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Filtering by Category: Gospel of Mark

Game of Thrones - Job: The Night is Dark and Full of Terrors

Job 1:1-5, 13-22

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east.

His sons used to go and hold feasts in one another’s houses in turn; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the feast days had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” This is what Job always did.

One day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was still speaking, another came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.”

Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong-doing.

Mark 4:35-41

On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] said to [the disciples], “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace!  Be s till!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”  And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”


Today’s theme – the last in this whole “Game of Thrones” series – is inspired by a particular character in the “Game of Thrones” saga. Her name is Malisandre. She is a kind of priestess or evil witch, it seems to me, who does horribly creepy things like seducing men, giving birth to shadows, performing rituals with stolen blood and constantly warning and reminding people that “the night is dark and full of terrors.” She repeats it like a mantra - “the night is dark and full of terrors;” or like a promise - “the night is dark and full of terrors;” or as some kind of threat - “the night is dark and full of terrors;” and also as though it is just a matter of fact, an objective truth - “the night is dark and full of terrors.”

And just like all the other sermons in the series, I don’t believe you have to have seen a minute of the show to find meaning here. Because the night is dark and full of terrors – not just in the world of “Game of Thrones,” but in the real world, too. And that made me think about – and want to spend some time with – Job as part of all of this.

Job is no witch, of course, and he’s certainly not evil or sneaky or creepy in any way. He’s the opposite, actually: a model of faithfulness, a righteous man who gets caught up in a power-play between God and “the Satan,” as the story goes. And we are supposed to read Job as a story – as a parable – as a reflection on suffering; particularly the suffering of the innocent and righteous of humanity. It takes place in a mysterious land called Uz – an apparently made-up place you won’t find on any map – but with real, relevant lessons for us, still.

In the verses we heard this morning, we get just the beginning – and just a taste – of Job’s torment: the surprising, unwarranted loss of everything dear to him – the oxen and cattle and camels; even his servants and all of his beloved children, most significantly. Throughout the rest of the story Job – faithful, righteous, blameless Job – wrestles and argues and commiserates with his friends about the purpose of and the reason for his loss and his suffering. They try to rationalize that he must have done something to deserve it; that God wouldn’t allow the truly innocent, the truly blameless, the truly righteous to suffer like Job was suffering.

And one of the things we love about Job, is that he knows that’s not true – he’s living proof that the righteous, the innocent, the faithful of God do suffer on occasion – that the night is dark and full of terrors, sometimes. And one of the other things we love about Job is that he’s in such a loving, faithful relationship with God – he’s so darned righteous – that he has that conversation with his maker, boldly and without shame. Job challenges God with hard questions in the face of his grief. Job begs God to end his suffering, by any means, necessary. Job lets God know how broken and hurting and full of despair he’s become.

And ultimately, at the end of Job’s story, God shows up for Job. And, while God doesn’t give Job any easy answers, God reveals for Job the vastness of God’s power in creation – and of Job’s place and perspective in the midst of all God has made. God has made a world that is beautiful, for sure. But God leaves it – and all of us – to our own devices a lot of the time, so it’s broken, too, this world where we live.

The night – and the day, and our lives in this world – can, indeed, be dark and full of terrors.

So we empathize with Job, because we know where he’s coming from, don’t we? He’s not just some character… in a parable… from a galaxy, far, far away. Job is us. Job is you and me and all of humanity asking hard questions about the unfair, unreasonable, unbearable-at-times terrors and trials and suffering and pain that find us and threaten us more often than we’d like.

Job is every loved-one, still grieving in Dayton and El Paso.

Job is every parent who’s lost a child. Job is every child who’s lost a parent.

Job is anyone and everyone who’s lost everything – or who has ever felt like all is lost.

Job is any one of us at any time that we’ve questioned God’s love for us; or God’s love for the world; or God’s presence or providence or power in our lives.

I had Job on the brain this week, when I watched Anderson Cooper interview Stephen Colbert on CNN. The interview was full of all the politics and humor you’d expect. And if you know anything about Stephen Colbert, who seems as smart and faithful and Biblically literate as he is funny, the rest of the conversation might not have surprised you. I want to share a bit of it because – even though they never mention his name – it was pretty much a study in the theology and the lessons of Job, if you ask me.

The little back-story you need to know here is that Stephen Colbert lost his father and two of his older brothers when he was just 10 years old. They were killed in a plane crash. And, as you may also know, Anderson Cooper lost his own father when he was just10, as well. He lost his brother to suicide when they were both in their early twenties. And his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, died just this past June. So, like Job and his friends in the Old Testament story, these two men were commiserating about the nature and purpose of suffering – their own and the suffering in the lives of others.

Cooper: You told an interview that you have, in your words, “Love the thing that I most wish had not happened.” You went on to say, “What punishments of God are not gifts?” Do you really believe that?

Colbert: Yes. It’s a gift to exist. It’s a gift to exist. And with existence come suffering. There’s no escaping that. And I guess I’m either a Catholic or Buddhist when I say those things, because I’ve heard those from both traditions.

But I didn’t learn it - that I was grateful for the thing I most wish hadn’t happened, as that I realized it. Is that.. and it’s an oddly guilty feeling…

Cooper: Its doesn’t mean that you are happy that it happened.

Colbert: I don’t want it to have happened. I want it not to have happened. But, if you are grateful for your life, which I think is a positive thing to do… not everybody is… I’m not always… but it’s the most positive thing to do, then you have to be grateful for all of it. You can’t pick and choose what you’re grateful for.

And, then, so what do you get from loss? You get awareness of other people’s loss…

Cooper: Well that’s true. Empathy.

Colbert: …which allows you connect with that other person, which allows you to love more deeply and to understand what it means to be a human being, if it’s true that all human beings suffer.

So, at a young age, I suffered something so that by the time I was in serious relationships in my life, with friends or with my wife or with my children, is that I have some understanding that everyone is suffering and, however imperfectly, acknowledge their suffering, and to connect with them and to love them in a deep way, that not only accepts that all of us suffer, but also then makes you grateful for the fact that you have suffered, so that you can know that about other people. And that’s what I mean. It’s about the fullness of your humanity.

What’s the point of being here and being human if you can’t be the most human you can be? I’m not saying ‘best.’ ‘Cause you can be a bad person and most human. I want to be the most human I can be and that involves acknowledging and ultimately being grateful for the things that I wish didn’t happen because they gave me a gift.

Cooper: One of the things my mom would often say, she said that “I never ask, ‘Why me? Why did this happen to me?’” She would always say, “Why not me? Why would me be exempt from what has befallen everybody, countless others over the centuries?

And that’s another thing that has helped me think, “Yeah. Why not me? This is part of being alive. I mean, the suffering is, you know, sadness, suffering, these are all … you know … it’s … you can’t have happiness without having loss and suffered.

Colbert: And in my tradition, that’s the great gift of the sacrifice of Christ, is that God does it, too. That you’re really not alone, that God does it, too.

The thing about Job – and any lessons we stand to learn about our own suffering, from his – is that these lessons are hard to come by, in the moment, when we need them most. Just like Colbert said he didn’t “learn it” as much as he “realized it” [over time and through his faith and in experiences with others], Job couldn’t learn or see what he needed to learn in the depths of his suffering and despair, either.

It took time and patience and wrestling with his maker. It took a wider view of God’s creation and a realization that it wasn’t, ever, all or only about Job. Job realized that it was a gift to be just a part of all that God had so lovingly, carefully made. And, as hard as it is can be to abide, “the night is dark and full of terrors,” for sure. And never mind the “terrors,” the really big stuff that threatens to crush us. The night is dark and full of trials and tribulations that test our patience and cause us to stumble and challenge our faith, just the same – “storms” literal and figurative; cosmic and close-to-home.

It’s why I like this Gospel story of Jesus, in that storm-swamped boat with the disciples, paired with Job’s story. Much like Job wondered of God, the disciples are terrified and concerned that Jesus, asleep in the back of the boat, doesn’t care that they are perishing. And just like God did for Job, in the end, Jesus reveals the power of God over all of creation. Even the wind and the sea obey him!

This wasn’t a magic trick. This was Jesus showing the disciples – in the midst of their terror – the same thing God showed to Job in the midst of his – and something we’d do well to wrestle with whenever we can muster the faith: that trials and tragedies come; that fear and failure happen; that death and disease and suffering and sadness occur; that the night is dark and full of terrors; that God never promises us otherwise and that there’s not always anything we can do to avoid it.

But there is always hope.

Earlier in that same interview, Stephen Colbert told Anderson Cooper something he learned from his mother, about struggle and suffering, over the years, and that was “to see everything in the light of eternity.”  To see all things in the light of eternity.

None of what scares or saddens us most is any match for the love of a God who suffers for and with us, when we do. None of what breaks our hearts on this side of eternity is any match for the grace of God who already lives on the other side of heaven.

Our God suffers and survives, to let us know we will, too.

Our God silences the wind, to let us know love always gets the last word.

The night is dark and full of terrors, but our God’s light shines in the darkness, our God’s mercies are without limit, and our God’s faith, hope and love never end.

Amen

Game of Thrones - Elijah: Playing with Fire

1 Kings 18:20-40

So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, ‘How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.’ The people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, ‘I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred and fifty. Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.’ All the people answered, ‘Well spoken!’ Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, ‘Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.’ So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, ‘O Baal, answer us!’ But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’ Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.

Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come closer to me’; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, ‘Israel shall be your name’; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, ‘Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt-offering and on the wood.’ Then he said, ‘Do it a second time’; and they did it a second time. Again he said, ‘Do it a third time’; and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all round the altar, and filled the trench also with water.

At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, ‘O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.’ Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt-offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.’ Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.

Mark 1:32-39

That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all those who were sick or possessed by demons.  The whole city was gathered outside the house.  And he cured many who were sick and he cast out many demons.  He would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went to a deserted place by himself, and there he prayed.  Simon and his companions were hunting for him and when they found him, they said to him, “everyone is searching for you.”  He answered, “Let us go to the neighboring towns, so that I might proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came out to do.”  And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message and casting out demons.


I picked this morning’s story about Elijah – and called today’s sermon “playing with fire” – because it’s another story from Hebrew Scripture we don’t hear very often and because it’s very much like something you’d see in the “Game of Thrones” series. But I really want to talk about what happens after Elijah dukes it out – after he plays with fire – against the false prophets of the false god of Baal.

We heard a couple of weeks ago about how Moses duked it out with the false gods of Pharaoh, in Egypt, and today’s story seems similar. Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to start a fire, over a sacrificed bull, on an altar to their god and they fail. Despite all 450 of their prophets and their prayers and their limping and blood-letting around that altar, their god, Baal, fails to deliver the fire they long for to prove his power.

But for Elijah, just like God did for Moses – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob delivers. Even on an altar thrice-soaked with water and surrounded by a mote, the fire of God came and consumed the burnt-offering, the wood, the stones, the dust and all the rest. It even licked up the water-soaked seeds in the mote. And because of it, of course, and because Elijah has all 450 of those false prophets seized and killed, Elijah is soon to be on the run for his own life – hunted by Ahab’s Queen Jezebel.

And, on the run for his life, he finds himself alone and desperate and afraid, in the wilderness, asking for God – the same God who had saved him before, the same God who had established him as a prophet of the One True God, the same God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – Elijah asks that he might just die. But after a dream and some conversations with angels, some solid meals, and 40 days and 40 nights of wilderness wandering, Elijah ends up at Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, wondering what in the world is next for him after all he’s done, all he’s run from and all he’s escaped in recent days.

Elijah is aching for, longing for, dying for God’s voice, God’s guidance, God’s presence to teach him or lead him or comfort him or show him something, anything about what could or should be next for him.

Haven’t we all felt something like Elijah at one time or another – in a wilderness of some kind; aching, longing, hungry; dying for guidance, for answers, for comfort, for direction? And haven’t we looked in all kinds of places for those answers, for that comfort, for some direction?

We look for insight in books, don’t we? The self-help section has grown by leaps and bounds in recent decades, I believe. And there’s some good stuff out there, don’t get me wrong. We ask advice from friends and family. We seek guidance from mentors and counselors and pastors, perhaps. And that can be great. I think God is present in and through the people who love us. And sometimes we seek comfort by way of food or drink or drugs or something else, which may seem to work for a minute, but never lasts or serves us well in the end.

Well, God promises Elijah up on that mountain, that he is about to get what he longed for in the midst of his wilderness wandering. Maybe Elijah was expecting a book – or at least some tablets to appear. That had been known to happen before. Maybe he was expecting a conversation or another meal or an angel, who knows? None of that happened. But there was a great wind, strong enough to split mountains and break rocks, but the answer wasn’t in the wind. The wind is followed by an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake. And then there was a fire, (remember how much Elijah could do with some fire), but God wasn’t in the fire this time, either.

And after all of that, there is the sound of sheer silence. Utter noiselessness. Absolute stillness. Pure calm. Total tranquility. Complete quiet. The kind of nothing and silence you could touch… feel… hear, even, as bizarre as that seems. And when Elijah finally hears this sheer silence he finally finds what he was looking for: direction… guidance… answers… hope… and the presence of God.

And I’m inclined to think Jesus learned as much from Elijah’s story as we are called to learn from them both – that silence and stillness and time with ourselves, alone with God – are opportunities, not just to tell God what we need and want and long for, but opportunities to shut up, to be quiet, and to let God show us what God would have for us because of – or in spite of – all we think we need.

See, when we meet up with Jesus today, he’s been on a roll, much like Elijah, you might say. In the little bit of Mark’s Gospel leading up to this morning’s portion of the story Jesus has called his first disciples and they have accepted the invitation. He’s been preaching and teaching and healing – and people had apparently been listening and learning, and getting well. He has duked it out with a demon in the synagogue – and won. And just after leaving that synagogue, he cures Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever and then spends an entire evening curing all kinds of sickness and casting out all sorts of demons for the people in that little town of Capernaum.

And then, very early the next morning, after this marathon day and night of some pretty miraculous work, Jesus goes off, much like Elijah did, by himself to pray. He seems to have snuck out of the house, “while it was still dark,” as the story goes. And because of that, I can’t help but think God’s Spirit was on the move and stirring up something new and mighty in the heart of Jesus. He seems to have been moved up and out and away from the people and the crowds and his followers, to get some time to himself; some time with his God; some time to pray about what had happened; some time to listen for what was happening; some time to pray about what in the world was next for him.

Elijah and Jesus are examples of and inspiration for our need as believers for solitude, for prayer, for reflection, for conversation with God, for time away from the demands and distractions of life so that we can center ourselves faithfully on what God is calling us toward, as we make our way in the world. We are called to do more waiting than working every once in a while; to do more listening than talking on occasion; to be patient more and to push less.

And it seems we need more of that, these days. We need more time for this silence and this stillness because there is so much noise out there in the world. There are earthquakes and fires and a whole lot of hot air, for sure. There are threats of war and rumors of war. There are mass shootings and global warming and cancer and the beginning of another school year.

And we are consumed and distracted by so many ideas and opinions about all of it; so much heartache and heaviness; so many lies and so much division we need to separate ourselves – for enough time to be reminded of God’s presence, even in the midst of it; and to discern God’s will – not our own – precisely because of it.

This kind of silence and stillness, this listening and learning, can save our sanity and our lives and our souls on this side of heaven. And I’m not great at it, to be honest, but I’m learning, the longer I’m around – living and working and being in the world – that we’re playing with fire when we refuse to get still, when we neglect to be quiet, and when we resist being found by the silence of God’s grace.

Amen

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