I write these columns several weeks in advance so they will be ready by publication dates. That means I don’t know what will have happened in the world by the time you read this. Suffice it to say, several bad things have happened recently. Victims of earthquakes, kidnapping, wars, terrorism, floods and other natural and human-made calamities have all risen to the top of news feeds and our prayer lists. And as we pray, we wonder why we have to keep praying. Where is God? And why doesn’t God stop or prevent the horribleness we see and experience?
Near the close of the book of Isaiah, the author asks these same questions—where is God and why doesn’t God act? The author longs for God to suddenly rip open the heavens and come down, causing the mountains—and the people’s enemies—to quake from God’s presence. But God seems far away. The writer asserts that God is intimately present for those who do righteousness and walk according to God’s path (64:5). But then in the next verse—a passage that too often is twisted by Christians to justify not even attempting righteous action—the author concludes that all are unclean, full of wrongdoings and incapable of unalloyed righteous deeds that might attract God’s intimate presence.
God is a father who has lovingly crafted God’s people (64:8). But the Father, according to Isaiah, is angry and has turned away because of the people’s wrongdoing. God’s delay in rescuing the people is interpreted here as a sign of divine anger and withdrawal. The psalmist, too, understands God’s lack of intervention as anger. The writer begs the Shepherd of Israel to shine forth and awaken divine power, to save, restore and, most touchingly, to look upon God’s people once again (Psalm 80:1-4). But God is silent. The psalmist imagines that God’s anger leads to the people’s prayers being ignored while they consume their own tears and are ridiculed by their enemies. Much of the scriptural witness shows God’s people asking, “Where are you, God? Why are you not saving us?”
As we pray, we wonder why we have to keep praying. Where is God? And why doesn’t God stop or prevent the horribleness we see and experience?
In the last days prior to his execution by the brutal Romans, Jesus—the incarnate Son—addresses the issue of tribulations and God’s seeming absence. Jesus warns his hearers that they will hear about and experience disastrous events and calamities. As a result, they will wonder when God or God’s agent would come to them to set all things right. Jesus confesses that no one knows, not even the angels or even the Son, only God the Father.
But then Jesus tells a micro-parable that will sound familiar to those who have been paying attention to the last several weeks of readings from the Gospel of Matthew. A man is going away on a journey and upon leaving his house gives authority to his servants (the New Revised Standard Version Updated renders it as “puts his slaves in charge”), assigning to each their task (Mark 13:34). The Lord (or maybe LORD) has gone away for a bit, leaving the servants in charge with each given their own responsibility.
Jesus offers a crucial insight here about what is going on when it feels like God is absent. It’s probably more accurate to say that God isn’t absent. Rather, the people of God aren’t fulfilling their responsibilities. We do God’s work with our hands more often than just a Sunday or two a year. But think of when you have felt God’s presence in your life—has it not been in the kindness of a friend, or the seemingly random word that was just what you needed to hear at the time? Perhaps it was the gift of support when you were in a tight time, or even just a listening ear. I believe that God can and does work miracles all by Godself. I also believe that more often God does just what Jesus says—puts the servants in charge and gives them (us) specific tasks to carry out.
Not so long ago on All Saints Sunday, many of us heard the beatitudes from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus pronounces that blessed are the peacemakers, those who mourn for others, those who passionately pursue righteousness and the humble. I don’t think this is merely a description of who is or will be happy, as some claim. Instead, at the beginning of a sermon that urges action and righteous behavior over any particular theological or anthropological belief, Jesus tells his followers what they are to be about.
In response to the author of Isaiah wondering “where is God?”, God says in the next chapter:
I permitted Myself to be sought by those who did not ask for Me;
I permitted Myself to be found by those who did not seek Me.
I said, ‘Here am I, here am I,’
To a nation which did not call on My name (Isaiah 65:1; New American Standard Bible).
Isaiah’s understanding, shared by Jesus, is that when we don’t seek to do God’s will—loving neighbors and loving God—we don’t really seek God. I can’t believe that God is ever really absent. Far too often, however, I am absent when my neighbor needs me. If God’s gracious love, Jesus’ incarnation and the Spirit’s encouragement mean anything it’s that God has welcomed us into God’s household and strengthened us for deeds of lovingkindness. It is God’s love acted out through our bodies that will demonstrate God’s presence in the world, especially where it is most difficult to see otherwise.