Where is God? Advent, Week One

Our readings today are so powerful, but this Advent I’m resolved to make my Sunday reflections first of all practical, so I want to look more deeply at the reading from Isaiah 64. This reading comes from someone who feels that God has abandoned them, which may not seem like the most inspirational reading for us today—until we watch CNN of course. We see violence and oppression and injustice on every continent, and even though we know that Christ has already won the victory, sometimes we wonder. We feel very much alone.
Sometimes it even feels like that at church, like having faith is a give and take kind of thing with us doing all the giving and the church doing all the taking, and meanwhile God is nowhere to be found. Maybe we feel that God isn’t at all interested in our life? That we’ve been left alone to work through the challenges of child-rearing, job-hunting, caretaking of elderly parents all by ourselves. Not that we haven’t tried to locate this absentee God. We’ve looked up and down I-69 for a gian billboard from God, assuring us that He’s still here, all too happy to look after us and support us, but we’re just not seeing it. God seems very remote and far away.
The one who prays in Isaiah 64 has done the same things: he’s looked high and low for God, and now he is frustrated and angry. Angry that God hasn’t “proved” true in the real world of being a student and a parent and a retired person with increasing physical limitations. Angry that when he needed God most and knocked on the divine door, the sign said, “Gone fishing.” From a historical stance, it’s understandable because at the time Isaiah was written, the entire country had been ransacked and plundered—the memories of watching enemy combattants invade, the sounds of the screaming neighbors as violence ensued. How could any forget the humiliating six hundred mile forced march from their home town to a distant land?? For sixty years this displacement has continued, and the God they once seemed so sure of seems absent. So the person who prays in Isaiah 64, decides one day that he’s done praying the “Our Father who art in heaven” kind of prayer: instead, he’s going to get real with his praying. And it’s going to be brutally honest and it’s going to carry all the pain in his heart.
“God, rip the heavens apart limb by limb and come down and help me!” The imagery is violent: slash the heavens, rupture them open, explode them apart, snap and shatter the clouds. The person praying wants God to come onto the scene in a dramatic way, in a way that everyone will notice.
Wouldn’t it be great if God would do this kind of thing every once in a while for us? All the kids would be talking about it come Monday morning during the homeroom announcements.
“Hey, did you see on CNN what happened at Mr. Holland’s place Friday night?”
“No, what?”
“OMG, dude, God came down and really kicked some butt!”
There was a time when that kind of praying was the norm, when Christians prayed, “Thy will be done” and really meant it because there was no other kind of prayer possible: no vaccination for polio, no dialysis machines, no bypass surgery, no transplants.
I’m not saying those were the ‘good old days’ by any means, but when it came to issues of faith, it was far easier to believe then that God was right there in the fray with us, with his apron on, sleeves rolled up, doing whatever needed to be done to accomplish God’s will. When we felt we couldn’t go any further, when we felt that there was nothing left to live for, suddenly we just knew that God was with us. And we found that we could go on after all. We felt somehow that it all made sense.
Like the Prophet Isaiah, we might at first try to blame God for abandoning us, for being the source of all our problems, but at some point we will come to acknowledge our own responsibility in what the world has become:
WE have sinned
WE have transgressed
WE have all become like one who is unclean, and our high-sounding phrases like “liberty and justice for all” look like little more than a dirty dish rag.
WE have all faded like a leaf on a tree in November because we’ve been swept away by the consequences of our collective and individual choices.
The prophet acknowledges this, too, and wonders if maybe God hasn’t found another chosen people, a people who are better behaved, who make better choices, whose actions are in harmony with their words…And just like that, the prayer changes: gone are the demands for violence and anger. So we come to the deepest truth, the most profound yearnings of the human heart. When we have exhausted every strategy from blaming God to imagining the good old days to having temper tantrums, we come at last to a place of integrity and truth: “God, I guess the most important thing is that no matter what, you are my parent, my mom and dad. Left to myself, I am a lump of unshaped clay; but in your hands I know I am a masterpiece. So whatever I am and wherever life will take me, I now know that you are the sculptor of my life. And I surrender all that I am to you, all that I will ever be.”
We once whispered a prayer to God: “Lord, speak to me, please.” And an early spring robin sang in the tree behind our garage, but we didn’t hear it.
So we got more insistent and yelled: “God, speak to me right now!” And the sunlight caressed our cheek and a gentle breeze moved through our hair. But we weren’t listening.
Then we got frustrated and we demanded, “God, if you exist and are really with me, let me see you!”—not even noticing a universe of bright stars dancing above our heads.
And then we shouted, “God, if you’re out there, show me a miracle!” and all around us new life was being born in abundance—we didn’t notice a thing.
So, we burst into tears and we cried out in despair, “If you love me, touch me, God and let me know your presence!” And God reached down and touched us, but we brushed the butterfly away and kept sobbing.
And in the dark of the darkest night, we cried, “God, I need your help!” as an email from a friend arrived with loving words of encouragement, but we thought it was probably spam, so we deleted it and spent another sleepless night…
Isaiah’s prayer is a reflection of our own Advent yearnings, and these yearnings often take a winding journey toward integrity and responsibility, but first they go through the desert of confession and repentance in order to come to place of trust and renewal. And suddenly we get it.
The fact is, God has been with us all the time. We just forgot to check upstairs in the spare closet. God has touched us on the shoulder as many times as an impatient student’s interruptions. And all the while we were complaining and doubting God’s presence, complaining about God’s absence, God was continually trying to reveal Himself to us in order to show us that we were the ones who were absent, and that He had been there all the time, and in the most surprisingly ordinary places.

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About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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