Pentecost 3 June 21, 2009

Job 38:1-11                

Mark 4:35-41                                                                      

The Hebrew people, who wrote the Bible—both the Old Testament and the New—were a desert people. Water for them had a double, paradoxical meaning. It represented chaos, threat and danger. On the other hand, it represented life and new birth. We’ll get to that other hand in a minute, but let’s start with the chaos, threat and danger side of water.

At the beginning of the Book of Genesis, the story of Creation, the earth is depicted as a formless void, with darkness over the face of the deep and winds sweeping over the waters. It is out of this chaos that the Lord brings forth order: separating the waters of the sea from what were thought of by the ancients as the waters of the sky; raising up dry land from the sea and populating that land with plants, animals and finally human beings. So the very first image we get of the working of God is one in which God overcomes chaos, symbolized by water.

It is this water as threat and danger symbolism that appears in this morning’s reading from Job. Job is a remarkable book, all about whether life has meaning of not, in the end about whether there is a God or not. Job is the archetype of the good man to whom bad things happen, throwing into question human notions of justice and morality. Driven to despair by his meaningless sufferings, Job at length addresses a long questioning prayer to God, calling into the void as it were, asking whether his suffering and the injustices of the universe have any meaning.

And in the great passage we heard this morning, the Lord answers Job “out of the whirlwind”—that is, out of the very heart of chaos. God’s answer hearkens back to that very story of Creation. Was Job there when God laid the foundation of the earth? Was it Job who “shut in the sea with doors when it burst out of the womb?” when God set bounds for its “proud waves”?In other words, who are we mortals to insist that life conform to our notions of meaning and order?

The psalm picks up the water as chaos theme, evoking a storm in which sailors are tossed high on the waves of the sea, their hearts melting with terror, crying out to the Lord for deliverance—God stilling the storm to a whisper and quieting the waves of the sea. And in the gospel reading, of course, it is Jesus who quiets the waves that terrify is disciples in their boat on the Sea of Galilee.

Water does not hold that kind of symbolic threat for most of us today. We have pretty much tamed water, we think, as we think we have tamed everything else. But there is an irony here, for in all our taming there is one thing we have not brought into order—one thing indeed that our taming of Creation has left more terrifying than ever: meaninglessness. And it is meaninglessness that is revealed by these readings as the greatest threat and danger of all.

As we have tamed Creation, as we have increasingly come to see ourselves as lords at the center of the universe, as we have increasingly “explained away” the mystery of God, we have found that what we are left with is strangely empty, strangely meaningless. If what we used to call Creation is only a random accident of chemicals, if there is no purpose to human life beyond the survival of the fittest, if the “getting and spending” of global consumer capitalism is the “end of history”—well, what a handful of dust it all comes down to! Far from freeing humanity from irrational superstition, this postmodern neo-atheism throws us back to an age of terrorism where only brute force seems to matter.

But we said at the beginning of these reflections that there is another side to the image of water in the Bible. Water is also about life and new birth. For a desert people, the spring rains are essential to water the crops. For Israel, it was through the Red Sea that the Lord delivered his people from slavery in Egypt. In all four gospels, it is the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan that confirms his identity as the Son of God and inaugurates his earthly ministry. And it is, of course, Baptism that initiates us into our life in Christ. The Baptismal Font stands at the entrance to our Worship Space as a symbol of this life-giving role of water, and many of us like to dip our hands in it and cross ourselves as a reminder of our new birth in Christ.

The message in all this is that we do not achieve meaning—and thereby fullness of life, what the Scripture calls eternal life—by doing away with the mystery of Creation, by taming away everything so that we can rule life as lords with ourselves at the center. Rather, the way of life lies in embracing the mystery of what is beyond us—whether in the universe, in other people, in changes that threaten us, in our own mortality, the fact that we will die—embracing this mystery and opening ourselves to the saving presence precisely in this mystery of the One we call God.

“Do you have a problem with trusting?” my spiritual director asked me recently. Do we all? Trust, of course, is another word for faith—a better word, because it takes us out of the realm of the abstract and into the personal and particular, where God is always to be found. And in the end, this is all about trust, isn’t it? Do we trust what is beyond us, other than us? Trust can only be realized by launching ourselves out on the waves of life and in our holy terror calling on the God of Jesus Christ, rather than trying to assert ourselves as though we are gods.

Then, to paraphrase the psalm:

 . . . will we be glad because of the calm,

       and God will bring us to the harbor we are bound for.

Let us give thanks to the Lord for his mercy

       and the wonders he does for his children.


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