Pentecost 21 Douglas G. Burgoyne October 25, 2009
WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?
One dark fall evening many years ago, there was an insistent rapping on our front door. When I opened it, there stood one of my neighboring clergy friends. He was shaking with anger; and I assumed he was coming to tell me about some problem that was upsetting him, and get my thoughts about it. Instead, he let me have it with both barrels. He shook his finger at me and shouted, “Who do you think you are?” By then I was shaking too! So of course I asked him to come in and talk, so we could work things out. As he leveled his accusations at me, I realized he had every reason to be angry. I was young, and just out of seminary, and thought I had the world, or at least the church, at my disposal! And I had done something which had impacted his ministry adversely, and he didn’t like it. Suddenly, I realized the implications of what I’d done, and I felt awful. I apologized profoundly to this older, more mature priest. And we became the best of friends thereafter.
But that question he shouted at me, “Who do you think you are?” has lingered in my subconscious ever since, as a reminder that I need to challenge myself with it again and again: Just who do I think I am? This morning, two of the readings from Scripture hold before us that very same question, each in a different way. The passage from Job is Job’s response to the famous challenge God hurled at him, almost cruelly, it seemed, after all the heartache he had been through. In the 38th Chapter, the Lord answers Job “out of the whirlwind.” In spite of all Job’s complaints about the tragedies that have beset him, and the injustice of it all, and the mockery of his friends, suddenly the Lord thunders at him out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?…Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?…who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”
Who do you think you are, Job? I created you! I created the heavens and the earth, and all that is! Do you not trust me? This is the challenge that confronts Job. In today’s passage, he answers the Lord in humility and contrition: He repeats God’s words, “Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?” and repents: “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me which I did not know….I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
Now, there you have, in God’s challenge from the whirlwind and Job’s abject repentance—there you have the only answer that the Book of Job offers us to the age-old question: Why is it that bad things happen to good people like Job? God’s answer is: silence—and then a whirlwind! If there is an explanation, God is silent about it. What God does say—with the rush of a mighty wind—is, Trust me! Trust the One who created you! Trust me to get you through whatever is happening to you! Who do you think you are to doubt? Now, a part of me doesn’t like that answer at all. I don’t like not having a reason for suffering. And I sure don’t like losing two of my children; or having thirty-five Virginia Tech students senselessly murdered; or my daughter-in-law’s best friend, mother of two little girls, devoted wife, dying of breast cancer the other day in the prime of life. But the better part of me has discovered—and I will stake my life on this—that God does come to us—sometimes “in a whirlwind,” sweeping us off our pity pots—God comes to us in the midst of our pain to sustain us. Furthermore—and Job could not say this but we can—God comes alongside us to be our Companion in suffering and, ultimately, in hope and joy. That’s the inexpressible gift of God to us through the cross and resurrection of Christ.
Now, today’s passage says that after Job repented and opened his eyes to the greatness of God, God rewarded him with all sorts of good things—more children, lots of money, thousands of animals and a hundred and forty years of life! To me, that doesn’t sound very realistic! If that were the answer to the problem of pain—repent of your doubts and you’ll live a long and prosperous life—we’d all come flocking to confession! But it just doesn’t work that way. There are huge rewards when you really trust God, but they’re spiritual, not material. Remember that the Book of Job is an ancient story—beautiful and profound—but a story nevertheless, and not to be taken as factual history. Read it, ponder it—and then ponder that question: Who do you think you are?
Bartimaeus, the blind beggar in today’s gospel reading, is asked that same question, in effect, not by God but by the crowd. As Jesus approaches, Bartimaeus calls out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” But the crowd sternly orders him to be quiet. Who do you think you are, you blind beggar? You’re in the presence of royalty! How dare you presume upon the son of David? But he cries out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Bartimaeus ignores the voices of the bystanders—and maybe the voices in his own heart that question his worthiness to approach Jesus. In a defiant act of faith, Bartimaeus throws himself upon the Lord. And Jesus responds immediately. In the midst of that huge crowd making its way out of Jericho, he stops. Everything stops. “Call him here,” he says. Now, the very crowd who had told him to be quiet tells him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” And the blind beggar throws off his cloak, springs up from the roadside, springs up from his wretched life, and comes to Christ.
The challenge to Job is, Who do you think you are in not trusting God? The challenge to Bartimaeus is, Who do you think you are in even presuming upon God? Job’s response was to repent in dust and ashes. Bartimaeus’ response was to cry out for mercy. Each had it right in his own way. Not to trust the God who made us is blasphemy and cause indeed for repentance. Not to beg for mercy because we feel unworthy is to ignore God’s very nature of forgiveness and compassion. So who do we think we are? Who are we in God’s eyes? We, you and I, are God’s greatest creation—mortal human beings, to whom God has entrusted the care of one another and of the whole rest of the earth. With our God-given minds we can, and must, learn a great deal about why bad things happen in this world, and what we can do about it. But there’s a whole lot of mystery; and certainly there is no evident equivalence between how good you are and how free of pain you are.
I still treasure a little plaque that one of our children gave us a long time ago. It says, “God delights in you!” I truly believe that. I truly believe that as God’s creation continues to unfold, the morning stars still sing together and all the heavenly beings shout for joy!