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Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Job 38:1–7; Hebrews 5:1–10 & Mark 10:35–45

Do you ever find, when you’re either listening to, or reading, passages from the Bible, that certain words come to mind that perhaps sum up what you’re thinking about that you’ve heard or read in the passage?

While preparing the sermon for this morning, as I read each of the three passages from Scripture – from the Book of Job, the Letter to the Hebrews and the Gospel of Mark – there were certain words that sprang to mind that captured what I was thinking: presumptuous and disrespectful, humility, arrogance, power and jealousy. Did you perhaps find yourself thinking about any of those words?

When Job questions God on why he has been subjected to pain and suffering, God says to Job, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” In a way God is saying to Job, how dare you; who are you to question me; how presumptuous of you to think you have the right to question me on the workings of the world when you have little or no knowledge about it. Rather than feeling compelled to answer Job’s question, God continues to question Job instead. Were you there when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have any understanding of what took place. And then God becomes quite sarcastic, “Who determined its measurements–surely you know!” God is clearly frustrated, and I’d say more than just a little annoyed, by Job’s questioning of Him.

Do you think God is harsh and unfair in His response to Job? We could argue, on the basis that everyone is entitled to their opinion, that everyone has the right to question anything, and that Job is therefore within his rights to question God. But is that really true? Does everyone have the right to question anything?

I was thinking of that question in the context of social media, and especially in relation to certain topics such as climate change, and the notion of “white privilege” as it relates to the Black Lives Matter movement. I’ve seen numerous posts on social media on both of these issues, and I have read some incredibly diverse comments from people who have opposing views. Often the ‘conversation’ that occurs, within the thread of comments, quickly degenerates into a ‘slanging match’, with people hurling personal insults at one another. Most often this seems to happen when people are uninformed or uneducated on the relevant subject. 

One of the major downsides of social media as I see it, is that everyone has the opportunity to express an opinion on an issue or topic, even though their opinion is not informed by any fact. How many people have actually taken the time to objectively research the topic before forming an opinion and making a comment in the public space?

I think it’s disrespectful to those people who have devoted many years of study and researching all of the relevant facts and aspects of a specific topic, that their findings or views can be challenged and/or ridiculed by someone whose own view on the same topic is based purely on their opinion and not on any proven fact or validated research. Humility seems to be a character trait that is missing from many such social media conversations.

Humility is actually a central aspect of today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. The author is describing how the high priests are chosen by God to represent the people in all matters relating to God, especially the offering of gifts and sacrifices for sins. The author states that no person should be so presumptuous as to take this honour themselves, because it is something they can only take when they have been called by God to carry it out. 

The author uses this as an opportunity to highlight the example of Jesus, the ultimate high priest who represents all people in all matters relating to God, but who at no stage seeks glory for himself, but having been called my God, is obedient to God, even to the point of suffering and death, so that all people might receive salvation through him.

Contrast this with the actions of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, and the other ten apostles, in today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark. The sons of Zebedee basically ask Jesus to appoint them as his second in command, with one at his right hand and the other on his left. In their own arrogance they mistakenly think of these positions as positions of power, that is power in a worldly sense and not in the spiritual sense. They want Jesus to give them positions of power and influence. 

When Jesus tries to explain that they don’t know what it is they are asking for, they arrogantly answer that they are capable of enduring anything that may come with these positions of power. When the other ten apostles find out what James and John are doing, they are both angry and jealous, because they don’t want James and John to get all the glory. Jesus then tells them that they have all missed the point. To be great in terms of God’s kingdom, is to be the servant of everyone else. 

This notion, of putting the interest of others ahead of your own, is something that seems to be missing from many of the arguments being expressed by those people who are opposed to mandatory vaccination against COVID-19. Many of the arguments I have seen posted by people on social media suggest that mandatory vaccination is an infringement of their civil rights, in this case the right to choose whether to receive the vaccination or not. And like some of the issues discussed on social media that I’ve already mentioned, many of the comments made by people to support their position are merely based on their opinion, and not on any fact or objective information gathering. 

Many people also seem to be saying that their right to choose is more important than the responsibility they have to play their part in protecting the health and wellbeing of other people in society. On the one hand they want to share in the benefits that come from being part of society, but on the other they don’t want to share in the responsibility that comes with being part of society.

Jesus teaches that we must be servant and slave of all; that we should consider the needs of others first, instead of expecting them to consider our needs. And as Mark reminds us in today’s passage, Jesus Himself came into the world to serve, not to be served. 

Ultimately He had the power to do anything that He chose to do. He chose to remain faithful to God’s calling. He abandoned all notion of human or worldly power, and surrendered Himself to the will of human authorities, in the process turning the understanding of power on its head. He gave his life as a ransom for humankind. He put our needs ahead of His own.

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