Questions! Questions!

This week’s lectionary blog draws on both the lectionary Gospel, Mark 4.35-41 and the suggested Old Testament reading Job 38.1-11.

Dr Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe, clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

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The illustration below comes from the Gospel Book of Echternach in Luxembourg. It is good to be able to include an illustration from that country in our Diocese. I do however also cherish the painting by the 20th century artist Eularia Clarke, ‘Storm over the Lake’, which forms part of the modern art collection of the Methodist Church of Britain. For copyright reasons I have not incorporated it into this blog – but you can view it at Storm over the lake – Eularia Clarke (methodist.org.uk)

There’s a fascinating quote by Frederick Buechner that I remembered after I finished the first draft of this blog. Worth remembering – and reading what I offer below in the light of this: ‘Don’t start looking in the Bible for the answers it gives.  Start by listening for the questions it asks.’ When you hear the question that is your question, then you have already begun to hear much.  Whether you can accept the Bible’s answer or not, you have reached the point where at least you can begin to hear it, too.

Miniature of the Storm at Sea from the 11th century Gospel Book of Echternach

As I was preparing this week’s reflection I suddenly realised that I had reached a strange – and telling – anniversary for this blog.

Back in March 2020 I was invited by the bishops to use this blog to share thoughts and reflections relating to the COVID pandemic, especially contributions of various sorts from people within our Diocese in Europe. So for the next few months that was the function it performed – duly temporarily renamed ‘Discipleship in Difficult Days’. By the time we had reached the middle of June last year, I thought it had probably performed that role for long enough, and with life returning (apparently) to ‘normal’, it was time to for the blog to revert to its usual focus on the lectionary.

In one sense ‘how wrong can you get?’ Although I think it was probably was the right time for the blog to return to its ‘lectionary focus’ in June 2020, I suspect that I was not the only person who mistakenly thought in those days that we had been through the worst of the COVID pandemic (certainly in Europe – I think I had a shrewd idea that Africa still had a very tough time ahead of it). A year on I look back and think about my own, my family’s, Britain’s and Europe’s experiences during the last 12 months.  And it is questions that I have, far more than answers. Questions to my government, to the leadership of other European nations, to the Church, to us all as part of the human race. Questions!

So it is interesting that in this week’s lectionary reading, the storm at sea, Mark 4.35-41, in the short space of the seven verses there are four questions, two on the part of Jesus and two from the disciples who are with him in the boat. There is also one ‘exhortatory’ remark ‘Let us go…’ (Mark 4.35) and one command ‘Peace! Be still’ (Mark 4.39). There is in fact no actual plain simple statement spoken by anyone in this passage at all.

I think this is telling. Mark’s Gospel is one in which the mystery, strangeness  and obliqueness of Jesus and his story is prominent. As I suggested a couple of weeks ago it presents to us a place and time in which the battle between Jesus and the demonic forces, between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan, is still apparently being fought out, though (as here) there is little doubt about who will be the eventual victor. The word ‘rebuke’ which describes Jesus’ address to the storm is a word that is elsewhere used to portray his action against the demons of illness or temptation. The command ‘Be still!’ is in Greek the same verb as appears in Mark 1.25, where Jesus commands a demonic spirit ‘Be silent!’.

We cannot fully understand what is really happening however without delving deep into the Old Testament. One of the glories of this part of our scripture is that it both engages with and yet also transforms the mythology and religion of Ancient Israel’s Middle Eastern neighbours. It was a widespread assumption of such mythology that the sea should be personified as a god, variously named Yam, Tiamat, Lotan, Rahab whose unruly nature was symptomatic of his (or her) efforts to defeat the gods who symbolised order and fertility. The mythological stories of Canaan and Mesopotamia describe a great battle between the sea god and the deities of ‘order’, in which eventually the ‘sea’ is defeated. But it is no easy contest and for quite a while the eventual outcome is in doubt.

Vestiges of this mythology remain in the Old Testament. We see it for example whenever we read about the sea-dragon Leviathan, who is clearly closely linked to the Canaanite ‘Lotan’. But the realities of power have now changed.  There is now no contest.  The monotheism of the Old Testament means that the authority of ‘God’, the deity worshipped by the people of Ancient Israel, is absolute. It is in fact what marks him out as God. It is not only the creation and flood stories of the Old Testament where this is apparent, but also Israel’s great historical experience of the Exodus – which was only made possible through God’s control of the sea. For the Bible God demonstrates his ‘Godness’ precisely by his authority over waves and wind.

This then is the context in which the final question is uttered by the disciples, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?’. For those who knew their Old Testament, as did Jesus’ first disciples and Mark’s first readers, the answer to the question was (or ought to be) self-apparent. Mark usually does not have Jesus directly declaring his divinity in the way that Jesus does in the Gospel of John (Mark 6.50 and 14.62 are perhaps exceptions to this). Rather Mark’s Gospel makes sure we know who Jesus by what he does. ‘Who then is this?’. The one and only answer is ‘God’. It is God who has been really present with the disciples in their storm-tossed boat, God who has so dramatically calmed the storm. It is a true instinct that has led Jesus’ later followers – the Church – often to read this Gospel passage for reassurance in days and years and centuries and places wherever storms of any sort have seemed to be overwhelming. It is indeed a passage for the time of COVID.

I think it is a stroke of inspiration for the Common Worship lectionary compilers to suggest that the Old Testament reading to accompany this Gospel should be Job 38.1-11. The beauty of these verses is so powerful it is almost painful and breath-stopping. Like the Old Testament as a whole the Book of Job clearly knows of the ‘ancient’ mythologies, and incorporates allusions to them ‘the heavenly beings shouted for joy’ (John 38.7), though also transforming them. I think it is no accident that the predominant speech form that runs through these verses (and indeed through the whole of Job 38 and 39) is ‘questions’. I counted seven questions in these eleven verses!

The Book of Job, of course, is well known for its wrestling, through most of its 42 chapters, with the question of evil and unjust suffering. As it makes very very clear there is no easy answer. Job is pronounced as being quite right to refuse the ‘friends’ suggestion that his appalling suffering is a punishment for wickedness he has committed.

But Job also indirectly highlights something else. The ‘problem of evil’ is not really a ‘problem’ in a context of polytheism. If you are polytheistic (believe in many gods) then such issues can be ‘explained’ by a jostling for power and control among the deities.

For monotheism however it is a different story. If God is one, and only, and all powerful, then why does God allow unjust suffering? The Book of Job is profoundly monotheistic – God is incomparable – which is why Job’s dilemma is so deep. Monotheism is also part of our Christian heritage – which is why the dilemma remains for us too, perhaps in some sense, especially in these days of COVID. The glory of the Book of Job however is that it allows that question to hang, without full resolution. That is, I believe, the situation we as Christians need to ‘live’ with – though perhaps with one difference. For we believe that God is in the storm-rocked boat with us, and has experienced in God’s very being our suffering.

I wrote this ‘prayer poem’ (clearly linked to Job 38.1-11) about 20 years ago. The answer it offers to Job’s implied ‘Why’ can perhaps be found in its final stanza.

If only we had been there
when the earth was born
perhaps we would have seen more clearly
how precious is our world, how fragile and irreplaceable,
perhaps we might have cherished it better and loved it more
If only we had been there

When the morning stars sang together, and the holy ones shouted for joy.

If only we had been there
when the vast cathedral of the skies first soared aloft
perhaps the music of the stars
would have soothed our spirits,
and played their harmonies into the lyrics of our lives,
perhaps we too might have learned by heart the great psalm of peace
If only we had been there

When the morning stars sang together, and the holy ones shouted for joy.

If only we had been there
when people could meet God face to face, in garden or in whirlwind,
perhaps it would have been easier to live with questions,
knowing God didn’t want us to stop asking them –
perhaps we might have understood they can’t all be answered – at least this side of eternity –
If only we had been there
When the morning stars sang together, and the holy ones shouted for joy.

If only we had been there,
when the lamb of God was offered before the world’s foundation,
perhaps we would have grasped the texture of our universe’s strange fabric,
still being woven through with love and sacrifice,
perhaps we too might have learned obedience, treading the path of the servant Son,
If only we had been there
When the morning stars sang together, and the holy ones shouted for joy.

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