Recently a child in confirmation class asked: "Why can't we see God, and why doesn't he talk to us like he did to the people in the Bible?" Have you ever asked that question? I suspect most of us have.
God does not always show up when and where we think that He might. How can we find God when we desperately need him? That is what I want to talk about today.
The one thing that I hear most often from people today, when they talk about things that matter, is a plaintive cry for a well-defined sense of direction. You would think since we know so much more today than we have ever known that we would have satisfying answers to most of our questions. But, this is not true. Technology and education have given us an awareness of problems about which we did not heretofore know. New discoveries and inventions seem to create more questions than answers.
When I was growing up during the Great Depression in Conecuh County, Alabama, we would speak of how a person was "standing at a crossroad in their lives." What we meant was that person had 3 or 4 choices of direction, each of which were rather clearly defined. The symbol of the "crossroad" does not adequately describe the confusing variety of choices people have today. It is more like the confusing and complicated intersection of two super highways. Life is not so simple as a crossroad today.
I will never forget my first exposure to complicated highways in 1955 when my wife, Hilda, and I left the deep south to go to school in Chicago. We had never driven on anything more complicated than a four-lane highway. We drove innocently and ignorantly into Chicago at 4:00 in the afternoon, which we later learned was a special time in the big city called the "rush hour." We suddenly found ourselves on a 12 lane expressway called the "outerdrive," which skirted the eastern side of the city. We were as suddenly in a sea of traffic. There were cars as far as the eye could see, ahead and behind, and cars so close on each side that you could almost reach out and touch them. This would have been all right, except for the fact that we were all traveling at 65-70 miles per hour. Hilda was navigating. I was driving. We knew where we were. We were not lost! We had a map. We knew where we were supposed to get off the expressway, and we saw it as we passed by. There was no way to get into the turning lane. It took another 3 miles, playing "what's my lane" to get into a turning lane, and by then we were hopelessly lost.
That is what life is like today!! Not a crossroad, but an expressway with all the complicated intersections. Most of the people I know are consciously or unconsciously looking for authoritative direction. We are asking, "Dear God, where are you? Why don't you say something?"
Jesus was born into a world as benighted as our own. Our forebears in the faith had little hope of individual divine direction. The people to whom Jesus spoke had been reared on such phrases as: "No one has ever seen God--one cannot see God and live." The hiddenness and the inaccessibility of God was the meat and bread of their spiritual diet. The hiddenness of God was etched indelibly in the minds of the people to whom Jesus spoke. They must have been shocked to hear it said: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, and we have seen his glory as the only begotten of the Father." Or more specifically to hear: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands...." Jesus said, "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father. The Father and I are one."
In the parable of the judging shepherd, Jesus promises to reveal himself in the pain and suffering of needy people. What a surprise! That's where we least expect to find him. Jesus, the Son of God, has chosen to make himself known in:
the desperation of the sick
the pangs of the hungry
the exposure of the naked
the loneliness of the stranger
the self-defeatedness of the prisoner
In the very people and situations we tend to avoid, Jesus has promised to meet us and speak to us. "Dear God, where are you?" Right where we least expected to find you!
Early in his ministry, Jesus identified himself as the Messiah by identifying with human suffering. While in prison, John the Baptist began to wonder if he might be mistaken in his announcement that Jesus was the "one who is to come"--the Messiah. He sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus, "Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?" Jesus said to John's disciples, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense in me." Jesus first began to hint about who he was by identifying himself with human suffering.
When Jesus sent his disciples on their first mission, he sent them into active contact with the sick and demon-possessed. When they returned, they were ecstatic over the power they had in Jesus' name. They said, "Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name." (Luke 10:1-18) When is the last time you have been out on the rough and scary edges of life where there are demons and palatable evil. Looking for Jesus? He said that you would find him there.
The saints in days of old have found the promise implicit in the parable of the Judging Shepherd to be blessedly true. Time and again they reported how they actually saw the face of Jesus in situations of suffering to which they were ministering. Do you remember Francis of Assissi who later came to be known as St. Francis of Assissi? Francis was an arrogant and wealthy aristocrat. He looked for pleasure everywhere, but he was not happy. He felt his life was incomplete. One day as he was riding, he met a leper, loathsome and repulsive in the ugliness of his disease. Strangely, Francis felt a strong impulse to dismount from his horse and fling his arm around this wretched man. Responding to the impulse, he was shocked as the cowl fell back from the leper's face. He saw not the face of a leper, but the face of Christ.
There is a legend about Martin of Tours who is said to be the first military chaplain. He followed the Roman Army from place to place ministering to the soldiers, and to people in the places they conquered. One cold winter day he was following the Roman Army into a city. There was a beggar at the gates of the city asking for alms. Martin had been in the field with the soldiers for weeks. He had neither coin nor crust of bread. So, he took off the battered old Roman soldier's cloak he had over his shoulders, and with his sword he cut it into two pieces. One half of the cloak he gave to the beggar and the other half he kept for himself.
That night Martin had a dream in which he found himself to be an observer of a scene in heaven. He saw Jesus surrounded by a group of angels, and to his surprise the Lord Jesus was wearing the half of a Roman soldier's cloak. One of the angels asked Jesus, "Master where did you get that old dirty and torn half of a Roman soldier; cloak?" And, soft in the silence, he heard Jesus say, "My good servant Martin gave it to me." "If you have done it to one of the least of these, my little ones, you have done it unto me," said Jesus.
Dear God, where are you? Guess? At the point of the severest of human suffering and need -- the very places we really do not want to go.
Not only do we see that Jesus appeared at the points of human need in history, you will find this to be true today. Try and see. Recently I read a newspaper reporter's account of an experience he had as he watched a distribution of food at a mission. These are his words. "The line was long but moving briskly and in that line, at the very end, stood a young girl about twelve years of age. She waited patiently as those at the front of that long line received a little rice, some canned goods or a little fruit. Slowly but surely she was getting closer to the front of the line. Closer to the food. From time to time she would glance across the street. She did not notice the growing concern on the faces of those distributing the food. The food was running out. Their anxiety began to show but she did not notice. Her attention seemed always to focus on three figures under the trees across the street. At long last she stepped forward to get her food but the only thing left was one lonely banana. The workers were almost ashamed to tell her that was all that was left. She did not seem to mind. In fact she seemed genuinely happy to get that solitary banana. Quietly she took the precious gift and ran across the street where three small children waited. Perhaps her sisters and a brother. Very deliberately she peeled the banana and very carefully divided the banana into three equal parts, placing the precious food in the eager hands of those three younger ones. One for you, one for you, one for you. She then sat down and licked the inside of that banana peel."
Then the reporter said, "I swear I saw the face of God."
Are you looking for God? Perhaps you have been looking in all the wrong places.
We are confronted with the surprising and wonderful truth that help we give to the "least of these his little ones" is help given to Jesus. And, conversely, any such help as we withhold from his suffering, wounded, sick, needy children is help that is withheld from Jesus himself. "If you have done unto one of the least of these my little ones, you have done it unto me." Why is that true? If you are a parent, this is not difficult to understand. If you wish to delight and please the heart of a parent, if you want to win the gratitude of a mother or father, you need not do something for them, do some lovely thing for one of their children. The parent feels as if it were done for them personally. God is the Father and Mother of all. If you want to delight the heart of God, you do not have to go about bragging on God, just do something for one of his children.
Dear God, where are you? Closer than you think, my child, closer than you think. Let me give you a clue. Look for him in the face of the sick, the thirsty, the hungry, the stranger, the prisoner, the distressed, the lonely, the hurt--at those places where life has torn open at the seams. Try it and see for yourself.
In his book, "The Dilemma of Modern Belief", Samuel Miller tells a delightful story of a former Munich comedian, Karl Valentin.
The curtain goes up and the stage is completely dark, and in this darkness is a solitary circle of light from the street lamp that comes on. Valentin, with his long drawn, worried face, walks around and around this circle of light, desperately looking for something. After a bit a policeman joins him and says, "What have you lost?" "The key to my house," says Valentin, as he continues to look. Where upon the policeman joins him in the circle of light, going round and around the lamp post, looking for the lost key. They find nothing, and after a while the policeman says, "Are you sure you lost it here?" "Oh no," said Valentin, "I lost it over there," as he points to a dark corner of the stage. "Then why on earth are you looking for it here?" asked the policeman. "There is no light over there," said Valentin.
So , maybe, just maybe, we look for God in the wrong places, not in the dark places where we lost sight of him, but in the light. We look for the presence of God in the nice places in life where things are going well. Maybe he is to be found in those dark places that frighten us, the places where we lost sight of him in the first place. Samuel Miller reminds us that: "We never see God directly, He is always mediated by the very things that seem to deny him."
Dear God, where are you? Alfred Lord Tennyson said it well:
"Speak to Him, thou, for He hears, and spirit with Spirit can meet -- Closer is He than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet.
"Show us thy ways, O Lord, as we are able to comprehend. Teach us thy paths and how to walk them with feet of faith! We pray for those who have asked and received no answer, for those who have listened and heard nothing and for those who live in the zone of emotional and spiritual desperation. Grant us all the kind of faith we need to negotiate the terrible silences of life. O thou who are always the same in thy coming; yesterday, today and forever; on thee do we wait, all the day long. AMEN