They called from morning till noon. They shouted. They danced. And nothing happened. So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears. And no one answered. Midday passed and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response. No one answered. No one paid attention. (1 Kings 18:26-29)
“Shout louder,” taunted Elijah, “surely he is a god! Perhaps he’s deep in thought, or busy, or travelling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” (27)
The issue at stake was one of distance. This so-called god the prophets of Baal were calling upon, where was he? How close to his people did he remain? How in touch with their needs was he? Theirs was a hopeless perseverance.
It reminds me of politicians today who, during election times, strive to be shown among the people whose votes they want. Maybe these things don’t happen in your part of the world… They definitely do in mine, here in Latin America! Candidates to public office walk back streets, ride public transport, don worker’s helmets. The image of closeness, of in-touch-ness, is vital to their candidacy.
Candidates to public office walk back streets, ride public transport, don worker’s helmets. The image of closeness, of in-touch-ness, is vital to their candidacy.
I invite you to walk with me through the verses of the jubilant poem we know as Psalm 146 where we are again confronted with this key issue of distance. First, notice the invitation: “Praise the Lord!” (1)
It’s an open invitation, to all who may hear. But it then becomes more personal: “Praise the Lord, O my soul!”
The poet is talking to himself, prodding himself, “Hey, wake up! Don’t just go through life as if you owed it to no one! Praise theLord!”
He then affirms: “I WILL praise the Lord all my life. I WILL sing praise to my God as long as I live!” (2)
Such conviction. How come? What if things go from good to bad and from bad to worse? What if he loses everything? What if his loved one is murdered, or raped, or tortured? What if he becomes one of those people he mentions later in the poem – blind, poor, imprisoned, oppressed, fatherless? How can he be so sure of himself?
Actually, he is NOT sure of himself. His confidence has little to do with himself and even less to do with the circumstances he experiences. He actually cautions that trust in people – no matter how powerful they may be – is a dead-end road.
“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.” (3-4)
Princes, rulers, the powerful of the world, unless they echo God’s heart of justice, are sadly the ones most able to engender slavery, dependency, blindness, discrimination, oppression, violence and death. They are not to be trusted. They cannot save. The psalmist, probably a king, is not sure of himself – in spite of his power, abilities, expertise, position, professionalism. His only source of confidence is outside himself: it rests on God.
“Well,” we could respond, “those prophets of the opening story, they also trusted their god. And they shouted, called, and slashed themselves all day to no avail! In what way is our God any different? Who is this God of ours?”
“God is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea and everything in them,” answers the psalmist. By God’s word all things that exist began to exist. God is the source of all. And on God depend all forms of life. God is far beyond and far above. Absolute in the splendor of God’s majesty.
“Exactly,” you could say, “you are proving my point. God may be powerful. God may have unmeasured strength. But God is so far removed; God will never hear. God will never stoop to hear the cries of our hurting humanity!”
But this God is also the God of Jacob, the psalmist reminds himself. One who not only creates the world, but involves Jesus in it. God intertwines His purposes with the history of a people, the people of Israel, and with the nations of the world. This is the God who calls a people to God’s-self in order to transform them and to provide conditions for abundant life for all.
This is the God who knows the pain of the ancient Israelites in Egypt and acts to free them. This is the God who, time and time again, in spite of the betrayal and pride of those very same people, renews and re-renews the covenant established with them, and remains faithful to it in spite of the pain their infidelity causes Him. People lack strength and perseverance.
God is always present with His people. People shrink from pain. God suffers His creatures’ plight along with them. It is not just that God empathizes with the pain of His people and creation but that God suffers.
God does not need to be called, shouted to from afar, cajoled into taking a glimpse at humanity. God is always near. And, supremely in Christ, God takes on the pain of broken humanity. In his life and death, Jesus made known God’s heart of love, a heart pained by the impact of sin on God’s creation. God is especially attentive to the people least favored by man-made systems of power and wealth.
GOD’S HEART IS TORN BY THE PLIGHT OF:
- the oppressed – like the Israelites in Egypt and the Nicaraguan workers exploited in Costa Rica. Jesus lived and died to uphold their cause.
- the hungry – like the Israelites in the desert and the children in the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Jesus lived and died in order to feed them.
- the prisoners – like Joseph, John and Paul and the bonded slaves in textile factories. Jesus lived and died to set them free.
- the blind – like the one who sought Jesus out and the thousands blinded by malnutrition, by illness, by consumerism. Jesus lived and died to give them sight.
- those who are bowed down – like the prostitute who cried at Jesus’ feet and the girls forced into brothels around the world. Jesus lived and died in order to lift them up.
- the alien – like Daniel and his friends in Babylon, the immigrants in border detention centers, and the Syrian refugees in Lebanese camps. Jesus lived and died to watch over them.
- the fatherless and the widows – like the one Elijah encountered and the children left behind by modern progress and the war machinery. Jesus lived and died to sustain them.
God does not need to be called, shouted to from afar, cajoled into taking a glimpse at humanity. God is always near. And, supremely in Christ, God takes on the pain of broken humanity.
The sustainer of all people upholds, gives, sets free, gives sight, lifts up, loves, watches over. But God does so, not from the grand throne of heaven. God does it from the dusty roads of a lost corner of the world through a simple carpenter and his ragged band of followers. And God does it supremely from the cross, as a victim, as someone unjustly tried, made to bow down, and treated as the most despicable criminal.
Yes! It is all a matter of distance. God comes SO close to humanity that God becomes one of us. And through that identification, and God’s sacrificial love, God breaks the ropes that bind us to death and sin and injustice and oppression. God’s is the final word: God frustrates the ways of the wicked, affirms the psalmist. Our broken world, however, often leads us to ask, “Is that so? Is that really so?”
The pain around us, the horror of a world in rebellion against its creator, is so horrendous, so bottomless, so dark, that the more we see, the more tempted we are. Tempted to give up hope. Tempted to lose faith and close our doors. Tempted to deafen our ears to the cry of men, women and children whose voices are imperceptible over the din of our crowded cities, our busy towns, our rush to consume.
Tempted to blind our eyes to signs of oppression and injustice underneath the slick varnish of progress and technology. Tempted to see only numbers, victims, “the poor”.
Free to stand and shout to the four winds that there is no ideology so right, no religion so holy, no race so superior that it is ever ok to efface God’s image in God’s beloved creatures.
Tempted to remain distant and self-righteous donors. Tempted to see merely statistics and projects, and miss recognizing Jesus’ face in the children, women and men whose humanity and dignity are robbed from them daily. Tempted to protect ourselves from the risk of inquiring further, getting more personally involved, opening our homes, our churches, our borders to those our world considers disposable.
How can we – unlike those prophets of Baal – live in hopeful perseverance in spite of all the difficulties? The psalmist can determine to praise God no matter what because he knows God loves no matter what. He knows he can determine to praise God no matter what because he knows God is powerful. He can determine to praise God no matter what because he knows God is always near. He knows he can determine to praise God no matter what because he knows God remains king forever and God’s rule of love will some day be fully established.
Again, it is all a matter of distance: Jesus humbled himself into our skin, olive skin, and in so doing broke the power of sin over all of us. He freed us from the oppression of sin and its obsessive selfishness. We are now free to love God and others. We are free to step out of the values of our society, so ingrained in us: security, comfort, progress, success for me and my family.
We are free to step out of ourselves into the lives of people who are oppressed and become channels of God’s light and life and love in their lives. We are free to see and hear. We are free to take on the pain of others and to persevere against all odds. We are free to act as human shields, to offer ourselves up in the place of others, to struggle for freedom and basic human rights. Free to stand and shout to the four winds that there is no ideology so right, no religion so holy, no race so superior that it is ever okay to efface God’s image in God’s beloved creatures.
We are free to love God and all of our neighbours, no matter what, because our hope is grounded in who God is; in Jesus’ final victory over all forms of oppression and in the Spirit’s constant presence within us. Amen.
RUTH PADILLA DEBORST has been involved in leadership development and theological education in Latin America and beyond for several decades. She is the Provost of The Center for Interdisciplinary Theological Studies (CETI) and serves on the board of the Latin American Theological Fellowship. She lives in Costa Rica.