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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=224


 

Proper 29 Year B (October 18, 2015)                             St James', Peace River

People aren't always familiar with where our Sunday Bible readings come from, so I want to let you know that we follow the Revised Common Lectionary, which is in use (with some variations) in many countries and many Christian denominations. That means we are listening to the same readings as our fellow Christians down the street in another church, or on the other side of the world. It also means that we work our way through the whole story of the Bible, together, over a three-year cycle.

Where we are in the cycle this fall has opened up some of the lesser-known parts of the Bible. This year our gospel readings are from Mark, and that may be the most familiar book of all. But right now we are also listening to Job and Hebrews. You might think you know the story of Job – even in non-religious settings people sometimes talk about the patience of Job or the sufferings of Job, and the basic story of a righteous man who is tested by having all his blessings taken away. But the familiar parts of that story fit into the first two, and the very last, of its 42 chapters. In between there is a lot more material that is harder to get to grips with: Job and his friends trying to work out, in poetic language, what is really going on and what it means about God and how God interacts with human beings.

And then almost at the end, God himself comes into the story, responding to Job and setting him and his friends straight. That's what we heard part of this morning. Then we moved on to Hebrews, this time an under-explored book of the New Testament, with a very unusual perspective. Unlike most of the other writings which addressed non-Jewish Christians, this one works within the framework of Jewish law and places Jesus at the heart of the system of sacrifice which preserved the relationship between God and his people – both fulfilling and transforming what that system was about. It's another piece that's tough to get our heads around, since even modern Judaism no longer has the practice of temple sacrifice – but today's passage focuses us in on Jesus as the new and permanent high priest, and draws some comfort from that. Priests share the weakness and pain of the people they bring to God in prayer – and when you apply that to Jesus, who came from God to be our priest, you realize that God understands and sympathizes with us, more that we might have suspected.

Both of these readings, though they come from the Bible's hidden corners, actually tell a story which resonates throughout the whole book from beginning to end. It's a story about the gap between God and human beings, and how it gets crossed. The story is told in many ways, because the reality it describes takes many forms. The two main forms look like opposites when you first meet them. One is what happens when human beings decide we can cross the gap, and promote ourselves to being the centre of the story and the apex of the world – think of what happens in the Garden of Eden, or the Tower of Babel. The other main form is what happens when we start to feel that the gap simply cannot be crossed, that God is too remote and transcendent to care or to want anything to do with us and our world. That's something Job struggles with, but it also comes up in the Psalms of lament, and in the experiences of the people of Israel in exile “by the waters of Babylon”.

It's not too hard to find in ourselves in either of those versions of the story. Pride and despair are the ordinary names for those common human experiences, though even then they come in many forms. Pride can be the person whose self-importance takes control, alienating and ruining the lives of everyone else who crosses their path. Maybe you've met that person – though I'm sure it's nobody here! But pride can also be the person who wonders why nobody recognizes their inherent worth, when they actually haven't done the hard work to deserve it; and pride can even be the person who makes him or herself indispensable to family, friends, and neighbours, in the apparently genuine belief that no one could really get along properly without them. We all have our own way of casting ourselves as the true main character of the universe's story, so pride takes as many forms as there are people.

At the other extreme is despair – that feeling that you are not in the real story of the universe at all, that you don't make a difference or have anything more than temporary value. This too takes many shapes in different people's lives. It can cause one person to drop out of sight, and another person to become a workaholic. Some go numb in the face of an uncaring world, while others rage at the unfairness. Even amongst believers, some of us deal with our despair by papering it over with efforts to justify God's apparent distance from our lives, while others throw up their hands in fatalism and give up all attempts to understand God's mysterious ways.

But the Bible keeps calling us back to a story which is about neither pride nor despair, in which we do have our place but are not the central characters, and where the gap between God and people is crossed, through the incarnation – through God becoming human, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And what's amazing about how that story unfolds is that it undermines both our pride and our despair. On the one hand, it's certainly true that “God is God and you're not” - that our own efforts at saving the world are not just laughable but downright destructive, and that we need God to step in, and experience this strange mix of resentment and relief when he actually does.

On the other hand, God does not swoop in to rescue us like Superman saving a baby from a burning building; and neither does God confront our pride just to humiliate us. What God does in Jesus creates something in us that takes the place of false pretence and self-talk. God rebuilds our identity and self-esteem by inviting to look for it in a different place than where we're used to seeking it. No longer as the boss of our own patch, the main character in our own story, the indispensable member of our own circle; but as the servant of all. And in case that label doesn't wear so well for people who like to have a higher opinion of themselves, Jesus makes it perfectly clear that there is no better role in the story – because, after all, it is the Son of Man (who it turns out is also the Son of God) himself who first embraces the chance to give his life as the servant of all. You can't do better than that.

That Son of Man / Son of God puzzle turns out to be a key part of the story, too. Because in Jesus, God doesn't just cross the gap from heaven to us, which would be gracious but also, in an almost literal sense, condescending. Rather than putting us in our place, God offers to put us in his place, showing us that human beings actually do belong with God, as long as we don't feel the need to dethrone God when that happens. God actually wants to share, and so Jesus as the Son of Man bridges the distance from humanity to God, starting from our side. Not by building a tower up to heaven, but by laying his life down, putting himself in God's hands, letting go and giving his all for all. In that moment, he inaugurated the kingdom of God on earth.

In the end that's what blows apart our pride-or-despair dilemma. It turns out the question isn't, am I the king of the world or a piece of garbage. We focus on how much value, worth or status we get, when in fact life is really about how much of it we give. That is, after all, what God does. Wealth, power, education and leadership roles can only be tools to that end – if we have any of those things, the real question for us is whether we will give them away in love, or keep them to our ourselves in a pride that eventually collapses into despair. But even without those tools, you can still love – you can still show your neighbour they are worth something, first to you and eventually to God. Because you do that by putting yourself on the line, not just your stuff.

I think that's what Jesus means when he says to James and John, “You will drink the cup I drink, and be baptized with my baptism.” He says that to us too. When we realize how much we must be worth in God's eyes, for Jesus to spend his life for us, we won't be worried any more about our own value. But it makes no sense at all for us to try to hoard what God has made us. Instead, we know that our lives are as much worth spending on others as Jesus' was for us. When that strikes home, everything changes. There is nothing you have, and nothing you do, that can't find completely new value when you dedicate it to the love and service of others.

That's the story God tells in the Bible; but it's also a story we can tell in our lives. For it to be real for any of us, we need to live it. And the only way for that to happen is to try it out. Take something that you are holding on to because of the hope or meaning it gives you – and turn it inside out. Use it to serve not to be served; to build up someone else's sense of worth instead of your own. Your kindness is not yours so that you can look at yourself in a mirror and feel like you can live with yourself – it is a gift for others. Your reputation is not yours so that people can look up to you – it is a way for you to make a difference to their lives. Your vote (dare I say it?) is not yours so that you can make your own life more comfortable – it is your power to shape a society where the least are put first, and the first offer their service to all.

Spending any part of our lives on the people around us doesn't always feel like the best investment. If we measure by our own yardstick, it's just throwing ourselves away. But when we see how our world and God's meet in Jesus, when we measure by the standards God uses in giving us life and worth – then it's the only thing worth doing, and it's the way to find our true meaning and our deepest fulfilment.