Monday, February 13, 2012

Never Lost

Isa. 40:21-31[1]

I think one of the greatest challenges to faith of all time is the Holocaust. The tragic suffering inflicted on so many millions of people can cause even the most ardent believer to question God’s ever-present love. One of the most famous people to question faith out of his experience of the Holocaust is Elie Wiesel. What you may not know is that Elie Wiesel was studying the Talmud and thinking of becoming a Rabbi when he began his journey through the horror of the Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Buchenwald. It was the terror of that experience that led Wiesel to question deeply the belief that God is all-powerful, to doubt whether God is able to prevent injustice and violence in the world, and to despair of hoping that God is able to really make a difference for those who place their faith in God.[2]

In his most famous book, Night, which is essentially a diary of his nightmare in the camps, he recounts one particularly haunting story. Three prisoners, two men and a boy, were to be hanged in front of the whole group. Of course, the men died instantly. But the boy did not. As they were made to file past the gallows, the whole camp had to watch him struggle as he slowly strangled to death. At one point, someone in the crowd cried out, “For God’s sake, where is God?” Wiesel says, “And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? This is where—hanging here from this gallows.’” [3]

You may have heard this story, because the obvious parallel with a Christian theology of the cross, where God suffers with Jesus on the cross and even sacrifices himself for us all, has made this story fodder for many a sermon. But that’s not what Wiesel meant. What Wiesel meant when he said that God was hanging there from the gallows is that God was dead—or at least his faith in a God who could or would intervene on behalf of his people or any other people for that matter.[4]

Elie Wiesel’s experience made him question the gospel of Epiphany that we’ve been celebrating the last few weeks. I think it would make anybody question their faith! That’s what our lesson from Isaiah is about. The very words of our lesson—words of encouragement and trust—were addressed to people who were probably just as dispirited and discouraged as Wiesel. The prophet was speaking to people who had lost pretty much everything that defined their lives—homes and land, family and identity, and to some extent even their faith.[5] They had been taken captive in Jerusalem and had been forced into exile in Babylon. I think many of those whom the prophet addressed could very well echo the sentiments Elie Wiesel expressed in his moments of deepest despair.[6]

If you take a long, hard look at the world in which we live, there is much in our world to shake one’s faith in God. You may not personally experience anything as horrific as Wiesel had to endure. Nevertheless, the world in which we live can often feel terribly cold and mean. In view of the widespread injustice, greed, cruelty, and oppression in our world, it would be easy for just about anybody to say with the captives in Babylon, “God pays no attention to us! He doesn't care if we are treated unjustly” (Isa. 40:27 CEV)![7]

Our world can feel terribly god-forsaken at times. When you look at all that’s going on, it’s easy to think that we’re all lost to God. It’s easy to conclude that somehow God doesn’t notice or doesn’t care that there is so much injustice. But in the face of that kind of despair, the prophet of Isaiah 40 reminds us that wherever we are, whatever our circumstances, the all-powerful and all-loving God is always there. It’s the Gospel of Epiphany that we’ve been celebrating. But how do we go on celebrating that good news in the face of what we see in our world?

The prophet calls us to “wait” for God in the midst of this world where we can feel so lost. But that doesn’t mean what we normally think of “waiting.” This is a kind of waiting that is defined by the confidence that God is with us, constantly surrounding us with God’s life and love. It is a kind of waiting that is supported by the confidence that God is powerful enough to make things right—if not now, then ultimately. It is a kind of waiting that is shaped by the faith that this incredibly powerful God who holds the vastness of the cosmos in the palm of his hand is also the one who individually carries each of the lambs in his arms (Isa. 40:11).[8]

It is a kind of waiting that could better be called “trusting.”[9] Essentially, the prophet calls us to hold on to the faith that God is always there, constantly drawing us into the joy of God’s life and love—even when it seems that God has forsaken us, especially when we feel so lost in this world. When we can do that, then no matter where we are, or what our circumstances may be, we are never lost to God.[10] When we can hold on to the gospel of Epiphany that God is always with us, then we can renew our strength and soar with eagles wings. Then we run the race set before us without wearing out.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/5/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Wiesel’s view of God is complex. See Gary Henry, “Story and Silence: Transcendence in the work of Elie Wiesel,” PBS documentary, “Elie Wiesel: First Person Singular,” aired beginning October 24, 2002; accessed at . He says that after the horrors of the Holocaust, Wiesel wrestles with the question how it is possible to believe in God. But Wiesel also wrestles with the question, in light of the Holocaust, how it is possible not to believe in God.

[3] See Elie Wiesel, Night, 65.

[4] In fact, Wiesel’s view of God is more complex than that: cf. Henry, “Story and Silence”; he says, “Wiesel stands in [the Jewish] tradition when he argues that the Jew can only retain his humanity if he boldly takes issue with God and his apparent indifference to the Jews’ suffering, and insists on believing no matter what.” And so, “Man denies God by affirming humanity — and this he must do. But in affirming humanity, man makes an affirmation of God which transcends his denial of God.”

[5] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 13-14; cf. also James Limburg, “An Exposition of Isaiah 40:1-11,” Interpretation 29 (October, 1975): 406-411.

[6] Cf. Mary W. Anderson, “Who is Like Thee?” The Christian Century (Jan 26, 2000), 87, where she says, “in the midst of their captivity the people are wondering how their God can be omni-anything when they are so miserable.” Cf. also Paul Tillich, “We Live in Two Orders,” in The Shaking of the Foundations, 12-23.

[7] Cf. Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, Made For Goodness, 101, phrase it this way: “How can an omnipotent God be so impotent in the face of injustice?”

[8] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3.105-106, where he sees these two qualities of transcendence and immanence brought together in Jesus the incarnate Word.

[9] Cf. John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 34-66, 628-29.

[10] Cf. Barth, Dogmatics 4.3.771, where he emphasizes this: “His omnipotent mercy rules over all without exception, … no matter how lost they are they are not lost to Him.”

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