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The Voice of the Prophet: When God Seems Far Away

May 28, 2006

Isaiah 58:2-9

Some of you have come faithfully today on this Memorial Day, as you always do. Thank you for being here. Others have gone out of town for Memorial Day Weekend, perhaps to the mountains or to the beach. Some have stayed home to watch Charles Osgood’s Sunday morning program. Some of you here thought about not coming today. You may have had reasons not to be here, but you decided to come. It is to you, those who almost did not come but did, that I have struggled with my message for today. I usually try to put my sermon ideas together for Sunday mornings on Thursdays. I realized early Thursday morning that I really did not know what I was going to say to you today. That is not entirely unusual. I have Thursdays like that.

While I was pondering my message, I listened to a CD that our daughter, Betsy, gave us last weekend, a recording of eleven songs written by one of America’s best-loved poets, Paul Simon. I shifted from the blank screen on my computer in front of me to the Google search engine and looked for the words to another of Simon’s famous poems, one written the year I graduated from high school but not recorded until the year I graduated from college. You have heard these words from “The Sound of Silence”:

Hello, darkness, my old friend,

I have come to talk with you again,

Because a vision softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was sleeping,

And the vision that was planted in my brain

Still remains

Within the sound of silence…

And the people bowed and prayed

To the neon god they made.

And the sign flashed out its warning,

In the words it was forming.

And the sign said, “The words of the prophets

Are written on the subway walls

And tenement halls.”

And whispered in the sound of silence.

Thursday was the Day of Ascension, the time Christian churches remember that marvelous event when Jesus took his disciples to the hillside on the Mount of Olives and then was lifted into the air like a hot-air balloon at Freedom Weekend Aloft. The Lord Jesus ascended into the clouds as the disciples stood there, gazing at Jesus moving from their sight with mouths gaping open and eyes bulging wide. Scripture says that two men clothed in white appeared, asking the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing into the sky?” I wonder if these two men clothed in white were the same two men clothed in white standing by the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning. Remember, they asked the followers of Jesus there, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” These two very important questions remind us that in our search for God, we may be looking in all the wrong places. I pondered that possibility on Ascension Day. I wondered if we look for God in all the wrong places, looking where we think we can see best. Looking there is like groping in the darkness.

I heard about a man who lost his car keys late at night. As he was searching for them under one of those vapor lights, a friend stopped and asked, “What are you doing?”

The man answered, “I am looking for car keys.”

“Where did you drop them?”

“Oh, somewhere back there on the lawn.”

The friend asked, “Why are you looking under this light?”
The man answered, “It is so dark back there I can’t see anything. I thought I had better look where I could see.”

Early on the Day of Ascension, I was not at all sure what the message for today would be. You remember that I had already preached my Ascension sermon the Sunday after Easter in the series Perspectives on the Cross. All week, I had been at Ridgecrest, attending a conference for Christian writers, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I found myself signing up for the seminars about writing fiction. I am convinced that fiction can be a wonderful vehicle for telling the truth, Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code notwithstanding. While at Ridgecrest, I went inside Spilman Auditorium and looked around the magnificent sanctuary with its balcony surrounding three sides of the enormous room. I reflected on the public commitment I had made there, the commitment to do whatever Christ wanted me to do. I had no idea at the time exactly which direction that would take, but that commitment actually led me into Christian ministry.

While looking around the auditorium, I noticed two young men working very hard on the platform, setting up enormous speakers. Those speakers, taller than both young men were if one stood on the shoulders of the other, looked powerful enough to transmit sound throughout a football stadium. I tried to imagine what event would occasion speakers so large. I knew I did not want to be there for that occasion. I wanted to tell those young men, “Look. It does not matter what sound you push through those speakers, they are not big enough or loud enough to get God’s attention. I can promise you that the silence of God will be deafening. It will drown out whatever noise you push through those speakers.”

I left Ridgecrest Thursday in the late afternoon and drove up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. While driving, I saw a turkey hen with nine little chicks crossing the road in front of my vehicle. As four motorcycles roared down the Parkway in the opposite direction, the hen became very concerned about those little chicks. She began scurrying behind them, trying to help them up the bank into the woods. I continued my trip eleven miles further to an overlook above the Bull Creek Valley. This area is purported to be the last place in Western North Carolina where a man named Joseph Rice shot and killed an American bison in 1799. I took a short walk down a hiking trail in the woods, just far enough to see a raccoon napping inside the hollowed-out trunk of a shagbark hickory tree. Then I returned to the overlook, ate an apple and a handful of pecans, and drank a bottle of water.

There, I read my daily devotion from Forward – Day by Day, a devotional book distributed by the Episcopalians. That little book gives me a perspective I simply do not get anywhere else. As I was reading the devotion, I noticed that Monday was the beginning of a three-day period called the Rogation Days. That term means almost nothing to you, and it probably means almost nothing to most Episcopalians. The ancient church observed the Rogation Days, a three-day period of prayer and fasting before the Day of Ascension, which always occurs on a Thursday. The term Rogation comes from the Latin word rogare, which means, “to ask.” At that moment, I knew that for my sermon today, I was going to select a passage from Isaiah and study what the great prophet says about the kind of fasting that is pleasing to God. Monday, I knew that I would preach about the issues of true worship and fasting of Rogation Days.

In Isaiah 58:2-9, we see that the people thought they could know God and feel His presence. They thought that God would answer their prayers if they just followed the traditions they had learned about worshipping and fasting. They thought that if they said their prayers correctly, humbled themselves, occasionally wore sackcloth, and knelt in ashes, God would respond. The people had it wrong. Actually, their worship was little more than ritual. It had almost no meaning for them, perhaps less meaning than Rogation Days have for most Christians. They had the mistaken idea that if they just did what was right, they would experience God’s answer to their prayers. They thought they would experience His nearness in their lives and that somehow God would respond because they did what they had learned to do. It was to no avail. Isaiah words it this way,

For day after day they seek me out;

they seem eager to know my ways,

as if they were a nation that does what is right

and has not forsaken the commands of its God.

They ask me for just decisions

and seem eager for God to come near them.

“Why have we fasted,” they say,

“and you have not seen it?

Why have we humbled ourselves,

and you have not noticed?”

Every single one of us has a story about a time when God failed us. We have a story about a time when we thought we could count on God to do something predictable because we had done the best we could, done what we thought was right. Somehow, God did not respond and answer our prayers the way we thought He should. God did not solve our problems. God turned out to be more stubborn than we are. He simply did not see things our way, or so we thought. He seemed faraway, and we were disappointed, maybe even disillusioned.

Barbara Brown Taylor breaks down the word disillusioned. She says at times God’s silence is deafening and we become disillusioned. The word disillusioned means the loss of illusion, the loss of make-believe religion. Barbara Brown Taylors poses the question, Is it bad for us to lose our illusions about God or is it good?

God’s people, at the time of the Exile, felt disillusionment. According to them, God was not where they thought He would be. They fasted, prayed, read scriptures, wore sackcloth, and knelt in the ashes, but God seemed far away. When they complained, God answered, “It is not that I have forsaken you; it is that you have forsaken me. It is not that I have ignored you; it is that you have ignored me. You cannot hear me because you are not listening. You have the mistaken notion that it is all about you, that if you just do what you think tradition tells you to do, that is enough to cultivate the right relationship between us. No, it is not because I have gone away. It is because you have.”

Memorial Day had its beginning in the 1860’s, just a couple of years after the Civil War, in Upstate New York. Originally, Memorial Day was designed to remember those Union soldiers who had died in battle. The South had its own day of remembrance, Confederate Memorial Day. Days of remembrance varied state to state. In the state of Maine, an oddity occurred. A family there mistakenly received the body of Confederate soldier who fought and died at Antietam. They knew the delivery of the body was a case of mistaken identity, but they wanted to give that young man an honorable burial. A Confederate soldier was buried among Union soldiers in the same rural cemetery. Every year on Memorial Day, sometimes called Decoration Day, the people of the town decorated the graves of those Union soldiers who had fallen. The Confederate soldier’s grave was treated with the same honor and respect as his Union counterparts.

Memorial Day is not just a day of memory among the people of the North and South. It is a day when the country remembers all of those who have fallen in battle, a day when we remember with gratitude those who have given their lives for our freedom. Our president, whose popularity is low, stood at West Point yesterday, delivering a commencement address for the graduating cadets. As he handed out diplomas, I am sure the question that must have crossed his mind, as well as the minds of parents in attendance, was, “How many of these young people will die in service?”

On this Memorial Day weekend, should we mention the war in Iraq? Yes, we must mention the war in Iraq. Should we mention our president, the refugees of war, the innocent civilians who have died, and the casualties on every side? We must mention repeatedly again all of those that war affects. We must mention them in prayer because if the Christian church has any responsibility at all, it is the responsibility to pray.

We have a room in our home where my grandfather and grandmother prayed for three sons and a son-in-law through World War II. My grandparents also had a son on the mission field in South America at the same time. We must mention this always in prayer. We must remember that as we do, God does not respond because we think we are doing things just right, because we think we have the prayers just right, the posture just right, the traditions just right. No, God wants something more. He wants our hearts to be open to Him. Listen to Isaiah’s words:

“Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen:

to loose the chains of injustice

and untie the cords of the yoke,

to set the oppressed free

and break every yoke?

Is it not to share your food with the hungry

and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – …

Then your light will break forth like the dawn,

And your healing will quickly appear;

Then You will call, and the Lord will answer; …Here I am.

Do you want to look for God? Try the Children’s Shelter, St. Luke’s Free Clinic, TOTAL Ministries, the Soup Kitchen, or Mobile Meals. Try Miracle Life Ministries or SPIHN. Try any number of ways in which you can share the love of Jesus Christ with a broken world. Before the Lord Jesus ascended into heaven, he gave his disciples a final word: “Go into all the world and make disciples.” It is not about us; it about bringing honor and glory to the Lord Jesus Christ. When we respond to the Living Christ, we do not seek the living among the dead in an empty tomb. We do not stand gazing into the sky. We go back to Jerusalem as those disciples did and receive a power from on high – the Holy Spirit, as Jesus called it. The Holy Spirit is God’s invisible presence in this world. If God seems far away, perhaps it is because we are looking for Him in all the wrong places. Wherever you serve, “wherever you do unto one of the least of these,” you will find the Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, he is here in this place. We do not come here to hear what I have to say. We come here because of what God has said, to study His Word to all of us. This Bible is the Word of God. If we gather here in His name, He will hear. I promise you that He will respond. His word is, “Here am I.”

Do you sense His presence? Do you know that He is right here with you? Do you know that He is calling you, calling you to do something for Him? If you have never accepted Christ, that is the first call. Acknowledge Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. He may have brought you to this place because he knows you are a homeless Christian who needs a place to belong. He brought you to this church family because this is where he intends you to be. If that is the case, respond. He is here. Whatever call Christ gives to you, respond as we stand together and sing our hymn of invitation, “More Love to Thee, O Christ.”

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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