeal? “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t let you in on the secret without ruining the game. You did just fine, and congratulations.” Why not? For the simple reason that the heavenly wager between God and Satan was not intended as an explanation of Job’s suffering, but rather as a device for disqualifying the popular theory that people suffer in this life only because they deserve it.

Because Job is presented as a righteous and blameless man, the author needed another way of launching him on his misadventure. And while the opening wager scene offends our modern moral sensibilities, it was really about the only way the author could set the stage without giving up entirely his core belief in the sovereignty of God.

Instead of either an explanation or a confession, the answering voice from the whirlwind raises Job’s awareness from a personal focus on his own troubles, to the expansive mystery and marvelous complexity of existence on the cosmic scale. God is saying in effect that He’s doing the best He can, and if Job thinks he can do better he should step up and take over. As the Buddha in India discovered at about the same time: Life is suffering.

JOB 38:1-7, 34-41

38 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
    I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

34 “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
    so that a flood of waters may cover you?
35 Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go
    and say to you, ‘Here we are’?
36 Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,
    or given understanding to the mind?
37 Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
    Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
38 when the dust runs into a mass
    and the clods cling together?

39 “Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
    or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
40 when they crouch in their dens,
    or lie in wait in their covert?
41 Who provides for the raven its prey,
    when its young ones cry to God,
    and wander about for lack of food?

If there is a dominant lesson that the Book of Job is trying to bring home to us, it is that life’s meaning will not be found in explanations. An explanation is always and necessarily an abstraction from experience, whereby we step out side of the moving stream of life itself and take hold of verbal formulas that name and assign value to what we are experiencing.

Being the thinking creatures we are, we cannot help but jump to conclusions frequently in order to make sense of what’s going on. It becomes especially profound when we are making our way through tragedy and loss, but the one truth that we must learn in life is that its meaning is not “out there” in some mind-independent reality, but instead is constructed (and subsequently entertained) by our mind.

The whirlwind in this passage is surely a metaphor for Job’s experience: disorienting, confusing, unbalancing, chaotic. Up till this moment in the story, Job’s friends have been advising him on how to make sense of his misfortune and personal illness – by seeing it as retribution for unconfessed sin or at least as due chastisement for insisting on his innocence before God. But all of their explanations and theories amount to nothing more than a piling-up of justifications for God, letting God off the hook by shifting the blame to Job.

Job’s unwillingess to play the scapegoat for God resulted at last in his experience of epiphany. God answered Job out of the whirlwind – not from outside it, but directly out of its chaos of questions and contradictions.