Where is God?

Where do we look for God when tragedy strikes? When bombs go off in public squares killing and maiming innocent lives? Where is God?

The Psalmist expresses what, in the Bible, is a consistent divine message whenever we find ourselves “in the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4):

Through the Psalmist God says, “Fear no evil …” How is that possible? Is this some trite expression oozing from the lips of a feel-good religionist?

The Psalmist does not deny the reality of evil nor its capacity to wreak mayhem. Yet, despite the real threat of evil, the Psalmist has adopted a resolute stance: No Fear.

But why are we not to be afraid? On what grounds are we not to fear? Is it because the police are already on the scene? Is it because enhanced surveillance methods will allow law enforcement officials to identify the perpetrators more quickly and effectively? Is it because our military has new tools to exact vengeance so that the ‘bad guys’ will never hurt anyone again? Is this why we should not fear?

Our reaction to terror over the last twelve years hasn’t really gotten rid of this fear, has it? A hard-hitting, “shock-and-awe” response was widely thought to be the tonic for getting us over our fear and punishing our enemies. Has it worked?

I suspect we are still very, very fearful. The events in Boston over the last six days have proven it to me. And yet, God’s message comes again: “Do not fear …” Why?

“…. for You are with me.” It’s the core claim of biblical faith that there is but one God and that all trust belongs to that God. We are in a relationship of grace with God. We aren’t alone, even in that valley.

Perhaps we need to confess that when trouble comes we compulsively try to find solace in every place but the proper one. We tend to look for God in places that do not, in the end, communicate the transforming power of God’s love in Jesus Christ. We tend, do we not, to look for God in places of our own doing — efforts and demonstrations of power and influence: Our successes; Our praise-worthy accomplishments; Our ‘winning’ at the game of life? Are these the places where Jesus will find us with his transforming love?

In the Gospel text, Jesus is walking under the Portico of Solomon in the temple at Jerusalem. This was the sheltered walkway — a natural place for someone to find refuge on a cold, blustery, winter’s day. But to leave it there would be to miss the significance of where Jesus was found:

This portico lined the perimeter of the temple. Jesus was walking around the outer edge of the temple during the Dedication. The Dedication was the annual festival celebrating the political triumph of the Maccabean revolt that restored Jewish control of the temple following its desecration by Antiochus IV in 167 B.C.E. So, being at the temple itself was a big deal on this very holy day.

And where one stood in the temple was significant. The Holy of Holies was at the centre of the temple, where only the High Priest entered once a year. The farther “out” from the centre, the less important you were. Conversely, the closer to the centre of the temple building you were allowed to go, the higher status you held in the religious world of the day.

Jesus was not where we might initially think he should be; that is, closer to the Holy of Holies. Instead, he was in that part of the temple where the common people were allowed to enter.

Where does God choose to be revealed? In places we would not normally look for God. Jesus was born in a manger, not in a palace. Jesus died on a cross, a criminal of the state, not on a comfortable bed surrounded by adoring loved ones and the best medical attention. How could God be like that?

Yet, this is Jesus — the God we worship and confess as our Lord and Saviour. If we are looking for positive change in our lives, if we seek personal transformation, if we yearn for a new beginning and resurrection in our lives — then we cannot jump from Palm Sunday (Hosanna!) to Easter (Alleluia!) and bypass Good Friday (The Cross!).

Success doesn’t come without embracing failure. New life doesn’t come without losing something precious. Receiving doesn’t happen without giving.

Some of us with children have expressed concern about all the horrific images they  may see on TV news reports over the past week from Boston. The vivid and terrible images of devastation on a sidewalk could be traumatic, for anyone, to watch over and over again. What can we say to our children who could be adversely affected and overcome by fear, by watching this?

“Do not be afraid”, for focus your attention on those who are helping. Look at the first-responders as they risk their own lives in a chaotic, uncertain and dangerous environment providing care, love and compassion to the victims. “… for You are with me.”

Where is God? God is revealed in places where we would least expect. And in those moments of human frailty and weakness — not by denying our wounds and pretending we can by our efforts alone be perfect and invincible — God is with us. Jesus’ wounded hands will hold us. God will not abandon us in our greatest sorrow and vulnerability. In those places — on the ‘perimeter’, on the edge, of our lives — God will bring us to the fullness of life.

Thanks to Timothy F. Simpson, “The 23rd Psalm in an Age of Terror: A Pastoral Response to Boston”, posted on 16 April 2013.

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