Hebrew Bible Lection–>Job 23:1-9
In this plaintive text Job feels absent from the presence of the Lord, “O that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling!” Job’s inability to come close to God has made Job’s heart “faint” and “terrified.” In great anguish Job laments, “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.” Job’s lament is honest and real. There are times when the presence of God seems less than usual–or even to have gone away altogether. Without God’s presence Job feels unable to deal with
This is an alternative Psalm lection for this week. This Psalm presents the opposite feeling of God’s presence then felt by Job in the Hebrew Bible reading. Here the Psalmist suggests that there is no place a person can go to escape the presence of God: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast.” The uneasy space created by the tension between the Psalmists boats of God’s omnipresence and Job’s heartfelt lament of God’s absence is a good place to visit in worship.
When God does not feel present it is often because we cannot imagine God experiencing the human conditions of weakness and suffering. We picture God as immutable and impassible. Our reading from Hebrews reminds us however that we need not think of God in this rigid way: “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” The fact that Jesus has lived the human life, and was “tested as we are” suggests that God is ever close to our weakness and suffering and knows the power that such pain holds over us. Therefore the Hebrew writer encourages us to feel God’s presence with assurance: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Our gospel reading is the story of the rich young ruler (to combine the descriptions given in all three synoptics). This man, the ultimate image of righteousness and success, comes before Jesus and asks “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The question is one of needed assurance and validation. The rich, young, ruler has lived a “good’ life–much like a successful and virtuous church going business man might be viewed as having lived today. The rich young ruler seeks validation that his life has been lived in the right way before God, and thus he is righteous before God, and in God’s good graces (albeit without a proper concept of grace). Jesus instructs him that perfection is near unattainable–and that such self validation (especially for the righteous rich) is not possible (it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle). What Jesus teaches the disciples is that the kingdom is by God’s gift and invitation. It is not about being first, or even the most righteous. After this exchange Peter still seeks validation for himself and the other disciples when he asks Jesus about the way the kingdom will reward them for all they have given up. Jesus instructs that self-sacrifice in this life will seem as nothing compared with what will be given in the kingdom–nevertheless, “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Celebration of Worship
Is God present? Is he next to the sick child, or the hospital bed, or in the unemployment line? We put on a good game-face, but often we are little convinced that God is PRESENT, in power, and in providence, as we go about our daily struggles. Job gives voice to this fear–and so in worship, a place to feel God’s presence, we will consider God’s absence. As we consider the absence of God we will also consider the counter-narrative in scripture–that there is no place a person can go to remove themselves from God’s reach. God has “been there and done that” in the person of Jesus Christ. God knows the brokenness of life and is acquainted with the forces of sin, death, and the devil. Therefore God gives grace, the antidote to the need for self-validation, and the ever present reminder that even if we “make our bed in Sheol” God is there. As you prepare your thoughts, hymns, and prayers for Sunday consider the tension between God’s felt absence and promised eternal presence. How does worship strengthen us in the presence of God and convince us of the gift of grace that sustains each of us during the trials of life?