Questions and Answers
A Sermon by the Revd Dr Bruce Barber, 19 October 2003
Texts: Job 38:1-7, 34 -41; Hebrews 5:1-10; & Mark 10:35-45

Two questions :

God says to Job : Who are you to mouth off against me? : See if you can give answers when I ask the questions.

James and John ask Jesus : We want you to do us a big favour.

There are many ways of understanding the mystery of what it means to be a human being. None is better than seeing our life to consist fundamentally of asking ourselves questions and giving ourselves answers. From the everyday : What do I need to do next? Where did I put it? How long is this going to take? ( a useful question when listening to sermons) - from this more trivial to the more fundamental - Who am I?, or Job’s puzzle which is even more to the point - Why are others perception of me apparently so different from how I see myself? or the most crucial of all - Can I really believe the gospel? - clearly our life consists of nothing more than answering explicitly or implicitly question after question.

If this be true, then one of the ways we fool ourselves is by thinking that life is about getting the facts right - we deliver statements and receive them from others; we pass on information; we make complaints; we regret the stupidity of others; we tell what we believe and people tell us what they believe. Perhaps we do all this as a way of warding off the real questions - who can tell?

One thing is for certain - for 37 chapters Job has been inundated with questions - by Satan’s first question to God in chapter 1 : Does Job fear God for nothing? to his wife’s mocking question in Chapter 2 : Do you still hold fast your integrity? to Job’s plaintive questions in Chapter 3 - Why did I not die at birth? - to his 3 friends depressing questions for the next 33 Chapters - questions which lead nowhere because in the final analysis, they are always the wrong questions.

We can learn from Job something of the tragedy of human existence - that either we come to believe that our life consists primarily of statements - we even say when we do something slightly unusual that we are “making a statement” - or if we come to understand that we are nothing but questions, how readily we accede to the wrong question.

It is not for nothing that the first question always addressed to us human beings is the serpent’s question in the garden of Eden : Did God say? That is the cunning subtlety of the serpent. God tells us the meaning of life and the serpent asks the apparently innocent question : Did God really say that? And so we are seduced into defending God. Made for obedience, we finish up becoming theologians! Don’t fool yourselves - every human being is a theologian, because every human being one way or another is answering the serpent’s question : Did God say?

That question is unavoidable, and it is the very first religious question. And with the very first religious question, the world begins to spiral out of control. We who call ourselves Christians must above all be very suspicious about religious questions. Job’s so-called comforters asked very religious questions - death dealing questions, because they sent Job and they send us into an answering flurry of self-justification.

What is to be done?

There is only one way out. We have to learn before we die that the only thing that matters fundamentally is to learn what is the true question. That means to give up trading amongst ourselves answers that lead nowhere- whether religious answers or irreligious answers - and to learn again that life consists in hearing God’s question to us, not our questions to God. So it is that having had to put up with it for 37 Chapters, from the midst of a cyclone, the Lord got to ask his question “ You’ve got no idea what you’re talking about - shut up - I’ll ask the questions”.

Hence the pathos - oh the pathos - of the gospel. James and John - disciples we must not forget of the One the Church came to call the Word of God - listen to them and hear us in their request. Teacher - how about doing us a big favour? And Jesus replied - note the question - Tell me what it is and we’ll see. And they said - wait for it - reserve for us the top seats of honour.

We know about this sort of question - Let it be OK with me - Bring me after a life of faithful service to a safe and happy destination in this life and beyond - and a parking spot to go with would be quite useful too.

Well, they got the answer they deserved. And we do too. “You’ve got no idea what you’re asking for”. How hard it is to give up our questions - we all take ourselves far too seriously, hanging on for grim death with our silly questions - and they are a form of death.

So tenacious is our grasp on our questions that we go on to kill each other one way or another in the world and in the church as we kill God’s question to us.

So again, what is to be done?

We must learn to trade our questions for God’s question. That means, according to the gospel, to learn how to drink his cup and to undergo his baptism.

It can be done. James himself managed to do it. This same James who made such a human outrageous request was soon, very soon, able to be converted in his own death from a theology of glory to a theology of the Cross. For tradition has it that James was the first of the 12 disciples to suffer martyrdom, being beheaded in the year 44 by Herod Agrippa.

In place of honour and wreaths there is promised only contest and sweat, and that James finished up recognising and embodying. The good news is that there is hope for us all.

Replacing our questions by God’s question to us makes it possible for the ambitious religiously inflated James in each of us to be deflated. The irony is surely that James in fact became St James in a totally unexpected way.

The point is that James actually got his question answered. He got what he was looking for, but the way of getting there couldn’t have been more contrary to his expectations.

And the promise is that it is possible for us too to have our request for honour granted. The only question is : Will we pay the price?