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Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7): 25 June 2006.

1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23) 32-49 or Job 38:1-11

Psalm 9:9-20 or Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Mark 4:35-41

"Jesus is the Answer!" proclaims a billboard seen through much of the American "Bible Belt." A wit is said to have scrawled on one such display, "What was the Question?"

It is a truism in debate that one is at least halfway to victory if one is able to define the terms of the question to be decided. More generally in life, it is true that we cannot hope to make good decisions if we don't ask the right questions. If the driving question of our life is "How can I make my pile as big as I can as fast as I can and retire as early as I can?" our life's course will take a very different shape than if that key question is "How can I use my gifts and resources most effectively to the glory of God and the service of my neighbor?"

The same claim for the priority of questions can be advanced in the interpretation of Scripture. Consider, for example, how many of the key issues of the Christian faith arise out of the Bible's first three great questions: "Did God say ...?" (Gen 3:1); "Where are you?" (Gen 3:9); and "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen 4:9). (I gratefully acknowledge my childhood pastor, C. S. Mueller, Sr., as the source of this insight.)

Today's Old Testament and Gospel lessons also feature questions that can express both ultimate life issues and the gentle, guiding touch of God's Spirit. The Gospel lesson (Mk 4:35-41) relates in seven pithy verses Jesus' stilling of the storm, but within that brief account are three important questions. The first is one that comes easily to our lips when we find ourselves in real trouble: "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" The second is Jesus' challenging response: "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" The third is an awed response to God's deliverance: "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"

A brief look at a few of the Greek words in these questions will clarify their intent and sharpen their application to our own lives. What the NRSV renders as "afraid" is, in fact, more "timid, cowardly" (Gk. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). "Fear" (Gk. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is implicitly commended in the disciples' response (NRSV "And they were filled with great awe" for Gk. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Mark's Jesus hereby contrasts faith ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) not with fear but with timidity. Thus understood, the import of Jesus' question is not "Why were you so scared?" but "What took you so long to wake me up?" Like the sinking Peter in another account on the same sea, it is only once we've exhausted all other options and resources that we cry "Lord, save me!" (Mt 14:30). Faith reaches to the God whom we know is always there; indeed, it is paganism that thinks God must be awakened in the extremity of need (cf. 1 Kgs 18:27).

Yet even faith cannot grasp the sheer enormity of God's power and grace. The Old Testament lesson (Job 38:1-11) shows why the disciples were overawed specifically by Jesus' ability to still the sea. Again, questions predominate. This time, the questions are asked by God of Job, who has been demanding for more than thirty chapters that God appear and give account for Job's unjust suffering. In a sense, this lesson (together with the rest of Job 38-41) represents Job's triumph: God does appear, as Job demanded. But, as befits what is arguably the most theologically complex book in the Bible, it's not all that simple. God appears, but God asks Job a series of rhetorical questions, all of which make it clear that Job doesn't even know what he doesn't know. Only the God who created the universe can say with assurance whether it is operating as designed. (We note in passing the oft-overlooked existence here in Job, as well as in some psalms, of biblical creation accounts in addition to those familiar from Genesis 1-2.)

Specifically, God states that it was he alone who midwifed the sea (Heb. yam) and "clothed" it within limits. The enormity of this claim becomes clear when we consider the power that the (divinized) Sea had in Canaanite mythology, where Yammu was a rival with the great god Baal (cf. the sea monster Tiamat from the Mesopotamian creation myths, cognate with the "deep" [Heb. tehom] in Gen 1:2). In both the OT and NT the sea has been demythologized and is under the control of God--but of God alone, as otherwise it remains a powerful symbol of the chaos that forever tests the created order. Therefore, when the disciples ask "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" they ask (and imply an answer to) the ultimate question that dominates the Gospel according to Mark--a question that Jesus himself answers explicitly only when explicitly asked at his trial by the high priest "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?" (Mk 14:61f.). "I am," says Jesus, with all of the freight carried by the Greek '[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (cf. Exod 3:14).

There's not a question to be had in the Epistle lesson (2 Cor 6:1-13), and, in keeping with the caution at the beginning of last Sunday's Helps, we should not construct a Procrustean bed to force this lesson into a single theme with the other two. Our entree into this lesson is the one often required as we read Paul's letters (and, for that matter, the prophets of the OT): we must play the "telephone game"--not the party game of whispering a message around a circle for the sake of humorous distortion but the everyday "game" in which we can hear only one end of a telephone conversation and must conjecture what the other party is saying. Paul's words, like those of the prophets, can often be understood only as we can reasonably conjecture what were the views of others (usually opponents) to whom Paul is responding. In this case, it is clear that someone has accused Paul of being a self-promoter, a false apostle, and perhaps even a profiteer from the gospel ministry. Paul responds with a degree of candor that few preachers would want (or dare) to match, citing both the sufferings that he has undergone in God's service and the virtues that he has displayed along the way. Paul's point is that he has simply modeled his life and ministry on that of the Master, to the point of offering more love that he has known in return, so that he is simultaneously making himself vulnerable to abuse and inviting reciprocal openness and affection. His words here are in keeping with one of the major themes of 2 Corinthians, that God would use us even in our present imperfection (the "clay pots" of 4:7) as instruments of reconciliation of people to God and to one another.

In the context of the other two lessons (and with due caution about forcing connections), we can say that the Epistle lesson offers answers to some of the major questions asked in Job and Mark. Only God, Paul says, is Lord of time and life (v. 2) and our deliverer from evil (v. 4f.). As servants of God, we are able to move beyond our native timidity to the boldness of vulnerability (v. 11f.), all to the end that no one may "accept the grace of God in vain."

As a concluding note, this day (25 June) is also the commemoration of both the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession in 1530 and the death of Philip Melanchthon, renewer of the church, in 1560. As primary author of the Augsburg Confession (and of its Apology, or Defense) and, more generally, "praeceptor Germaniae" (teacher of Germany), Melanchthon understood the value of framing questions with care and testing all teachings against the fundamental question of how sinful humans can be made right with God (AC and Ap IV). He, like Job and the disciples in the boat and St. Paul, lived long enough to understand that fidelity rather than timidity has its price, yet there stands at the head of the Augsburg Confession this bold verse from the Psalms (119:46): "I shall also speak of your decrees before kings, and shall not be put to shame" (Kolb/Wengert, Book of Concord, p. 31). GCH
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Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2006
Previous Article:Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6): 18 June 2006.
Next Article:Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8): 2 July 2006.

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