Sunday, August 9, 2020

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Job 38:4-18
Psalm 18:1-6 (7-16)
Romans 10:5-17
Matthew 14:22-33

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?

Every generation has a “Where were you” question. Where were you when Pearl Harbor was bombed? Where were you when JFK was shot? Where were you when the astronauts walked on the moon? Where were you when the Challenger exploded? Where were you on 9/11? People can generally remember where they were when these history changing moments happened, or at least where they were when they heard about it.

We can ask the question about more personal events, too. Where were you when you met your spouse? Where were you when you proposed? Where were you married? Where were you when you decided what you wanted to be when you grew up? Where were you when you became a Christian? For those of us in the military, and other transient communities, knowing where we were helps us to remember when something happened. Where were we when Zack broke his finger? Where were we when we bought that piece of furniture? Knowing where we were helps us to remember when it was.

The question is also used in the courtroom. The lawyer will ask his client, “Where were you on the night this crime happened?” to establish an alibi for the accused. Questions are also used to help place the defendant at other crucial moments, like when a gun was purchased. The lawyer is trying to prove that the defendant could not be guilty because he or she was not there. The same questions might be asked by the prosecutor, too, as he or she tries to put the defendant in the right place at the right time, thus proving them guilty.

God asked this question of Job in today’s passage. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” In this case, the question is meant to establish that Job has no right to question the will and purpose of God. Job was not even a glimmer in his mother’s eye when God spoke creation into existence. God was before the beginning and will be after the end. Human beings are simply unable to know or understand everything about the God we worship. He wouldn’t be worthy of worship if we could.

It is especially hard when God allows terrible things to happen in our lives. We want to be angry. We want to go to court with God, to question Him, to insist on answers to our questions. But God reminds us that we weren’t there when He established the foundation of the earth and we’ll never fully understand Him. What seems to be bad from our point of view may lead to something beyond our imagination. We know that God is faithful. We can rest in God’s promises even when it seems like things are falling apart. Where were we when God laid the foundations of the earth? We did not yet exist in the flesh, but we were loved. Of this we can be sure.

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes wonder why this amazing God even knows about me. After all, I’m nothing. I’m a guppy in an ocean filled with whales. I confess, though, I also sometimes think the world revolves around me. I think I’m the most important person, that my opinion is the only one that matters. I suppose that first sentence is a bit of false humility, while the second is a matter of pride. It is human; we all have the same thoughts and feelings.

The names of the characters in the ancient myths and legends have often become words we use in our daily lives to describe things or people that are similar to those characters. Echo, for instance, was a woodland nymph that loved to use her voice. She sang and talked and always had the last word. One day a goddess was looking for her husband when she came across Echo. Echo, knowing her husband was cavorting with other woodland nymphs, held her in conversation until everyone was safe. When the goddess discovered the deception, she cursed her. From that day on Echo could only repeat someone else’s words.

Now, Echo met a young man named Narcissus who was very handsome. Many a nymph had fallen in love with him, only to be rejected. He refused to fall in love with anyone. Echo followed him in the hope that he might speak to her, since she could not speak first to him. One day the youth, alone in the woodlands, shouted out “Who’s here?” Echo replied, “Here.” Narcissus could not see the source of the voice so called, “Come.” Echo replied “Come.” Narcissus called again, “Why do you hide from me?” Echo replied with the same words. “Let us come together,” Narcissus called. Echo repeated the invitation, went to Narcissus, and flung herself into his arms. He was startled and yelled, “Get off, I would rather die than let you have me!” Echo repeated, “Have me.” But it was too late. Narcissus was gone and she was left alone. From that day on she lived hidden away in caves and withered until all that was left was her voice. She still has the last word and that is why we call an echo and echo.

Narcissus was another character whose name became a common word in our language. We all know what it means to be narcissistic. Narcissism is excessive love or admiration for oneself. It is self-centeredness. Narcissus was a beautiful young man who was beloved of all the woodland nymphs but he had no desire to fall in love and so rejected them all. At his birth, a prophet told his mother that he would live to a ripe old age if he never knew himself. One day, Narcissus was hunting in the woods when he became tired and thirsty. He knelt down next to a creek and saw his reflection for the first time. Thanks to a spell by Artemis, Narcissus was enraptured by the face he saw in the water. Eventually he realized that the face was his own and that he would never be able to possess the thing he loved the most. He was thus tortured in the same way he tortured all those whose love he had refused. He killed himself, the last self-centered thing any man can do.

We are all a bit narcissistic. As a matter of fact, it is a normal stage of growth in humans. As children we believe that the world revolves around us, that everything happens for our sake. It is often true because parents learn the necessity of giving up oneself for the sake of their offspring, at least for awhile. Some narcissism is healthy because it helps us to protect ourselves and to spur us on to follow our dreams. It can also have negative consequences, affecting our relationships in every aspect of our lives. When we make ourselves the center of our universe, we miss out on the possibilities this life has to offer. Some of the best opportunities we have are found in selflessness.

Our relationship with God is not the same as our relationship with others. We might not think it possible for a religious or faith life to be narcissistic, but it is in many cases. How many people change churches because they “weren’t being fed” at their old church. We might not directly ask the question “What is in it for me?” but we make decisions based on the impact it will have on our lives. When God calls us, do we go without concern for ourselves? Or are we like Narcissus, always looking back to ourselves, thinking only of ourselves?

I’m an artist, but not a commercial graphics designer. I have always been fascinated by logos, but I don’t have the talent for creating them. I don’t really like to sketch or draw; I prefer to slap big globs of paint on canvas and make pictures with bright shapes and colors. I also don’t have the creative insight to put a company’s identity or purpose into simple, eye catching shapes. It takes something special to create a logo that will have an impact for a company. It is amazing how subtle these things can be. Sometimes they are so subtle that you may not even realize there is something complex behind the simplicity.

I wonder who thought to put an arrow from the “A” to the “Z” in Amazon’s logo. The meaning, of course, is that Amazon has everything from A to Z. Sometimes the meaning is even less obvious. Take the FedEx logo, for example. I had never noticed it, but I read an article that revealed the FedEx logo has a hidden arrow. You can see it between the “E” and the “X” in FedEx. The arrow represents the forward movement of the company, which is why the arrow faces to the right. I had never noticed it before, but once it was revealed to me, I can’t help but notice it. It only took someone pointing it out to make it obvious.

Has that ever happened to you? Have you passed by a place repeatedly for days, weeks or months, not noticing that there is a new restaurant or shop, but then someone points it out to you? You ask, “When did that go in there” and they answer, “Months ago.” You did not see it on your own; it took someone else to point it out to you. From then on you can’t help but see. Has anyone ever drawn your attention on a song or a television commercial which you then hear or see all the time? We sometimes need someone to point out the obvious for us to see it.

Have you ever wondered why there are people who do not believe in Jesus Christ? Those of us who know the Lord Jesus can’t imagine what life would be like without Him. We don’t understand those who live day after day without some relationship with God. We can’t fathom the atheist who claims there is no God, especially when we see a perfect rose, a brightly colored rainbow, or feel a cool breeze on a hot day. We see God’s hand in the coincidences that seem to answer our prayers. We see Him in our relationships, in our worship, in our lives as we walk forth in faith. So, we cannot understand how they do not see Him also.

Yet, even as we do not understand, do we bother to show them? It is like that arrow in the FedEx logo. For many it was invisible until I mentioned it today. Now you won’t be able to look at the logo without seeing it. Faith comes from hearing, but sometimes we are not willing to take the risk to speak the words they need to hear. How will they know if we do not tell them? It might not be as easy as pointing out the arrow in a logo, but God has sent us to be His witnesses in the world, and He can and does work through the words we speak. We just have to have faith to get out of the boat and try.

Job was a righteous man who had fallen prey to the adversary. He lost everything; he lost his wealth, his health and his family. The book describes his lament and shows us how even the most righteous can find themselves in the midst of a storm of doubt and uncertainty while undergoing suffering. Job comes to the point of blaming God for his troubles, a response to the questions raised by his losses. “Where was God? How could the Almighty allow this to happen to me? Why?”

I don’t think there is anyone who hasn’t uttered those words at some point in their life. We all wonder where God is when we are facing some desert, darkness, sickness, or storm. When a tornado destroys and entire town or a gunman shoots a dozen victims at a school, we ask why God didn’t do something to stop it. When cancer destroys someone we love or we face unemployment because the company can’t survive the economic conditions of the day, we wonder how God could allow it to happen. When a pandemic and social unrest create havoc on our society, we cry out to God to do something. Why would we be any different than Job? If he could doubt, we can, too.

We forget that God has the power to control the world around us because He laid the foundations long before we were born. Instead of trusting in Him, we try to control the world with our own strength, and we fail. When we suffer the consequences of our faithlessness, we blame God. We worry. We are afraid. We are desperate. It is when we are desperate that we finally remember God; it is then that we cry out to Him. Thankfully, He hears us and answers. He hasn’t abandoned us. He hasn’t been sleeping. He is there, always ready to save us.

An enthusiastic young Methodist minister was posted to a small town where there was both a Catholic church and a Jewish synagogue. The Catholic priest and the Jewish rabbi welcomed the young minister warmly and offered any assistance he might need in his new charge. Then they invited him to go fishing with them. As they were sitting in the boat about fifty yards from shore, the priest said he was thirsty. But they had left the cooler on the dock. The Rabbi said, “I'll get it.” With that he stepped out of the left side of the boat, walked to the dock, and returned with the cooler. Later the rabbi hooked a large trout, but the net had been left on the dock also. So the priest stepped out of the left side of the boat, walked to the dock, and returned with the net. By this time the young minister was a little red in the face. Then the old priest said that he had left his knife on the dock and he couldn't get the hook out of the fish's mouth. The young minister stood up and said, “I'll get it!” With that, he stepped out the right side of the boat and promptly sank to his eyebrows. The rabbi turned to the priest and said, “Well Father, if we’re gonna’ help this boy, we should start by showing him where the steppin’ stones are.”

Peter saw Jesus walking on water and he wanted to believe. He wanted to believe so much that he thought the only way he could do so was to prove to himself, and to the others including Jesus, that he had enough faith to walk on the water. His focus was on himself, on his ability to do this amazing thing. He was doing well at first, keeping his eye on Jesus. Then suddenly he turned his attention to something else: the storm. His thoughts turned inward, to his safety and the ridiculous nature of what he was trying to do. He could not walk on water and by stepping out of the boat he was sure he would drown.

The joke is funny because the priest and the rabbi didn’t really walk on water. They knew about stepping stones that would take them to the dock safe and dry. The young minister did not know there were stones. He thought that the priest and the rabbi had so much more faith and in his self-centered view, he thought he had to prove to himself and to them, that he was a faithful and holy as they. His purpose for going to the dock was not to serve the others but instead was narcissistic. He was motivated by his need to be than the others instead of humble and faithful. What he really needed was for someone to point out the stepping stones to him.

I suspect that none of us will have the opportunity to walk on water. No matter how great our faith, we do not need to prove ourselves by doing something impossible and amazing. However, Jesus calls us out of our boat all the time. He calls us out of our comfort zone into situations where we can serve others even though we are not entirely comfortable. He calls us to come to Him in ways that are beyond our ability so that we will learn to keep our eyes on Him for our strength and power and grace. The problems come when we turn our thoughts inward. We get into trouble when our motivation is self-centered, when we allow fear and envy to guide our steps. When Jesus says, “Come” to us, calling us out of the boat, we will stand as long as we keep our eyes, and hearts, on Him.

Storms can be frightening. In this story, the disciples were familiar with the lake, with the boat and with storms, but it doesn’t make it any less frightening for them. They probably predicted that they had enough time to cross before the storm hit, but it came out of nowhere. They weren’t prepared. They were exposed to the elements. Imagine, then, what it must have been like to see a man walking toward them. There is no way a man could walk there, even in the best of weather. Who could it be? Why would he be there during this storm? They thought it must be a ghost, and I don’t blame them. Things like ghosts help us explain the unexplainable, and Jesus walking on water is one of those things. They were expecting to see Him on the other side, not to catch up with the boat on the lake. They were already frightened, and the image of a man in a place he shouldn’t be just added to the fear.

In this story we see a wide range of emotion, especially from Peter. In just a few lines, Peter is terrified, uncertain, demanding, trusting, doubtful and then confident. He believed and then he didn’t believe and then he believed. He trusted and then he didn’t trust and then he trusted again. Isn’t that it is with us? We trust God with our whole hearts until something happens that makes us uncertain or doubtful. Like Job we cry out, “Why me?” and demand proof that God is really there. Like Peter we realize in the midst of faith that it is all so ridiculous. We take our eyes off God and realize that we can’t walk on water.

In the end, God has proven Himself in Jesus. He is truly the Son of God and He has ensured that we will be blessed in the end. It might seem like we should have that perfect life today; it might seem to us that the reality of the world should not interrupt our lives, but we aren’t in control. We can’t possibly know what God knows or see what God sees. We can trust that even in our bad times that God is near and that He will be faithful.

The Psalm for today reminds us to be prepared in another way. Where do we get our strength? We are both humble and narcissistic. What is our stronghold? We rely on ourselves and our abilities. In whom do we put our trust? Do we put out trust in our own strength, or do we look to the God who created the whole world? It is good to be prepared for the storm, but what will we do when the storm strikes without notice? Will we be like Job, crying “Why me?” or will we look to our God and say, “You are my strength”?

We often face our suffering by demanding something from God. Job demanded an answer. Peter demanded proof. We demand healing or vengeance or salvation. Paul reminds us, however, that we can’t make God do what we want Him to do. We can’t go to heaven or hell to bring Him to us. We can only trust that He has done what He has promised and that He will be faithful. See, it wasn’t man who demanded Jesus come, but God who sent Him and Jesus who obeyed. It wasn’t man who demanded Jesus be raised from the dead, but God who restored Him to life so that we can live with Him in eternity. We can’t do it; we can only trust that He can and that He did. It is in that trust that we find life and hope and peace, even in the midst of suffering.

We weren’t there when God laid the foundations of the earth and we will never be able to fully understand Him. But He is with us, near us, in our lives and our hearts and our mouths. He knows how to turn suffering into blessing. He calls us to trust in Him, to believe with our hearts and to confess with our mouths that He is Lord. It won’t be easy. We are no different than Job or Paul. We can rest in the knowledge that God knows that, too, and that He has given us the way of forgiveness. He will be there to pick us up whenever we fail because He has promised always to be near.

Here’s the real joy of Paul’s words: God invites us to be a part of His work. Though we cannot go to get Jesus for ourselves, He is with us and near us in our hearts and in the Gospel, which is spoken into our lives. Paul says that when we believe His Word in our hearts and confess Him as Lord with our mouths we are saved. Of course, we often look at faith in extremes: it has to be fully God’s grace or fully our decision. But when we do this we lose the beauty of the relationship God has ordained between Himself and His people.

We are given an active role in His Kingdom, even from the beginning of our relationship with Him. We join our hearts and minds with His by participating in His wonderful grace, and then we take His Gospel into the world, witnessing to those who do not yet believe so that they, too, can be saved. It cannot happen without God, we can’t make it happen ourselves, for without Jesus none could be saved. By His grace we receive that which He has promised, confessing with our lives that His is indeed Lord of all.

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