Sunday, June 24, 2012

Pentecost Four:
Job 38:1-11
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

Why are ye fearful? have ye not yet faith?

The psalm for today focuses on a specific group of people: seafarers in trouble. This connects with our Gospel lesson for today, which is Jesus calming the storm. However, the psalm speaks about others in trouble, about four groups of people who cry out to God in their need.

The first group is described as those lost in the desert. Now the singers of the psalm would clearly have understood this to mean the wandering Israelites when they were journeying to the Promised Land. They were lost and wandering for forty years, faced thirst and hunger. They were desperate. They cried to God and He saved them. He gave them food from heaven and water from rocks. He took care of their needs. The singers would also know from firsthand experience what it was like to journey through the desert. This psalm was likely used during one of the high holy festivals of the Temple, when many pilgrims had journeyed to Jerusalem. They had faced the dangers of the desert and found the City of Jerusalem and their God waiting at the end.

We may not get lost in the desert or even have to journey across long miles of wilderness to get from one place to another, but we do get lost. Our deserts tend to be of a more modern nature, like the wilderness of unemployment or broken relationships. We get lost in the quest for material wealth or fame. We get lost in the confusion of too many choices. We get lost in the chaos of too many voices. We all have times when we are faced with temptations that try to lead us down the wrong path; those are our desert times. We are reminded by this psalm to cry out to God. He is with us. He will provide for us. He will get us to that city where we will be safe. He will satisfy our hunger and our thirst with good things.

The next group of people described in the psalm are prisoners. In this case, the prisoners are confined because they have rebelled against God. Again, the singers would have recognized the story as referring to those who had been led into exile by foreign conquerors. They knew that though it was the enemy that took them, it was God who allowed it. They suffered the consequences of their rebellion. But God did not abandon them, He stayed with them and when they cried for His help, He saved them and led them home. The Jews in Jesus’ day would understand the cry of the oppressed as they were suffering under the hands of the Romans. They were free to live, but only as free as you can be as an occupied nation. They, too, were experiencing the consequences of rebellion against God, led by leaders who were more driven by their own power and position than the truth of God’s Word.

How do we rebel against God? In what ways are we oppressed and seemingly cut off from our Father? We are sinners, in desperate need of a Savior, but all too often we try to solve our problems by following the ways of the world. The Israelites were exiled because they did not trust God. They turned to alliances that put God last in their lives. They trusted in false gods and the strength of men. The Jews trusted in their self-righteous works and the Law. They trusted in their own strength. We do, too.

We may not be prisoners of some occupying force or exiles in a land that is not our home, but we are not free to be everything God has created us to be because we are caught up in our own darkness. We turn to the things of the world to save us from our troubles, ignoring the God who will make everything right. We try to fix the world with our own strength, rejecting the God who can restore the world. When we cry out to God, however, He is right there to break our chains and lead us into the light.

The third group described in the psalm is the sick. We can identify with this group the most because we all experience sickness. We get colds, we feel pain, we suffer sadness. In this psalm, it seems as if sickness is suffered as a consequence of rebellion, like the wandering and darkness. Certainly the singers may have looked back to the story of the Israelites in the wilderness when their rebellion brought the poisonous snakes. In that story, the people suffered dis-ease because had turned from God. In the days of the Jews, the people were harsh, blaming every illness on the sin of the sick. They were not concerned with the care of the sick; instead they made them outcast. We know that illness is not a punishment for sin. We know that sickness is a natural part of living in this world and sometimes we will get sick. There are some diseases that can be attributed to bad habits, but God does not punish us with illness.

We also know how hard it is to be thankful to God when we are in the midst of pain and dis-ease. It is not unusual for a cancer patient to ask “Why?” and to blame God for their pain. It is not uncommon for the ill to be angry with God. The most common question asked by those who do not believe in God has to do with suffering; how could a loving God allow people to suffer? Illness, unfortunately, is a part of the imperfect world in which we live. But it is also a time when we can trust in God’s faithfulness and seek His healing touch. Thanksgiving comes not only when we are healed, but when we know that God is able to heal and we turn to Him.

The final group described in the psalm is those who are facing the storms at sea. This particular part of the passage is included in our lesson for today because the Gospel describes the disciples facing a dangerous storm. The psalmist talks about the dangers of the mighty waters. Sailors spent so much of their time on the sea, but it was mysterious; they didn’t know what was under the surface of the water, except for those few glimpses of those odd creatures of the sea. They had surely seen the sea creatures, but they did not have the kind of knowledge w have today. What did a blue whale look like to a sailor on the deck of a boat not much larger than the fish? It is no wonder that many myths and legends come out of the sea. The sailors did not understand the sea, but they knew that God had the power to save them from the dangers.

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.

It will never be clearer that God is present in the midst of our storms than during the story in the Gospel lesson. Jesus was right there. And yet the disciples were afraid. They couldn’t believe that Jesus would sleep through the storm. I have a hard time understanding it, too. I do not sleep well, even under the best of circumstances. The threat of storms can keep me awake for hours. Jesus was in a relatively small vessel on a dangerous lake during a powerful storm. It seems impossible that He could sleep. They were afraid that they would die, but Jesus had no fear. He had a peace that gave Him the freedom to rest in the midst of the storm.

That peace comes from living thankful lives, trusting that the God who laid the foundation of the earth will bring His people through their troubles. He wandered in His own wilderness, trusting that God was with Him. He faced darkness, knowing that God would light the way. He confronted the pain and dis-ease of this world knowing that God’s healing hand could make a difference. He shouted down the storm and it stopped.

How do we face our own troubles? Do we live in fear and worry, or do we thank God knowing that He is with us in the midst of them?

Poor Job. 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. Why would we be any different than Job? If he could doubt, we can, too.

God answered Job’s condemnation with some questions of His own. “Were you there at the creation of the world? Did your hand lay the foundation of the earth?” Now, we probably understand the creation better than Job. We know the sea better than those sailors. We can explain, and even heal, the illnesses that people face. We have roads that take us straight through the most dangerous deserts. But despite all our modern accomplishments, we can’t do what God does. We can’t make a tree. We can’t create life. We can’t control the storms.

God asks Job if he has acquired the ancient wisdom that would allow him to know the mind of God and the mysteries of God’s will. There is only so much that Job, even righteous Job, will ever know. There is only so much that we will ever know, no matter how much we study the world. “And said, Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further; And here shall thy proud waves be stayed?” God’s answer to Job might seem harsh. It is almost as if He is simply saying, “Shut up.” We can’t be God no matter how hard we try. We can’t find our way out of the desert, the darkness, the sickness or the storms.

In response to Job’s condemnation, God asks, “Who are you?” He pulls rank on his human challenger and puts him in his place. Jesus confronted the disciples’ fears with the same attitude. “Where is your faith?” He asked. Where is our faith when we face the troubles that are bound to come, whether we bring them on ourselves or are a natural part of living in an imperfect world? Where is our faith when we are wandering in a desert facing the temptations that try to lead us down the wrong path? Where is our faith when we are in darkness and it seems like God is too far away? Where is our faith when we are sick or facing the storm? Are we afraid, or are we singing thanksgiving to God?

Paul knew what it was like to live in the storms. During his entire ministry for Christ he faced difficulty from the Jews, from the Gentiles and from all sorts of authorities. He has a long list of sufferings to his credit. He spent time in prison. He was hungry, cold and tired. He was shipwrecked, beaten and rejected. He knew what it was like to be on the edge of death. He endured many things for Christ and for those who would come to know Him through his ministry. Through his hardships, Paul remained true to God, for with every hardship he suffered he can list an even greater virtue in which he is called to live. “…in pureness, in knowledge, in long suffering, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in love unfeigned, in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left…” Whether the circumstances were good or bad, Paul was there to share the kingdom of God with the church and the world. He faced it all with rejoicing because God could, and would bring salvation to someone, somewhere at some time. Paul got it; he knew the Lord of the sea and did not live in worry or fear.

Isn’t it funny that Jesus, the Lord, had more faith in fallible man than the disciples had in their God? Jesus did not come to do it all, to feed them or clothe them. He did not come to take care of all their problems or make their lives easy. He came to teach them how to trust God and go out in faith to do the work they were called to do.

We are going to fail. We are going to complain when we are wandering in our desert times, wondering why God has sent us on this journey. We will conform to the world in which we live, dwelling in the darkness rather than seeking the light. We will ask why we are sick; we may think we deserve it. We may even blame God. We will feel like we are drowning and ask God whether He even cares. We will do these things. God knows. He even understands.

But we can live in faith. We can work together, keeping each other from falling. We can see God in our neighbors and thank Him that He is present with us in our troubles. We can believe that He will provide and protect, heal and save us, thanking Him for His faithfulness even while it seems like He’s missing. We can do these things because we have the assurance of God’s grace. He has saved us. He has healed us. He given us the light and led us through the desert. He did all this through Jesus Christ our Lord. It might seem like Jesus is sleeping in the boat, but He is always able to calm our storms. Let us join with the psalmist and give Him thanks, for His love does, indeed, endure forever.

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