The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
February 7. 2021
If we think we’ve got God all figured out, it’s not God we’ve got figured out – but rather some smaller deity of our own making.
We try to contain God within the categories we comprehend, but in the end He eludes our intellectual grasp; and we try to confine His activity within the parameters of our plans, but in the end He breaks through the border walls we build.
Imagine what the original disciples went through in today’s scripture. Jesus had declared them His priority people. He gave Himself to them as He gave Himself to no others. But early one morning He snuck out from the house they were then sharing while they snored, without leaving a note as to where He’d gone. He got away so as to get alone with His Father.
When they woke up and noticed His absence, they had to “hunt” for Him. Once they tracked Him down, they urged Him to come back with them to their home base in Capernaum and work more of the miracles He did the day before. Jesus counter-proposed that they get away from Capernaum, “go on to the neighboring towns” and get on with their mission to “proclaim the message” throughout Galilee. Just as He’d had to get away from those He loved to center Himself in the Father, so He had to get away from His Capernaum homeboys and girls to fulfill His Father’s call to bring the gospel to all.
Jesus’ followers have no business attempting to restrict Him within the boundaries of their comfort zone or wishes. Yes, Jesus is ever with us. But He ever exists beyond us and is ever drawing us out into His wider world. To ready us to be sent out as He was sent, He may even seem hard and uncaring in what He lets us suffer.
Missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham were kidnapped by terrorists and held captive for over a year in the Philippine jungle. When the rescuers came to save them, Martin ended up being killed in the crossfire – and Gracia ended up being devastated and left floundering to find a way forward in her faith. How, she wondered, could God have permitted a saint like her husband to lose his life at the age of 42, and permitted all those faithful people across the globe who’d prayed for the liberation of them both to be disappointed? Gracia never got an answer to her question, but she came to make her peace with the mystery to God’s plan because she saw into God’s heart. She marveled at His great love, and owned up to her limited understanding. That enabled her to trust that God had His reasons in allowing Martin’s martyrdom even if she couldn’t imagine what they were, and to believe that the rightness of what God allowed would be clear to her if only she could know everything God knows. By faith Gracia still serves and praises her God even as she still hurts over a tragedy that to her still makes no sense.
Gracia said, “I used to have this concept of what God is like and how life’s supposed to be. But in the jungle I learned I don’t know as much as I thought. I don’t have God in a theological box anymore. What I do know is that God is God – and I am not. The world is a mess because of sin, not God. Awful things happen, but God always does what’s right – and brings good out of bad.”
Our inability to figure it all out need not disable us from trusting God with our lives and our loves; and His “absence” need not mean He’s not present in our life. He’s with us even when He gets away from us and gets off the only routes we think He’d ever take.
Father John Powell was one of the most winsome communicators of the gospel I ever heard. Once as a young novice training to become a priest, doubt about God and His ways caused him to think twice about whether He had the calling. He prayed and prayed, but nothing happened.
For months he prayed, and nothing happened. But something was happening, he later realized. Though at that time he couldn’t shake the thought that either Jesus had gotten away from him or he’d gotten away from Jesus, Jesus was present in His life and at work, unseen and unappreciated.
Father Powell later wrote, “God lets you live the question until you can live the answer. I think that’s what God was letting me do.” So after a long cold winter of doubt, John, walking down a drab dormitory corridor one dark evening, experienced without warning the touch of God. “It was,” he wrote, “like being all alone, and suddenly feeling a hand against your face.” It was so powerful for him, he said, that it changed his life forever.
But it wouldn’t have happened had he not undergone the struggle before. Out of His great love for John, Jesus “got away” from him that his soul might be hallowed out to create an open space in which Jesus might dwell, and that from knowing God’s seeming “absence” he’d know God’s abiding presence.
Father Powell’s mystical experience is not normative, for God’s mysterious ways are uniquely designed for each individual. But this is always and everywhere true: Heaven’s grace comes to us, not by our grasping the God who is above our comprehension and beyond our control, but by our being grasped by the God who is with us in love even when He seems to have gotten away and forgotten us. In truth He never leaves or forsakes us!