I can say without any shadow of a doubt that one of God’s greatest blessing on my life has been my wife. I don’t have the time to tell you all that I could about how amazing she is and why it is that so many people are drawn to her. But, I will say that one of the primary reasons I believe she connects so well with almost everyone she comes into contact with is because her heart has been formed by great tragedy. I have no idea what it is to have suffered the way she has through, as I am sure many of you know, the tragic loss of her father, older brother and uncle in a private plane crash when she was 13. But what I do know is that out of the years of sadness that this terrible time brought into her life has flowered an amazing woman. I’ve had one specific prayer continually ringing in the back of my heart as I’ve spent my life with Jennifer that goes something like: “I hope she has suffered enough, Lord.” Well, apparently not. I know that what she has to deal with these days is nothing like what many of you are going through. She doesn’t have cancer like some of you have or people that you know have; she isn’t in a terrible or dangerous relationship with anyone, like some of you are or people you know are; there are a lot of circumstances that she isn’t dealing with that are, in all honesty, much worse than what is a constant struggle for her. But, what she does have to face is bad enough. Jennifer has to deal with the pain and debilitation that comes from having degenerative, arthritic discs and vertebrae in her back that can unexpectedly turn her from a vibrant, active woman into someone who is in great pain and unable to physically do just about anything. I know this is a common problem for many people, but I love this particular woman and every time, when out of the blue as she is just tying her shoe or leaning over the sink and something in her back goes and I know that she may be in tremendous pain and immobile for weeks and her whole life will be put on hold… I get angry. Angry that after all she has been through she still has to suffer in these ways. Now, of course, I know that the world is a broken place… that the sin that separates us from God has resulted in a lot of brokenness and that brokenness includes our bodies and no one gets a pass on this. I know all of the theology. But, when I’m sitting by her bedside as she is suffering, knowing that there isn’t much I can do, I wonder, “Where are you, God? Why can’t you step in and take care of this special one?”
Here is something I believe with all of my heart: I believe that when God created us, his initial intensions for going to all of the trouble, was to have a relationship… a real relationship… with each one of us. If you look carefully at what Moses, one of the great leaders of the nation of Israel, wrote about God’s creation of mankind in his book we call Genesis, you’ll see that his emphasis was on God’s desire to have a face-to-face, intimate relationship with us. Moses tells us that God knew Adam, the first man’s inner soul; that God knew what was best for Adam and that God actually walked in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Adams’s wife, Eve in the cool of the evening. God’s desire was, and I believe it still is, to be present with us in the same way that we are present with one another in this room right now. I believe this with all of my heart and I understand that sin has separated us from having this kind of relationship with God for now. But, sometimes I wonder why he doesn’t just step into the world occasionally for people like Jennifer and at least comfort them in their circumstances, circumstances that will not have a happy ending. And I know I’m not alone in wondering, ‘Where is God when there is no happy ending?’
I’ve also come to believe through my years of being a pastor and walking with so many people through times of heartache and pain and fear… we are not created with the emotional tools to deal with any of this. I am certain that at our core every one of us, every person on the earth, was built by God’s hand to experience the kinds of relationships that happen when you live in God’s presence. We weren’t supposed to live separated from God in a broken world and so we weren’t created with the inner faculties to know what to do to maneuver through this world’s troubles. And I don’t believe we are capable of figuring it out, either… at least not on our own with what we were given. Let’s be honest; who among us naturally has what it takes to deal with chronic pain or betrayal or unexpected tragedy or loss? I don’t think any of us were. It’s no wonder we struggle so in this world.
But I don’t believe we are without hope. In fact, here is something that gives me hope. There are others who’ve come before us who have claimed very openly that God has made himself known to them in times of trouble and trial. Why, the Old Testament books are filled with real people that have given new names to God after they’d gone through difficult times; names they started using for God after actual events and experiences with God where he was present with them and made himself known to them. People have called God by names like Jehovah Shammah: The Lord Is There after they’d realized that God did not abandon them in dark times. Jehovah Rapha: The Lord That Heals, People called God by this name after he had restored their health. Jehovah Jireh: The Lord Will Provide; People that used this name for God after having seen him miraculously provide for them when all seemed lost. Jehovah Raah: The Lord My Shepherd; this name was given to God after he had not only watched over, taken care of and fed his people but shown himself to be their friend. Jehovah Shalom: The Lord Is Peace: People called God by this name when he brought them unexpected peace in the midst of a time of trouble and fear. Eleazar: the Lord is my helper; this name was given to God by people who had felt the presence of God right beside them at a time when they really needed someone strong standing next to them. And these are just some of the names people have given to God as they have recognized his presence with them in the midst of challenging times. And it does give me give some hope knowing that God has been so present with others; it gives me hope that he will also be present with me and you. This is all well and good, but… I have to be honest, it takes a good deal of extraordinary faith for me to believe that God is my healer or provider or friend when things are going really south and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of God’s presence in the moment. But, I believe we have to take these names found in the Old Testament seriously… mainly because Jesus took the Old Testament seriously… And here at Grace we take Jesus very seriously. In fact, our faith rests on the fact that Jesus is the one who was literally sent by God with the mission of showing the world face-to-face who God is... Jesus said flat out, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” with an emphasis on Capital ‘T:’ The Father. Much of Jesus’s mission was to show mankind the heart of God in the midst of our struggles and pain. And Jesus not only showed us what God thinks and how he responds to the brokenness of the world but he also came to show us the lengths that God is willing to go to bring us back into a relationship with him. If there is one thing that Jesus’ life shows us, and we have 4 different witnesses to the life of Jesus, four Gospels, as we call them, all written by different people, in different places for very different reasons and to different audiences, and all four tell us through their differing descriptions of Jesus’ life, that God’s heart is drawn to the suffering; God’s desire is to see our pain ended, our hearts comforted and our relationships healed. Read any of the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke or John and you’ll see Jesus living out God’s desire to help us by giving us peace and healing and comfort and care. The story of Jesus’ life, as best as we can tell from the records we have, is that he lived out the Old Testament prophecy that said Jesus was sent to earth to, “Proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind and to set the oppressed free.” Luke 4:18-19. But again, my question is always going to be, ‘That was great for the first century. What about now? Is God still in the business of being our Jehovah Shammah: the one who does not abandon us or our Jehovah Rapa: the one that heals and restores us?
Well, as I was processing all of this a few weeks ago, I decided to talk to Jennifer about it. I thought for certain that her attitude about God’s seeming lack of concern for her when she is suffering would mirror mine; that she’d be wondering where God is when there isn’t a happy ending. But her response wasn’t anything like mine. She said, “Well, Tim, let me think. The last time I was in bed for a long time and unable to do anything God sent,” and then she named over 20 different people. And then she said, “God came with them as some of brought food, some cleaned our home, some brought flowers, others just sat and listened, one gave me a massage, many sent texts and messages of encouragement and of all of them prayed for me. One even ironed your shirts. From what I can tell, God was about as present as he could be through them.” And she was absolutely right. In my anger about the circumstances I’d missed where God can be found in the midst of a time that has no happy ending. God’s Spirit is absolutely present in the lives of his people as we bring the gifts of love and peace and kindness and patience and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness to one another. And it is through these gifts, these fruits of the Spirit they are often called, that we become God’s means of providing for one another on his behalf. Together, through the power of the Holy Spirit who is present in the life of each follower of Jesus, we become the literal, flesh and blood, presence of God in one another’s lives. Where is God when there is no happy ending? Well, one of the answers is that he is present through his people, who, when they are operating within their callings and their spirit-given gifts, can offer shepherding and care to others’ lives and souls.
And the more I thought about this I couldn’t help but sense that much of what these friends of Jennifer brought into her life sounded just like the names of God: some were Jehovah Shammah to her: they were simply there so she never felt abandoned. Others, were Jehovah Jireh to her providing care and food and friendship and simply watching out for her when things seemed dark and hopeless. Still others were Jehovah Shalom bringing her peace in the midst of a time of fear. And they all were Eleazar to her; strong ones who stood beside her in times when she needed someone next to her. Truth is, when I read the names of God I don’t have to hope that they are true. I know they are true. God has shown me time and time again, and not just in my own family, but in the lives of countless people, that he is present with his people… through his people. We are the flesh and blood that brings the care and kindness and peace and provision to the broken circumstances of life. And there is plenty of evidence that this has been one of God’s primary ways of being present with his people right from the beginning. In some of the earliest Christians writings we read things like this, written by man named Paul, who, by the way, initially hated Christians so much that he went around killing them, but once he became a Christian he spent much of his life doing everything he could to convince Christians to live in ways that showed God’s heart to the world. He said this, ‘Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ... and do not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have the opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of God.’ Galatians 6:2, 9-10. And this is what he said in a letter to a group of so-called Christian people who were not treating one another in ways that showed God’s heart to the world. “Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant... There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all of mankind. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good… and all of the manifestations are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines. 1 Corinthians 12:1; 4-7;11. The same Spirit, the Holy Spirit of God, working through each of us to bring about, as Paul called it, the common good. So, once again, ‘Where is God when there is no happy ending?’ He is present through us, his people, who, when we are operating within our callings and our spirit-given gifts, can offer the care and shepherding others need.
But all of this does beg a couple of practical issues that I have to at least mention quickly here at the end. First, if those of us who are followers of Jesus are called to be the presence of God in the world then it means we all have to be prepared to live out our gifting and be ready to bring compassion in every moment of life. Our default attitude should be: if we are aware of it, we have responsibility. Here is something that John, initially one of the most self- absorbed of Jesus’ disciples wrote after his selfish heart had been redirected by the power of the Holy Spirit. “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. 1 John 3:17-18. No one gets a pass on this one… but it is one area where I hear a lot of consternation… the people of God not stepping up to help those in a time of suffering. I know that there are always two sides to every story but, again, our default has to be loving others with action. Jesus himself said, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' (Matthew 25:40) and he meant it.
And it also means we need to be connected with others in the body of Christ; people need to know us and we need to know them. No one can respond to things they don’t know about. This is why we encourage everyone to be connected to a small community of believers, to find a harbor, for times like this; so we can care for others and be cared for by others… so we can be the presence of God for one another. Jennifer doesn’t have to tell many people what is happening when she is suddenly taken down. The word spreads… because she has invested years in others and shared her gifts of compassion and mercy and hospitality freely with others. Now, I didn’t set out to talk so much about her… I could have chosen any number of people today who are living out the call to be the hands and feet of Jesus in other’s lives, but this one was right under my nose and I’d completely missed the very presence of God in my own home; there he was, alive in the people of God. And we don’t want you to miss this today.
Where is God when there is no happy ending? He is present in the lives of the people he sends to care for you… from my own experience I can tell you it’s important to keep your eyes open and look for his hand. Where is God when there is no happy ending? He is present in you as you live out your calling and exercise your spiritual gifts in the lives of those in need around you. We all must be ready to be the hands and feet of Jesus. Where is God when there is no happy ending? He is here in this gathering we call the church… the body of Christ… we are God’s flesh-and-blood, face-to-face, intimate, literal presence in his broken world. This is our mission: to love one another even as Christ has loved us.