Where is God?
Some would declare that God is everywhere. Others would point to the tragedies being played out on the world stage and conclude that God is nowhere. For some he is in the garden or on the mountain top. For others he is in the hearts of all those who love him and long to love him more.
There is no short and sweet answer to the question, “where is God?” But human beings, indulging in their material side, enjoy putting God in his place, in the sense that there are particular locations in which we feel more confident about finding God. Particular locations to which we think our Lord is more suited. Particular locations which we have designed and decorated in a manner we hope he will find pleasing.
In other words – churches. The Church is the house of the Lord. But any individual church, over time, becomes the home of those who worship and serve there and so the sanctuary is imbued with memories and traditions all of which reinforce the notion of a holy place, somewhere set apart from the rough and tumble of daily life. A place where we go on high and low days, for joyful celebration and reflective commemoration, to seek guidance or strength or comfort.
I know that some of our Balmullo members prefer to worship in the traditional setting of Leuchars: a church which has seen the passing of many faithful generations and absorbed, over the centuries, tears and laughter, together with the sounds of reading, praying, preaching and singing. It is a building dedicated to the Lord and so some people find it more conducive to worship him within its walls.
In that respect we have something in common with the people of ancient Israel. Even when they were a tribe on the move, and uncertain of their arrival date at their final destination, they assigned a tent to God. This tent was set apart from the rest of the camp – a means of ascribing holiness both to the location itself and to the One whom they believed would meet them there. Of course the people did not presume actually to see the Lord – they were content to lay their eyes on the pillar of cloud and leave Moses to do the interceding on their behalf.
There is a sense of awe in Israelite worship which perhaps we have lost, in spite of the settledness and beauty of our churches, but we can reclaim it any time from certain passages of scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments. It is also expressed in some of our hymns. We also find the two combined, as in Timothy Dudley-Smith’s version of Psalm 19:
The stars declare his glory;
the vault of heaven springs
mute witness of the Master’s hand
in all created things,
and through the silences of space
their soundless music sings.
The dawn returns in splendour,
the heavens burn and blaze,
the rising sun renews the race
that measures all our days,
and writes in fire across the skies
God’s majesty and praise.
Of course building a place of worship does not guarantee God’s presence in the way that hanging up a nesting box might attract a family of bluetits. The physical is merely a route to the spiritual. In other words, our deliberate presence in a place dedicated to the Lord may help us somewhat material beings to focus on him and thence enter into communion with him. The ancient hymn, “Christ is made the sure foundation” expresses this well in the second verse:
To this temple, where we call you,
come, O Lord of Hosts, today:
with your constant loving-kindness,
hear your servants as they pray,
and your fullest benediction
shed within its walls always.
The disciples of Jesus would have been fed the stories of their Israelite forebears with their mothers’ milk. We know that even as he approached the end of his life on earth the Master celebrated the Passover with them, in other words continuing their ancestors’ thanksgiving to the Lord God for their liberation from slavery in Egypt. Together Jesus and the twelve worshipped in the synagogue and in the Jerusalem temple, listening week by week to the stories of their past from the scrolls of scripture and punctuating the year with all the Jewish festivals.
They grew up in the knowledge of a God whom they could not see – this they took in their stride. But when the Son of God says to them, “In a little while you will not see me any more, and then a little while later you will see me” they are utterly bamboozled.
This “elusive” Christ is known to us too, isn’t he? We strive by good works to attract his presence – we pray, read the bible, come to church, support congregational activities, do our best to love our neighbour as ourselves. But experience has taught us that such behaviour – worthy though it is – does not guarantee divine intervention or inspiration. And when we are at our lowest ebb, when we can’t concentrate to pray or stir ourselves to participate in the life of the Church, we cry out like the psalm writers of old, longing to hear God’s voice reassure us and feel his strength soothe our pain.
And then suddenly when we are not trying at all, we are touched. A phrase from the bible leaps out at us and we almost cry with shock.
“Are not sparrows two a penny? Yet without your Father’s leave not one of them can fall to the ground. As for you, even the hairs of your head have all been counted. So have no fear; you are worth more than any number of sparrows.”
Or, we look around us, and notice that the sky is beautiful. Or a stranger’s act of kindness bowls us over. And suddenly we know that this is indeed of God. We are in the presence of the living Christ.
Or we are stuck and tempted, we are succombing to old habits and bad ones at that and again we feel his hand on our lives, we know what we’re proposing is wrong and Jesus gently holds us back. We find him in this world of poverty and plenty, grace and greed, doubt and defiance, faith and fanaticism, of freedom and clinging dependence. He is here in spite of all the horrible things going on. In the wee girl who gave her pocket money to charity. In the Street Pastors who give up their cosy beds to hand out flipflops to footsore night clubbers who are the worse for wear.
Jesus today would more likely walk the streets of a city where there is clamant need rather than take his ease in an ivory tower. We understand that. But for the Jews of the 1st century, this was an impossible scenario. They were looking for a Messiah who would suddenly appear and lead them to glory. He would not have been a baby born in poverty, a boy growing up in the obscurity of Nazareth, a man who dared to upset the Pharisees. It couldn’t be right, so their argument would go, that a carpenter’s son had the authority to forgive sins, declare that the scripture had come true or heal a man on the Sabbath.
This was not at all what they were expecting. It didn’t compute with their own reading of scripture.
And so it is those untrammelled by the finer points of a religious education – fishermen, women of ill repute, tax collectors who handled money for the Gentiles and so on – it is these sorts of folk who have a clear view of Jesus as the Messiah.
At the time the words of Jesus had the power to stop people in their tracks. And so it continues today.
“For a little longer I will be with you then I am going away to him who sent me. You will look for me but you will not find me.” The elusive Christ strikes again – and that is upsetting, for he said that he would be with us always and that is also true, is it not?
He will not leave us or forsake us. He will keep a kindly eye on the vulnerable, the outcasts, the exploited, the poor, the sick, the disabled, the misunderstood. “Blessed are you who are in need; the Kingdom of heaven is yours.”
These contrasts are the stuff of the gospel. They speak of a justice which at the moment we can only dream about and hope for. And they are what keep us praying and believing. We want the Kingdom to come. By the grace of God and with the power of his Spirit, we can help the Kingdom to come. Over recent years, the growth in the Fair Trade movement, for example, has shown that Christlike people can make a difference, even to the extent of influencing the policy of the big supermarkets.
We cannot bring in the Kingdom by ourselves. The Kingdom belongs to God. Equally we cannot claim the Christ – we can only be claimed by him. There will be times when we will see him and others when we look in vain, but we hold on to his promise which, like all his promises, can be trusted: “now you may be sad, but I will see you again, and your hearts will be filled with gladness, the kind of gladness that no-one can take away from you.”
Let us pray
You both comfort and challenge us, bless and perplex us
Grant us the courage to move beyond our comfort zone
to the place where challenge bides its time, waiting for our reaction
Give us the generosity of spirit to be a blessing to others
and the wisdom to engage with the teaching of our Saviour
to whom with you, Father, and the Holy Spirit
be the glory and honour for ever