Don’t Make Me Come Down There: Part 2

Greetings! This is the second installment of a three part series to share with you one of Dr. Buchanan’s most popular advent sermons from recent years. Please catch up with part 1 (posted on Wednesday, December 18); join us for this second installment this morning, and check back tomorrow morning for the moving conclusion to the sermon, “Don’t Make Me Come Down There.”

Peace, Love, and Hold to the Good!

Don’t Make Me Come Down There: Part 2
December 7, 2008

 

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”
Isaiah 64:1 (NRSV)

The situation is this: after a generation of living in exiled captivity in Babylon, the Hebrew people have returned to the land, Israel, Jerusalem, their pride and joy, Zion, the site of their holy temple. Every Advent we sing about their waiting for God to come: “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.”

And in the year 539 BCE, that is what happened. The Persians defeated the Babylonians and set the captives free. Now they are home, and what they find on their return is devastation; the city walls breached, the shining buildings leveled, the beloved temple, the locus of God’s presence, the Holy of Holies, a charred, burned-out ruin. It is a picture of desolation, like those heart-wrenching pictures of families finally returning to their homes in the lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans after Katrina or in California after the fire: sifting through the ashes, trying to recover something of their former life, trying to deal with the stark reality that it is gone, all of it—their former life, gone.

The prophet, whose job is normally to speak for God to the people, now speaks to God for the people: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”

Or put another way,  Where in the world are you? Are you there? Are you listening? Have you forgotten us? Is this some kind of joke, bringing us back to this? Even your enemies are laughing. You might at least consider showing your adversaries some muscle. Shake some mountains; let them—and us—know you’re still there.

Ted Wardlaw, President of Austin Seminary, reminds us that there is a fancy theological term for it: Deus Absconditus. It’s been around for centuries: God absconded, absent, silent, jumped ship, slipped out the back door, nowhere to be found.

Defeat, exile, and then return to the devastation shook the very foundation of Israel’s religious faith, and it stimulated the two most important religious questions anybody ever asked: “Why?” Why has this happened? If you are an all-powerful God, why are we, your people, suffering? And “Where?” Where is God in all this?

I suspect every one of us has asked those questions at one time or another. I suspect not a few of us are asking them this morning. The December issue of Sojourners magazine is devoted to the economic crisis, and the cover asks simply, “Where Is God in All This?” Editor Jim Wallis says that part of the answer is in the way the people of God respond. Human need is more visible, more present today than it was just a few months ago. The lines of people at noon in our reception area, waiting for a sack lunch, are longer. More guests than we can accommodate show up for Sunday Night Supper. Among them are now people not accustomed to waiting in line for food, people who a few months ago were employed and solvent and now hungry.

Part of the answer to “where is God in all this?” is the way God’s people respond. And part of it is deeply theological. Theologian Diane Butler Bass says the crisis is a reminder that we always live in Holy Insecurity, that we are governed finally not by the stock market or housing prices, but by grace, generosity, and goodness.

Wallis says Americans are angry—“Why am I not getting a bailout?”—and afraid—“Will I lose my job, my savings, my children’s college fund, my home?” We are being pushed, that is to say, back to what is permanent, lasting, most important, meaningful, and ultimately reliable, and we are learning that it isn’t the market. It isn’t our portfolio, our 401(k)s, our retirement. It is something far deeper, far more profound. There is nothing good about a recession, other than the fact that it does have a way of clarifying values and reminding us of what is truly important and most valuable.

God’s role in human suffering, the apparent silence of God, is one of the enduring mysteries with which men and women of faith have struggled over the centuries. In our age, one of the most eloquent and honest strugglers was, and is, Elie Wiesel, who as a boy was sent to Auschwitz and then Buchenwald, where both his parents and sister died. Wiesel has struggled all his life to make sense of his experience in the context of his Jewish faith to which he continues to hold. In his remarkable memoir Night, he tells the story of the day the prisoners in the Nazi concentration camp were assembled by the guards and forced to watch the execution of a young boy. It was ghastly, and he remembers a man behind him asking, “Where is God? Where is God now?” Wiesel says he heard a voice within himself answer, “Where is God? Here he is… hanging here on the gallows.”

After the war, Catholic novelist and journalist Francois Maruiac interviewed Wiesel and was one of the first to hear that dreadful story. He later wrote,

And I, who believe that God is love, what answer could I give my young questioner… What did I say to him? Did I speak of that other Israeli, his brother, who may have resembled him—the Crucified, whose cross has conquered the world? Did I affirm that the stumbling block to his faith was the cornerstone of mine and that the conformity between the cross and human suffering was in my eyes the key to that impenetrable mystery? (Night, Introduction, p. 10)

The most important question ever asked—“Where is God?”—prompts the most important answer. God is there, as the people return to their devastated city, as suffering happens, as innocents die, as disease claims its victims. God is there in the midst of it all.

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