The Hiding God

William Emilsen lecturing

A sermon delivered at St Andrews Chapel, UTC, 30 April, 2014, by William Emilsen

At the end of the Leura Mall in the Blue Mountains,
there is a park with picnic benches, swings, slippery dips
and climbing equipment for children.
In this regard, Bloome Park,
is not much different from any other around the State.

There is, however, one difference:
Bloome Park has lots of massive towering gums,
rows of thick bushes and man-made rock walls
—great places for hiding—
and whenever we take the grandchildren, Joshua and Micah, there,
very soon we find ourselves coaxed into playing a game of hide-and-seek.

Now, when the aforementioned grandchildren play,
one loves seeking and will burst into rapturous joy when he finds you;
the other loves hiding and making just audible little squeaks to help his seeker find him..

This simple children’s game
captures something both profound
and paradoxical about the nature of God:
God is simultaneously seeking and hiding.
God seeks us out and at the same time hides from us.

Beginning with the story of Adam and Eve,
you could say that the Bible is a commentary of God searching for humanity.
God is concerned for us,
looking for us,
calling to us,
longing to find us.

The English poet Francis Thompson who wrote a much-loved poem
with the strange and startling name, the ‘Hound of Heaven’,
describes how God’s grace persists unwearingly in seeking us out.

God’s seeking is fundamental to Scripture and to our own experience.

But there is another, almost playful side, to God.
God loves hiding.
In the story of the risen Jesus on the walk to Emmaus,
we are told that when the disciples eyes were opened,
and they recognised him,
Jesus simply vanished from their sight!
Jesus gives them clues so that they recognise Him,
and then he hides again.
It is as though God wants to play hide-and-seek with us,
but, sadly, we don’t want to play.

In the succeeding story in Luke’s Gospel,
we are told that Jesus opens the disciples’ minds
so that they understood the scriptures,
and then he ‘withdrew from them and was carried into heaven’.
In these post-Easter appearances,
there is seeking and hiding;
revealing and concealing.

It is not unusual for theologians to speak of God’s hiddenness.
Some will say that God had been eclipsed,
and we are living in a spiritual blackout;
others will say that God is far away, in a kind of exile, a refugee, locked out, silenced
or that there is a dreadful abyss between God and humanity,
a great chasm fixed.
In the 1960s it was even popular to speak of God being dead.

Usually this eclipse of God is blamed on human failure;
God has turned away from humanity,
it is said,
because we have turned from God.

There is no doubt that human callousness and indifference
had led to God’s departure from the world.
All of us are implicated in God’s hiddenness.

But there are other times when it seems as though God chooses to hide.
Rather than God being a hidden God,
God is a hiding God,
and this hiding is not a permanent state of affairs:
God’s hiding from us is not of God’s essence:
‘Truly, you are a God who hides himself,
O God of Israel, the Saviour’, says Isaiah (45:15).

If you think of God as a hiding God,
rather than a hidden God,
then the Christian faith is a lot more fun.
God is there and wants to be found;
God is waiting to be disclosed,
to be admitted into our lives;
and…be reassured…
there are little squeaks from the bushes to help us,
there are sparks and the occasional rays of light to illuminate the darkness,
there are moments of God’s grace and radiance.

When I was a boy I used spend weekends on a friend’s parents’ dairy farm;
they didn’t have electricity,
and being dairy farmers who rose early to milk the cows,
they extinguished the pressure lanterns and went to bed early.
When everyone had gone to sleep
my friend and I would catch fireflies,
with their tiny glow,
and put them in a glass jar so that we could read in bed.

It is a little like that with God:
No matter how grim the situation may be
how much spiritual darkness crowds in,
the darkness is never final nor complete.

You can always gather the sparks,
preserve the moments of radiance,
defy the spiritual darkness,
and wait for God to say again:
‘Let there be light.’
And there will be light.

The Christian faith offers a better way
than bottling specks of living light
to illuminate the darkness;
it is the way of remembrance,
remembrance of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Remembrance

Remembrance of the Judeo-Christian tradition
is fundamental to Christian existence.
Jesus understood this well when he met the disciples on the way:
and began teaching them the Torah and the Prophets,
and interpreting to them the things about himself in the Scriptures (27).

Jesus takes them back to key events in the Bible,
like the exodus from Egypt, the revelation of God on Mt Sinai;
and we as Christians are also called upon to remember the great events
of Christmas, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and Easter.

These great events in our history give us direction,
they point us to God’s actions in history;
events, we sometimes forget,
are even more important than doctrine and ethical principles,
even more important than the idea of liberation or the principle of justice.

Why? Because the ideas and the principles of Christianity
are derived from sacred events,
and our acceptance of Christian ideas and principles
is nurtured by the remembrance of those events.
This is why we observe the ‘Christian Year’.

This sermon is not an apology for Old Testament
or New Testament or Church History,
(though it could be);
we must never forget that our understanding of God,
our way to finding God,
comes not from speculation
but from discerning instances of God’s care in history.

Christianity is a religion of history,
a religion of time.
Our faith
—the Christian faith—
has its sources in the wellsprings of history.

Much of what the Bible expects of us
can be comprised in one word:
‘Remember’.
Much of what Jesus demands of us is to remember.
Remember the Christ who dies for you.
Remember the tradition from which you have sprung.
Remember the well-trodden path of our ancestors.
Remember the living God.

How doe we remember?
There are two vehicles of remembrance.
the first is worship or prayer
(those of you doing Liturgical Studies will know it as ritual.)
Shortly, we will share in Holy Communion;
we enshrine our history in ritual.
we will keep our history alive in text and song;
we will celebrate major events in our Christian tradition.

Worship and prayer are potent vehicles of remembrance,
they are pathways to faith in God;
they give us meaning and direction.

Just as we cannot live without a future,
we cannot live significantly without a past.
The true meaning of the present moment
cannot be found if divorced from the past moments
that led to its occurrence.
Just as in one’s personal life there are certain moments,
certain events,
that give meaning and direction to the whole of one’s life,
so it is in the history of the Church,
there are certain moments or events
that give it meaning and direction.

It is primarily through worship and the prayers of the liturgy
that we recall and celebrate such moments and events.
Worshipping and praying is like picking up a line of string that leads to God.

Study

There is a second vehicle of remembrance
that is particularly pertinent for theological students.
It is religious study,
primarily the study of Biblical literature and the Christian tradition.
Somehow, somewhere, we have lost sight that study is a sacred duty.
Confrontation with the Bible and the history of Christianity are prerequisites not only for Christian understanding
but also for finding our way to God.

Remembrance is nurtured by drinking from these holy springs.
Study nurtures faith;
many of you can testify to this.
Simone Weil, in her wonderful little book called Waiting on God
says that study focuses attention
and that attention when directed towards God
is the substance of prayer.

Study, she says,
contains ‘a pearl so precious
that it is worth selling all your possessions,
keeping nothing for yourselves,
in order to be able to acquire.’
(Some of you have come close to doing exactly that.)

Real theological study is a kind of praying
—disciplined thinking grafted onto prayer.
Real theological study is a form of worship
—a striving for closeness with God.
Real theological study is not simply the acquisition of knowledge
but a genuine seeking for that gateway that leads to God.

Study and teaching are central to the Christian tradition.
How I wish our Church
could develop an appreciation for study and learning.
We now have a ‘learning network’;
but what a difference it would make
if we thought of learning as a holy act,
as an indispensable form of growth, enoblement,
and the means to gaining of wisdom.

The Jewish theologian, Martin Buber,
tells the story of how Rabbi Barukh’s grandson Yehiel
was playing hide-and-seek with another boy.
He hid himself well and waited for his playmate to find him.
When he had waited for a long time,
he came out of his hiding place,
but the other boy was nowhere to be seen.
Then Yehiel realised that the other boy
had not looked for him from the very beginning.
This made him cry, and crying he ran to his grandfather
and complained of his faithless friend.
Then tears brimmed in Rabbi Barukh’s eyes
and he said:
‘God says the same thing:
‘I hide but no one wants to seek me.’”

You will you be a witnesses
in the hours of God’s concealment?

How will you witness to the risen Christ
when atheism and agnosticism is rife?

You will witness as you gather up the vehicles of remembrance
convinced that God is wanting and waiting to be found.

You will gather others around the table and break bread.
You will open up the sacred scriptures
and teach about the mighty acts of God in history
beginning with Moses, the prophets, and the
necessity of Jesus Christ’s coming into the world.

“You are my witnesses”, says Jesus (echoing Isaiah)
at the conclusion of Luke’s gospel,
you are to point the way
so that God can be God.

William Emilsen
St Andrew’s Chapel
30 April 2014

One Comment on “The Hiding God

  1. The reflection I gave in church last Sunday had a similar intent but a LITTLE LESS eloquently expressed. I should have read this first. The Lord is always there, all we have to do is look. Thanks for the vital insights you have offered here and in your lectures.

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