The Case of the Missing God
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at St. Matthew’s UMC, September 25, 2011, the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
Text: Exodus 17:1-7
Years ago, I heard a powerful preacher describe her experience at the bedside of her dying son as “the case of the missing God.” She felt abandoned, like she needed God and searched, but God was nowhere to be found. I’ve never forgotten this phrase—and it comes back to me again and again as I hear people young and old tell me that they feel they’re on that same case. When depression sets in or loneliness weighs heavy…when the earth rises up in whirlwind and flood and homes and lives are lost…when diseases steal vitality and cut life short… the case of the missing God… when peoples, nations, races, religions seem incapable of finding even a tenuous, much less a permanent peace… when loved ones are in pain and hopelessness and helplessness threaten to undo us… when injustice and violence and greed keep food out of hungry mouths and medicine out of suffering bodies …the case of the missing God… in moments of betrayal…when work dries up and we find ourselves struggling to put food on the table or to pay the bills… in the chains of addiction and abusive cycles, when best efforts and intentions seem to come to nothing…the case of the missing God… Where is God? Is the Lord among us or not?
The question is not new…in fact, it’s very, very old. We hear the question in our text from Exodus this morning. The text is part of the story that the Israelites tell about their time in the wilderness. And this small part of the story is actually pretty typical. The larger context is this: the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt. And God called Moses to lead them out of slavery and into a land “flowing with milk and honey.” Moses has done all that he was asked to do and God has done what God said God would do…the people have been led out of their bondage and are on their way, journeying by stages toward the land that God promised.
But we are brought into the story this morning while they’re still out there in the desert—no milk and honey in sight. The people are thirsty and complain to Moses, laying the guilt on thick: “why did you bring me out of Egypt just to kill me and my children with thirst in the desert?” What’s typical here is the fact that the people are quarreling and testing God…that they are grumbling and questioning God’s presence…they do it over and over… The fact is that just before this episode in the story, they complained and grumbled and God provided manna for them in the desert to feed their hunger. How quickly they forget. Not to mention the fact that the people seem to have pretty handily forgotten the reality of their enslavement in Egypt and the way that God provided the means to accomplish their release. The point is that it doesn’t take long in the midst of a challenge for the people to doubt the presence of God—even though they have experienced God as saving them from slavery, parting the waters of the sea for them to cross to safety, and feeding them with manna in the wilderness.
Some might interpret this story as suggesting that it’s not acceptable to question God’s presence in a time of need. But in the face of the realities we face in our world—war, starvation, cancer, AIDS, abuse—how can we not struggle with the question: Where is God? Is the Lord among us or not?
Perhaps one way to think about these things is this: to be human is to ask the question, to struggle with the pain and suffering and confusion in the world and to want a good God to make it stop. Perhaps in the present, life looks grim or you are lost in confusion, wandering in the wilderness, facing loss or illness, or just a transition that is scary. And in the midst of it all, sometimes we wonder what God’s going to do about it…why God allows it… sometimes we wonder where God is…sometimes it makes us wonder if God is… That’s an understandable place to be and it would be dishonest to suggest that we never had those kinds of questions. They’re human questions—but they’re not the only, or the last, truly human response.
Human beings have been given the gift of memory—and so it is also profoundly human to remember, to honor the gifts that have been received in the past, and to hope. This is why all the grumbling stories show up in the Bible—let’s face it, these stories the Israelites tell on themselves aren’t the most flattering. But they repeat them so that they will remember: “in the midst of our difficulties and suffering” (they seem to say), “when we are needy, whiny, suspicious, forgetful, malcontented folks, God is consistently present, faithful, creative, sustaining, liberating.” Story after story is told to remind the people that they can trust God, that they can hope for the future because of what God has done in the past.
So for us, when we find ourselves grumbling, crying out, impatient at the seeming absence of God, we are invited to take a breath and remember… remember the moments in our lives when we experienced holiness, joy, salvation, forgiveness, hope, love, God. Remember the experiences of transformation in your life and relationships—moments of wonder and new life and new love. Remember the stories of the faith—the signs and wonders that God has shown through the ages, liberation of enslaved peasants from the empires of the world, nobodies becoming somebodies through the mystery of God’s Spirit, chains broken and demons cast out that once kept lives in bondage, mourning turned to dancing, alienation transformed to love, death to life. Remember and, from that remembrance, be encouraged and strengthened to keep moving forward; the God who has brought you through this far is out ahead, ready to bring you into a new place of promise.
I contend that there is nothing wrong with asking the question “where is God?” or with asking God for what we feel we need or want. If to ask these questions is sin, then Jesus was a sinner—because in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked for what he wanted—for God to let the cup of suffering and death pass from him…on the cross, Jesus asks the same question we so often ask, “My God why have you forsaken me?” But Jesus, the fully, truly human one, shows us that even in the midst of these questions there is another step to take: remembrance and trust. Jesus’ prayer in the garden doesn’t end with “let this cup pass from me” but goes on to say “but not my will, but yours be done.” Jesus remembers who God is, Jesus trusts God’s love even in the face of the worst the world can do. And, by that trust, Jesus shows us the best that we can do—shows us our own human potential for faith, hope, and loving surrender into God’s arms.
At the end of the day, rational “proofs” of God and of God’s presence are as difficult to hold onto as water in our hand. The only thing we have is the story of God’s mysterious, saving presence—in the stories of human lives—past and present. We can look not only at Jesus, but also at people in our families and among our friends and church family to be reminded of God’s never-failing presence and provision. We know how much folks have come through and we have seen evidence of transformation and healing and wisdom that have been borne through God’s grace in difficult places. What can, on the surface, look like the case of the missing God may simply be a case of forgetfulness.
The following well-known story, I hope, will help us remember:
One night a man had a dream. He dreamt he was walking along the beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene he noticed two sets of footprints on the sand—one belonging to him and the other to the Lord. When the last scene had flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints and he noticed only one set. He also noticed that this happened during the lowest and saddest times of his life. This bothered him and he questioned the Lord. “Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you would walk all the way with me, but I noticed that during the most troublesome times of my life there was only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why, when I needed you most, you deserted me.”
The Lord replied, “My precious, precious child, I love you and would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”
If you’re trying to solve the case of the missing God today, perhaps all you need to do is remember that God—even today—even when you can’t see or feel it—is holding you and will never let you go.