Lessons of the Day: Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
John of Cross had his dark night of the soul. Teresa of Avila had a mysterious longing. Teresa of Calcutta recalls in her diary of longing for decades but failing to find God at times.
It’s a good thing, I guess, to hear that even the likes of John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Mother Teresa feel that God is silent and inaccessible at times. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, then, if I run into that same problem. There will be times in our lives when we cannot seem to hear the voice of God and cannot see any evidence of God all around us. There will be times when we can’t see God at all.
We turn again this morning to our friend Job, who was in the midst of a troubling time of his own. Job was suffering, and he just couldn’t get hold of God. God wasn’t answering, no matter how hard Job tried. Last week we heard about Job’s suffering – how he was attacked on all sides by every imaginable sort of trouble by the accuser, HaSatan. Job has now gone on for twenty-three chapters with painful illness and mind-numbing grief. To add to his distress, Job is surrounded by friends that have become, by now, not so helpful. They offer a variety of views on why Job is in the situation that he finds himself. If you remember, the friends started out with a rather helpful silence; but, those friends quickly turned from a simple loving presence to distressing prattling.
We enter the story this morning as Job is loudly lamenting. Job is sick and tired of listening to his friends; but, he is certain sure that if he could only express himself to God, God would address the situation. God, however, is not to be found; God is painfully and retchingly silent. In fact, God won’t respond for quite some time, not until chapter thirty-seven. Such a long time of pain and angst and searching for God. And God is silent!!
Job is not confused about the situation, at least how he perceives it. Here, in chapter twenty-three, Job plainly lays out his case. The problem is that he just can’t get hold of God. Job can’t find God. Job can’t locate God for God to hear the case he lays out – the case of his pain and horrible loss. Job just has silence!!
And it’s not a warm and comfortable silence. Job was in pain. He was agitated. Notice in the chapter that Job does all the talking. Over and over, we hear Job complaining; but, Job isn’t complaining that God isn’t listening. Rather, Job is bemoaning the fact that God isn’t there. It’s complete silence broken only by Job’s complaint. Over and over, Job cries out but there is nothing. Job screams into the darkness and hears nothing except the echo of his own voice. Terrifying!
That’s where we begin this morning: There is an urgency in Job’s quest. You can hear it in the text. “My complaint is bitter…Oh, that I knew where I could find God.” Job was desperately looking.
And Job was learning what Christians over the centuries have learned, as Thomas Merton puts it, “If you find God with ease perhaps it is not God you have found.” Job didn’t find God. Job found nothing – nothing except echoing, echoing silence.
And so I got to wondering as I read Job’s story, “Where is God?”
And then I wondered, “What if God’s silence was not absence at all, but a way of communicating presence and power.”
A god who comes whenever we call would get really old, really fast. If we were able to just snap our fingers and make god materialize like a genie in a bottle, what kind of god would we have. We would have a God who is powerless, subject to our whims. A God with no meaningful ability to change anything. We would have a god not that we are in relationship with but that we own.
Perhaps the silence of God is not the absence of God at all. Perhaps what Job needed and what we need from time to time, is an opportunity to express and to voice our sorrow and pain and hopelessness to God. This is not so that God will know how we feel for God already knows that; but, rather, so that we can begin to understand our role in relationship to God, and so that we can realize finally that we are not in control, and that God is not some divine bellboy that comes every time we ring.
God’s silence is a kind of presence, a mysterious way that God communicates with us. God’s silence allows us to listen to ourselves, hearing our own arguments, and tiring of our own control. God’s silence is perhaps a way of getting us to surrender everything we think we need to the mystery, power, and creative order of God.
As part of living with the silence of God, we are invited to not go screaming in the other direction when our doubts begin to surface. The silence of God or our inability to get a response from God, whatever you want to call it, brings on doubt. Strong believers we are until we punch in the regular numbers we thought would give us access to God and we get nothing. We begin to wonder, “Is God really there at all? Does God have any clue what is going on in my life? Does God really care?”
Good! Good! That is so good! Frederic Buechner writes,
“Whether your faith is that there is a God or there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep.”
We are a people who live with questions about our human situation. Some can easily be answered with reason and intellect. But there are those questions that elude our thinking processes and no matter what we do we can’t find answers. God’s silence, what might seem like God’s absence in times of suffering might cause us to ask some hard questions. You might begin to doubt. If that happens to you, take heart! You and me, like Job, should be comforted by the fact that asking questions and having doubts is not for the faint of heart.
In fact, I think that our questions are statements of faith. By shouting our questions to the sky like Job did, even when we don’t hear a clear answer, what we are doing is a rather powerful interaction with God. When we ask God questions, we are acknowledging that there might be someone out there to hear us. We might not be one hundred percent absolutely positively sure, but we are willing to take a chance, to bet our very lives.In fact, when we ask, we are saying in effect: I believe in you God enough to trust that you will indulge my questioning. I believe enough to shout at the sky and to know that even if all I hear back is the echoing of my own voice, you love me. I believe even when I can’t see it, in the power of your goodness.
If you often wait to hear from God with no luck, then you have come to the right place. The church represents 2000 years of people who have embraced their questions and offered them back to God, a cacophony of voices blending together to form a sure and beautiful confession. Take heart friends, questioning and doubting is a sign of faith.
But it’s not always easy so how do we go about living with God’s silence? How do we go about living with hope and expectation when we cannot seem to hear anything?
That’s where you come in, each and every one of you. Job didn’t have a community of people to help him remember that God was there. All the people around him helped him doubt even more – his wife, his family, his friends. None of them believed that God was there at all. None of them held up a banner of hope for Job. In the darkest, most quiet moments of his suffering, Job didn’t have any loving voices to surround him and to remind him of God’s everlasting love.
When God is silent, when my heart is aching because I cannot hear a word of comfort or direction from God – I have to tell you – I need you! I need all of you to remind me that God’s silence doesn’t mean that God is absent. I need your voices to remind me and to hold me accountable when I begin to buy into that falsehood that God should be available whenever I snap my fingers, whenever I feel that God should show up to give me my answer.
That’s why I’m at church every Sunday. That’s why I suspect you are at church. You need a hopeful group of people around you to buoy you in times of God’s silence, to carry you through moments of pain and doubt, to surround you with tangible evidence of God’s love, even when you’re not getting neat pre-packaged answers to the hardest questions of your life. The community of faith should be a community of hope, a community of people that gather together to call us to remember over and over again that God is here, that God is loving, and there is never a time when God has abandoned us.
One of the great modern philosophers on the absence of God is Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. His life is a story of listening for God, finding nothing but silence, and slowly making his way back to faith. When Elie was 14, Nazi soldiers took Elie and family, crammed them in a railroad car, and separated men from women, families never to see each other again. Wiesel’s family was killed and slowly his faith died. At 15, he began to pray Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me. Why are you so far from helping me?” Freedom disappeared. Night came. Even the days were covered with darkness.
Through his book, Night, Wiesel tells of his journey through the dark night. In one memory, he tells of being surrounded by people who even in the midst of horror and suffering, affirmed that God was alive. It was in Buchenwald. They were celebrating Rosh Hashanah and the leader called out, “Bless the eternal, blessed be the name of the eternal.” Elie thought to himself, “Why? Why should we bless him?” Weisel could only think of all the misery and death and pain that surrounded him and wonder where God was but still he heard voices rising, “All the earth and the universe are God’s. All creation bears witness to the greatness of God.” But even as his faith in God was dying, Elie Wiesel heard the voices of those who refused to believe that God was absent. At 15, Wiesel heard these proclamations of faith and they followed him all the way through utter despair and disbelief and back finally to faith. The faith of those around him carried him through.At age 16, Wiesel was liberated from the concentration camp.
In 1986, Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech, hope emerged and faith was affirmed,
“Words of gratitude. First to our common creator. This is what the Jewish tradition commands us to do – at special occasion one is duty bound to recite the following prayer: Blessed be thou for having sustained us until this day.
“I remember, I happened yesterday or eternities ago. A young Jewish boy discovered the kingdom of Night. I remember his bewilderment. I remember his anguish. It all happened so fast: the ghetto, the deportation, the sealed cattle car, the fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed. It is in his name that I speak to you that I speak to you and that I express to you my deepest gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of Night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering, not to share them would mean to betray them.”
For Elie Wiesel, sharing the suffering reminded him that God is never truly absent. God’s silence is not God’s absence. And when we are duty bound to look over at each other, to touch a hand, to wipe a tear, to join our hands in prayer, to join voices in song and affirmation what we are doing is reminding each other that God loves us, that God is here, that we are not alone.
God is with us as God was with Job, and with Martin Marty, as God was with Elie Wiesel, even when we cannot hear God. All around you are living and breathing ambassadors of God’s grace. When God seems absent, you can look to your right or to your left, all around you, and see lives of experience in faith. People who will remind us that we are not alone and we cannot be abandoned to our suffering. God is here.