Camels, Salvation and Grace
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
These readings contain some of the best known bits of the Bible: "My God My God, why have you forsaken me?"; "It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven"; "We have a great high priest who has gone before us"; "If I go to the west I do not find him". OK, maybe the last one's not quite on a par with "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16), but in the context of today's sermon - it's very relevant.
What I want to do today is to make some comments on the readings, throw in one football reference and one maths reference, and then try and tie them all together, finishing up with three points.
Some comments on the readings
The story of Job is an interesting one - and one you wouldn't wish on anyone. Basically, God says to Satan: "have you seen my servant, Job?" and Satan says: "he only worships you because you molly-coddle him" and God says "Yeah?" and Satan says "Yeah" and so God says, "OK - do what you like, but spare his life". So Satan destroys Job's family, his business, his life. That's chapters 1 and 2. For the next 39 chapters Job, his wife and his three friends have a discourse that consists mainly of Job's so-called-comforters saying "God's been rotten to you. Curse Him" and Job saying "No. I have accepted good from God, so I will also accept bad". 39 solid chapters of your best friends telling you how awful your life is and how better it would be for you if you'd just give up and die. The fact that they're called "Job's comforters" is one of the best pieces of theological sarcasm I know.
Yet Job does complain about God, as we see here. He complains that God is far away, that God is active and yet cannot be perceived. He complains - yet does not sin in so doing (as we find out in chapter 42).
A quick aside - Satan is allowed to kill all of Job's servants and family, yet cannot touch Job himself. So why is Job's wife left alive? The answer, I think, is to be found in Jesus' words in Mark 10:7-8 about a man leaving his father and mother and uniting with his wife to become one flesh. If they're one flesh, then job's wife is Job and therefore must be left alive if Job is left alive.
Anyway, Job has a good whinge about not being able to understand what God's up to, but trusts him nonetheless. Which leads us on to the Psalm.
You'll recognise this reading as words that Jesus says on the cross. You may not have realised that He was quoting this Psalm. It's an interesting Psalm in that David feels really cut off from God - not just deserted, but let down to the point of being betrayed too. It's not the "why are you hiding from me?" of Job but "why have you forsaken me?" He acknowledges that God is God (sounds obvious, but I hope you know what I mean) and yet David is still feeling betrayed. He remembers how God has helped His previous servants - and yet still feels betrayed. It's a Psalm that countless people would have used before Jesus came, in order to express frustration with God. And yet it is part of the Bible. When Paul said that all scripture was God-breathed, he was talking about the Old Testament. Including this bit. So why would God provide us with words with which to criticise him? Why would God inspire, why would He breathe through such words? Because he's big enough to take it. God can be railed against. God can be shouted at. God can be told that you feel He's betrayed you - if that is honestly how you feel. I think that God provides passages like these in order to show that, if that is how we honestly feel, then we should say so. Honesty is the key. God desires honesty from us - Jesus' most common complaint about the Pharisees was that they were hypocrites - they said one thing yet felt and did another. They were not honest before or about God. Saying that you feel that God has betrayed you is not blasphemy - if it's truly how you feel. So, if that is how you feel, say so. God, through this piece of scripture, condones it.
So let's take a look at the next piece of scripture.
There's a great deal in this passage, from Jesus' throw-away remark that the "first will be last" and the fact that Jesus looked at this young man and loved him, apparently because he had kept the commandments. But it's the parable in the middle that I'd like to look at.
The "camel and the eye of the needle" has to be one of Jesus' most famous sayings, even if the context is often forgotten. I've heard three explanations of this quote, as follows:
- A literal one. It is impossible for a camel to get through the eye of a needle so it is more than impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. This is the view taken by the disciples when they ask "who then can be saved?", with the underlying implication that if the rich can't be saved, what hope is there for the rest of us? Yet Jesus answers this in verse 27, by saying that yes, this is impossible for man, but we're not dealing with man here, but God. Especially when it comes to salvation.
- It's figurative. The needle, so I'm told, was a gate in Jerusalem. And the eye was the gap in the needle, which was very low. Camels could get through it, but they had to go down on their knees in order to do so. It therefore wasn't impossible, but it was very difficult. And the obvious symbolic link is to that of getting down on your knees to pray: hence, the explanation goes, the only way to be saved is via prayer.
- It's an exaggeration. A joke, if you like. It's like me saying that it'd be easier for me to run the London Marathon than for Kettering Town to get in the Premiership. It's not impossible, but it's very unlikely. On both counts.
So which one do I favour? I mentioned that the context for this quote is often forgotten. Jesus' words come in response to an incident in His life: the meeting with the rich young ruler. Now Jesus likes this guy, as we can see from verse 21. What Jesus likes about him is the fact that he has kept the commandments from birth. Which might imply that you can earn your way into heaven. What I think is interesting is that Jesus doesn't ask him if he's kept all the commandments, but a select subset. Commandments 6, 7, 8, 9 and 5, to be precise. (Plus one odd one about defrauding.) So what's missing, I hear you ask? Well, why don't you tell me…
(A: You shall have no other Gods before me; You shall not make any idols for yourselves; You shall not misuse the name of the Lord; Observe the Sabbath; You shall not covet)
It seems to me that the set of commandments that the rich young ruler had kept from childhood were very "thou shalt/thou shalt not". They're the social or moral rules - live this way, live that way. The ones about "There is only one God" and so on, don't get mentioned. Why? My theory (and I can't really put it any stronger than that) is that the rich young ruler was being highly moral, without a real knowledge of who he was being moral for. But he knew he wanted eternal life. And he knew he didn't have it yet. Which is why he went to ask Jesus in the first place.
"Nothing in creation is hidden from God's sight" - which kind of brings me back to the Psalm reading - if you feel God has let you down, then He knows that's how you feel, so you may as well say it to His face.
But it's the bit about Jesus the great high priest that I want to focus on from this passage. The high priest was the one who stood between the people and God. The high priest was the one who presented the prayers of the people to God. And we have a high priest in Jesus who is doing that for us. Jesus, fully God and fully Human. Another paradox - another thing that doesn't make sense. And yet none the less true for its paradoxility. The key point, though, is that it is Jesus, who experienced fully what it was to be human, is the one presenting our prayers before God. It is Jesus, fully human yet without sin, who is representing us before the father. Jesus, a human being at God's right hand, representing the human race. I find that encouraging.
But the bit about being the great high priest comes after a "therefore". "Therefore, since we have a great high priest", says verse 14. If it's a "therefore", then it has a situation that requires therforeing. The situation is in verses 12 and 13. God sees everything. He misses nothing. Therefore because we have a great high priest, we shouldn't worry about this, but be encouraged by it. Yes, God sees all that we are, all that we think, all that we do. Nothing escapes His sight. But, because we have a great high priest, interceding on our behalf, we can, as verse 16 puts it, approach the throne of grace confident of receiving mercy that we do not deserve, but our great high priest has obtained for us.
Tying it all together
You've probably all heard of Sir Isaac Newton, one of the greatest mathematicians who ever lived. You've probably not heard of Leibnitz, a German mathematician who lived at the same time. Newton and Leibnitz argued throughout their lives about the correct way to do calculus (differentiation and integration, for those that remember it). Overall, Newton was the better scientist. Yet on this point, Leibnitz was not only right, it's his version of calculus that we use today. Likewise, you've probably all heard of St. Augustine, if only for the phrase "Love God and do as you please". He also coined the phrase "Original Sin" and founded the Augustinian monks. You've probably not heard of Pelagius who lived at the same time and argued with Augustine about the nature of salvation. Augustine believed that it is only by grace that we are saved. Pelagius believed that it is only by works. Now I must admit that I'd not heard of Pelagius until a couple of weeks ago, when he turned up on an Internet discussion forum I contribute to. Well, not him exactly, but his arguments. (Or at least the gist of them - none of his writings survive, only references and rebuttals to them). We don't remember him because we don't remember his arguments. And we don't remember his arguments because they were, predominantly, wrong. And yet I think that we lost something because of his argument with Augustine: their argument polarised salvation: grace or works, works or grace. No blurring of boundaries, no shades of grey, it's one or the other. Plus or minus, true or false, black or white. One or the other, no mixtures or compromises. And yet I see in the Bible a mix: the granting of salvation, the right to enter the kingdom of heaven is purely by grace. It is undeserved, it is un-earnable, it is irrational. By that I mean that salvation is such a huge thing - it is the chance to close the huge gulf that had grown up between us and God - a gulf created primarily by works (words, deeds and attitudes) - a gulf that was impossible to close. So the one who regularly does the impossible, God Himself, decided to close it up. Noticing that we didn't have a great high priest to intercede for us, instead of getting on with punishing us for our sin, He sent Jesus to live amongst us, to experience and to challenge human living, and to die at our hands. In our place. To die one of the most horrible deaths ever devised, so that the mess we'd gotten ourselves into, the way in which we had separated ourselves from God, the mess we could never ever get ourselves out of, so that we could get out of it. He paid an impossibly high price in order to get us out of an impossible situation. And the price He asks from us in exchange for all this?
You've no doubt heard stories of people who try to barter with God. People who say "Oh God, if you help me pass my driving test I'll go to Church every week". And what happens? They pass their driving test and never set foot in church again. Until they want to get their children into Church schools, of course. But that's a different gripe. The point is - you can't barter with God. You've only got one thing that He wants - not your wallet, your attendance or your appearance on "Songs of Praise". Not your singing, playing, reading, preaching, praying, acting, dancing, teaching, thingumybobbing. He wants you. The only -ing he wants is your be-ing. And He was prepared to pay the most impossible price in order to get you. And the price He asks from us in exchange? Nothing. Zip. Blank. Zero. Absolutely nothing. Absolutely nothing else, that is. Because this is where I think Pelagius had a point. We can't work our way into heaven, that's true, but God wants all of us. And that includes what we do. Augustine said "love God and do as you please". I think it's more "Love God and do as He pleases". But then, the nature and wonder of love is that as the love grows, they become pretty much the same thing. You've all seen (and some of you been in) couples who go "What do you want to do?" "I don't mind - what do you want to do?" "I don't mind either - what do you want to do?" "Anything really. What do you want to do?". Sometimes it's genuine decision aversion. But mostly it's a wish to do what the other person wants to do - because you love them. As our love for God grows, so we want to do more and more those things that please God. When James says "faith without works is dead", it's this that I think he's getting at and that Pelagius was hinting at. If we get into heaven and leave everything we do behind, we've left apart of ourselves behind. Our society often defines people by what they do: "Mr Bun the baker" and so on - the first thing people often ask strangers is "what do you do for a living?" Regardless of whether or not it's a good thing, it does show that what you do is part of you. And God wants all of us, so He wants our works too.
But it doesn't make sense. Why does God want us? Why did He send Jesus to do the impossible and die in our place? Why did He pay such a terrible price so that we could get out of the mess we were in and get back to God? It's a huge, inordinately impossible thing to do. It doesn't make sense. Every time I look at the cross I know it doesn't make sense and will never make sense. To me. But to God, who loved us so much that he didn't even spare His only son, it makes perfect sense. To God, who saw that He could punish us because we didn't have a great high priest, so sent us one, it makes perfect sense. And if it makes sense to Him, I guess I'm just going to have to accept it.
Because that's how grace works. You don't understand it, because it doesn't make sense. You just have to accept it. That's the price for getting into heaven. That's the price for eternal life. That's the price for salvation. Acceptance. Accept that you don't understand how it works - accept the gift - and be accepted by God.
Conclusion (the three points)
This sermon has covered a lot of ground. If you'd like to re-read it, it'll be on my web site, or I can print you a copy. But in conclusion:
- The Job reading and the Psalm shows us that God is not too big to be shouted at. Jesus came to show us how to relate to God and if he did it, by quoting this Psalm, then it's a sure bet we can too.
- The Hebrews reading shows us that Jesus is sat at the right hand of the Father. Jesus who knows what it's like to be human, Jesus who knows what it's like to be tempted, Jesus who knows what we're like and how we fail Him. Jesus, who takes all of this and intercedes on our behalf. Therefore we can be certain that our prayers are heard.
- The Mark reading shows us that it is impossible for us to be saved by our own doing. Only by the death of Jesus can we be saved. It's an impossible thing. It's an irrational thing. It's an incomprehensible thing. It's the truth - and that, as Jesus told us, sets us free. Accept it - and be free.
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