The Absence of God
My friend Brad was in Seminary when his four-year-old daughter came down with leukemia. They took her to the very best doctors. The Seminary raised money and brought food to their apartment. Brad took a semester off so he could be with her in the hospital every day while his wife worked. But his daughter, Lydia, got weaker and weaker.
He begged God to heal her, to let her stay with them, to be able to watch her grow up. And sometimes, in the hospital, she would look at him with her big blue eyes and say, "Daddy, I'm scared." And he would say, "I'm here, baby. I will always be here."
They talked a lot about Jesus and how much Jesus loved her. And on the day that little Lydia died, she told her dad that she loved him. "I love you, Dadddy," she said. And then, she just closed her eyes. Brad never saw her beautiful blue eyes again.
After the funeral was over, Brad had to go back to Seminary, but he couldn't. He just couldn't. God was nowhere to be found. All of his life, he had felt the presence of God. All of his life he had believed in the power of prayer. And now, there was nothing. Just nothing. He felt nothing. God was just gone. When his little girls life slipped away, God seemed to slip away with her and, after that, there was just nothing but an empty void. Brad was alone.
In the gospel of Mark, the Passion narrative takes up a full third of the gospel. Jesus does so much in the first two thirds of the gospel. He moves from place to place, he heals, he teaches. He is surrounded by crowds. But once Jesus rides into Jerusalem, it is as if everything slows way down. The gospel writer goes into slow motion. Every step is described, every place, every word. And Jesus just gets quieter and quieter as his life draws to a close.
Have you ever noticed that the story of what happens to Jesus in the last week of his life is one big process of abandonment? Jesus starts off surrounded by well-wishers. Everyone hopes that he will be the new King. Everyone is cheering for him, waving palms, shouting Hosanna. And then, slowly, inch by inch, he is left alone. The crowds disperse and his friends and disciples remain for a last meal together. Then Judas leaves to betray him. After dinner, just a few of the disciples go with him to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. And they cannot stay awake with him. Jesus is left alone. He is afraid. He talks to God but God does not answer or speak as God has spoken earlier in the gospel. And then, Jesus is captured and his friends all desert him. He is punished alone, whipped alone, interrogated alone. And he speaks less and less. Finally, even his clothing is stripped away and Jesus hangs on the cross naked and completely alone. In his final words, Jesus cries out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Jesus felt abandoned by God. He thought that God had left him. He was in pain and totally alone. Or was he?
When we go through our darkest moments, it is easy to think that God has abandoned us, or that God simply doesn't exist. It is easy to despair. We don't understand why we have to suffer and perhaps we never will. But God never leaves us. That is what the cross is all about. Even when things seem beyond repair and we are totally alone in the darkness, God is there. In the very pit of despair, the cross is there.
And the truth is that our feelings of God's presence are just that, feelings. God does not come and go from us so much as we are open at times to God while at other times we cannot see or sense God's presence. Jesus thought that God had abandoned him. Jesus was afraid and he thought he was alone, but that was just when God was doing His best work.
Sometimes our greatest struggles, the times when we suffer the most and can't figure out why, those are the times when our growth is greatest, when God is even more present, where something incredible and eternal happens. Those are our times of the cross.
I don't think that God willed for Jesus to die and I don't think God wants us to suffer. After all, God made us for Eden. But I do think that God is with us , even in our darkest hour, and that God never left His Son. God never leaves you, no matter how you feel.
Brad no longer wanted to become a priest. God had taken his daughter. God had left when she died. And the worst part was that she never got to go to her prom, fall in love, wear her wedding dress. These thoughts tormented him. He could not get out of bed.
Then one night, Brad had a dream. Jesus came and took his daughters hand and together they flew through life, and she got to experience everything, her first dance, her first kiss, having children, everything. And Brad knew that Christ was with her now and had never left her. Brad knew that God would do even greater things with her new life.
Why does God abandon us? Why do we feel so alone? The pain of this world can slice you right open, cause you to stumble, cause even Jesus to wonder why God was gone, but God never leaves us. Never. No matter what we feel.
And when you feel alone, remember that Jesus once felt that way too. Remember, and wait for the dawn.
- The Very Rev. Kate Moorehead