“When God is Hiding”
October 11, 2015, 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Christiane Lang, The Union Church in Waban
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Our sermon series this fall is entitled Ancient Stories, Living Faith, and in it we are exploring stories from the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament. Last week we began an exploration of the story of Job, the righteous man who suffered. This week we continue with Job’s story. Before we continue, let’s join our hearts in prayer.
Come now, Holy Spirit, to illumine our minds and enliven our hearts. We need your presence, for without you we are as dry bones. And now may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Yesterday I took our two-and-a-half year old son to go shoe shopping in a large department store. This was a terrible idea. The store we went to had many tall racks of clothes around the floor that surrounded the shoe area, as well as a cement pathway that ran the perimeter of the floor. My son thought this was marvelous! Every time I asked him to try on a pair of shoes and walk in them, he took off running, not walking, weaving through the racks of clothes, or using the pathway as a race track. He would disappear, thinking it was a fun game to hide from Mommy. I was that parent you see wandering through a store with an expression part exasperation, part anxiety, saying, “Come back! Where are you? Where are you? This is not funny. It’s not a game. Come back right now.” And of course whenever I found him, he would collapse in laughter and try to run away again. We did this three times, until I let him get further away from me, at which point I heard him saying anxiously, “Where are you? Mama? Where are you?”
Where are you? It’s one of those questions that can be asked in so many ways. [Playfully] Where are you? [Frustrated] Where are you? [Anxiously] Where are you? Where are you?
Today in our text we hear Job saying, Where are you? Where are you, God? Where are you?
Job has lost his property, his children, and his health, and people keep telling him to repent and tell God he’s sorry. But Job knows he does not deserve his suffering, so he demands an audience with God. He accuses God of hiding. He insists that God come out and give him a hearing so that he can get an explanation from God.
Someone once described our usual, churchy correspondence with God as “tidied-up, buttoned-down, polite teatime prayers.” What we read today from Job is no polite teatime prayer. It’s a gasp of agony. It’s a cry of anger and desperation. It’s an insistent demand that the one he loves show up, listen, and offer an explanation. Job says, “…O that I knew where I might find God, that I might come even to God’s dwelling! I would lay my case before God and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what God would answer me, and understand what God would say to me.”
Job is totally disoriented. The God who has always guided him is just plain gone. He says, “If I go forward, God is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive God; on the left God hides, and I cannot behold God; I turn to the right, but I cannot see God.” “So show up!” he cries out. His friends are all a bit worried that Job has stepped over a theological line, accusing God in this way. “Show some respect,” they keep whispering. But Job is past the point of politeness.
I have a friend named Jerry Sittser. He is a church historian and a Christian theologian. Jerry Sittser is also a sort of modern-day Job. Years ago, his family was in a catastrophic car accident, and in it, he lost his wife, his mother, and his youngest daughter. He was left to raise three young children on his own. Ever since that accident, Sittser has been grappling with what faith in God means in the face of catastrophic loss. Some of you may have read his more famous book on loss, which is called A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss. Sittser later wrote another book called, When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayer.
In that work, Sittser describes his arguments with God after the devastating accident:
…I challenged the integrity of [God’s] character, calling him a bully and a brute….I was so distraught, angry, and confused that I had to do something with my emotions. I decided to pour it out to God. ‘I would never treat anyone like you are treating me,’ I coughed out through the tears. ‘Pick on somebody your own size. Leave me alone. I want nothing to do with you.’
Sittser explains that he knew there was good precedent for this kind of honest, wrenching argument with God. The Bible is full of people who fight with God—who love God so much that conflict with God is inevitable. Sittser writes,
Surprisingly, God seems to look with compassion and favor on those who accuse [God] and yell at [God]….What God can’t tolerate is a plastic saint, a polite believer, someone who plays a part but never gets inside the soul of the character. God prefers working with people who like to fight….
To belong to God means that sometimes we wrestle, we wrangle with God we can’t see, we shout into the silence—or in Sittser’s words, “True prayer spits and mutters and cries.” Job is spitting and muttering and crying. And this is not because he is faithless, but because he has deep faith, fighting faith, faith that refuses to let go.
The American writer Annie Dillard once wrote an essay called “Living Like Weasels.” In it, she relates a story told by a 19th Century naturalist. She writes, “Once, a man shot an eagle out of the sky. He examined the eagle and found the dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to [the eagle’s] throat. The supposition is that the eagle had pounced on the weasel and the weasel swiveled and bit as instinct taught him, tooth to neck, and nearly won.” Dillard continues, “I would like to have seen that eagle from the air a few weeks or months before he was shot: was the whole weasel still attached to his feathered throat, a fur pendant?”
Later, Dillard wonders what it might mean to live a bit more like that weasel. She writes, “I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft.”
Hurtled into the abyss of suffering, Job seizes God as best he can and doesn’t let go. He makes demands of a God he cannot see or hear. He accuses a God who seems to be hiding.
This is a pretty different image of our relationship with God than we usually entertain. We come to church and we sing songs of praise. We thank God for our blessings. We meekly ask for healing and comfort. We speak in respectful tones. We don’t swear or yell or make demands. We certainly don’t accuse God of anything. We’re pretty polite with God. We want to make sure we’re good with God, so we don’t do anything rash.
But here’s the thing. We always have conflict with those we love, so arguing with God is not disrespect, but a sign of love. When we offer our deepest, most honest laments and complaints, we stand in the company of a great host of the faithful who have lamented before us. The very name “Israel”—the name of God’s people—it means “one who wrestles with God.” My friend Jerry cried out, “I would never treat someone like this!” Job lamented, “If I go forward, God is not there!”
Jesus is in that host, too. Jesus asked, “O God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s important that Jesus asked that question. In the part of the letter to the Hebrews that Vickie read, the writer calls Jesus our “great high priest”—that is, the one who intercedes for us. The writer says that since he has also suffered, Jesus can sympathize with us in our suffering. This means that no sorrow is outside God’s embrace. God’s heart is also pierced by suffering. If you are suffering, you are not alone. In Christ, God sits and weeps with us, sometimes in silence. God’s Spirit prays for us when we no longer have words to pray. God’s people surround us, bearing us up. We are not alone.
And then the writer to the Hebrews continues, because of this sympathetic advocate we have in Jesus, we can “approach the throne of grace with boldness.” Did you hear that? Boldness. Not polite, teatime prayers, but prayers in which we say the sorts of things we only say to those who know and love us best. “Where are you? I need you! You’re failing me! I’m mad at you! Help.”
And here’s the good news. When we come with such boldness, such honesty, such vulnerability, we open ourselves to a relationship with God. We open ourselves to healing and grace. As we honestly acknowledge our own suffering and ask God to share it with us, we become those who can look honestly at others’ pain. And when we become able to acknowledge pain—our own and others’—then we become able to sensitively hold others’ pain. Approaching God with honesty transforms us over time into people who don’t look away from or deny suffering, but who instead learn to bear God’s healing into the world.
I don’t know why God seems so hidden sometimes. I often wish it weren’t so. But this I know. We always have conflict with those we love. If you need to yell at your Creator, if you need to spit and mutter and cry, if you need to give praise with one breath and hurl questions with the next, God can take it. In fact, God wants to take it. So go ahead. Talk a little more like Job. Call God out of hiding. Live a little more like a weasel—seize God and don’t let go.