When God seems absent

When God seems absent, we need each other. (Listen.)

Did you hear it? The disciples have been sent into shutdown. For the Risen Jesus orders them not to leave Jerusalem. Instead, they must wait for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which will fill them with power. Then he moves into the cloud which signifies God’s presence, and disappears from their sight. And so the disciples—men and women both—go back to the room where they’re staying, and devote themselves to prayer. They don’t know what the future holds; they don’t know how long they must wait. But in faith they bunker down to watch and wait, pray and wonder: in all these things, together.

Most of us have spent the last year watching and waiting, praying and wondering, too; and it was and continues to be difficult. In fact, many psychologists would say that we are experiencing a time of chronic collective trauma, and it’s by no means over.

In a typical event causing collective trauma—a hurricane, a tsunami—the event happens quickly, and within days the community can focus on rebuilding. But what with the fallout from our long shutdown, devastating news from overseas, problems with vaccine rollout, the ongoing threat of new variants, changes to how we worship, work and play, and everything else, the traumatic event we call COVID-19 is still happening, and the end is nowhere in sight. And so we continue to watch and wait, pray and wonder, as the pandemic extends into months, then years: and it is exhausting.

Of course, it’s not just COVID. We’re waiting for other things, too. An end to family violence. A healing of personal trauma. A genuine shift in climate policy. A political system devoted to care of all people. And many, many other things. And so we watch and wait, pray and wonder, struggling with the present, unsure about the future, and keenly aware of what can feel like God’s absence.

Because looking around at the world these days, it can feel like God has checked out and we’ve been left with nothing: nothing but an ancient promise: that the Holy Spirit will come upon us, and we will be filled with power. And for some of us watching and waiting now, this promise feels pretty hollow. Some of us have been waiting a long time, and have never felt this power. Others of us knew it once, but fear it has left us forever. And still others of us sense this power from time to time, but wonder what good it does.

So let’s go back to those first disciples, and look at what happened next.

They returned to Jerusalem and waited and prayed; but they also did more. Because, if we read ahead, we discover that the next thing that happened is that Peter preached. This tells us that the disciples used the time of waiting and praying to reflect together on the law, the prophets, and the psalms; to wonder how the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus fulfilled the scriptures; and to interpret and speak into a new context.

Then the Holy Spirit came upon them, and sent them into the world overflowing with this good news and with practical love. While the powers and principalities raged around them, the disciples preached and worked out how to care for one another. How to share what they had. How to feed the hungry. How to heal the sick, welcome the stranger, commission new leaders. And in their outpouring of good news and practical love, they were tremendously powerful, and God added daily to their number.

So they weren’t made powerful by standing around where they last saw Jesus and gazing into heaven. He’d told them to return to Jerusalem and to wait, and that’s what they did. And it was only after this time of watching and waiting, praying and wondering that the Holy Spirit came upon them. But when it did, the world was filled, absolutely filled, with an explosion of the presence of God: and this presence was made manifest in the people who had been watching and waiting, praying and wondering, together.

I’m sure it’s not what the disciples expected. I’m sure they would have preferred a living, visible Jesus to be among them, healing, teaching and feeding people, available for every question and crisis. Instead, they got each other: an ordinary bunch. And yet when they were together, praying, healing, teaching and feeding, wrestling with questions, addressing every crisis, they caught glimpses of Jesus. They sensed his presence among them; for his spirit filled them and stirred them to powerful action.

During our times of waiting, especially when it feels like God is absent, these are things to ponder. But like the first disciples, while we ponder we mustn’t stand with our eyes to the heavens. We must turn our gaze to the earth, and we must gather with other people who will watch and wait, pray and wonder, with us. For it is in community that Jesus gathered the first disciples; it is in community that he ate with them, taught them, and finally left them; it is in community that they watched and waited, prayed and wondered; it is in community that the Holy Spirit fell upon them; and it is in community that they sensed his presence once again.

And so it is with us: if we want to be in the presence of our absent Lord, we need each other.

So, like those first disciples, let us keep gathering to worship together: to sing and to pray, to listen and to speak, to reflect on the scriptures and let God’s Word be written on our hearts, and to wonder how it speaks into our situation now.

Let us keep gathering to heal, teach and feed people; to wrestle with big questions; and to address every crisis as it comes.

And let us keep gathering in the hope that, through us, God’s presence might be made powerfully manifest once again. For more than ever the world needs prayerful people who care about it; more than ever, it needs diverse communities living out God’s kingdom-culture; more than ever, it needs fresh interpretations of scripture and fresh outpourings of practical love.

So let us watch and wait, pray and wonder, together: and may the Holy Spirit fill us with power. Amen. Ω

Reflect: With whom do you watch and wait, pray and wonder? If nobody, why not pray and ask God to lead you to a community, whether in person or online. If you have a community, what is God calling the community to now? Is it a time for waiting? A time for action? What tells you when it’s time to act?

A reflection on Acts 1:6-14 by Alison Sampson, given to Sanctuary on 16 May 2021 (Ascension Year B) © Sanctuary 2021. Photo by Hedgehog Digital on Unsplash.

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