God’s Presence Can Be Elusive

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – November 1, 2015

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 24; John 11:32-44



    One of the great temptations that visit people of faith is to look for the handiwork of God everywhere in our world. We are all guilty of this.  We look at our beautiful new born baby and say, "Isn't God wonderful?  We are so blessed! Just look at her sparkling eyes and innocence.  I think she is going to bring a lot of joy into our lives!"  Yet, think of the complications of delivering a baby with a rare condition called Diprosopus (craniofacial duplication).

    Such a baby was born to Renee Young on May 8, 2014 in Sydney, Australia.  The baby was born with two faces and two independent brains.  They shared a common spinal cord and the internal organs of a single body.  Physicians were amazed at how well they were doing.   The girls were named Faith and Hope.  Nineteen days after their birth Renee told media sources, "The twins have gone to play with the angels."  We cannot possibly imagine how life-changing it would have been had the girls survived.

     We can walk around Bermuda and visit some of our favorite scenic places on our island and declare that God is the most remarkable artist we have ever seen. Yet, we fall silent when we remember the two back to back hurricanes of Fay and Gonzalo that struck Bermuda like an arrow hitting a bull's eye. 

    Nearly every leaf was stripped from our hedges and shrubs around the parsonage.  Thirty eight banana trees in our backyard were on the ground.  Some people told us that they feared for their lives even after living through years of countless hurricanes.     

    We experienced near total peace as we strolled through a wooded area not far from the friends we were visiting.  We might think how blessed our friends are to live in such a personal, private sanctuary surrounded by ancient trees and wildlife.  And then we became heartsick for our friends when we learned that they, along with their entire community, lost everything this summer during one of those uncontrolled fires in California. 

    God's presence can be elusive. We believe we see God at work when life is rewarding, but what happens to us when God's presence loses its visibility?  Is it easy to continue to trust in God when life comes crashing into our peaceful routines and we find our living patterns suddenly changed forever?

    There are times when it would be easy to feel abandoned by God. When we no longer see the signs of God's presence in our lives, how easy it becomes to stray from the values we once honored.  We may wonder what happened to that rock upon which our faith had been built.

    All Saints Sunday allows us to call to mind the lives of people who are no longer with us.  It could only be the Spirit of God that allowed the survival of Jesus' three-year ministry, of the sacred scrolls that eventually became the Bible and of the stories about the courageous believers that burned to death while hanging on crosses lining the roads leading into Rome in 64 AD.  Such savagery was ordered by Emperor Nero. We wonder how Christianity survived to motivate people 176 years ago to build Wesley Chapel, the earliest name of our church.

    The story in John's Gospel today even has Jesus wanting people to witness God's power and presence in their lives.  John's account indicates on two occasions that the brother of Mary and Martha had been dead four days.  His body had been ritually prepared and was entombed in a cave that was sealed by a rock.  John did not want to leave any doubt in the minds of his readers that Lazarus was deceased for a substantial period of time.

     As Jesus walked toward the place of Lazarus' burial he spoke to God, "I thank you that you always listen to me.  What I am about to do is for the sake of the people here, so that they will believe that you sent me." (John 11:42)  Jesus called out to Lazarus and told him to come out of the tomb.  To the amazement of those assembled, Lazarus did just that.  Jesus told the witnesses to untie him and set him free. 

      If any of us had been a part of that gathering, would seeing Lazarus raised from the dead cause us to reorder the priorities of our lives?   Would seeing countless miracles from Jesus inspire us to radiate the spiritual skills that Paul mentioned in his letter to the Galatians, e.g., joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness and humility?  Think about this before you answer.  

    Many of us might say, "If I witnessed such power, believe me, I would never doubt or question God's presence ever again!"  However, are such physical signs and wonders enough to inspire our faithfulness to the point where we could face ISIL fighters in the Middle East and proclaim our faith, knowing that doing so would mean certain death?  The Gospel record is quite clear that such signs and wonders guarantee nothing to those who witnessed such things. 

    A day or so following this episode with Lazarus was Palm Sunday. The disciples were still basking in the glory of what they had just witnessed in Bethany. Stories circulated about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.  (John 12:17f) The gathered people, waving palm branches, were initially convinced that the promised Messiah had finally arrived! 

      It took less than a week for a different set of circumstances to erode the faith Jesus' disciples had built on the sands of their visual experiences.  When Jesus was arrested, the disciples fled.  Peter told a number of people in a courtyard that he had never met Jesus.  John was the only disciple that stood at the foot of the cross with Jesus' mother until his cousin died. The rest of the faithful remained in hiding, fearing for their own lives. 

      If the disciples could not hold on to their faith when life became threatening, what are the chances that we can hold on to ours when our lives become unmanageable?  The disciples were present as Jesus taught the masses. They saw numerous miracles.  They had one-on-one teacher-pupil discussions when they did not understand something that Jesus was teaching. Each of them had the benefit of witnessing all these signs of God's presence, but none of these experiences mattered when they faced terror that grew from their own fears.   

    There is a much greater truth here than the raising of Lazarus after he had been dead for four days.   We have all heard the comment, "No one gets out of this world alive."  The truth is that all of us leave this life very much alive.   The process of transitioning from our physical forms has more to do with the automatic rising and setting of the sun than it does with our faith, our beliefs and our thoughts.   

    The growth of our spirits, however, is and will always be about our inward journey.  We could all witness hundreds of miracles and still flee the garden, still abandon our faith, and still retreat into bitterness because something that we desperately wanted was taken away from us.  What prevents such a response is the unequivocal trust that our bodies are nothing more than a temporary garage in which we park our spirits for a very brief period of time.

          Last year there was a story of a Coptic-Christian that had been captured by Islamic extremists.  As he was being lead away to his death, he spoke to the man that had been ordered to execute him:

What has convinced you that you must kill people?  Do you believe that it is the will of Allah that you destroy the lives of people that He allowed to be born into this beautiful world of ours?  I want you to know that I could never hurt you if our roles were reversed.  I would much rather be your friend.  If you came to my home wounded from this useless conflict, I would do everything in my power to see that you were cared for until your wounds were healed.

    Without saying a word, the warrior took out his knife and cut the bindings that held his prisoner's hands behind him.  He said, "I believe that you are telling me the truth.  Go home. Perhaps one day our paths will meet again."  This Christian faced death with words of love for his executioner.   

    As Moses was preparing Joshua to lead the Jews into the Promised Land, this is what he said, "God will lead you and remain with you.  He will not fail you or abandon you.  Do not lose courage or become afraid."  (Deuteronomy 31:8).

    It was such trust that inspired our ancestors to lead us to this day.  Even if there are only a few of us who carry the torch of this same trust, we have to remember that Jesus started his journey with twelve people for a ministry that lasted only three years.  God does not need many people or a tremendous amount of time for the knowledge of God's presence to be kept alive.  

    God needed only one idea to circulate in every language, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  Love is the energy that has and will always sustain our lives regardless of what others are doing with their lives. This is the truth that we celebrate on All Saints Sunday! It is our task to pass our trust and faith to others by how we live.  God will do the rest.