“Where Is God”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
4Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. 5Thus says the Lord: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? 6They did not say, “Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?”
7I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. 8The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?” Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit.
9Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord, and I accuse your children’s children. 10Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing.11Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.
12Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, 13for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water. (NRSV)
Jeremiah is speaking to Israel in the waning years of its sovereignty. Babylon and other aggressive powers are encroaching on Judah, and by the time Jeremiah finishes his work, Jerusalem has fallen to Babylon. This happens, says the prophet, because the people have strayed from the covenant with Yahweh.
Israel has created for herself a deep theological quagmire by equating God’s presence and favor with their own geopolitical and military dominance. The argument goes something like this: If we affirm that God is God, and that God is good, and that God is OUR God, then our nation will be prosperous and mighty. Problems arise when Israel expects prosperity and might to be indicators of divine favor. Correcting that kind of self-serving theology is the whole point of Jesus’ Beatitudes.
For all the scriptural images of God as warrior, lion, raptor, and such, the truth seems to be that those images of God create both idols, “gods [who]…are no gods,” and broken cisterns leaking living water into the ground.
Israel doesn’t want to hear that, of course. Having yearned to be “like the nations” since the days of King Saul, they’ve ignored almost every prophetic teaching, warning, and invitation. Having chosen to mistake comfort and security for blessing, and entitlement for faith, Israel “defiled [the] land, and made [God’s] heritage an abomination.” God’s deeper concern seems to be that fact that Israel doesn’t reflect on her situation. So, Jeremiah’s task is to wake them up, to get them to say, What are we doing? What’s going on?
Most commentators on Jeremiah 2 point to trial language as the defining characteristic of this text. And “Therefore once more I accuse you” does sound like something one hears at an arraignment. Twice in this passage, however, God laments the fact that neither the people in general nor the priests in particular is asking, “Where is the Lord?” God wants the people to ask about, to wrestle with experiences of God’s apparent absence in the life of the community.
Asking “Where is the Lord?” is not a sign of weakness or faithlessness. It’s an inevitable part of the faith experience. During the Exodus, the Israelites wail their despair to Moses asking why they ever left the fleshpots of Egypt for the God-forsaken wilderness. (Ex. 16:2-3) Eventually, Moses begins to wilt under the people’s complaining and suffering. He challenges God: What’s going on? Where are you? The people are about to stone me! (Ex. 17:4)
I encourage you to read Psalms 22, 44, and 88, especially during some experience of suffering. These vivid examples of the community crying out in dark and lonely despair remind us that we’re not alone in wondering where God is. The first verse of Psalm 13 uses a memorable image to ask the whereabouts of God: “How long, O Lord?…How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1)
Perhaps more disturbing than its inevitability, the Where is God? question is indispensable to our relationship with God. In his latest book, The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr describes the “human-divine love affair [as] a reciprocal dance. Sometimes,” he says, “in order for us to step forward, the other partner must step a bit away. The withdrawal is only for a moment, and its purpose is to pull us toward him or her—but it doesn’t feel like that in the moment. It feels like our partner is retreating. Or it just feels like suffering.
“God creates the pullback too,” says Rohr, “‘hiding his face’ as it was called by so many mystics and Scriptures. God creates a vacuum that God alone can fill. Then God awaits to see if we will trust…God…to eventually fill the space in us, which has now grown more spacious and receptive…Mystics,” says Rohr, “…knew that what feels like suffering, depression, uselessness—moments when God has withdrawn…are often acts of deep trust and invitation to intimacy on God’s part.”1
That sounds a lot like the old adage, “everything happens for a reason,” something that I personally cannot accept because it allows us to keep human suffering at arm’s length. It allows us to say, Since your suffering is God’s doing, you either deserve it or need it, so it’s not my concern.The prosperity gospel offers such a god who is no god.
Learning to ask Where is God? as an act of faith is about learning the humility required for living as grateful, generous, and compassionate disciples. So, if Rohr’s observations have merit, if God really pulls away, it happens at those moments when we are tempted to think that we know God more thoroughly than our human minds can know. If God pulls away, the Where is God? question reminds us that we are, in fact, not God. And at that point, by grace, in the strength of honest humility, we can respond to the invitation to move closer to God, by standing in more expansive awe of God.
It’s not unlike a young person heading into the world with more defiance than confidence.I know everything my parents know and more, they say to themselves. Or maybe they say it to their parents. When their parents open their arms to let their children go, the parents’ arms stay open ready to receive them back, whenever that might be. The Where is God? question can be asked in many different ways, and when it’s part of the reunion, everyone finds that there’s more room for relationship than there had been at the time of the parting.
For Christians, Saturday may be the ultimate metaphor for the Where is God? question. On Saturday, the disciples give up, and their despair bleeds into Sunday morning. They dismiss the women’s story as an “idle tale.” They huddle in a room “for fear of the Jews.” Peter surrenders to hopelessness saying, Jesus is gone, so I’m going fishing.
We are Easter people, but we have only one foot in Sunday right now. We always have another foot in Saturday, another foot in that place of loneliness, grief, and sometimes outright despair. But Saturday is crucial to our faith and spiritual practice. Saturday is an all-important Jeremiah day, a day when we’re invited to reflect on Friday, and to recognize how it exposed all the idolatries and broken cisterns of human selfishness and fear. On Saturday, we realize how incomplete our knowledge of God really is – and what a blessing that is.
At the same time, Saturday clears interior space for us to receive Sunday’s gracious “pullback,” the revelation that God is so much more than we can ever imagine.
1Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe. Convergent, NY, 2019. P. 78.)