Today as we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King our attention is drawn to a hill outside Jerusalem. The hill known as Golgatha. Three crosses stand on the hill. Nailed to the crosses Jesus and two criminals. Our memories fill in the gaps in the story. The long walk to the Cross. Disciples deserting. Soldiers mocking. Jesus crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We ask with him and those at his side, “Where is God?”
“Where is God?” I wonder if that was the question the first criminal was asking when he said to Jesus, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”(Luke 23:39)
“Where is God?” That’s a question people often ask when they witness the insanity and injustice that sometimes seem to mark our world.
It’s a question many of us ask in the dark times of our own lives. In times of chaos. In times of despair. In times when the walls seem to be closing in on us.
Towards the end of my time at Sandia Prep, the school I worked at before leaving for seminary, a parent I knew well came up to me. We talked about her sons; we laughed about old times; we talked about my leaving for seminary; and then she turned to me and said in the piercing direct way she had, “What I want to know, Susan, is where was God?”…. she then went through a series of events each more horrific than the one preceding it—each time asking, “Where was God?” Hers was not an accusatory or argumentative question. She was not debating the existence or non-existence of God. She was a woman who had witnessed and experienced a great deal of pain both in her life and in the lives of others. She was a woman with a keen sense of justice, a woman of deep empathy. Hers was a genuine, plaintive question springing from the depth of human pain.
The writer and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel tells of another such question being asked. The way Wiesel tells it, three concentration camp inmates had been caught trying to escape. The SS rounded up all the people in the camp and brought them to the courtyard to watch the three—two older men and a young boy—hang to death. The two older men died quickly. The boy twisted in agony. In the crowd a shout rang out, “Where is God?”
As the boy writhes in tortured pain, Elie Wiesel tells us the shout rings out again, “Where is God?” Then Wiesel goes on to say, “And I heard a voice in myself answer: ‘Where is God? God is here. God is hanging there on the gallows.’”[i]
Isn’t that the truth the second criminal knew? Sputtering for air, he chokes out through his pain: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” That fellow on the cross knew the answer to the question “Where is God?”
God is here hanging from a cross, hands and feet nailed to the wood, gasping for air.
“Where is God?” Walking the road to Golgotha, stumbling under the weight of his own cross.
Treated with contempt, mocked, scorned, shamed and degraded.
“Where is God?” Where we would least expect God to be.
Here promising, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
TODAY. What a bold promise. There on the gallows, on the cross, Jesus promises the fellow hanging next to him that on that day they will be together in paradise.
“Where is God?” “God is here….”
So often folks think that pain and suffering is indicative of the absence of God. Like my student’s parent, folks ask, “Where was God?
And yet scripture is clear about the presence of God in the midst of human suffering. God present with Hannah when Abraham and Sarah cast her out into the wilderness; God present with the people of Israel as they wander through the wilderness; God present with Elijah coming to him in the silence; God’s angels ministering to Jesus when he is cast out into the wilderness; and Jesus, the living God, there on the cross.
As the psalmist assures us,
God is our refuge and strength/a very present help in trouble….
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved,
and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea;
Though it’s waters rage and foam/and though the mountains tremble at its tumult.
The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold….
“Where is God?”
Here in the midst of our suffering. Here in the midst of our pain. Here in the midst of injustice.
God is here—here in the chaos of our lives.
Here with kids being bullied.
Here when things don’t go as we had planned or hoped.
“Where is God?” Here extending a hand to the addicted, an arm to the unsteady.
Here befriending a kid kicked out of the house.
God is here—with us.
Today, on this last Sunday before Advent—the day we celebrate as the Feast of Christ the King, we encounter not the triumphant king the hymns so often portray, not a king riding into Jerusalem amidst shouts of “Hosanna”, not a king clad in royal robes sitting on a throne, not a distant king moving troops from place to place, but a man stripped of all he has—clothing, friends, dignity—a man nailed to a cross, a man enduring the most painful and humiliating means of execution the Romans could come up with, a man extending a hand and a promise to a fellow sufferer.
“Where is God?” There at the cross with the criminals. There in the stable with Mary and Joseph and the lowly shepherds. There with a woman being stoned for adultery. There with children pushed aside. There. Reaching out to us from the Cross and coming to us in the stable.
“Where is God?” Here with us. Here with us in our suffering and in our suffering world. Here with us in our longing for light in our darkness.
[i] Elie Wiesel, Night, p. 75f. Quoted by Choan-Seng Song in Third-Eye Theology, rev. ed. p. 184.