Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Sermon - Groans of Hope

(You can listen to the audio here. - Due to a technical glitch, this audio is not of the sermon as delivered in the church service but instead is a recording done later.)

The year was 1992, the presidential election was upcoming, and regardless of what you thought about the candidate, you have to admit that the slogan was top-notch: “I still believe in a place called Hope.”
Hope is something we all intuitively understand, something we count on. You may resonate with hearing the words at the end of “The Shawshank Redemption” – “I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.” Or the line of Andy Dufresne from the same movie – “Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.” Or perhaps you lean to the poetry of Emily Dickinson: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.”
We all know about hope. With the Psalmist we say with assurance, “For you, O Lord, are my hope.” [Psalm 71:5] The hope of salvation is our helmet as we put on the armor of God. [1 Thessalonians 5:8] Hope is a sure and steadfast anchor for the soul. [Hebrews 6:19] Alfred Lord Tennyson said that hope whispers, “It will be happier.” [The Foresters, Act I, scene iii] The hymnwriter says it this way:
Soft as the voice of an angel, breathing a lesson unheard,
Hope with a gentle persuasion whispers her comforting word:
Wait till the darkness is over, wait till the tempest is done….
 [Septimus Winner, “Whispering Hope,” 1868]

We hope even when we hurt. In our scripture for today, Romans 8, we hear Paul describe hope despite, and in fact amid, groans. Groans of creation. Groans of God’s children. Groans of the Holy Spirit Himself. It was Dr. King, in his great “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech, who said, “I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” [http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/ disp_textbook.cfm?smtid=3 &psid=3623] It is fascinating that no book of the Bible save Psalms contains more mention of hope than does the Book of Job.
So today, while we are talking about groaning, we are not depressed. This is not a service of despair, not a time to dwell on our suffering and tribulation. No, today, we talk about hope. We rejoice that though the darkness brings about our groans, stars of hope shine through.
Glorify the Lord with me.  Let us exalt His name together.
 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. - Romans 8:18-28

This is the written Word of the Lord for the living Body of Christ. Thanks be to God.

Our scripture today uses forms of the word groan three times. That has jumped out to me to form the outline for this sermon. Paul has very helpfully given me my three points.
I have learned since I was a small child about the preferred preacher outline of “three points and a poem,” so I set out to find just the right poem about groaning. Listen to the final stanza of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Bells,” written shortly after the death of his wife Virginia at the age of twenty-five, and hear the groans:
Hear the tolling of the bells—
                 Iron bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
        In the silence of the night,
        How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy menace of their tone!
        For every sound that floats
        From the rust within their throats
                 Is a groan.
        And the people—ah, the people—
        They that dwell up in the steeple,
                 All alone,
        And who tolling, tolling, tolling,
          In that muffled monotone,
         Feel a glory in so rolling
          On the human heart a stone—
They are neither man nor woman—
They are neither brute nor human—
              They are Ghouls:
And their king it is who tolls;
And he rolls, rolls, rolls,
A pæan from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
             With the pæan of the bells!
And he dances, and he yells;
          Keeping time, time, time,
          In a sort of Runic rhyme,
             To the pæan of the bells—
               Of the bells:
Keeping time, time, time,
          In a sort of Runic rhyme,
            To the throbbing of the bells—
          Of the bells, bells, bells—
            To the sobbing of the bells;
Keeping time, time, time,
            As he knells, knells, knells,
          In a happy Runic rhyme,
            To the rolling of the bells—
          Of the bells, bells, bells—
            To the tolling of the bells,
      Of the bells, bells, bells, bells—
              Bells, bells, bells—
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.
[Poe, “The Bells,” (1849),https://poets.org/poem/bells]

A groan, when it is a noun, is “a low, mournful sound uttered in pain or grief” or “a deep, inarticulate sound uttered in derision or disapproval….” [https://www.dictionary.com/browse/groan] When groan is a verb, Merriam Webster says it means “to utter a deep moan indicative of pain, grief, or annoyance” or “to make a harsh sound under sudden or prolonged strain.” [https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/groan?utm_ campaign=sd&utm_medium=serp&utm_source=jsonld]
            We really don’t need the dictionary definitions; we all know what it is to groan. Scottish Baron John Buchan said, “The best prayers have often more groanings than words.” [https: //writerswrite.co.za/literary-birthday-26-august-john-buchan/] And so, when we read what Paul says in Romans 8 about groaning, and we see it is in the context of hope, that causes a double take. How can groaning be related to hope? How can we utter low mournful sounds of pain or grief or disapproval or strain and yet be hopeful?
            Paul sets it up for us well. Look with me at the beginning of our passage, at verse 18. Paul says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” In verses 20 and 21, we are told of waiting “in hope that the creation itself will be set free.” And then, of course, we have verses 24 and 25: “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
            So, as we look at these three groans… these three groaners… these three groanings… keep in mind that they groan in hope, that what causes their groans is not even worth comparing to the future glory that is to be revealed in us.

1.                  The Groaning of Creation. Read again verses 19-22: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”
The image of the communication of creation is not original with Paul. We hear in Job of the morning stars’ singing [Job 38:7], and the Psalmist tells us that the heavens declare the glory of God, that their voice goes out through all the earth. [Psalm 19:1,4] Isaiah announces that the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing. [Isaiah 55:12] It is Matthew who tells us that, at the crucifixion, the earth shook, and the rocks split open. [Matthew 27:51] It was Jesus who said that if His disciples were silent, the stones themselves would cry out. [Luke 19:40]
I am not a literalist… certainly not with these verses. Paul’s point – like that of David and Isaiah and Jesus – is that the creation of God displays the plan of God. I don’t believe we are to interpret these passages to mean that rocks and mountains “know” things or that they will actually start to articulate; but these poetic passages tell us that creation was intended for something greater than what we see now and that the plan of God is inherent in all that He has made, for God looked on all that He had made, and it was very good.
Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote, “Mountains are nature's testimonials of anguish. They are the sharp cry of a groaning and travailing creation.” [Stowe, Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands, 1854, p. 300.]
Why is creation groaning? Paul says that creation is in bondage, subject to the freedom-hindering sins of us children of God. Remember, creation saw Eden. Creation heard the morning stars shouting for joy. Creation knows perfection. Creation knows the unsullied plan of our living God.
And therein lies a great key. Creation has hope because, no matter the groaning it issues now, it knows how the story is supposed to end because it saw how the story began. Creation has seen the full picture, the right panorama of the world, the ultimate provision. Creation remembers Paradise. Our view is so limited, so narrow because of our selfishness and our humanity, so drawn to our own pains, so imprisoned by that which makes us groan. Creation groans too, not out of futility but rather straining against that which has for the moment captured the world. Theologian N.T. Wright says:
In God's new creation, of which Jesus's resurrection is the start, all that was good in the original creation is reaffirmed. All that has corrupted and defaced it… will be done away. Learning to live as a Christian is learning to live as a renewed human being, anticipating the eventual new creation in and with a world which is still longing and groaning for that final redemption. [Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, 2009, p.223]

Paul describes three causes for the groaning of creation.
First, Paul tells us that creation groans with longing. Creation remembers and itches to return. Creation yearns for the revealing of the sons of God. So much is hidden now, but creation, which witnessed Eden, pines for what is to come. Once you have tasted Paradise, you cannot help but long for its homecoming. The heavens are telling the glory of God. We shall go out with joy and be led forth in peace, and the mountains and the hills shall break forth before us with glorious singing. It will be a party.
Then, we are told that creation’s groans are groans of hope. Not wishes. Hope. Not fingers-crossed predictions but hope in the knowledge of the creator. Hope in the freedom that is to come. For when Christ sets us free, we are free indeed. All will be restored. God will make all things new, as they were intended to be in the beginning.
And then, in verse 22, we are told that creation groans in pain. Not the pain caused by our abuse, not the pain of disappointment, though our abuse of creation and creation’s disappointment is us are both very real. No, creation groans with the pain of childbirth. As hard as that pain is, it is in the service and anticipation of something wonderful that is to come. Creation, like us, is going through something laborious and excruciating, but something better is on the other side. Something is coming that makes the groans worth it. Our suffering now is not worth comparing to the future glory.
This image of the groaning of creation speaks deeply. Whether or not you understand what Dickinson means about the “thing with feathers,” you need not be a poet, I think, to get what Paul is saying; for your soul, your inner self, your being has also strained amidst the world around you. You can relate to the idea of creation’s groaning and straining against the corruption of our current age in an effort to reveal what God has in store, to give birth to an eternity of joy, to end the futility of our weak human effort in favor of the holy, perfect plan of God. It is the groan of the one who has seen Paradise and is ready to see it again.

2.                  The Groaning of Believers. Look at verse 23: “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
Yes, we have the Spirit of God. So, what do we have to groan about?
We groan with a groaning world, crying out in hunger and need and civil war and misery. A world where worshipers of all stripes are gunned down in their churches and synagogues and mosques. A world that needs Jesus.
We groan about money. We groan about our aching bodies. We groan about aging. We groan about those kids today, with their awful clothes and their long hair and their rock and roll. We groan about what happens to us, from the lines at the DMV to the betrayal and disappointment we feel from our relationships. We groan about our own failures, about broken dreams, about drunk drivers and telephone scammers, about politicians and Democrats and Republicans, about sexual exploitation, about the lack of civility in our culture, about social media and cable news. We groan about how things just aren’t like they used to be, like they should be. We groan when people do not understand us, when they say things that are harmful to us and untrue about us. We groan because we hurt, physically and emotionally and spiritually and psychologically, because people we love die. We groan because we don’t understand what has happened to us and to the world around us.
And then there is a whole different level of groaning. There are, as Paul says, our groans as we wait for adoption, our redemption. Even when we are contributing to the corruption and sin that this world draws from us, we know that we are aliens, that this world is not our home. We have a hope for something better, something still to come, the city with sure foundations prepared for us.
Have you ever brought a horse home from a long ride? You know immediately when the horse senses that it is close to the barn, to feed and rest and getting that saddle off and being back in its comfortable stall. Straining against the bit and groaning in anticipation, the horse almost involuntarily quickens. As this world becomes less and less familiar, less and less comfortable, we groan more. Perhaps … think about this … perhaps the world is less familiar and less comfortable not because everything was so much better in the fifties or because our joints throb or because of another political nightmare but rather because we are now so much nearer to home. Perhaps, as we edge ever closer to what God has for us, to the redemption of our bodies from those aches and pains and the redemption of our minds from the fears and failures that plague us… perhaps as our souls sense Paradise beckoning the way a good horse knows it is close to the homestead and starts that familiar whinny of joy as it picks up the pace … perhaps we groan as we strain to attain that ineffable, that indescribable destiny that awaits us but is yet just out of reach, though growing closer by the moment.
“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know Him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” [1 John 3:1-2, NIV]
This world is not my home. I'm just a-passing through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from heaven's open door,
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore.
I have a loving mother just over in Gloryland.
And I don't expect to stop until I shake her hand.
She's waiting now for me in heaven's open door.
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore.
Just over in Gloryland, we'll live eternally.
The saints on every hand are shouting victory.
Their songs of sweetest praise
Drift back from heaven's shore
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore.
Oh lord, you know I have no friend like you.
If heaven's not my home, then lord what will I do?
The angels beckon me from heaven's open door
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore. [Mary Reeves Davis, “This World is Not My Home”]

There is a theological, ontological debate here that I am not trying to stir up. I am not taking sides on where heaven will be, nor am I suggesting that this wonderful world that God has given us is something to be disdained. Instead, I am reaching deeper, to the meaning of why we groan as we wait for what is to come. Wherever it is, whatever it looks like, however it relates to our present life and place and time, the future glory to be revealed is what Paul is talking about when he tells us that we are groaning as we move ever closer to that hope that we cannot yet see but in which we were saved. Hebrews 13:14 says that here, we have no permanent city. Peter calls us “sojourners and exiles,” and the Message’s rendering of 1 Peter 2:11 is, “Friends, this world is not your home, so don’t make yourselves cozy in it.” Creation has seen Eden; we have not yet seen Paradise. But like creation, we know it is coming, and like creation, we groan with expectancy, straining against the bondage of this world. When the roll is called up yonder, we’ll be there; we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord, and we groan. [2 Corinthians 5:8]

3.                  The Groaning of the Holy Spirit. Verse 26: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
The most common explanation for this verse is to discuss how we are ignorant and don’t know what we need. Many compare us in our prayers to four-year-olds asking our parents for too much cotton candy or to play in the street or to steer the fishing boat by ourselves. Sermons and lessons about Romans 8:26 tend to describe the Holy Spirit as swooping in to intercept these immature prayers just in time and tell God the Father what we really need.
I don’t buy that. Yes, we are too often childlike and self-serving in our dealings with God. Yes, we can get caught up in the “gimme-gimme-gimme” prayer and ask for things that in truth are not what we need. But where that interpretation goes wrong is in its depiction of God the Father as the gullible one who is on the verge of unwisely answering those childish prayers and giving us those bad things until the Holy Spirit intervenes at the last minute and saves the day. I don’t think that is at all what Paul is describing here.
That said, I nonetheless also went too much of my life misunderstanding this verse. I spent too long thinking that all this verse means is that when we are praying and cannot come up with just the right three-dollar seminary word to express what we are trying to say, the Holy Spirit fills in the blank to make sure our prayer passes muster. That view, too, is so limited, so unformed.
The Holy Spirit is not so much persuading God the Father as He is groaning with us, recognizing our need and our weakness, understanding that we are at sea when we pray from the depths of despair. It is not simply that we do not know how to pray, it is that we are so lost and overwhelmed that we cannot fathom, much less explain, what to pray for. Most often, I believe that is because we are so far into whatever problem has enslaved us that we cannot imagine a way out. When we do not see or even believe in the existence of the exit, it becomes impossible for us to ask God to lead us there.
You have had those times. Those times when you are convinced that there is no solution, nothing that can be done. Whether it has been done to you or you have done it to yourself… whether it is the incurable disease or the unsalvageable situation… whether it is the destroyed relationship or the vanished opportunity … whether it is the one who will never return or the thing that will never go away… whether it is the shattered dream or the broken heart … you know. I mean, you know. You are not stupid. You are experienced. You have been around the block a time or two. This is not your first rodeo. You know the score. You have made your bed and you have to lie in it. If anyone were naïve enough even to suggest that you could have a different tomorrow, you would have no idea what to ask for or how to ask, because you are smart enough to know that this situation is just the way it goes. In today’s pithy parlance, “it is what it is.”
Our God of second chances, our God of renewal and restoration, our God of salvation also knows the score and is neither impressed nor overwhelmed. Just because we are too weak, too human, too short-sighted to see the answer does not mean that God is stymied. When we do not know what to pray for, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us. The Holy Spirit knows the Father who knows the Son, who of course knows the Spirit. The Holy Spirit knows the resources that we need, that we have, that we too often fail to call on because we do not know what to pray for.  In the words of Greg Nelson and Scott Wesley Brown:
You have faced the mountains of desperation.
You have climbed, you have fought, you have won.
But this valley that lies coldly before you
Casts a shadow you cannot overcome.
When answers aren't enough, there is Jesus.
[Nelson/Brown, “When Answers Aren’t Enough”]

            This promise is more than even that our unfaceable crises can be addressed. Not only does the Holy Spirit intercede for us, He prays for us with groanings that are too deep for words. All of the pain, the confusion, the despair, the derision, the annoyance, the prolonged strain that characterize groaning are there in His expressions, in His experience. Too deep for our words, the groans of God embody the discord we feel as we walk through the deep waters, often where He is leading us. The Holy Spirit not only knows our trials, He feels them more deeply than we can ever imagine. And the God who answers prayers knows the mind of the Spirit, and those intercessions have a direct line to the throne.
            I think that when God looks across this world and sees the hurt and the need and the disappointment inherent in billions of lives on the planet, He feels a torment that we cannot begin to comprehend.
            And yet, even those sufferings, even that anguish of the omniscient and all-loving God is not worth comparing to the future glory yet to be revealed. For we know that all things work together for good for them who love God, for those of us called according to His purpose.
            Yet again, groaning means hope. Not that the groans of the Holy Spirit mean that all of our problems magically disappear and all of our aches and pains go away, but rather that whatever we are undergoing now pales in comparison … yea it evaporates in the face of what is to come.
            Can it be that there is something to be gained from our groans, from what makes us suffer? Can it be that our suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope? [Romans 5:3-4] Can it be those days when toil and trouble meet are built into our lives by the Father? Can it be that the alternative – which means that God would reach into our world and end all that hurt and disappointment and thus force us to follow Him not out of love but instead out of obligation the way a dog comes back to the master who feeds it – could that be worse? Wendell Berry’s character Jayber Crow tells us that the moment Jesus steps off the cross, the moment He calls 10,000 angels to the rescue, the moment He chooses not to groan and instead displays His unvarnished power and glory to the world, is the moment that we are compelled to follow and no longer have the choice to accept Him in love. Jayber says:
Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave. And why not otherwise? Wouldn’t it have put fine comical expressions on the faces of the scribes and chief priests and the soldiers if at that moment He had come down in power and glory? Why didn’t He do it? Why hasn’t He done it at any one of a thousand good times between then and now? I knew the answer. I knew it a long time before I could admit it, for all the suffering of the world is in it. He didn’t, He hasn’t, because from the moment He did, He would be the absolute tyrant of the world and we would be His slaves. Even those who hated Him and hated one another and hated their own souls would have to believe in Him then. From that moment the possibility that we might be bound to Him and He to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended. And so, I thought, He must forebear to reveal His power and glory by presenting Himself as Himself, and He must be present only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of His creatures. Those who wish to see Him must see Him in the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures, the groaning and travailing beautiful world. [Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow, 2001]

            So, yes, our groanings will continue until that day comes when Jesus chooses to reveal Himself, when our redemption is complete and Eden is once more. Between now and then, our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’s blood and righteousness, and He keeps us singing as we go. When darkness hides His face, when we find ourselves in dark and stormy gales, we rest on His unchanging grace.
            When the melancholy menace of the great iron bells rolls, rolls, rolls – keeping time with each hammerfall as yet another nail of suffering is struck – there is Jesus. In the morning when we rise, when dark midnight makes us cry, yes even when we come to die, give us Jesus.  Every day, the Lord Himself is with us. And we know that all things work together for good to us who love God, who are called according to His purpose.
            You will groan. I will groan. But our sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed. So, rest in your hope. Wait eagerly with longing. We will be set free. Souls in danger, look above. Jesus completely saves. Our pain is real, and it is severe, but it not the pain of death. It is the pain of birth. Paradise is coming.
            In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Sermon - Seek the Lord While He May Be Found

“Come, everyone who thirsts,  come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know, and a nation that did not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you. “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LordFor as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the Lordan everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” - Isaiah 55

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here.

I want us to do something together. We have already passed the peace this morning, but I want to lead us in another liturgical moment, another call and response that many Christians share every Sunday. As we focus today on the presence of God, I want us to reassure each other of that presence, so I will say “The Lord is with you,” and I would like you to respond, “and also with you.”
The Lord is with you. And also with you.
It is one of those fundamentals – the presence of God. If we seek God, we will find Him.
Psalm 16:11 says, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
Psalm 23:4 reads, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
It is Jeremiah 29:13 that says, “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.”
Matthew 1:23 quotes from Isaiah in telling us: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and you shall call His name Immanuel (which means God with us.)”
God with us. Finding God when we seek. Thou art with me.
You know, don’t you, that many on both sides of the culture wars miss the boat on this one.
On one side, the world that does not really understand why we gather here anyway shakes its collective head and feels sorry for us when we start talking about the presence of God. After all, God cannot be seen. On top of that, how can we say that God is with us when this world of His is such a mess? 49 innocent New Zealanders are shot by a maniac. Hundreds of Christians are massacred in Nigeria. Eleven Christians a day are killed somewhere on earth, and many will tell you those killings are directly related to their faith. Wars in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen have each taken at least 10,000 lives in the last year alone. Wars in Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Iraq, and Sudan – all ongoing – have resulted in more than a million and a quarter deaths. Homicide, rape, torture, terrorism… the list goes on.  And that is before we start talking about other classes of awful characteristics of our world – discouragement, disease, divorce, betrayal, heartbreak, loss. No, these folks think, how can we possibly suggest that some invisible, loving God is present?
On the other side are some who portray the presence of God as a formula, a too-easy recipe that will send holy shivers up our spine and turn our frown upside down if we just say the right words and go through the right motions. I want to quote from an article I read recently. I do not know the author and am not sitting in judgment of her; but, time and again, words like these ring hollow to me:
When you audibly speak God's inspired Word, you will sense its power and His presence…. When you start praising Him, regardless of where you are, you'll sense His presence, probably because you're no longer focused on yourself, but on Him.… Say His name aloud – as the Answer to all you seek, as the Source to calm your soul, as the One whose presence you long for and you will sense the power of His presence…. Center your mind on Him and start to breathe deeply. Try it. Exhale the distracting thoughts. Inhale a desire to sense His presence. Exhale your pre-occupation with self. Inhale a desire to know Him more completely. Exhale the worries of the moment. Inhale His peace. Now, don't you feel better already? Can you begin to sense that you're in His arms? [“7 Ways to Seek God’s Presence,”  https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/women/seven-ways-to-sense-god-s-presence. html]

                We all know, or believe we know, or hope we know from where those words and sentiments arise. They emanate, we trust, from the heart of one who knows Jesus and is trying to help others know Him, from one who is honestly trying to lead others to a sense of the presence of God. Many people are hungry for quick answers to their search for God. That is why articles with titles like “Seven Ways to Seek God’s Presence” get published.
And too, if I am honest, all those words are correct sometimes. There are times when speaking the name of Jesus or a Bible verse is enough to make His presence clearer. Most of us would say that the reason we gather in a room that looks like this and sing hymns together is in an effort – one that some might call ritual – to experience God’s presence. I suspect we all can point back to particular worship services – whether in a tent revival or on a youth retreat or in a grand sanctuary or in a small country churchhouse – where the presence of God was undeniably real. The fact is that most of us cling to our memories of the reality of those moments.
Oftentimes, however, things don’t work out that way. We can sing a praise song or call out the name of Jesus or worship for weeks in the holiest liturgy we can find and feel no closer to God than we did when we started.  Pastor Loren Seibold says:
Are you expecting the Holy Spirit to come to you with visions and flashes of light from heaven? That sometimes happens. But not always. Are you waiting for powerful spiritual emotions to overwhelm you? Sometimes the Holy Spirit does that. But not always. Perhaps you have been praying for a feeling of holiness: a sense of awe and wonder and deep assurance. The Holy Spirit may do that as well. But not always. Are you looking for instant deliverance from your grief and pain and problems? Yes, there are times when the Holy Spirit provides powerful comfort and instant guidance. But not always! [Loren Seibold, http://www.signstimes.com/?p=article&a=40007200324.739]

When our search for God is based on feelings that do not materialize and on our expectation of supernatural spectacular pyrotechnics that never happen, we can quickly lose hope of knowing the presence of God. That is why many who grew up in church fall away so quickly – they equate their experiences with God to highly emotional youth retreat or mission trip or BSU or college life group experiences, and when the emotions don’t stay, they decide that God has left too, or worse, perhaps was never there.
          It is not just youth, of course. How many adults are swept up in the message that the presence of God promises them their best life now, a promise that singing the right songs and attending the right services and just wanting to do the right things will result in a cascade of blessings and a permanent feeling of the presence of God alongside in a tangible sense?
          I am a witness that that is frequently not true.
          Jesus talks to us about abiding in Him and He in us. He said that at the Last Supper. As He was heading to death, He promised not to leave us alone. He was not promising that evil would have no more victory or that everything was coming up roses. He clearly did not feel like going to the cross. Abiding in Him has nothing to do with how we feel.
          Over these last six weeks, while seeking the healing presence of the Lord, I have not “felt” God any differently. I have not had a great mountaintop experience. I have not awakened with a smile on my face and a clear sense of guardian angels. I have not even been particularly happy. If my understanding of the presence of God were based on what I feel or on whether I am hearing a holy soundtrack in the background of life as I go about my business, I would be in a real mess.
          The Bible includes stories that seem to make some people stumble here. Moses got a burning bush and Balaam got a talking donkey. Daniel got handwriting on the wall, and lions with closed mouths, and the first-hand story of his friends who escaped the fiery furnace. Jeremiah and Hosea and Amos and Haggai heard the voice of God. John and Peter and Bartholomew and Mary Magdalene got to spend three years with Jesus and witness miracles and resurrection in person. Zechariah and Mary got angels. Paul got a Damascus Road. I have never experienced any of that. I have never heard God speak in an audible voice. I have never been favored with an unmistakable angelic visit. If none of those things has happened to us, we can decide that we have never really been in the presence of God.
          That decision is a common but unfortunate misunderstanding of what the Bible teaches. We don’t get talking donkeys because we have what Balaam did not – the collected canon of inspired scripture on which we can rely and the indwelling Holy Spirit of God.
          The Bible teaches us some basic ways for Christians to experience the presence of God. Those include prayer, reading the Bible, repentance, and worship. Most sermons on this topic – most preachers interpreting the 55th chapter of Isaiah and its call to seek the Lord – tend to focus on those four things. We should pray in order to talk with God on a personal level. We should read scripture, the written word of the Lord, to understand God’s will and nature. We should repent and forsake sin, because unconfessed and ongoing sin will continue to build a barrier between us and God. And we should formalize our regular worship of God as a disciplined means of entering God’s presence.
          All of that is true. Prayer and Bible study and repentance and worship are the building blocks of our relationship with God. If you are not a Christian, then salvation is the first step, inviting Jesus into your heart where He will abide with you, making the presence of God real in your life.
Yes, all of those things are true, but that is not my focus today.
What happens when the crisis comes, and we, who are already saved Christians, do all of that – we pray and we read the Bible and we repent and we worship – and we do not sense any change… we don’t feel any different… we don’t hear God’s voice… we don’t reexperience that mountaintop feeling we knew as a younger, more enthusiastic Christian… we don’t notice any variation at all? How do we interpret the presence of God when we can’t see Him, can’t hear Him, can’t feel Him, and can’t sense that He is making any difference in our circumstances?
          This is a tipping point for so many, especially for so many who grew up in church and just don’t see the point anymore.
          Let’s look together at Isaiah 55.
          This wonderful chapter starts with the invitation: If you are thirsty, come to the waters. You who have no money, come buy and eat. Incline your ear and hear the Lord. These first five verses seem to fit into that pattern I was just describing – a formulaic method for finding God. If you are like me – process-oriented to a fault – then this is what you are looking for. Just show me how to connect the dots to make the trains run on time, and I am happy.
          But that is not what Isaiah is saying. He does not write that we will be filled if we say the right words. He is inviting us to alter our aim, to direct our desires and our hungers to God. If you are thirsty, come to God’s waters. If you are hungry, put your money away and come to the table of the Lord. There is no promise here of immediate ecstasy or of technicolor phenomena that will forever convince you of the presence of God; no, the promise here is a covenant of love. Look at verse 3. This is more than a churched-up version of “don’t worry, be happy.” This is the essence of the presence of God.
          Isaiah does not stop there. We get to the meat of our scripture, verses 6-9:
Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

I know that is Old Testament, but that is gospel. Note that that formulaic Sunday School stuff is in there.  Pray – “Call upon His name.” Repent – “Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts and return to the Lord.” The covenant of love is explained further – God has “compassion” on us and “abundantly pardons.” Perhaps those Sunday School teachers knew what they were talking about all along.
Note also what this scripture tells us about sensing the presence of God – nothing. It tells us to seek God. And it tells us that God may be found. But it does not tell us how to know we have found Him, what God will look like or sound like or feel like.
In fact, Isaiah assures us that we will not understand. God’s ways are not our ways, not because He is playing some holy trick on us but because God is higher, greater than we. “Immortal, invisible, in light inaccessible. The angels adore Thee while veiling their sight. O help us to see ‘tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee”. [Walter Chalmers Smith, “Immoral, Invisible, God Only Wise,” 1867] God lives in a dimension so far beyond us that we cannot comprehend.
And that is ultimately the answer. We need to quit trying to put God into a box, to force the Almighty to take a form we can understand, to capture God in a description that makes sense to us. As odd as it is to us, a talking donkey is something we can imagine. A God who is located in a burning bush at least is within the physics of our world. Those are manifestations that early, primitive humans who did not have either the Bible or the Holy Spirit inside them could hear and see. But Isaiah relates to us God’s message that we need to quit trying to limit God that way, for He cannot be limited, and His revelation of Himself has progressed far beyond what was given to Balaam and Moses in ancient times. God’s ways are not our ways. Just because I would prefer to “feel” a certain something or hear voices or see an angelic creature flapping some wings really matters very little to what the presence of God actually is.
The end of the chapter, verses 10-13, tells us that if we have sought God while He may be found, there are two indicators of God’s presence on which we can count, two ways we can always identify God in our world.
First, God’s work is done.
Notice, I am not saying that God’s work is the presence of God. They are separate; but the work is, according to Isaiah, proof that God is accomplishing God’s purpose among us.
You are evidencing the presence of God when you are doing the will of God, whether you feel Him or not. God works through you, just as God is present to you when God works through others to help you. The Seventeenth Century French monk Brother Lawrence wrote a famous work called The Practice of the Presence of God in which he says: “The most excellent method of going to God was that of doing our common business without any view of pleasing men, and (as far as we are capable) purely for the love of God.” [Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, compiled 17th Century, Fourth Conversation, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/lawrence/practice.iii.iv.html]  It is not a matter of feeling ooey-gooey emotions; it is a matter of working step-by-step to please – and display the love of – God. Henry Blackaby writes that the way to experience God is to find where He is working in the world and to join Him there. [https://www.azquotes.com/author/38492-Henry_Blackaby]
God’s word does not return void. As the rain and snow accomplish their objective of watering the earth, so too shall the word of God accomplish God’s purpose. Look around you, those who thirst for the presence of God. Is God accomplishing God’s will? Despite humanity’s warring ways, despite disease, despite what is offered to us on cable news and social media, despite our sinful betrayal and failure, did the sun come up this morning? Did you hear the birds sing as you walked along, desperate for a sign of the presence of God? Is the Word of God speaking to sinners who need salvation? Is the love of God reaching the orphan and the poor, despite the best efforts of so many? Is spring once again overtaking the slumber of winter? Did you capture yet another breath?
The facts that evil has its day and disease continues do not mean that God is not present. They mean that God has chosen to allow us the consequences of our free will. That is why those wars continue. That is why I fail in my most basic obligations. That is why we all sin.
When you do not feel the presence of God, remember who it was who moved. Do you recall God’s calling out, “Adam, where are you?” after the first sin? God was not the one hiding in the bushes.
The world has moved a long way since then. We left our Garden far behind centuries ago. To expect to commune with God in the same way now is a little elementary.
God has found different ways to be present in our world, despite the barriers we have built and chasms we have created. One way, of course, was through the person of Jesus Christ, God made flesh, who walked our paths and breathed our air and died our death. Now, God is present through the Holy Spirit, indwelling those who invite Him and carrying through at a spiritual level what even His closest followers cannot fully grasp. And God can be found in nature, through friends, song, memory, prayer and Bible study, and maybe even a sermon.
We have such a small view of God. That is what I mean by trying to capture God in a box. We have decided what it is supposed to look like and feel like to experience God. And we really have very little idea. If you step back – you will see that God’s word does not return to Him empty. God’s ongoing work is the first indicator of God’s presence.
So what is that second indicator of God’s presence from Isaiah 55?  It is joy. You shall go out with joy and be led forth in peace. The mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Don’t confuse joy with happiness. I am surprised by how many popular Christian writers disagree on this point, and I know that there are certainly times when these English words are interchangeable. But in the context of Isaiah 55 and much of the Bible, joy is neither an emotion nor a feeling. Happiness is both. My life right now is a testament to the fact that we can be exceedingly unhappy and joyful at the same time. Pastor Jack Wellman says:
Even though joy and happiness have a lot in common, one thing that they don’t have in common is: one is permanent while the other is fleeting. One is from God and one is from us. One can come and go but the other will remain. [https://www.patheos.com/blogs/christiancrier/2015/08/22/what-is-the-difference-between-joy-and-happiness-in-the-bible/]

Joy is that underlying knowledge that comes from having read to the end of the book, from the assurance that everything is going to be all right. Hebrews tells us that Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him. [Hebrews 12:2] Suffering was a cause for joy for the apostles [Acts 5:41] and is a cause for joy for believers now. [1 Peter 4:13-14] Joy comes from the certainty of salvation [Luke 10:20] and from our fellowship with Jesus. [John 15-17] Jim has reminded us that joy is part of the fruit of the Spirit. [Galatians 5:22] Nehemiah tells us that the joy of the Lord is our strength. [Nehemiah 8:10]
We know that God is present with us because we are led forth in joy. Over these last weeks, I have said repeatedly that I am not worried about the long term. My faith means nothing if I cannot rest in it to know that everything is going to be OK, in spite of my own failures and in spite of what has happened to me. That is joy. When Isaiah talks of the mountains and the hills breaking forth into singing, I am reminded of the end of the Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth … when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” [Job 38:4, 7]
God’s point is not to belittle Job but to get him to start looking out of the box, to quit trying to find the formula and start exploring God’s higher ways. Here we are, in a world where the morning stars are singing and the trees of the field are clapping, and we are hung up because we don’t “feel” the presence of God. How sad. Like the figure in the sculpture pictured on the front of our order of worship, we stand in the palm of God’s hand and look around us and do not see.
There are certainly signs of Immanuel, God with us. Paul tells us in scripture we read responsively that they are evident all around so that we are without excuse. [Romans 1:20] The Psalmist tells us that the heavens declare the glory of God. [Psalm 19:1] Paul said that even in the time of Moses, God’s people were infiltrated by the presence of Christ, nourishing and leading them, whether they recognized Him or not. [1 Corinthians 10:1-4]
I have spent a lot of time by myself over the last few weeks. I have taken long walks and found myself waiting expectantly for the hand of God to touch me physically on the shoulder, for an audible voice to speak, for my mood to lighten and my feelings to begin miraculously to transform into happiness. You see, I can be just as liable as anyone else to try to put God in that box.
The presence of God can be elusive, even to the faithful.
But it is faith. It is trust in the evidence of things not seen. It is the step out of the boat onto the stormy sea with eyes fixed on where Jesus is, even when we cannot see Him. It is joy – the assurance that everything will be all right. For I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able.
And let me tell you a secret. There are times where we “feel” the presence of God. There are glimpses, aha moments where we taste glory divine. There are what Celtic Christians called “thin places,” where the veil between heaven and earth is narrowed enough that it shimmers with a transparency allowing us, for an instant, to peek through. God grants His children occasions like that. You remember them – worship services or junctures in nature or long talks with a close friend or songs or instances of prayer or times reading the Bible or … I don’t know all the ways they may have come to you. But they are unpredictable, and they cannot be summoned when we feel like it. Just because Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy found Narnia through a wardrobe once does not mean that every time they open the wardrobe, they are back there; most of the time, they just find coats and a hard back wall, to the point that they begin to wonder if their whole experience in Narnia had been nothing more than a dream.
But it was real, and they find their way back to Narnia; and it is real for us, as God shows Himself to each of us in different ways, in His time, at His pleasure. Sometimes, He comes walking on the water in the midst of the storm, saying, “Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid.” [Matthew 14:27] That is how He works sometimes… but not always.
In the meanwhile, let me encourage all of us to join Brother Lawrence in being about the practice of the presence of God by serving our neighbors and going about our daily business – a month ago I called it putting one foot in front of the other – purely for the love of God. Let me encourage all of us to follow those straightforward Biblical steps of prayer, Bible study, repentance, and worship. Love God and love one another.
Take your walks. See the sunrise. Hear the birds sing. Do what you can about the wars and the betrayal and the disappointments of the world: do not contribute to them, and be a source of comfort and even solution where there is opportunity.
Go out in joy. Be led forth in peace. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.
The Lord is with you.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
They have become famous, these words of a concentration camp prisoner during the Holocaust: “I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining. I believe in love, even when there’s no one there. I believe in God, even when He is silent.” [https://sairyd.wordpress.com/2011/11/13/a-poem-of-belief-by-a-jewish-prisoner-in-a-nazi-concentration-camp/]
You will not likely get a talking donkey or a cherubic visitor. But God’s work is done, God’s word does not return void, and we go out with joy and are led forth in peace. Be still know and know that God is God. Take courage. It is He. Seek the Lord while He may be found.
When all is said and done, I know God is present because He walks with me and talks with me, just like the hymn says. Because of my own human limitations and sins, I do not always sense that presence, but that does not mean He is not there. It means I need to trust in Him with all my heart and lean not on my own understanding. Because I often do not understand.  
Behold, He stands at the door and knocks.