“Emmanuel and Easter”

June 1, 2014


Acts 1:1-11

Matthew 28:16-20


Where Is God When It Hurts?

Where Is God When Things Go Wrong?

Where Is God When I Pray?

Where Is God When I’m Scared?

I’m not going to try to answer all of those questions this morning.

Actually, these are not questions, exactly. They are the titles of a few of the many books available for those who wonder, “Where is God?”

These books were written, presumably by people who know the answers to the questions their titles pose and who, for the price of a book, are ready to share those answers with the rest of us, who so often feel as though we are still searching.

There is even a “Where is God” lift-the-flap book. I think it was written with children in mind. Still, I can’t help but imagine how nice it would be if I—if we—could just life the flap and there—under a stone, behind a tree, around a corner—there find the Almighty, the Holy One whom we seek.

We want to know: where is God?

The Christian affirmation is that God is made known to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But that only leads to the question—and where is Jesus?

In the story of the Ascension at the beginning of Acts, the followers of Jesus are asked, “Why do you stand looking toward heaven?” The implication is that Jesus is not to be found there.

In the final chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus, crucified and now risen from the dead, meets Mary Magdalene and the other Mary as they run from the empty tomb with a mixture of great fear and great joy. Jesus has a task for them that includes very specific directions as to where he might be found: “Tell my brothers to go to Galilee,” the risen Christ says. “There they will see me.”

Now, those are very strange words indeed. Not because of what they promise, but because of where this promise is to be fulfilled.

Throughout Matthew’s gospel Jerusalem is the place. Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee, but it becomes apparent that Jerusalem is his destination and his destiny. With his disciples, he sets out from Galilee toward Jerusalem, the capital city. He comes into Jerusalem, the center of religious and political power, in a strange kind of triumphal entry riding on a donkey. In Jerusalem Jesus teaches. In Jerusalem Jesus confronts the powers of this world.

In Jerusalem Jesus is crucified, dies, and is buried.

In Jerusalem Jesus is raised from death and appears to those two women who were among his closest followers.

It makes sense, because Jerusalem is the center.

In Jerusalem the risen Jesus gives the command: Go to Galilee.

Go to Galilee where Jesus grew up, where he was baptized by John; Galilee where Jesus called his followers and taught both them and all who had ears to hear; Galilee where Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry.

“There”—not in Jerusalem, the center, but in the hinterlands, out in the sticks, on the edge—“There,” Jesus says, “they will see me.”

We, too, have often discovered that if we are to search for God—and certainly if we are to come in any way close to finding God—it will be in those unexpected places, at unexpected times.

We don’t travel to Galilee, but we work at the food pantry or we serve at the free lunch program or we keep watch during the night at Shelter House.

We don’t travel to Galilee, but we visit in prisons, in hospitals. We seek justice for workers whose wages have been kept from them. We seek an end to the violence that plagues our nation, the warfare that devastates our world.

We don’t go to Galilee, but we sit in silence before a work of art, or dance as though no one is watching, or sing as though the tune is our own.

We don’t go to Galilee, but we go to our families and our homes and our neighborhoods. We go to work. We go into the wider community.

Where is God? Where is Jesus?

In the Galilees of our lives.

In the Galilees of our lives we live out that strange mixture of wonder and doubt that is faith.

Meeting Jesus again in Galilee, the disciples worship. What else could they do? Worship is our response to the wonder that comes over us, to the awe that we feel. You know that the word “liturgy” means “the work of the people.” Worship is our common work. It’s what we do together. It is our shared response to all that we have seen and heard, all that we have experienced in recent days. Prayer, song, giving, the word read and  proclaimed, bread broken and shared are ways in which we respond to the sense that we live and move and have our being in God. We worship. What else could we do?

Well, like those earliest followers of Jesus, we could doubt.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been around here very long. There are some congregations in which the word of doubt, the sincere question, the desperate fear of God’s absence are not allowed. This is not the case among us. We understand that doubt is a part of the dynamic of faith. Doubt is a part of the genuine encounter with the risen Christ.

We have our doubts.

We have a sense of wonder.

The risen Christ is known both to the devout and to the doubters as the One who tells us: “Go.”

This final charge to the first disciples and to all who have followed since has been called the “Great Commission.” The words strike us as simple: “Go, make disciples, baptize, teach.” But, of course, the attempts to follow those words changed the world. In our time the response to that Commission takes on new forms: stewardship of the earth, seeking peace, advocating for the rights of those on the margins of society.

Today, more and more congregations are coming to the realization that “all nations” are just beyond their walls; that the world is at their doorstep. And so it is for us.

Each day countless students, professors, and business people struggling to make sense of it all walk past this building. They are joined by the homeless, people who are wounded by life, the hungry, petty criminals—all walking by not even aware that we are here.

All too often, our doors are closed.

All too often our light is hidden under a bushel.

Left to our own imagination and our own strength and our own resources, it will always be so.

But resurrection brings a new possibility. Jesus calls it “authority”—but it is the power to bring something new into the world. In the risen Christ all the possibility of heaven and earth—the power of the God who creates, redeems, and sustains the entire universe—all possibility unleashes a new power, the ability to act, for the well-being of the world.

This new possibility speaks a new word—or a familiar word for a new time: “Go.”

And that word, “Go,” is given with an assurance for all who will take that challenge, that opportunity.

Do you remember the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew and those words that we often hear during Advent? An angel appears to Joseph and tells him that Mary, his betrothed, “will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” We usually don’t think about this story on hot June days—but it speaks to us as much now as in December. All of this, Matthew tells us, took place to fulfill what God had spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “Look, the virgin will conceive and bear a sons, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.”

Emmanuel—God is with us.

This is the promise and the good news that we hear all through Matthew’s gospel—from the first chapter to those last words of the risen Christ: “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

The Greek makes it more wonderful even as it makes it more specific.

While it is good to “remember,” the Greek is more emphatic, more “biblical:”

“Lo!” Jesus says. Listen up! Take note!

“Behold!” Jesus says. Here’s something astonishing.

“I am with you all of the days.”

When the sky above is gray and the horizon ominous: Lo! I am with you.

When the way ahead is dark and your plans are uncertain at best—Lo! I am with you.

When death takes someone from you, when death comes for you—Behold! I am with you.

Count as many days as you are able. Imagine countless days beyond those. God in Christ is with us—each of us, all of us, with the entire creation.

“Behold!” says the risen Christ. “I am with you all the days.”

My guess is that there have been times in your life when it didn’t seem like that; that there have been times when God was known most deeply by God’s absence. Such times carry many names: the dark night of the soul, a dry season, the winter of the spirit. Maybe you came here this morning in spite of feeling abandoned by God. Maybe you came here because you feel abandoned.

It’s crushing to feel abandoned by God—to carry the sense that the lives of others are somehow more favored; to suspect that even in their difficulties and trials other people draw closer to God and God to them, while you are left to your own devices; to lift the flap and find nothing.

There are such times.

But I found some help and some new perspective from the poet, Christian Wiman. He has been living with an incurable cancer for several years now. It would seem that he could write a “Where is God?” book.

Instead, he wrote My Bright Abyss, in which he explores what it might mean for our living and our dying if we acknowledged God’s presence. He says that:

There are definitely times when we must suffer God’s absence…But this is very rare, and for the most part our dark nights of the soul are in a way that is more pathetic than tragic, wishful thinking.

God is not absent. He is everywhere in the world we are too dispirited to love. To feel him—to find him—does not usually require that we renounce all worldly possessions and enter a monastery…All too often the task to which we are called is simply to show a kindness to the irritating person in the cubicle next to us, say, or touch the face of a spouse from whom we ourselves have been long absent, letting grace wake love from our intense, self-enclosed sleep.

We are closer to the divine ground of our being than we would imagine.

We can open ourselves to the new things that God is doing within us and among us and around us.

The risen Christ offers a new possibility and a new presence.

Perhaps without meaning to, I did answer the question posed by all those book titles at the beginning of this sermon.

Where is God?

The risen Christ tells us: “I am with you.”

God is with us when we question.

God is with us when we go into the world.

God is with us all of the days.

Christ is risen and sends us out with new power for new possibilities.

Easter tells us that the hope of Advent—Emmanuel—becomes real in our lives: God is with us.