Where is God? It’s a question we often hear in the aftermath of a natural disaster but especially after a tragedy like the massacre at Newtown. When we ask the question where is God, we are asking not only about God’s presence in a particular instance. We are also questioning God’s presence in the world, in our lives. We are questioning God’s providence—the idea that God is in charge of things. Sometimes behind our question is another question, Is there a God?
I don’t know how many people have told me in the past few days or weeks that the holiday season seems different this year; that it seems harder to get into the Christmas spirit. I don’t know about you, but my celebration and reflection about Advent and Christmas have been overshadowed this year by events in our nation—by the massacre in Newtown and by national political crisis. I’m also mindful that in the days since Sandy Hook, 160 Americans have been killed by gunshot—including two firefighters this morning in New York State. Closer to home, a police officer was shot and killed in Wauwatosa today, forcing Trinity Episcopal Church to cancel its afternoon service because it lies within the secured zone of investigation. I’m also mindful of all those who have been killed since December 14 in the wars we are fighting overseas. We live in a deeply dysfunctional—and dare I say it?—an evil culture that glorifies violence and tolerates unimaginable suffering. At times like these, we may all be asking, “Where is God?” And if we aren’t perhaps our faith demands that we ask, “Where is God?”
Where was God? In the days following tragedies or natural disasters, we often hear responses from clergy and theologians that emphasize God’s ongoing presence in the midst of the human suffering. I’m not sure whether most people believe such statements. I’m not sure whether people find such statements at all meaningful or consoling. In the midst of great suffering it is difficult to sense anything except that suffering. It’s hard to feel anything but pain. It’s hard to imagine God is present in the midst of that suffering; it’s hard to listen for God when the shouts and cries of wailing are so loud.
Sometimes, unfortunately, pastors and apparently well-meaning Christians answer that question differently. Where was God? They will say, God was absent or it was an act of God’s punishment. So we heard from pundits and so-called Christians that the Newtown massacre occurred because God had been forced from our schools. We heard all sorts and manners of theories that this was God’s punishment on the nation, and no matter how absurd or far-fetched, such statements contribute to our misery, our fear, our despair.
At the same time, whatever the woes of our world and nation, some of us are suffering silent, personal misery or despair. Some of us are marking this first Christmas after the death of a spouse or loved one. We may be facing a holiday with hearts broken or empty. Some of us are dealing with illness, economic concerns. All of this, too, can lead us to ask, “Where is God?”
And whether or not we are gripped by despair or sadness we may for other reason wonder, “Where is God?” The story of Christmas, the carols, the familiar rituals of home, family, and for some, church, all of that may for countless reasons leave us wondering this year “Where is God?” We bring all of that to church this evening, our fears, sadness, despair, our hope and excitement, our faith and doubt, and we want at the end of our service tonight to be able to say with confidence and joy, Merry Christmas!”
But still, the carols, familiar words, and rituals may not be enough to quench our fears and worries, our despair, we may still wonder, “Where is God?” The answer is before us, in those very rituals and carols, the familiar story. God is here before us, in the crèche and on the altar. Some of our carols reflect the broken-ness of our world. Later we will sing the powerful words of the contemporary poet Richard Wilbur, “and every stone shall cry.” There’s that familiar carol “It came upon the midnight clear.” I wonder how many of us pay attention when we sing its fourth verse:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled2
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not3
The love-song which they bring;4
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,5
And hear the angels sing.
We are here because we want to know, we want to experience again, we want to believe, at least for a few hours, that God became flesh, came among us, that God is visible to us, in the babe in a manger and in the bread and wine of the Eucharistic feast.
Here is the answer to all of those who ask, “Where is God?” Our faith, the Christian faith proclaims that God is here among us, in God’s people gathered. God came to us in Bethlehem. God comes to us, in bread and wine.
But that may be part of the problem. We live in a world in which raw power and money seem to trump everything. With widening income inequality, the ability of billionaires and corporations to buy elections and ensure favorable legislation, and most obviously the raw and unmatched military power that the US projects overseas, it may be that our world is becoming more and more like the world of first-century Palestine. Of course there are differences. Our lifestyles are much easier and wealthier and the power that is wielded less overt than in the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, our culture like the one two thousand years ago, expects our saviors, our gods to come in the same sort of power and to make things right for us, and vanquish our enemies. We want our saviors, our Gods, to be superheroes.
Instead, we get this—a God who comes to us with all of the vulnerability and helplessness of a baby; a god, who comes to us, not garbed in imperial finery or accompanied with the power of Rome, but who comes in a manger in a stable, born to Palestinian peasants in an unimportant part of the world. We get a Savior who comes to us in all weakness and at the end who dies in weakness, in a horrible, tortured death on the cross. Our Savior is one who lived as we do. He experienced the joys and sadness that all humans experience.
We are here because we believe God is here in this place. But we are here as well because we believe God is out there, too. God is out there in the fields with shepherds doing their job on a cold night, with homeless families huddled together for shelter in a truck or a car, or in a tent. God is out there with all those who are spiritually isolated or numb, with all those who are asking, “Where is God?”
Because God came to us in a manger, because God’s messengers came to cold and disreputable shepherds on a Judean hillside, because God’s Son suffered on the cross, we can believe, we can have hope that God is here, and there, wherever humans gather, wherever humans suffer. We have hope that love of God expressed to us in Jesus Christ can transform the lives of individuals and of a dysfunctional and evil world. We believe that everyone, friend or foe, rich or poor, the sick, the wounded, the desolate, the troubled in mind or spirit, everyone is embraced by God’s love.
We may not be able to protect ourselves or our families from the world’s evil, we may not be able to find space to celebrate Christmas where we can be oblivious to the world outside. But then Jesus Christ came to earth not in a place of security or comfort but in a stable, born to a teenaged mother far from home. Jesus Christ entered a messy and violent world. Jesus Christ comes to us in the midst of a messy and violent world but offers us hope of a different world. Jesus Christ offers us a glimpse of world transformed by God’s redemptive love. Jesus Christ offers us that transforming and redemptive love, and shows us how to share that same redemptive love in our world, to share that love with our neighbors and with all of humanity. And when we do that, we bring the face of Jesus Christ, we bring God’s presence to our despairing and fearful world and make God present in the lives of those around us.