Sunday, June 21, 2009

Third Sunday after Pentecost: When God doesn't meet our expectations

Preached by the Rev. John M. Good at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, June 21.

A couple of weeks ago I was playing golf with some good friends at Eagle Springs Golf Club in North County, when we saw lighting flashing out of a black cloud to the south of the course. Normally I would have high tailed it to the clubhouse, but I was having a particularly good round, and, like the Bishop in the movie Caddyshack, I was determined to finish. After just missing a birdie putt on fourteen and hitting my second shot to the green on fifteen, the black cloud moved overhead. It brought with it a lightening and thunderstorm that was at least as severe as that storm the disciples and Jesus encountered on the Sea of Galilee. If the local TV stations weren’t breaking into regular programming to warn folks about this storm, they should have. Rain was coming sideways in sheets. Gusts of wind were blowing small branches from the trees. Lightening was firing bolts everywhere and thunder was shaking our bones. My friends and I took shelter, such as it was, in a small grove of trees off the fifteenth fairway, and I began to pray for the storm to let up so I could finish my round. But Jesus was taking a nap in the back of the boat, and he didn’t wake up!

I probably should give Jesus credit for keeping the lightening away from that grove of trees, but he still did not stop the storm so I could play the last three holes. I didn’t get too upset because I really do not expect God to cater to my whims whenever I ask. Every time I see that earnest young preacher tell me to call on Jesus when I want something in his TV commercials, I want to tell him that Jesus is not some kind of heavenly bell boy who jumps to help everytime I yell "Front!." At the same time I know many people call on Jesus when they have desperate, often life or death, needs, and his failure to answer as they wish plunges them into inconsolable sorrow. Quite often their disappointment turns them against God and his church because God did not respond as they expected. They shake their fist at Jesus, and walk away. Given the bill of goods that some churches have sold them in this era of consumer religion, I can’t say I blame them.

Their response is much like the response of a scholar who was interviewed on public radio not long ago. Forgive me for forgetting his name. He reported that he had begun his academic study of scripture as a devout Christian, but after years of research he now is, at most, an agnostic, because he cannot reconcile the concept of a just and loving God with all of the personal misery that occurs on earth.

That is the kind of response we might have expected from Job. As you know, he suffered calamity upon calamity because God made a bet with Satan that he would remain faithful through any adversity. Given what happened to him, none of us would have blamed Job if God lost his bet. Job did remain faithful, but he did not endure his afflictions in quiet resignation. The bulk of the book is his argument with three friends who came to "comfort" him. In case you are looking for names to give your unborn child or grandchild, their names were Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. They all said that Job’s sins must have been monstrous for God to punish him this way. Job protested that he did not deserve this kind of treatment. Throughout these conversations, he calls on God again and again to vindicate him.

For thirty-four chapters God doesn’t offer so much as a peep in Job’s defense. Finally he confronts Job with the words of our first lesson: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!" Job had kept faith all those thirty-four chapters because he expected God to vindicate him in the end. But when God finally does show up, it is not to justify Job, but to justify himself. "I’m God, and you’re not!" God says out of the whirlwind. "How dare you base your faith on your expectations of who I am supposed to be."

Isn’t that the answer to all of those folks, scholarly or not, who give up on God because he did not fulfill their expectations? Whenever we let our preconceptions of who God is supposed to be determine our faith, our faith is on shaky ground. God often does not meet our expectations just as he did not meet Job’s. If that torpedoes our trust in God, we have based our trust on our own opinion of who God is instead of on who he is revealed to be in scripture.

Sometimes scripture reveals that God exceeds our expectations, as Jesus did when he stilled the storm. His disciples, who knew Jesus as a friend and mentor, were not expecting their friend to have supernatural powers to tame nature. When he calmed the wind and the waves, they were left wondering, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"

Thank God that he refuses to be defined by our expectations! How many of us would have expected God to change history without using overwhelming coercive power to reward and punish. How many of us would have expected God to subject himself to all of the limitations and vulnerabilities of being human. How many of us would have expected God to suffer the outrage and savage pain of a ghastly execution to reveal his love for us. Historically, human beings have expected their gods to reveal themselves by using force. No one was looking for a God who would reveal himself by being vulnerable to worldly evils. That is why I am convinced that the gospels are not fiction. No one in those days (or ours) expected God to be anything like the one revealed in those writings.

The gospels challenge the conventional wisdom of what we can expect from God. But if we trust the revelations contained in gospels, we are less likely to dismiss God because he does not meet our expectations. On the contrary, we are able to look beyond our expectations to see where God is truly at work in our world. And we are prepared to be astonished when God exceeds what we expect.

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