There is a scene is episode five, season six of the celebrated HBO series “Game of Thrones” when the very future of humanity hangs in the balance. Bran Stark and his friends are being pursued by the White Walkers, who represent cold, calculating evil, and the undead, who represent the swarming power of chaos. Bran, who is paralyzed, is carried on a litter by his massive but simple manservant, Hodor. Hodor drags Bran away from their enemies down a long, narrow passageway with a pinpoint of light at its far end. As they reach the light and rush through the doorway, the swarm of undead catch up with them. With brute strength and raw power, Hodor slams the door behind him and braces it with his massive back. Bran’s litter is taken up by another, and he continues to flee. As he looks back at Hodor, the powers of chaos attempt to break through the door, bit by bit. They claw at Hodor’s arms, his back, his face. But Hodor is unmovable. His love for Bran is unsurpassable. His strength is unassailable. His will is supreme. Because he holds the door, because he holds back chaos and evil, Bran is saved.
In Mark’s Gospel today, the disciples James and John earn their nicknames, “Sons of Thunder.” They bluster and brag and ask of Jesus in a manner that is, in reality, the staking of a claim that Jesus place them—James and John—at his right and left hand. They wish to be Lancelot and Galahad to Jesus’ King Arthur, and that image is not too far off the mark of who they think Jesus is and will be. Glory swims in their eyes, and they want to be in its very center. James and John can imagine the importance, the accolades, the prominence their central role will bring. In the new world, the Camelot of sorts, the new kingdom of David they expect Jesus to inaugurate, things will revolve around them.
Overhearing the brothers’ bluster, the other disciples get angry, but notably Jesus does not. His reaction is, I suspect, more like sadness. He can predict what’s coming, and he knows that there is great irony in what James and John ask. Jesus asks them if they can drink from the cup he must drink. They brazenly say “Yes, of course we can,” but they don’t understand. They’ll surely eventually drink from Jesus’ cup, but it will not be the nectar they imagine.
In Job today, the protagonist has suffered for thirty-eight long chapters, enduring friends who insist that Job’s trials must be the result of his own sin (which he knows is untrue) and wondering pleadingly how it can be that a man such as himself, who contributes to society, cares for his family, and tends to the poor finds himself on the receiving end of such pain. Job has been the very center of his community, and, he believes, he deserves better. Finally, Job has challenged God to make an appearance and justify Godself. Today, God shows up. And Job becomes the first person in history to say to himself, “Be careful what you ask for…”
God begins, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” And God’s soliloquy continues for four chapters. God explains to Job that God causes rain to fall on parched places that have never entered Job’s concern or even consciousness, turning deserts to oases where human beings have never dwelled. God explains to Job that God’s care, delight, and love are bestowed upon every creature of the earth, from the majestic lion to the ridiculous ostrich. God explains that God is present at the birth of each lamb and each deer.
In a nutshell, God reveals to Job something more shattering than all the pains Job has experienced thus far, namely, that Job is not at the center of things, including the center of God’s own attention, at all. It is not that God doesn’t love humanity—God surely does—but God loves humanity as part of God’s gracious whole, not over and above the rest of the good creation.
At the end of God’s long speech, beyond our reading today, God gives Job a vision of two terrifying creatures: Behemoth and Leviathan. One is on land and the other is in the sea, but they both represent the stampeding, swarming, overwhelming power of evil and chaos that constantly threatens to overtake the world. Job believes that God’s attention should have been on Job’s every and individual need, a nursemaid God who binds every scraped knee. But the vision of Behemoth and Leviathan God offers Job corrects Job’s sight to see where God’s constant attention actually must lie. Like Hodor bracing that door with his mighty back against the White Walkers, God, in every moment of the world’s long existence, labors mightily to keep Behemoth and Leviathan at bay. God—with supreme will, unassailable strength, and unsurpassable love for us and for all the good world—holds the door closed against the evil and chaos that would otherwise overtake us.
As I have grown older and my own conception of God has evolved, God’s speech to Job has gone from being one of my least to most favorite passages of scripture. Our removal from the center of things is a corrective to our human tendency toward arrogance and narcissism. It refocuses our attention away from ourselves and toward the beauty and wonder of the created world. And, the image of God binding Behemoth and Leviathan; the image of God, with outstretched arms and steely intention, holding back the chaos that would otherwise run roughshod over the world every moment of our existence; deepens my gratitude and even love for God.
But it also brings me soberly back to Jesus’ melancholy prediction in Mark today that James and John will indeed, eventually, drink from his cup. The image of Jesus on the cross is, in the end, another version of God holding the door. Jesus’ saving work on the cross is God’s ultimate act, God’s ultimate labor of love against chaos, evil, and death. Jesus suffers on the cross to enact God’s redemption of the world. And both James and John will (as today they ignorantly hope, not knowing what they ask) drink from Jesus’ cup. They will be transformed to become agents of that redemption, too. They will, in service to grace, also labor to hold back the chaos. It will claw at them, and they will both eventually give their lives fending against it for grace’s sake.
This is the lesson today, from both Job and Mark’s Gospel: God gives humanity a role, a purpose, a sacred job to do, and that cup is not at all easy to drink. Ours is not to cast ourselves as the center of attention, either the world’s attention or God’s. Ours is to recognize both the goodness of God’s whole creation and its fragile contingency, with ruinous chaos constantly beating at the door. God’s demonstrated promise is to hold that door, to bind Leviathan and Behemoth, to preserve this world with grace against being overcome by the forces that rail against it. And our purpose; our co-operative role; our calling to, indeed, be the left and right hands of Jesus is to hold the smaller doors whenever evil and chaos claw their way through the gaps. We are to drink the cup that Jesus drank and stand with courage and conviction against the forces that seek to mar God’s goodness and destroy God’s world. As Job learns today and as James and John eventually learn, it is a humbling role, one that removes us from the center and places us in service. It requires a reframing of who we are, relative to our own prior conceptions and relative to God. It may require more of us than we thought we could give.
God holds the door and makes space for the lives of wonder, beauty, and goodness we enjoy. And we are called to brace our backs with God, extending our own arms in love.