The Presence of Christ
Throughout our lives we face a number of dilemmas and difficult decisions. We want to do what is right. We want to do what is God pleasing, but when we turn to him for help, guidance, direction do we hear only silence? Or do we often overlook God’s presence in our midst?
True story: A young Marine attached to the Basic School at Quantico, Virginia, received a set of orders to Okinawa. He went to his Sergeant and said, “God doesn’t want me to go to Okinawa.” The sergeant’s response was what you would expect from a sergeant: “Carry out your orders.” The young Marine asked to speak to his Lieutenant. Basically the same answer. The same was true from the Commanding Office of the Basic School. Finally, the young Marine requested mast with the Commanding General. Gentleman Joe Feagan, Lieutenant General, United States Marine Corps, for whom I had a lot of respect, graciously invited the young Marine into his office and heard him out. “General, God doesn’t want me to go to Okinawa.” The General replied, “If God didn’t want you to go to Okinawa, he would have told me, not you.”
Hypothetical situation: A man comes into the pastor’s office and says “Pastor, I have a really difficult situation and I don’t know what to do. What does God want me to do? God hasn’t told the pastor what the man should do. We wrestle with all sorts of issues in our lives. What should we do about this medical treatment? How should we handle this conflict? Should I take a new job? How do we reconcile a relationship? Will I ever experience love again? Why do I feel lonely? We would love for God to sit down and lay out a Power Point presentation for us. “Here’s what you need to do and this is how you should go about doing it.” Sometimes when we earnestly cry out to God for help, guidance, direction, we are confronted by—silence.
We often think of the people of the Old Testament sitting around waiting for the Messiah to appear. There certainly was a thread of expectation running through the prophets. Malachi ends his book with the expectation of a forerunner, an Elijah figure, who would return to usher in the Messianic age. Most, however, would have looked back—back in time to God’s relationship with Abraham, with the deliverance of God’s people from Egypt, with the appearance of God at Mount Sinai. But now, while they were in Exile? Where was God now? Some struggled to answer why this had happened to them, but most, I would think, heard only the silence of God. Had God abandoned his people to their fate?
The prophet Ezekiel presents an interesting picture. He is explicit about the wrongs which the people have committed. He presents a graphic vision of the glory of God rising out of the temple compound. God, in Ezekiel’s vision is withdrawing his presence from the holy city Jerusalem and from the Temple itself, the symbol of God’s presence among his people. And it departs through the east gate. Why the east gate? Because the remnant of the people are in Exile in Babylon to the east. God is withdrawing his presence from Jerusalem and joining his people in Exile. In Ezekiel’s vision God chose to share the experience with his people.
It’s an interesting picture, a picture of how God works. The Gospel lesson for today is the Annunciation. The angel Gabriel appears to a young woman and tells her that she has been chosen to bear the Christ, the Son of God. Being a typical young woman, she wants to discuss the practical details: “How shall this be?” The point, however, is that God has chosen to become one of us in precisely the way that we become one of us—by being born. As an adult, he shares the lifestyle of the people of his day. Yes, he does perform miracles, but the noteworthy thing about his miracles is that they are always done for the benefit of someone else, down to and including providing wine for a wedding because the bridegroom’s family had under estimated the consumption of their guests. Even at that prime moment of abandonment, when it appeared that the forces of evil had triumphed and the Lord hung on the cross—when the cry was wrung from his pain-wracked body: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The moment of defeat became the moment of triumph. God was present in Jesus Christ reconciling the world unto himself.
That was then, but what about now? What about when I’m facing the dilemmas of life and cry out to God for a little help? What about when all I perceive is the silence of God? Is God still with us? Isaiah says that the word of God will stand forever. John, in his Gospel, is even more explicit: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” I love the image that John used. His actual words were “The Word became flesh and tented among us.” The picture in john’s mind apparently is the tabernacle with the tents of the Children of Israel arranged in ranks around it. Today he would have said, “God dwelling in our subdivision.” The Word became flesh, and the story of the Word is encapsulated in words—the words of Holy Scripture. In his Word God still dwells among us, and answers a lot of our questions. He may not give us precise marching orders, but it is often clear what we should do. The hard part is doing what we know is the right thing to do.
The Lord is present among us in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. As Lutherans we make a big deal about the presence of the Lord in the Sacrament, but do we really understand what we are saying. The Lord himself is present at that moment in time. Holy Communion should be a time of peace, of letting go and letting God, of recognizing that as we move forward in life our caring, forgiving God is with us.
Sometimes we feel that we are in the presence of God. There are those moments in which we are aware that God is truly present. It is one of the things that I pray for when I am making a call on someone who is seriously ill—that they feel the presence of God. We need that assurance periodically that God is not only present, but that he holds our hand as we walk through a difficult situation.
The story is told in the midst of rising flood waters that a National Guard truck pulled up to a man’s house and one of the soldier’s said “Hop in, we will take you to high ground.” The man replied, “No thanks, God will take care of me.” As the waters rose higher, a boat pulled up to the house. “Hop in. We will take you to safety.” The man replied, “No thanks. God will take care of me.” Finally, the flood was so bad that the man was forced onto the roof. A helicopter hovered overhead. A voice hollered down, “Put the collar under your arms and we will pull you up and take you to safety.” The man said, “Thanks, but God will take care of me.” Finally, the flood became so bad that the house collapsed and the man drowned. He arrived at the throne of God screaming, “I believed in you. I believed that you would take care of me, and look what happened.” God replied, “Wait a minute. I sent you a truck. I sent you a boat. I sent you a helicopter. What did you want?!”
When we complain about the silence of God, doesn’t God reply: “I sent you my Son. He became one of you. The Word became flesh and dwelt among you. I sent you my words so that you would be drawn to my Son. I explained to you that through him you would be forgiven of all of your sins and restored to me. I gave you the Sacrament that every week my Son would be present in your midst., so that you could touch and taste and be assured of your forgiveness. I even let you feel my presence from time to time so that you would be strengthened in time of need and through my presence you could experience comfort and joy even in the midst of hard times. “
Could it be that the problem is not the silence of God, but that we don’t listen? Amen.