The Hiddenness of God - Fifth Sunday After Pentecost (Yr A) - July 2, 2023
You may have seen me on the bus or outside Delany’s coffee shop sometime over the past couple of weeks, covertly reading a book while scribbling notes in the margin. I say covertly, because a casual onlooker might have been a little dismayed by the book’s disquieting title, particularly so if they knew I was a clergy person. Published in 1995, it is called The Disappearance of God. I wondered if I should perhaps be carrying it around with me in a brown paper-wrapped cover. But I figured that would make people’s imaginations really take off, so I thought better of that idea.
As startling as the title may seem at first glance, its subject is fascinating and ultimately hopeful; the reader is taken on a path that begins in the book of Genesis and winds its way through 20th century writers Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah, and finally to breakthroughs in cosmology and our understanding of the Universe itself.
The author, Richard Elliott Friedmann, is a Biblical scholar and much of this book is devoted to pointing out the gradual disappearance of God over the course of the Bible, most particularly in the Hebrew scriptures. He shows how the biblical narrative shifts from stories in which the Almighty speaks and acts directly and concretely with humans, to stories in which God’s face is hidden and God’s voice is silenced. Friedmann finds that this narrative trend is particularly astonishing given that, as he says:
These stories were not originally written in the order in which they now occur in the Bible. Early and late texts are wound around each other in the Bible in such a way that the book is a brilliant, intricate combination of texts. Late chapters in the story may have been written by authors who lived centuries before the authors of early chapters. (1)
Nor does Friedmann believe the progressive disappearance of God in the Old Testament can be attributed to the work of an editor who was aiming for a narrative flow. The scriptures we not assembled by one editor, but by several, also separated by centuries and each unique in their approach.
Friedmann says there are many factors - religious, historical, psychological and literary - that together resulted in what he calls the disappearance of God. I can’t begin to do justice to all these areas as they are covered in his book, but today’s scripture readings corresponded so well with his observations that I couldn’t help but share them with you this morning and have us contemplate what God’s so-called "disappearance," or hiddenness, might mean to each of us in our own life.
The story of Abraham and Isaac that we heard from Alana this morning is one of several early in the Book of Genesis in which humans audibly hear God’s voice and even see God’s presence made manifest in an angel. While we usually think of angels as messengers from God, in this story and in others, the angel speaks using God’s own voice, saying: "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me."
There are many things one can say and one can wonder about the story of Abraham and Isaac on the mountain, but for our purposes this morning we just want to notice that, like Adam, Eve, Noah and others, Abraham interacts directly with a walking, talking deity.
Moving forward, a shift begins in what Friedmann calls the Divine-Human Balance. More and more, we see God gradually ceding some of God’s divine authority to humans. While Abraham here dutifully trudged up the mountain, willing to kill his son because God said so, in another chapter we hear him negotiating with God to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction. While Noah didn’t say peep about God’s planned destruction of the whole population, Abraham challenges God on the ethics of taking innocent lives in Sodom and Gomorrah: "Far be it from you to do a thing like this," Abraham chides God (Gen: 18:25). And God actually listens.
Later, Abraham’s nephew Lot also argues with God, who is again made manifest in the visiting angels. Instead of obeying God’s command to flee Sodom for the mountain, he pushes back and says he wants to take his family to a nearby city instead. God doesn’t just agree with this change of plan; remarkably, God-via-the-angel says: "Flee there quickly, because I cannot do a thing until you get there." (19:22). As Friedmann notes, that doesn’t sound like the same God who said "Let there be light" and there was light. More and more, God is calling for human participation in making real God’s plan for the world.
Fast-forwarding through the biblical books, we notice God’s spoken voice and angelic appearances dwindling, then ceasing. God instead speaks through the words and dreams of human prophets. Miracles and visions, if they occur, are private matters and are no longer witnessed publicly. Similarly, their impact is personal, affecting individuals instead of whole communities. More and more, humans are given responsibility and agency in the world; more and more, people feel keenly God’s hiddenness or outright absence.
In today’s psalm we hear just one of the many references to the hidden Creator. "How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?" laments the psalmist, "How long will you hide your face from me?" This question is at the heart of many of our scripture stories, as people seek for signs of the divine. An answer doesn’t come directly, in a flash of wind or fire; help, it appears, comes from trusting that God is present even despite appearances to the contrary.
Against this centuries-old backdrop, imagine anew the impact of early Christianity’s claim that God’s face had at last been once again revealed; that God had been made flesh in Jesus Christ. Finally, the cries for God to stop hiding and to please show up to put things right had been answered. Christianity was, and is, life-altering for individuals who believe; it was, and is, world-changing for societies when believers live out their baptismal ministry with compassion and commitment.
Because there’s the rub. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus didn’t solve everything. God still needs us, more than ever. When God’s face is hidden, we are to be God’s active presence in the world.
Friedmann makes the point that perhaps to some extent we are the unconscious authors of God’s apparent hiddenness. We humans, after all, aren’t very good at walking alongside a God made manifest amongst us. The Israelites wanted Moses to be their intermediary so they didn’t have to look directly at God; political and religious leaders killed Jesus for being a disruptor. It seems it is more comfortable for us to see God as fully active in a past golden age, and in a hoped-for golden future, than as as fully alive and walking beside us right here and now.
I see the truth of this. When God does pop up in our life in an unexplainable way - through a seemingly impossible healing, an inexplicable synchronicity, or another miraculous-seeming vision or event - how fast we often are to doubt that it is God at work! Even without our willing it, our logical brain often jumps right in to explain it away. And if we don’t stretch to find a rational explanation for the amazing occurrence, you can be sure that several dozen people around us will.
"God is dead," famously wrote Nietzsche, "And we have killed him." How often, in small ways, do we kill God on a daily basis? How often do we forget to trust, to pray, to see God’s gifts all around us? How might we, instead, remember that we are part and parcel of a bigger, unimaginable reality? How might we remember that God’s spirit works through us whenever we let it?
"Whoever welcomes you welcomes me," said Jesus in the gospel reading today. "And whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me." With these words, Jesus - God made flesh - empowers us to act on God’s behalf. "Who died and made you God?" is a huffy rejoinder sometimes thrown around playgrounds and boardrooms alike. Well, it’s actually a pretty good question. Jesus died, at least in bodily form. And we are left to carry on his work, in our bodily form.
Jewish mystical tradition posits that prior to creation, the Deity became concentrated into a single point - what today’s cosmologists might call the singularity. This point burst out in a series of emanations, forming the Universe and everything in it and leaving, as one Jewish scholar wrote, "a residue of divine manifestation in every being." In other words, it was a God-filled Big Bang that echoes last Sunday’s gospel from John: "All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being." Science and spirituality may not use the same language, but on this topic I think they are singing the same song.
It is with this kind of hopeful outlook that my book ended; with the thought of a God who permeates all the Universe. But this is not an "and-they-all-lived-happily-ever-after-the-end" kind of sermon. Because it doesn’t end there, with us going home and putting our feet up. Or at least it shouldn’t. Pentecost celebrations aside, however, I think most of us remain inherently resistant to accepting that God does indeed live in each of us.
What, after all, are the implications of that? If taken with any seriousness, it’s a pretty daunting notion. Just imagine: we are woven together with divine threads drawn from God’s own self, and called to be God’s co-creators in the world. What are we to do with that? If that’s hard to wrap our head around now, during the serenity of a Sunday service, imagine how much harder it is when we are harried and at our wit’s end juggling a thousand emails or domestic demands at the end of a long day. How do we fit in the not-insignificant task of being God?
Jesus, thank goodness, points us in the right direction in today’s gospel reading. All it takes to start, he says, is to give a cup of cold water to a little one, and to do it in the spirit of God.
I can do that. Can you do that? What else can we do? I invite you to carry that question with you today and in the week ahead.
1. Friedmann, Richard E.: The Disappearance of God (Little, Brown & Company, 1995) p. 83
Photo is from cover of the book