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Positioned for Success

Commentary
My wife and I have twin eight-year-old girls who are just little soda cans that have been shaken. They are bursting with energy. Cheerfully chattering and singing is their default setting. It's quite delightful. But, of course, it's not always appropriate.

When they were a little younger, we found that bedtimes were a real challenge. Our custom with our older children had always been to read them some stories each night when it was time to go to bed, but the experience was meant to be a relaxing one. With these twins, however, story-time at night was usually characterized by playful chattering and giggling.

One night, before it was time to go upstairs, I walked them through an exercise of their imaginations. I asked them to think about what people look like and act like when they're tired. How does a person talk when they're really tired? How does an exhausted person walk? What do their movements look like, their facial expressions, their eyes?

Once I had gotten them thinking along those lines, I asked them if they thought they could imitate someone who was tired. Try to move and walk that slowly. Try to talk that quietly and that little. Let your eyes be droopy. Let your face be expressionless.

Then, once they were doing their cute little imitations of tired people, I told them that this is how I wanted them to act as they walked up the stairs, as they brushed their teeth, and as they dressed for bed. This is how I wanted them to look as they went to their rooms and climbed under the covers. People who are acting tired and relaxed, I explained, have a much better chance of going to sleep than people who are chattering and jumping and giggling.

There are, you see, behaviors that lend themselves more or less to the things we want to accomplish. Most teachers in school — and certainly the choir and band directors — would argue that better posture produces better performance. The coach urges the young quarterback to employ proper footwork in order to throw the ball well. And the driving instructor trains the new driver about habits of hands and feet and eyes.

There are certain behaviors that lend themselves more or less to the things that we want to accomplish — indeed, the things we want to become. And that is very much the spirit of our assigned passages for this week. They remind us of the postures and attitudes we must adopt if we are to become and accomplish what God has in mind for us.

Job 38:1-7 (34-41)
When she was young, our oldest child was not inclined to "trust and obey," as the cherished old hymn says. Rather, she was a strong-willed little girl, whose inclination was to argue, to resist, and to do things her own way. There were a lot of conflicts that my wife and I tried hard to navigate well.

On one Saturday afternoon, I remember an occasion when our daughter was resisting me and what I had told her to do. I fetched a handful of pennies, and then I sat her down at a toy bench in her room. I wanted to try to illustrate a point to her. On one Saturday afternoon, I remember an occasion when our daughter was resisting me and what I had told her to do. I fetched a handful of pennies, and then I sat her down at a toy bench in her room. I wanted to try to illustrate a point to her.

I put seven of the pennies in a line there on the toy bench. "Let's pretend each penny is a year," I said, "and so this line of pennies shows how long you have lived."

Then I put down a single penny next to the line of seven pennies. "This penny," I said, "represents your baby sister. That's how long she has lived compared to you." Then I asked her to compare how much she knew and understood that her baby sister did not. And, as you might imagine, the list of things that she had over her one-year-old sister was considerable.

Then I spread out on the bench a long line of 39 pennies. It dwarfed the first two lines, of course. And then I said, "This line of pennies represents how long Daddy has been alive. If you know and understand so much more than your baby sister," I said, pointing to their two lines of pennies, "can you imagine how much Daddy knows and understands that maybe you do not?"

The object lesson did not change her basic temperament, of course. In so many ways, kids come the way they come, and you have to work with it more than change it. But for a moment, at least, the point had been made: it might be important to listen to Daddy because he might know some things you do not.

In Job 38, the Lord begins to speak. And his lengthy speech presents Job with a very long line of pennies, indeed!

Most of the Book of Job is talking. If one were to graph Job in terms of "plot" and "dialogue," the latter column would be many times bigger than the former. Job's actual story only requires about three chapters to tell, but his book is42 chapters long. The rest of the book, you see, is talking.

Prior to chapter 38, Job has done a lot of that talking. A few good-for-nothing friends have also had the microphone for extended periods. But throughout all of that human verbosity, the Lord had remained silent.

Then, all of a sudden, there was a dramatic weather event — a whirlwind. Such things as strong winds, thunder and lightning, great fires, crashing waves, and the like tend to get human attention. We stand in awe of the force of nature at such moments. These things make us pause. And this whirlwind, it seems, effectively quieted down the talkative men, which became just the right moment for God to speak.

God's speech is lengthy and dramatic. Students of wisdom literature will observe the theme’s characteristic of the genre. For our purposes just now, though, suffice it to say that the Lord is offering Job some perspective. He is helping to recalibrate Job's understanding of the universe and his place within it. And, in simple terms, the Lord is spreading out before his servant and son a long, long, long line of pennies. He demonstrates, in questions and word pictures, how much bigger and wiser and mightier he is than Job or his friends are. And Job, like us, has good reason to trust and obey in response.

Hebrews 5:1-10
"You just don't understand!"

This is the common lament of the child or teenager who thinks that the parent would make a different decision if only they understood the situation — or the child! — better. In all likelihood, of course, the parent understands much more than the child can conceive. But the plaintive cry expresses a fundamental human need. We long to be understood. And there are few things as painful and frustrating as not being understood or being misunderstood.

When was the last time you were misunderstood? Most of us don't have to rewind the tape of our experience very far to answer that question. Misunderstandings happen so commonly among human beings. And perhaps some of us in our past have profound examples of truly damaging experiences of being misunderstood. It can be a devastating thing.

And the fraternal twin of being misunderstood is the experience of simply not being understood. There's not necessarily any malice involved on the part of the other person. Perhaps they are simply incapable of understanding. But it's a great frustration to us, nonetheless.

So it is that something within us cries out, longing to be understood. In 1978, David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates wrote a book titledPlease Understand Me. It sold over two million copies. And while the book was specifically a study of various character and temperament types, the title captures a core human desire. Indeed, I suspect that the same book with a different title would not have sold so well. But the title gives expression to the longing that all of us feel.

For that reason, we find great relief, comfort, and even help in the blessing of that friend or family member who, we sense, does understand us. No long explanations are necessary with that person: they get it. And we can relax in the comfort of knowing that we — what we're feeling, what we did, what we desire, what we're going through — are understood.

This, of course, is part of the beauty and benefit of various types of support groups. We bring together people who are all experiencing a similar difficulty or trouble or challenge — parents who have lost children, spouses of alcoholics, war veterans, cancer patients, or what have you — and those folks are grateful to have one another. For even if they have never met one another prior to walking into that meeting room together, they enjoy an immediate solidarity and intimacy that comes from knowing that they all understand one another.

This, then, is the beautiful gospel truth that the writer of Hebrews is expressing. He bears witness to Jesus as our high priest. And one of the central affirmations the author makes about the high priest is that he understands.

For the Old Testament people of God, you recall, the high priest symbolized a go-between. He was flesh and blood, just like one of us. Yet he was also consecrated — set apart as holy in order to appear before and serve a holy God. He did business with his fellow human beings, but he also did business with the Lord. He was, in the language of Job, a kind of "umpire between us, who might lay his hand upon us both" (Job 9:33 RSV).

Well, a part of the point that the writer of Hebrews makes is that the high priest, because he is one of us, "chosen from among mortals," he is "able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness." In short, he understands us because he is one of us.

But the writer of Hebrews sets out to explain to his audience how the new covenant is built upon but superior to the old covenant. It's not that Moses, the tabernacle, the priesthood, the holy days, or the sacrifices were bad. But the author wants us to understand that Christ fulfills and is superior to all of these. And that includes the high priest.

Recalling the prophetic references to Melchizedek in Psalm 110, the writer of Hebrews affirms a new order of priesthood for Christ. Jesus is not just one in a long line of succession, as with the Aaronite priests. And neither does he need to offer sacrifices on his own behalf for his own sins, as was inevitably the case for all those descendants of Levi. Yet still Christ as high priest has crucial elements in common with the high priesthood of the old covenant.

First, of course, he still comes between us and God. We need that, of course. No sinful human being can approach the holy and eternal God on his or her own merit.

Second, he is holy. Indeed, Christ is more holy than any of the high priests of the old covenant, for they were merely consecrated, but Christ was perfect. Sinless and pure, He is truly able to "lay a hand on us both."

And, third, He is one of us.

This is a truth that we may overlook, for we may be so conscious of divinity of Christ that we lose sight of his humanity. Yet throughout church history, to affirm the one without the other is heresy. And in his role as our high priest, it is especially important for us to know that Jesus is one of us: that he, too, "offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears;" and that he, too, suffered.

We human beings have a deep longing and need to be understood. And so we find great relief, comfort, and even help in the blessing of someone in our life who does understand. Someone who doesn't require long explanations from us, because they get it. And so it is that you and I may run to and cling to our great high priest: go to him in your weakness, go to him in your need, go to him in your heartache, for he understands.

Mark 10:35-45
Did your mother ever warn you to stop making a certain sort of ugly or silly face "because it might freeze like that"? That was a common threat, at least, for an earlier generation of parents. And while it is not literally true, there is truth in it. Consider the case of James and John.

At this moment in the story of Jesus that was recorded by Mark, these two brothers, James and John, made a terribly unattractive face, if you will. And it stuck like that. Not that James and John themselves continued forever in that expression; but it was recorded, and it continues to be recounted 2,000 years later.

The unattractive face, as I have called it, is this episode of naked ambition and self-importance that we read about in Mark 10. These sons of Zebedee come to Jesus with a special request — an appallingly audacious request, really. "Grant us to sit," they said to Jesus, "one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory."

To their credit, James and John had enough sense of who Jesus was that they were able to see beyond the humble trappings of his earthly life and ministry. He was not robed in earthly wealth, importance, status, and power as they all traipsed together around the hills of Galilee. And so for them to anticipate his glory and his reign was a vision seen only through the eyes of faith.

That, however, was as far as their clear sight extended. In the rest, their vision was very cloudy. For they were not really seeing him, his ministry, his example, or his teaching very clearly, at all.

Jesus had modeled for them — and for us — not ambition to importance and rank but condescension to the form, the attitude, and the work of a servant. Indeed, taken as a whole, from incarnation to crucifixion, we see that Jesus embodied an ethic so contrary to this fallen world's default settings. While we are self-interested, self-serving, self-preserving, and self-promoting, Jesus was self-less. And he taught plainly that if anyone wanted to follow him, that person would need to deny self (Mark 8:34).

Interestingly, the first response Jesus gives suggests not only a destination but a path. They are aiming for a place at the side of his glory, but Jesus wants them to know the route he will take on the way to that glory. Are they willing to travel that road with him?

Earl Marlatt put the moment in poetry. "'Are ye able,' said the Master, 'to be crucified with me?' 'Yea,' the sturdy dreamers answered, 'to the death we follow thee.'"1

James and John do, indeed, affirm their readiness to experience the suffering that Jesus foresaw for himself. And he, in turn, affirms that they will experience it. Yet, still, the request that they made was not his to grant.

The other disciples were predictably annoyed when they heard what James and John had presumed to ask. Their annoyance, however, does not necessarily suggest that they were operating with a more exemplary paradigm or emphasis. It seems more likely that the ten felt the indignation of those who have had someone butt in line ahead of them. Jesus, however, would want each of them to gladly step to the back of the line.

Finally, it is worth noting what happened to both of these brothers in the succeeding years. Their stories make for an interesting rear-view-mirror recollection of this embarrassing episode from Mark 10.

Not too many years after this episode, one of these brothers, James, did "drink the cup" that Jesus drank — that is, the cup of suffering, persecution, and martyrdom. James, the brother of John, was one of the early victims of the persecution of the first-century church. The Book of Acts tells us that Herod had arranged for the arrest of some of the believers, intending to persecute them. One of those apprehended was James, whom Herod had put to death by the sword (Acts 12:1-2).

Meanwhile, the case of the other brother is interesting in a quite different way. While James was perhaps the first of the apostles to die, John was perhaps the last. Tradition tells us that John was an old man, associated with the church at Ephesus, toward the end of the first century. And he was, of course, the recipient of the visions and messages contained in the Book of Revelation.

One of the beautiful contributions to our understanding that Revelation makes is the glimpses it gives us into the heavenly court. Specifically, there is the recurring image of the throne. And, from beginning to end, we see visions of Christ, exalted and glorified.

When John saw those awe-inspiring visions, I wonder what he thought. I wonder if his presumption as a young man came back to mind. And as he witnessed the risen Christ, majestic and seated on the great throne, I wonder if he shook his head in shame and embarrassment at what he and James had had the audacity to request. To presume to sit on the left and the right of that — what were they thinking?

Application
I suggested above that the best way for my eight-year-olds to get ready for bed was to behave like tired people. That principle may apply to many areas of life. And this week's assigned passages may give us a sense of how it applies to our discipleship.

The person prepared to go to sleep has a certain look. The person preparing to sing or play an instrument has a certain posture. And the person prepared to follow and serve the Lord also has a characteristic manner: humility.

Put on the defensive by circumstances and his friends, Job had perhaps lost a proper attitude of humility. That needed to be restored by his encounter with God. The Lord's awing of Job offered a necessary adjustment so that Job might be properly realigned.

James and John, likewise, lacked the sort of humility essential for discipleship. Rather than following the example set for them by Jesus himself, they mimicked instead the self-promoting ambitions of the world. While Jesus reached for the servant's basin and towel, James and John reached for thrones. They sought conventional power and importance, but Jesus reminded them that to follow him would mean suffering.

It is important to note at this point that the New Testament sees a connection between humility and suffering, though it is not necessarily the connection one might think. Our natural assumption of cause-and-effect might be that suffering leads to humility. Yet the New Testament paradigm might be the opposite: namely, that humility leads to suffering. For Jesus is our example in this, and his suffering was not as helpless victim but as strong volunteer. And his followers, likewise, do not have a cross laid upon them but are rather encouraged to take up their cross.

The humility and suffering of Christ were also overlapping themes for the writer of Hebrews in our epistle reading. Jesus did not endeavor to "glorify himself," unlike James and John in our gospel lection. On the contrary, "he learned obedience through what he suffered."

If my twin girls want to fall asleep at bedtime, though they are still full of effervescent energy, they will need to act like tired people. And if Job, James, John, you, and I want to follow Jesus — even though we are still full of pride and selfish ambition — we will need to act like servants. Let us humble ourselves, choosing even to drink his cup with him and carry his cross with him, so that we may be positioned for what he wants us to be, to do, and to become.

Alternative Application: Job 38:1-7 (34-41)
"Job's Adjustment"

I have a good friend who goes regularly to a chiropractor. It's not that he has a specific, physical need that requires treatment. No, he just goes in to the chiropractor on a regular basis to "get adjusted."

The logic, as I understand it, is that the chiropractor believes that most of our health is dependent upon proper alignment. Everything about us is connected along and controlled by our spinal column and nerve system. When anything along that line is out of alignment, therefore, trouble ensues. And so the chiropractor will routinely "adjust" his patients in order to help bring them back into alignment.

Personally, I don't have the training to judge such things. I do think there is something fundamentally true about the underlying paradigm, however. In so many, many areas of life, the key to good health is alignment. And all of the story of Job could be read in terms of such an alignment paradigm.

In a sense, all of the story of Job could be read in terms of such an alignment paradigm.

When we are first introduced to him, you recall, Job is a model of a well-ordered life. How he conducts all of his affairs appears to be exemplary. He is a man of character, integrity, and devotion. And we also observe that he is richly blessed.

This, of course, is a certain kind of alignment. When a person's life seems to be good on both the inside and the outside — both the quality of the person and the physical and material condition of their lives — that suggests that everything is as it should be. But then tragedy struck. Indeed, tragedy after tragedy struck. Now Job no longer appeared to be blessed. The "outside" no longer looked so good, and that called into question the "inside."

This, at least was the paradigm of Job's ostensible friends. They reckoned that a life that was good on the inside would also be blessed on the outside. The fact that Job's external condition was so terrible, therefore, suggested to them that something was out of alignment.

Job, too, argued that something was out of alignment. His perspective was the flip-side, however, of the one articulated by his consolers. While they looked at the externals and concluded that something was wrong with Job on the inside, Job was confident of the internals. He vigorously defended his innocence and his righteousness. What was out of alignment in his judgment, therefore, was the universe. If there was justice, he reasoned, then he would not be in such a state.

In terms of plot, Job's story ends back in alignment. Once again, as at the beginning, we see a righteous man who is living a blessed life. It is the embodiment of the conventional wisdom of Deuteronomy and Proverbs. It is the look of the sort of cause-and-effect paradigm that we wish were always the case in this world. It is, therefore, a happy ending.

But the Book of Job is not mostly a book of plot. Rather, it is mostly a book of dialogue. And the final speaker — the one who brings the climactic, spoken word in a book full of spoken words — is the Lord himself. Our selected Old Testament passage comes from the Lord's speech, and it is a speech of realignment.

The human speakers have been quite full of themselves. Everyone is sure either of the way things do work or the way they ought to work. There's been a lot of drama and bluster in the dialogue leading up to this moment. But then the Lord steps in and puts it all back into perspective.

There is an iconic scene in one of the Indiana Jones movies in which Jones is suddenly confronted by an intimidating, sword-wielding foe. The sinister opponent dramatically demonstrates his speed and skill in handling his sharp and massive weapon. For a moment, Jones looks doomed. But then, with an expression that looks almost bored, Jones pulls a gun out of his holster and shoots the man with his impressive sword.

It is an unbecoming analogy for the Lord, to be sure, but the point is made. The fancy sword show was no match for a loaded gun. And, likewise, the eloquence, self-importance, and indignation of the human speakers amounts to nothing when compared to what the Lord has to say.

God does not endeavor to answer their questions or satisfy their objections. Rather, he himself asks a series of questions. And, in a sense, the first question sets the tone for all that follows. "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?" God is asking Job, "Who are you?" And all of the subsequent questions, with their majesty and divine muscle-flexing, are asking, "Who are you?" while demonstrating "Who am I."

In the end, one senses that Job has had a profound adjustment. He (and perhaps also his friends, though they recede somewhat into the background toward the end of the story) have been realigned. For the ultimate alignment of the human soul and life is when we are properly located with respect to God. When we are living with humility, reverence, and gratitude before him, then we have been aligned properly. And the Lord's speech to Job provides that blessed adjustment.




1 Earl Marlatt, "Are Ye Able," UMH #530
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