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Sermon – October 18, 2009: Presume

Sermon for Sunday, October 18, 2009 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Presume

Job 38: 1-7; Hebrews 5: 1-10; Mark 10: 35-45

When journalist Henry Stanley doffed his hat and said “Dr. Livingstone, I presume,”

he wasn’t saying, “Dr. Livingstone, I guess.” He knew it was Livingstone. Livingstone’s

servant had told him already. He used the word “presume” to indicate that he was taking a

liberty in addressing someone to whom he never had been introduced. It was like saying,

“I beg your pardon–you’re Dr. Livingstone, aren’t you?” Presumption always raises the

question of pardon, because presumption is something which needs to be forgiven.

Dr. Livingstone’s is the most famous use of the word “presume” that I know, and I

think that all of today’s scriptures have to do with presuming. There’s a little saying about

“assuming” with which people warn other people who admit that they are making

assumptions–that it to assume makes something out of “you and me.” Presumption

means something riskier than making assumptions, however, and In order to understand

what it is, we need to have a sense of place and of decorum and of needing permission to

engage another person.

Unfortunately, we learn about presumption from being put in our place. This is

unfortunate two ways–it’s painful to have it suggested that we are less important than we

seem to have suggested by our behavior, and some of the time we are put in our place

by people who are only doing it to make themselves seem more important than they really

are– then they’re being more presumptuous than we are. But if you can remember a time

when you were young and didn’t realize that there was some kind of pecking order in a

conversation, and you were too bold in speaking up, you may be able to remember

someone’s somehow quashing you, letting you know that you weren’t on equal terms, and

needed to speak in a way which acknowledged that. A more extreme example– I read in

the paper about a man who came before a judge for some minor crime, and the man facing

judgment was wearing a t-shirt with a rude, wiseacre saying on it, and he was found guilty of

contempt of court as well as the original charge. The judge was telling him that the business

of a court was dignified, and that its dignity wouldn’t suffer rude statements, even ones

printed across one’s chest.

Presumption is making too much of ourselves, asserting a nonexistent freedom to

speak and act without due recognition of somebody else’s importance. Societies with welldefined

social classes, or castes, or widely accepted codes of manners, are aware of

presumption. Our society obscures it. The relationship, however, between an immortal

and absolute deity and a mere human being makes presumption a very real possibility for

the human being involved, and that’s what we see in the three readings we’ve had for

today. Job, although he may be right to question what God has allowed to happen to him,

strays into being presumptuous. His problem is not his sense of justice, but his sense of

permission to suggest judgments about God. The sons of Zebedee, though they will in

fact suffer all the things that following Jesus will entail, are presumptuous in thinking that they

have a right to places of honor in Jesus’ kingdom. Finally, the author of Hebrews points out

that Jesus couldn’t appoint himself to serve as a high priest, because such selfappointment

intrudes on a prerogative of God.

Some people respond to the image of a God unimaginably holy and utterly distinct

from anything created, a deity whose every interaction with mortals is a profound act of

condescension. This is the notion of God we have in that famous encounter in the Temple

between God and the prophet Isaiah, in which Isaiah recognizes that God’s meeting him

may mean his annihilation. God sees that it’s not so, sending a vision of Isaiah’s lips being

purified by a coal from the altar, so that Isaiah can believe in his own acceptability as an

instrument of a God so great. Nobody can make themselves good enough to dare to

enter the presence of God, from this perspective– it is up to God to give human beings

the power or the status to approach God.

Many of the New Testament’s meditations on the nature of Christ understand Jesus

as equipping us safely to be in the presence of a holy God. Jesus may be seen as

having achieved this for himself, with God’s help, and human nature’s gaining a new

potential through Christ’s acceptability. Or various legal analogies, of indebtedness that

required canceling, or wrong that needed atoning, are offered to show how mere humans,

once too lowly and imperfect to survive being near God, have by Jesus been given the

right to have a relationship with the Almighty.

Job is a book worth reading over and over, and worth reading as part of the Bible’s

tradition. If nothing else, it should cure us of many of the trite and shallow explanations for

misfortune to which we as religious people sometimes are prone, because whenever such

statements are made in the book of Job, they are wrong. Something is wrong, but the way

most people try to get at it is foolish and, in the long run, presumptuous.

Job’s predicament, of experiencing unjust affliction, is our experience at some point,

and the questions it raises about trust in God and faith in ourselves are good questions.

They are not given easy answers in the book, but the right way to frame them is

suggested, and one of the ways it is, is by raising the question of presumption. Who do

we think we are? Who do we think we are to question God? That seems like the whole

argument between God and Job at this point in the scripture, and Job takes it that way, and

to that extent it’s like the parent who doesn’t care that the child doesn’t see the sense of

some denial or direction and says, “Because I said so!”

That’s not where the book of Job ends. All of Job’s reaction to his trouble, in the

end, is seen as more appropriate than the responses of any of his friends or neighbors.

His mixture of consternation and self-confidence, questioning and resignation to the inability

to comprehend, are declared, in the final chapter, to have been right.

Somewhere in there, though–in the scripture we have for today–he has been

reminded of one of the frustrations of being both a spiritual and a mortal being– and that is

of the distance between himself and God: distance in power, in wisdom, attainment,

responsibility. In the long run Job’s deciding that he just has to hold his peace is only part of

what makes him righteous– he’s also right to have noted injustice when he saw it–but in

response to God’s asking Job “who do you think you are?” his putting his hand over his

mouth is the right thing to do. At some point in all our dialogues with God–not the end

point, because it’s not the endpoint of Job–but at some point in our wondering and

questions and complaints to the Almighty, keeping our peace has its place. Not due to

exhaustion or frustration or the sense that there’s nobody listening, but because the One

listening is so much greater than ourselves that there are limits to how much indignation we

ought to feel on our own part.

It’s easy to see the presumption of the disciples James and John, who think that it

makes sense for them to ask for places of honor for themselves in Christ’s kingdom. “Who

do they think we are?” we ask, and we overlook, momentarily, how, along with Peter, they

were the first chosen, and they, along with Peter, form a certain inner circle. James is the

disciple Jesus “loves,” we are told, and that at least means a noticeable distinction in his

status. Jesus isn’t too hard on them. They’ll deserve it, as much as any of the disciples, but

Jesus tells them it isn’t his place to give special places in the coming kingdom. They don’t

understand how being honored or rewarded or recognized in the coming kingdom is going

to work. Jesus knows this is true o all his disciples, and he uses the resentment caused by

this request to remind all of them that their aim should be humility and not elevation.

This is a lesson for you and for me. I wish we all were investing ourselves so much

in our discipleship that it would occur to us to think that we deserve some special reward for

working so hard at copying Jesus. It’s human nature to think we should gain from our efforts.

When we do something for Christ’s sake, however, the message here seems to be that

though we feel we should get a pat on the back for it, and some kind of credit, that may not

necessarily happen. What’s necessary is that we should regard our following Jesus as a

matter of looking out for the good of others, and forget about ourselves.

The scripture from Hebrews, which elaborates the idea that Jesus couldn’t appoint

himself to serve in the way God uses him, but instead has the role assigned him by God,

reinforces that. If Jesus himself has a calling which demands things of him, and he has to do

his best with it, despite great difficulty and eventually complete self-sacrifice, without being

assured of the result, why should it be different for us? If it were our universe, we might

choose to have things work differently than that. If it were our creation we might apply our

own expectations. If it were our place to pronounce judgment, we might have a different

word for what happens. But everything instead is in God’s keeping, and it is our faith that

though that sometimes is hard for us, that’s our hope and salvation.

 

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