Not long ago, I visited a funeral home in order to pay my respects to the family of a nineteen-year-old young man who had been killed in an automobile accident that had been caused by a drunk driver. While I waited in line at the funeral home to see the family, I struck up a conversation with the man who was standing behind me in the line. When he discovered that I was a pastor, the conversation turned in a decidedly theological direction. “You know,” he said to me, “I don’t have much use for God.”
I found that to be an interesting phrase. He did not say that he had no belief in God. He said that he had no use for God, as though he found God to be perfectly disagreeable.
“May I ask why you have no use for God?”
“Because,” he answered, “God doesn’t seem to care that people in the world are suffering. He doesn’t seem to care that people are dying of hunger. He doesn’t seem to care that people are dying of cancer. He doesn’t seem to care that nineteen-year-old boys are being killed by drunk drivers.”
“I don’t have much use,” he said, “for a God that seems to get his jollies from sitting back and watching people suffer.”
Although this man’s words no doubt emerged from the profundity of his emotional pain, I cannot help but think that, in that moment, he was giving expression to a conceptualization of God that is frighteningly common, even among those who have not just experienced a tragic loss. The conceptualization of God to which I am making reference paints a portrait of a God who is unwaveringly remote, exasperatingly distant, and callously detached from the daily affairs of the world; a God who can never be reached or embraced but who demands to be appeased and satisfied by violent human suffering; a God who might have set things in motion, but who seemingly lacks either the ability or the desire to be in relationship with human souls; a divine but unsympathetic spectator who is unmoved by human suffering and who is far too blasé to act intentionally and redemptively on our behalf.
How honest will you permit me to be? Do I dare to tell you how frequently I have found myself harboring at least a shade of this very conceptualization in my deepest thoughts? Will you still permit me to minister alongside you if I confess to you that, more than once, I have found myself wondering out loud if God really cares about my little nook in the world?
The words of the Old Testament prophet Zephaniah spoke to my heart this morning during a few moments of prayerful meditation. Zephaniah’s prophetic ministry unfolded at least 630 (and perhaps over 700) years before the birth of Jesus against the backdrop of excruciatingly difficult days in Judah. Conquests and threats of conquest by surrounding powers. Political uncertainty. Fear of God’s judgment and wrath. A nagging penchant for bowing down before other gods. An impending time of exile that Zephaniah could see on the horizon. Dread concerning the future of Judah. These were the days in which Zephaniah and his people found themselves living.
Zephaniah does not sugarcoat his assessment of the situation:
You are a soiled and defiled city,” Zephaniah says to the people of Jerusalem. “You have not trusted in the Lord, you have not drawn near to your God. Your politicians are roaring lions, your judges are hungry wolves; your prophets are faithless; your priests have profaned that which is holy; your people have done violence to the law. (Zephaniah 3:1-4)
And yet, although Zephaniah speaks unsettlingly and trenchantly about the reality of the nation’s sin and God’s righteous judgment, he concludes his prophecy with a word of hope and restoration—a word that has been resonating in my heart since I read it this morning:
Sing aloud, O Jerusalem; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you and has turned away your enemies. For the King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst. (Zephaniah 3:15)
Zephaniah felt so strongly about that last sentiment that he decided to repeat it two verses later, as though he desperately wanted people to remember it:
“The Lord, your God, is in your midst.”
Did you hear it? Zephaniah stubbornly refuses to allow his people to nurture a conceptualization of a distant and unfeeling God who has no emotional investment in the human pilgrimage. “No,” Zephaniah says, “our God is not like the expressionless and inanimate idols that our neighbors seem so eager to worship. Rather, our God is unsettlingly, passionately, personally, transformationally, and relentlessly IN OUR MIDST.”
Out of the bleakness of Judah’s ancient circumstances comes the redemptive truth about the steadfast “in the midst-ness” of our God—a truth that would not reach its complete fulfillment for another six centuries, when, in the fullness of time, the God of the universe stepped out of the landscape of eternity and came to us in swaddling clothes, so that God’s “in the midst-ness” might have some flesh and blood on it.
In a way, then, Zephaniah proclaimed the Christmas Good News centuries before Christmas. In a world that is so often eager to conceptualize God as being distant and remote, Zephaniah has the audacity to proclaim that God is in our midst. When we experience tragedy and suffering, when 19-year-old boys are killed by drunk drivers, when people we love are taken from us, when cancer seems to be having its way with someone about whom we care deeply, even then, the Lord is in our midst—not far off, but in our midst, hurting with us, weeping with us, experiencing our pain with us, but then restoring us to a condition of hope and strength and vision beyond our present circumstances. When we are discouraged with the state of the world, when we are heartbroken over human poverty and hunger and warfare, even then, the Lord is in our midst—not far off, but in our midst, aligning himself with those who are suffering and daring us to see his face in the disenfranchised and the marginalized. When we feel that we are without purpose and direction, even then, the Lord is in our midst—not far off, but in our midst, taking hold of our broken spirit and restoring it to a condition of wholeness.
Where is God? Zephaniah would have us to believe that we do not have to look very far. Because, according to Zephaniah, God stubbornly refuses to maintain a safe distance from us. In fact, God’s desire for relationship with human souls has inspired God to dwell in our very midst, closer to us than our own breathing, more intimately connected to us than our own private thoughts. I don’t know what you call that. I call it Christmas Good News.
Several years ago, I happened to be visiting a patient at St. Clair Hospital moments after he had received the results of a recent biopsy. The results indicated that he had a cancerous tumor on his kidney. His heart was heavy with that news. “Eric,” he said, “I need you to help me to sing something.”
“Uh, OK. Well…uh…hmmmm…what do you want to sing?”
“It’s one of my favorite choruses,” he said.
“Fine. Just tell me what it is and we’ll sing it.”
A moment later, the two of us joined together in singing these words:
Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place
I can feel his mighty power and his grace
I can hear the brush of angels wings, I see glory on each face
Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place
After we were finished singing, I could not prevent myself from asking a question: “Roger, why was it so important to you that we sing that particular song?”
“Because,” he said, “I needed to sing something that would remind me that the presence of God is a whole lot closer to my soul than those cancer cells are.”
What was it that that man was calling for? He was calling for a reminder of Zephaniah’s prophecy. He was calling for a reiteration of the Christmas Good News that the Lord is in our midst, even in the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis.
He was calling, in other words, for the truth about God.
Aren’t we all?