This sermon was delivered on June 24, at Wallace UMC.
When God Isn’t There
Common English Bible (CEB)
35 Later that day, when evening came, Jesus said to them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” 36 They left the crowd and took him in the boat just as he was. Other boats followed along.
37 Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped. 38 But Jesus was in the rear of the boat, sleeping on a pillow. They woke him up and said, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”
39 He got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, “Silence! Be still!” The wind settled down and there was a great calm. 40 Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”
41 Overcome with awe, they said to each other, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!”
A few weeks ago, I was at the graduation ceremony at the seminary. Graduation ceremonies are always a momentous occasion in anyone’s life, but because I go to Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, these things tend to get just a touch more grandiose, and because it’s a school for preachers, instead of a commencement speech, we got a commencement sermon. This year, it was given by one professor John Holbert, a preaching professor, and an excellent one at that. He was in fact retiring this year, and so this was his final sermon delivered as a full-time professor, which only added to the weight and gravitas of the moment. So we, the poor inexperienced college students that we were, were expecting a very solemn and wisdom filled sendoff from the wizened old teacher.
What we got was wisdom, but he knew better than to be solemn about it. He delivered his sermon and began it in the best way I have ever heard, holding excellent advice for those of us who take things seriously. He said: “You have heard it said “God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.” But I tell you, as it has been told to me by my own mentor, “God works in hilarious ways, his blunders to perform.”
And that struck a chord with me. I’m hesitant to say that God does blunders as readily as he was, but I’m definitely on board with understanding God as doing things in hilarious ways. If God appears to be committing a blunder, I’m more inclined to say that it only appears to be a blunder from my perspective; after all, I’m not God (thanks be to God.) God being hilarious should be pretty self evident.
Only God would tell a ninety year old man with a barren wife that he was going to bear a son and be the father of a great nation. Only God would have told a drunk to build a giant boat and put a bunch of animals on it. Only God would have chosen a murderer with a speech impediment to lead his children out of Egypt. Only God would have chosen a teenager to become a king. Only God would have chosen a virgin 13 year old girl to bear the son of God. Only God would have come in the person of a poor day laborer that would eventually be executed like a common prisoner. God works in hilarious ways, his blunders to perform.
Then again, when put a certain way, what God does can be either hilarious… or it can seem cruel, or even absent. It can be tragic when you’re right up next to it. From a distance, God is funny. Close up, God is terrifying, because the truth of the matter is, when you are too close to God, it doesn’t feel like God is there at all, does it? Think about it each of those stories. When God told Abram his promises, what did Abram do? He laughed in God’s face! Leave everything you know? Pick up and move to a different country, and oh, by the way, you’re going to have a child? Abram, later Abraham, laughed at God then. He probably wasn’t laughing when he was wandering for hundreds of miles to the land of Canaan. He probably stopped laughing after his son was born too. God stops being funny when God’s right next to you.
Noah probably stopped laughing when the rains were pouring down and everyone on the planet was drowning. Moses wasn’t laughing when the plagues were getting more and more serious, resulting in the deaths of thousands. David wasn’t laughing when he became king, and his son tried to overthrow him. Mary wasn’t laughing when she was wandering the wilderness with Joseph when she was pregnant on the way to Bethlehem. Jesus wasn’t laughing when he was being beaten, nor when he was gasping for air on the cross. When God is at Gods closest, it feels like God isn’t there at all.
When I was working at the hospital a few years ago, I was introduced to a song by Regina Spektor that helped put things in perspective a bit. It sort of encapsulates what it feels like when God isn’t there. Here’s the video:
When you’re on top of the world, and everything is great, It’s easy to feel close to God. It’s so easy. When life’s great, it’s really easy to say God is good, all the time. But when you’re at the very bottom of life, when you’re so low you don’t think you can get any lower, God seems very far away, doesn’t God? When you’re angry, when you’re grieving, when things couldn’t get much worse than they already are, God doesn’t seem very good. In fact, it may feel like God isn’t there at all. So what do we do when we feel like God isn’t there?
When Mark tells the story of Jesus calming the storm, we get a very striking image of the character of Jesus, don’t we? The story is very short, without much detail. It’s short, sweet, and to the point…and its very scary. You see, when Mark writes, he’s addressing the audience directly, and tries to put the audience in the story. For instance, notice that the boat Jesus is in doesn’t contain any of the disciples. He’s just in a boat with a nameless group of people, which makes it easier for people hearing it to put themselves in the story, which helps get the message across better. In fact, one of the best ways to get into the scriptures and to read the bible itself in general is to imagine yourself somewhere in the story, and see it from that perspective.
So Mark is trying to get us to see this from the perspective of the people in the boat with Jesus. I like the translation that I used here, because it does say that the boat was swamped. So just imagine you’re in a boat with Jesus… and the boat is sinking. If you were in a boat with Jesus, the last thing you would think that would happen is that the boat would be sinking, would you? You know, being a Christian, and having that close relationship with Christ, we tend to think that nothing can touch us sometimes, that because we are close to Christ, we are invincible. But what happens when you’re in the boat with Christ, and it’s sinking? What would you do?
Well I’ll tell you what the people in the boat did. They got mad at Jesus. They got mad at God. Things were not going the way they thought they would when you associate with Jesus, and they got mad and said: “Don’t you care that we’re drowning here?! Seriously! You say that you’re the light of the world, the true vine, the rock and the redeemer, the son of God, and all this stuff, but look at you! You’re just lying there taking a nap. On a pillow. In a boat. In the middle of a storm. Obviously, you just don’t care about us, do you? We’re drowning here, we’re dying here, and you just don’t care. You might as well not even be here.”
My brothers and sisters, do those words sound familiar? Perhaps you’ve said them yourself. Perhaps when you’re in the hospital. In a car accident. When you’re staring at that last few dollars in you’re bank account. You’ve probably said to God, don’t you care that I’m drowning? That I need you? Do you even care? You may have all the faith in the world, but that doesn’t stop you from feeling like God isn’t there.
That’s when you have to read on, brothers and sisters. That’s why you have to let the story finish. Because God seems furthest away when God is right next to you. You see, after we accuse Jesus of not caring, that’s when the fireworks begin. I like to imagine Jesus not even getting up after this accusation but rather still lying there, hands folded under his head. He opens one eye, looks up, and talks to the seas and the winds and says, “Hey, keep it down, will ya? Silence!” And then it does. And oh, the look on our faces when that happens, when God reminds us of how truly close God is. And then he asks us, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have any faith yet?”
Now, this isn’t the first time God had given this answer, was it? This is the same answer that God gave Job, wasn’t it? In Job 38, after Job has presented his case to God after losing absolutely everything, he gets this answer from God: Job 38, 1-15.
Then the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind:
2 Who is this darkening counsel
with words lacking knowledge?
3 Prepare yourself like a man;
I will interrogate you, and you will respond to me.
The establishing of order
4 Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Tell me if you know.
5 Who set its measurements? Surely you know.
Who stretched a measuring tape on it?
6 On what were its footings sunk;
who laid its cornerstone,
7 while the morning stars sang in unison
and all the divine beings shouted?
8 Who enclosed the Sea[a] behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
9 when I made the clouds its garment,
the dense clouds its wrap,
10 when I imposed[b] my limit for it,
put on a bar and doors
11 and said, “You may come this far, no farther;
here your proud waves stop”?
12 In your lifetime have you commanded the morning,
informed the dawn of its place
13 so it would take hold of earth by its edges
and shake the wicked out of it?
14 Do you turn it over like clay for a seal,
so it stands out like a colorful garment?
15 Light is withheld from the wicked,
the uplifted arm broken.
When you ask if God cares, if God is even there at all, be prepared to get a an answer like that. God was at the beginning of the world. God is in all things, and works through all things. When God appears to be nowhere, the truth is God is so close you can’t even tell. And above all, everything God does is because God loves you.
God loves you. God can be funny, and work in hilarious ways, but trust me, God doesn’t make blunders. Everything God does is because God loves us. When we mourn, God cries with us. When we suffer, God suffers with us. When we laugh, God laughs with us. When we do anything, God is always there. When we’re in the eye of the storm, God is right there, and God will get us through—even if it feels like God isn’t there. So trust in God. God will be faithful to us. Trust in God, and give thanks for God’s hilarious ways. Amen.