Do you ever find yourself in one of those times when God seems to have gone off somewhere, when you feel forsaken, when your prayers seem to go unanswered, when you try to figure out what God wants to teach you but you come up short on answers?
Listen to these words from Job, lamenting his present plight in contrast to the past:
“Job again took up his discourse and said: ‘O that I were as in the months of old, as in the days when God watched over me; when His lamp shone over my head, and by His light I walked through darkness; when I was in my prime, when the friendship of God was over my tent; when the Almighty was still with me, when my children were around me; when my steps were washed with milk, and the rock poured out for me streams of oil!’” (Job 29:1-6)
I actually have met some people who feel that they never have experienced depression. It may not be that they are hopelessly idealistic or that they are incorrigible optimists who live in a fantasy world. They truly may not have experienced those darker moments when depression assails us and despair takes over. They may never have been tested in the ways that others have been. There are such persons, and we should be able to rejoice in their amazing experience of unmitigated blessings.
It is very difficult for them to identify with those who have walked on the dark side, just as it is difficult for those who have walked there to identify with those who have not. And with whichever group of persons it may be that we most closely identify, we need to take care that we are not judging the other group negatively. We might prefer to be around the relentlessly sanguine types rather than around the sad-faced puddle-glums; but we need to make the effort to understand both.
Elijah seems to have been one who wallowed a great deal in the camp of the puddle-glums. We look in from the outside and wonder a bit why he was unable to rejoice in God’s goodness, in God’s protection from the evils of Ahab and Jezebel, why he could not stay on the “high” of God’s astonishing victory over the Baal worshipers, why he seemed to forget that God not only had protected him, but miraculously cared for his physical nourishment on at least two occasions: first when he was a beneficiary of the widow’s inexhaustible supply of oil and flour and, more recently, of God’s sustaining him for 40 days on the strength of the baked bread cake and jar of water that simply appeared in front of him while he was sleeping under a juniper tree, feeling sorry for himself. Did Elijah forget all of these things, including God’s assurances that there were still 7,000 in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal, even if Elijah did repeatedly assert that he alone was left, one prophet of the Lord? Did he forget that God had led him to safe places in the hills where Ahab could not find him?
This past Wednesday was the day of commemoration in the Anglican Communion of the early 20th century humanitarian mystic, Evelyn Underhill. Here are two quotations from her many writings: “Christian history looks glorious in retrospect; but it is made up of constant hard choices and unattractive tasks, accepted under the pressure of the will of God.” Sounds like Elijah, doesn’t it? Or perhaps like some of us. But listen to this one: “To go up alone into the mountains and come back as an ambassador to the world, has ever been the method of humanity’s best friends.” That definitely sounds like Elijah, constantly running to the hills to escape Ahab yet returning to do God’s bidding for the sake of God’s people.
Did God ever just give up on Elijah the self-pity-mongering puddle-glum? No, certainly not, God just keeps giving Elijah more assignments, perhaps even increasingly dangerous ones. In the present instance it almost seems as though God is saying, “Okay, you think you’ve been through some rough patches up to now, try this on for size: go anoint as king someone in a neighboring country and see how well that sits with your adversary, Ahab.” And that’s not all: in the very next verse, which is not part of today’s reading, God tells Elijah to go anoint a new king in Israel even while Ahab is still on the throne!
Obeying God as God’s faithful servant and prophet is not an easy task or a particularly welcome one. No wonder Elijah lived in the doldrums a great deal of the time! Even though he had to have been aware of God’s continual protection right up to the very moment of his fiery chariot ride into heaven, Elijah suffered a great deal in his mind and spirit. Just like us, he wanted to ask God “why,” time after time. And frequently when we ask God “why,” God is silent.
The tour concert program of the Chicago Master Singers includes a piece the text of which was found scribbled on the wall of a room in Cologne where Jews were hiding from the Nazi’s during WW II. The text says, “I believe in God, even when God is silent.” Those were incredibly brave words from someone whose very existence was riddled with uncertainty and whose life doubtless ended in torment and execution. This would not be easy for any of us. There are indeed times when God is silent and we are desperate to hear His voice. No one understood this better than David, and we read over and over in the psalms attributed to him that he wants nothing more than to be reassured that God is there and God is listening to his pleas.
Probably most of you thought about how our psalm for this morning, a psalm of David, Psalm 22, begins. It begins with words that Jesus spoke from the cross, words that may be among the most misinterpreted words ever spoken by Jesus. The first words are, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” Yes, there were times in Elijah’s life when God was utterly silent. There were times in David’s life when God was utterly silent. We have been plodding our way through the book of Job in Evening Prayer the past two weeks, and there were many times for Job that God was silent, even while his accusing friends were at their most loquacious. There were many times during the Holocaust that God was silent. There was this moment from the Cross when God was silent.
But none of that appears at all in the words we read together today from Psalm 22, and that is the crucial thing for us to hear this morning: God may have been silent, but NEVER was God absent. Here is where David lands after crying out to God, “Why have You forsaken me?” He exclaims, “You who fear the Lord, praise Him; all you descendants of Jacob, glorify Him; and stand in awe of Him, all you descendants of Israel. For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; nor has He hidden His face from him; but when he cried to God for help, He heard. From You comes my praise in the great assembly; I shall pay my vows before those who fear Him. The afflicted will eat and be satisfied; those who seek Him will praise the Lord. Let your heart live forever! All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will worship before You. For the kingdom is the Lord’s and He rules over the nations” (Psalm 22:23-28).
What do we do when God is silent? We rest in the absolute assurance that He is God, that He has NOT hidden His face from the afflicted, that the afflicted will yet eat and be satisfied and that those who seek Him will yet praise the Lord, turn to Him and worship Him! Listen to these words from Isaiah, when he was forced to deal with these very same issues and questions:
“Justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and behold there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We flounder like the blind along a wall, floundering like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead. We all growl like bears; like doves we moan mournfully. We hope for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us” (Isaiah 59:9-11).
But then what? Isaiah continues, “The Lord saw it, and it displeased Him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede. Then His own arm brought Him victory, and His righteousness upheld Him. He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on His head; So those in the west shall fear the name of the Lord, and those in the east, His glory;
for He will come like a rushing stream that the wind of the Lord drives on. ‘And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,’ declares the Lord” (Isaiah 59:15b-17a; 19, 20).
Is God sometimes silent? Yes, certainly from our perspective. Just ask Job. Just ask Elijah. Just ask David. Just ask Isaiah. Just ask Jesus. But is He still on His throne? Is He still listening to the voice of our complaint? Yes, He is, because, as David writes in Psalm 130, “with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him is plenteous redemption. I look for the LORD; my soul waits for Him; for in His word is my trust” (Psalm 130:7, 5). The thought that God has forsaken us is a transitory thought, one asked when we find ourselves despairing and close to the breaking point. But that is just the beginning of Psalm 22, and today we are seeing how it ends: “He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted. For the kingdom is the Lord’s and He rules over the nations.”
And so, returning to where we began, do you ever find yourself in one of those times when God seems to have gone off somewhere, when you feel forsaken, when your prayers seem to go unanswered, when you try to figure out what God wants to teach you but you come up short on answers? Are you tempted to cry out, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” Know that it’s okay to feel that way. It’s okay to wonder where God has gone. It’s okay to ask our questions. It’s definitely okay to ask God for some answers. It’s even okay to get impatient with God from time to time as we try to figure out His timetable. It’s okay to want to ask God our “why” questions that often seem to have no answers in this life, just silence.
But then, it’s time to turn to Him in trust and faith, confident in His word and in the record of how He has acted in the past. Take your stand with Job, who in spite of everything he endured while God was silent, said, “I know that my Redeemer (my Goel) lives and that He will stand at the latter day upon the earth” (Job 19:25). Take your stand with David, who said, “The afflicted will eat and be satisfied; those who seek Him will praise the Lord. Let your heart live forever!” (Psalm 22:26). Take your stand with Isaiah, who said, “a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression” (Isaiah 59:20). Take your stand with Francis Schaeffer, who wrote, “He is There and He is Not Silent.”
What is the message here? God has a plan. God may be silent, but He is here. He never goes away from the affairs of His people, His creation. He has redemption in mind, and a Redeemer Who will redeem all those who put their trust in Him. This was God’s plan from the beginning of time. It still is His plan; He has not substituted some other plan. God is unchanged and unchangeable. “And with Him is plenteous redemption.”
As David wrote in my favorite psalm, “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness. He will not always strive with us, nor will He keep His anger forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him” (Psalm 103:8-11).
How has He proved His lovingkindness to us? How has He demonstrated that “He is There and He is Not Silent”? We find the answers in God’s holy word: “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Almighty God, You have broken the tyranny of sin and have sent the Spirit of Your Son into our hearts whereby we call You Father: give us grace to dedicate our freedom to Your service, that we and all creation may be brought to the glorious liberty of the children of God; through Jesus Christ Your Son our Lord, Who lives and reigns with You, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen