March 5, 2023

In Desert Places: When God Seems Absent

The second in a Lent Sermon series about human 'wilderness' experiences and how our faith speaks to them.

John 3:1-17

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler

Sunday 5th March 2023: The Second Sunday of Lent

This sermon was part of a Lent Series on Desert Places.

Every single one of us has dark days. Sometimes we have a season of darkness in our discipleship: times when we feel God has abandoned us, times when we feel perhaps we are not even sure whether we believe in God. Times when God certainly seems very silent.

What do we do when God is silent? What do we do in those seasons of darkness in our discipleship? The Bible is quite clear. These are real moments, real experiences. When you have a moment in the coming hours or days, I’d ask you to find your bible, and go to the last prophet in the Old Testament, the last time that God speaks in Scripture to the people of Israel. It’s the book of the prophet Malachi. Now if you open your Bible at Malachi and then you turn the page from Malachi, what you then get is often a blank page and then the New Testament. It’s a simple two-page turn and yet that two-page turn equals hundreds of years. God was quiet for centuries, a biblical season of darkness for the people of Israel.

So today I’m going to give you six pieces of practical advice – what to do when we experience God as being very silent, when we experience that darkness in our lives.

The first thing you do is you walk by faith, not by feelings. It’s not that our feelings are unimportant, but the great danger if we live life through our feelings is that we misinterpret where and how to find hope. If you read 2 Corinthians Chapter 5 verse 7, Paul is very clear. He says ‘for we walk by faith, not by sight.’ Our feelings can be altered, changed by so many things: a lack of sleep, cold weather, our Sunday lunch and general nutrtition. We’re not saved by our feelings. We’re saved by faith. And so the first thing to do when God is quiet, when we feel the season of darkness, is to allow faith to shape our feelings.

Secondly, we need to orientate our life in the direction of God. How? By his word. The Church, the great tradition of our Christian faith, has not found a better balm for the wounds that we carry than the medicine of God’s word. Go to that beautiful, but very long psalm, 119. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. I am severely afflicted, but your word gives me life.” We need direction, all of us, because we easily lose a sense of where we’re going. And that’s particularly true when we are in the dark: everyone who drives knows that. During the daylight we find our way so very easily. There are markers, there are indicators, where you are. Suddenly you drive the same way in the dark and it’s a totally different experience. The word of God orientates us, points us in the right direction in God’s world, towards God’s purpose.

The third piece of advice I’d give you if you’re in that season of darkness, where God is very silent, is stay connected to the community of faith, the People of God. It’s a natural thing when we’re disorientated, when somehow we lack hope and inspiration to imagine that what we have to do is to be by ourselves. That can be necessary, but more often than not, we need to stay connected to others in the community of faith. For they will provide, hopefully, that encouragement, that inspiration that we can’t find for ourselves. Isolation is the worst possible thing. There’s marvellous little phrase in Hebrews chapter 12, where the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says this, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight.” It’s when we’re with others that the weight we feel at times can feel less weighty and heavy.

The fourth piece of advice when God is silent, when you feel the darkness very acutely, is to continue to pray. Now that sounds crazy because it’s the last thing we want to do. But I’d invite you to look at the example of that great, quiet, but strong character in the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, Zechariah. Four hundred years that had been no prophetic voice. The people of Israel were wondering would God ever speak again? And what does Zechariah do? He does what he’s supposed to do. He goes up into the Temple to fulfil his job. He offers prayer and worship and it’s at that very moment that God speaks to him. God speaks out of the darkness. God speaks out of the pain and confusion of our own life. It’s the last place we expect God to speak, but it’s often the most important and striking place for him to do so.

My fifth piece of advice is this. When you feel the acute silence of God, the lack of direction, the sense of abandonment, that’s the time to believe and trust in the promises of God. The whole of the Scriptures tell us of God’s utter faithfulness to us. That beautiful prayer that comes from the lips of Zechariah, “Blessed be the God of Israel. He has come to visit us his people”. He has provided this light in the darkness. Our song of praise comes from the fact not that we are faithful for every often we are not, but that God never, ever goes against his word. What God says comes about. The Book of Genesis chapters 1 and 2 puts this clearly to us: “God said…and it was so”.

And what’s my final piece of advice when you feel that silence of God, that emptiness, that lack of faith, that sense of doubt? Press into the darkness. Press into that silence. The gift you’re looking for, the light you would like, is going to come from the very place you and I would like to avoid. Lent if it’s anything is a time when you and I are invited to wait for God to be spring of refreshing water in the wilderness, to bring his light into the darkness of our own life.

This is beautifully put by the monk Thomas Merton, who knew this experience of spiritual darkness well. He wrote this, “The person of prayer is not the person who prepares their mind for a special message, a message that he or she wants or expects to hear. But rather a person who remains empty, because they know from experience that they can never expect or anticipate the real word that will transform their darkness into light. The person of prayer doesn’t anticipate a special kind of transformation. They wait on God’s word in silence. And when they’re answered, it’s not so much by a word that bursts into their silence. It is by the silence itself suddenly, inexplicably, revealing itself to them. A word of great power, full of the voice of God.”

The silence of God is simply the full stop, the pause. And then we wait, for God will speak in unexpected ways.

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