The Absence of God

Rublev's icon of three angels around a table, representing the TrinityHomily at St Philip Evans for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

Today, I’d like to talk about God.

This is not as easy as it seems!

There are two problems with talking about God. The first one is being clear about who we are talking about.

Our Lord, Jesus, called his heavenly Father, “God”. Usually, when we read the Gospels, the name “God” points to “God-the-Father”. But we believe in one God who exists as three persons: the Father, who loves us; Jesus the Son, who died for us; and God the Holy Spirit, who lives within us. So when we hear the name, “God”, we must always pause and ask ourselves what is meant: the Person whom Jesus called Father, or the common nature shared by Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

The second problem is what we are talking about. Sometimes, when we hear the name, “God”, our mind is filled with all kinds of ideas which don’t really match what Jesus came to teach us. Is God a faceless cosmic force like the one in Star Wars? No. Is God an old man with a beard looking down on us from a cloud? No. Is God just a label for the ideas contained in the Bible? No. God exists as three persons who love us very much, three persons who invite us into friendship. The Russian artist, Rublev, depicted God as three angels around a table, and a place open at the fourth side for us for us to join them. Now that’s a good image for God!

Next I’d like to talk about the absence of God. Sometimes, it seems that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not there when we need Them. Today’s Gospel ends by Jesus showing his divine power – not only does He calm the storm and walk on water, but He announces Himself to the disciples in the words “It is I” – a powerful expression, equivalent to God telling Moses his name was “I Am Who Am”. But if this is a story about Jesus showing us that He is God in human form, let’s backtrack and read the story again. I’m going to add a twist – wherever Jesus does something, I will put in the name, “God”.

The story begins with God sending the disciples away. They are doing what God wants, but they are alone at sea when a terrible storm starts battering the boat. They cry out to God – but God is back on shore, praying. God is also very close to them, loving them, but they do not notice that in their fear.

Eventually God does come to them, but they are scared to see Him coming. Peter cries out, “God, let me do what you do!” – and for a few moments he succeeds. But he soon finds that it’s not easy playing God, and so the true God has to rescue him.

The Prophet Elijah had a similar experience. God said: “Go outside and wait for me.” Elijah endured an earthquake, a mighty wind, and fire, before God turned up in a moment of calm.

As for Peter and Elijah, so there are times in our lives when God seems far away. Perhaps we’re enduring a long illness, or some ongoing conflict at work. In particular, when someone we love dies, we look for someone to blame, and God seems an easy target. God could have healed that person, and didn’t. So it must be God’s fault that they are dead. And as soon as that thought enters our head, it becomes much more difficult to love God, because who could love a person who has robbed you of a loved one? But God is not present to us in the earthquake which has rocked our lives, or the storm of confusion which follows, or the fire of anger which is a natural part of loss. We only re-connect with God when we find our balance again.

Even being a churchgoer, or a friend of God, doesn’t protect us from being tested. Such trials come even though we’ve followed the direction God has set for us. We can take comfort in knowing that the Bible also promises us that we will not be tested more than we can bear. Even so, God will test us. God challenges us saying, “Ye of little faith, why did ye doubt?” If we have faith, we will endure until the peace of God returns. And through all of this, we are very much loved by God, as a parent loves their growing and wandering child.

Those of you who are parents know that at a certain age, your children will go out into the world and you will no longer be able to protect them from all their mistakes. In the same way, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit allow us to live in this world with all its trials, knowing that we will be tempted to blame Them. So today, may I invite you to forgive God for not living up to your hopes and expectations? If the fire of anger still burns in your heart towards the Father Almighty, it is only when you forgive Him that you can experience the calm place of meeting. If the mighty winds of the storms of life surround you, call out to Jesus; he will come and calm the storm, in His own time. If the earthquake is just beginning, call upon the Holy Spirit to abide in your heart with His gifts of patience, self-control and the ability to endure. God will be there for you when the storm has passed. Have faith! Let God be God! And when the storm passes, Jesus will also be holding you above the waves.

So I invite you to forgive God for allowing you to be tested. Your God is too small! The Great God hidden in Jesus Christ will invite you to go on adventures where you may not always experience God’s presence, but remember Rublev’s icon: you will always be invited to return to the place set for you at God’s table. Come now, let us dine at the Lord’s Supper.