WHERE IS GOD WHEN IT HURTS?
A sermon by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, QC. Jeremiah 8:18—9:1. September 19, 2004.
Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?
– Jeremiah 8:22
“Where is God when it hurts?” Who has not asked that question at one time or another? As children many of us have been taught to believe in a God who can do everything – a God who is all-powerful – or omnipotent, to use the word. Such a God fits right into a child’s world of fables and fairy tales. Unfortunately, when we grow older and revise how we understand fairy tales, many people continue to keep God in that kind of box. Often it is because no one has helped us to develop a more adult viewpoint. And then when there are times when the God of our childhood does not deliver the goods in the adult world, we wonder where God is. “Where is God when it hurts?” we ask. For it seems to us that God is easy to believe in when times are good, but if God is all good and all powerful, then why is there evil? Why are there bad times?
I have to admit that I have taken the title for this sermon from one of Philip Yancy’s books. I have only begun to read the book, so I do not know how Yancy treats the question. But the title was enough to get me thinking about it.
In the Old Testament reading, the prophet Jeremiah asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” When we read this passage, it is clear that Jeremiah was speaking to quite a different situation than ours. His country is at war – virtually under siege, The prophet had warned them that this would happen, and they would not listen. And now it is happening, what does he do? Does he put his hands on his hips and say, “I told you so”? No he doesn’t do that at all. Rather he says, “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.” He says, “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.”
You and I do not live in a country that is under attack – at least not in the military sense. But is it not the case that just about every one of us has times when we feel that we are under attack in one way or another? Are there not times when we too say with Jeremiah, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” even when we are not sure just where Gilead was? Whether the attack is a matter of health, of being chewed out at work, or of coping with inconsiderate neighbours or relatives, I suspect that just about everyone of us has felt this way. And when like Jeremiah we feel that “dismay has taken hold of [us],” we may well ask, “Where is God when it hurts?” Why do these things happen, God? (Some may reverse the order and put God at the beginning of the sentence.) What did I do to deserve them? Am I really such a bad person?
Our responsive psalm today – Psalm 79 – raises a similar question. You see, people in those times believed that bad things happened because God was angry with them – usually for their unfaithfulness, or even for the sins of their ancestors. And so the psalmist writes, “How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? . . . . Do not hold the sins of past generations against us; let your compassion come swiftly to meet us.”
I think that most Christians today have outgrown this way of thinking where one is punished by God for the sins of their ancestors. Of course, that also means we cannot blame them for the hurts that we have today. But then we are still left with the question, “Where is God when it hurts?”
You know, a few Sundays ago, I read the poem entitled Footprints in the Sand. I think that just about everyone in church that day had heard it before. You remember how it ends: the person asks Lord why he abandoned them during their most troublesome times. And the Lord replied,
My precious child, I love you and would never forsake you. During those times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then I carried you. (Anonymous)
Where is God when it hurts? God is carrying us, that’s where God is. God is making it easier than it would otherwise be. It can be hard to believe that – I know. But what if we were to rephrase the question? Instead of asking why it hurts so much, what if we were to ask ourselves, “How much more would it hurt if God were not here?” For God is with us, giving us the strength we didn’t know we had, enabling us to persevere, leading us on from the place of hurt and pain to a new place that we do not yet see or understand. Sometimes that seems like just some nice words. But there are other times when we see it happening before our eyes, and still other times when we experience God’s presence in just that way.
Truly there is a balm – a healing ointment – in our Gilead. Truly there is a great physician who heals our hurts and makes us whole. And now in testimony to that, let us sing it together – Hymn 612.