Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 30, 2008

2008.11.30 “Where is God?”

Central United Methodist Church

“Where is God?”

Isaiah 64: 1 – 9

November 30th, 2008

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence — as when fire kindles brush or makes water to boil — to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

          When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.  From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.

You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.  We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.

Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”   – Isaiah 64: 1 – 9, The New Revised Standard Version

 

In one of the most famous passages from one of the most famous books of our time, holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel tells this story:

“One day, as we returned from work, we saw three gallows, three black ravens, erected on the Appelplatz. Roll call.  The SS surrounding us, machine guns aimed at us: the usual ritual. Three prisoners in chains — and among them, the little pipel, the sad-eyed angel.

The SS seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter.  The heard of the camp read the verdict.  All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows.

This time, the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner.  Three SS took his place.

The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs.  In unison, the nooses were placed around their necks.

“Long live liberty!” shouted the two men.

        But the boy was silent.

“Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking.

At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over.

Total silence in the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.

“Caps off! screamed the Lageralteste. His voice quivered.  As for the rest of us, we were weeping.

“Cover your heads!”

Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish.  But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing.

And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writing before our eyes.  And we were forced to look at him at close range.  He was still alive when I passed him.  His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

“For God’s sake, where is God?”

And from within me, I heard a voice answer:

“Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows. . .” (Elie Wiesel, Night, translated from the French by Marion Wiesel (Hill and Wang, New York, 2006) p. 64-65.)

 

“Where is God?” is a question asked with regularity in our time.  It was asked on 9/11/2001, and even this weekend, as we again saw innocent – including religious people – murdered indiscriminately by terrorists in Mumbai.

“Where is God?” is also a question as old as the Scriptures, voiced this morning in the reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah, written 2,600 years ago:

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence — as when fire kindles brush or makes water to boil — to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”

Isaiah is an old man returned with his people from exile, to a city in ruin, a temple in ruin, their lives in ruin. In his youth he had had a powerful vision of God in the temple, calling him into service. Now, perhaps he stands in the rubble of that very temple, and cries out in the middle of devastation, “God, tear open the heavens and come down!”  Isaiah prays the prayer of people who long for a God, yet cannot see or hear God, people for whom God is absent. 

So “Where is God?” is the question with which the season of Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas, begins.  It is the church’s ancient wisdom that the best way to prepare for the coming of God is to first spend some time waiting in the darkness, acknowledging our need, and praying that most primal of human prayers: “Dear God, help us!” It might even be the oldest and most oft-prayed prayer in history: “God, if you are real, do something.”

Truth be told, at some time or another in our lives, most of us have prayed that prayer. Have you ever prayed, but felt like you were only talking to yourself? Have you ever stood by the bedside of someone in pain or dying and prayed for God’s help, but nothing changed? Have you ever prayed, in the midst of disaster or tragedy, “God, tear open the heavens and come down” — now would be the time — but there was no response, at least not that we could see?

Perhaps the most amazing thing of all is that, in spite of this, for true believers, faith and hope — not resignation and despair — reign:

“Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”

Even now, says John Buchanan, Pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago:

“We light the Advent candles and give voice to our longing and say, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” and plead “Dear God, help me,” because somewhere deep in your heart and mine we know that God has answered that prayer, that God does answer that prayer. Somewhere deep in your heart and mine there is not just longing but faith that in the birth of a child in Bethlehem long ago, God did come down; that over a baptism one day in the Jordon River, God did tear open the heavens; and that in a brief moment in time as he walked the dusty roads of Galilee and healed the sick and welcomed the outcasts and restored the unclean, as he taught that it is better to give than to receive and that the highest and best any of us can ever do is give our love and our lives away, and that as he died in humble obedience, God, in fact, did tear open the heavens and come down; and that on the third day, when death could not contain him, when the very love and power of God defeated the powers of sin and death, the powers of violence and injustice, when that child, now a man, rose up and walked into the light of the first day of the week, God definitively, once and for all, answered that prayer, “Help me.” (“Dear God, Help!”, Sermon preached by John Buchanan at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, November 20, 2005.)

Perhaps what throws us off is that God does not come in the way or the manner that we might expect. In fact, as we heard in the Gospel, Jesus went so far as to warn his disciples that if they were not alert and awake that might miss the coming of God.

After all, the power of God came to a poor maiden in Galilee; nobody expected that.  The glory of God was shown in a manger in Bethlehem; nobody expected that.  The love of God was manifest on a cross in Jerusalem; nobody expected that. The triumph of God was manifest in an empty tomb; nobody expected that. No wonder Jesus warns us: “Stay awake, be alert, watch!” For God comes in quiet and unexpected ways, that only the faithful will see.” 

 

After 9/11, there were many variations of an email that circulated, “Where was God on 9/11?”  And the answers to that question were those that God’s faithful might give. There was no great cosmic intervention, at least that you could see.  But most of us believe that God was with those innocent people who died on those planes.  Most of us believe that God wept to see what some people would do — in God’s name — with such hate in their heart.  Most of us believe that God was in those towers, with those innocent victims, and with those who lingered to help others at the cost of their own lives.  Most of us believe God was with those FDNY firefighters and police officers in the stairwells, risking and giving their lives to try and save others. That God was with FDNY Chaplain Father Mychal Judge, the first rescuer to die on 9/11. That God was with all those who helped and wept and prayed for the victims and their families.  These are the ways God is present in the world.

Even now, in everyday life, while we so frantically look for God, I wonder if we are not often blind to God’s presence, to the ways God is present to us, in our family, in our friends, in our church congregation? Blessed are those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. 

Where is God?  It is a question asked long ago by Isaiah and still by us today.  In Advent, we remember that there are times where there is no immediate answer to this question, times where there is nothing we can do but sit in the dark and watch and wait, times when we are dependent upon help from a power outside of and greater than ourselves.

German Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and eventually executed by the Nazis for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler. In 1943 he wrote from his prison cell to his fiancee, Maria von Wedemeyer, in words that have become perhaps my favorite description of what it is that we do at such times, and especially in Advent:

“My dearest Maria, by the time you receive this letter it will probably be Advent, a time especially dear to me. A prison cell like this, in which one watches and hopes and performs this or that ultimately insignificant task, and in which one is wholly dependent on the doors being opened from the outside, is far from an inappropriate metaphor for Advent.” [21 November 1943, Love Letters from Cell 92, 118].

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