God knows when to say, “When” (September 9, 2018)
God knows when to say, “When”
“How long, O Lord?” I wonder how many times he sighed those words as he sat, unable to walk, at the temple gate called Beautiful. Life certainly didn’t look all that beautiful to him, sitting on the dusty ground, relying on strangers to eke out some semblance of livelihood. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?… How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” (Ps 13:1-2). I wonder how many times King David cried out those words throughout his difficult life even before he penned the words of Psalm 13. “How long, O Lord?” I wonder how many times the deaf and mute man pondered those words as he went through life with this social barrier.
How many times have you pondered those words, or cried them out in agony? It puts a picture into my mind of God pouring into your cup as a father would pour milk into a cup for a child, whispering, “Say when.” Only, what pours so freely is pain, disease, struggle, and gloom. “Enough already!” you cry out. “When!” But still God keeps pouring, until you are lost in the dreadful feeling of abandonment, in the appalling thought that God had turned his face away. Yet, Scripture says God won’t give you more than you can handle. But that threshold often seems long past, so we cry out, “How long, O Lord? When, Lord, when will you return?!”
It’s what Israel’s cry must have been in the time of Isaiah, the prophet. They had gone astray, turned away from God, and now it felt as if God was turning away and leaving them! In fact, in the chapters leading up to chapter 35, God actually announces woe. “Woe to Ephraim. Woe to David’s city. Woe to the obstinate nation, Israel. Woe to those who rely on Egypt.” Very soon they would be taken into captivity and would be crying out, “Why, Lord, would you forsake us? How long, O Lord?” Although to most it seems as if God was pouring an overflowing cup of wrath, yet to those who still listened to God’s prophets and had confidence in God’s promises, they also hear encouragement. “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come” (Is 35:4).
Look back on the times in your life when the pain or confusion or sorrow got so bad that you cried out to God with all your heart, “Where are you?” And he answered? … Nothing… Or so you thought. Our hearts naturally lean away from God as it is, with resistance deeper than consciousness and stubbornness we cannot begin to justify. So, in times of suffering or gut-punching disappointment, people can find the temptation irresistible to declare themselves rid of God and to resolve to move on without him – this God who does nothing when they need him most. Where is he?
Sometimes life is a mess because we are. And yet, we all also suffer in ways that aren’t particularly our fault. The first thing I want to tell you if you’re asking, “Where was God when I needed him?” is that it’s ok to say such things out loud. In fact, many of the prophets themselves asked this very question. You might as well bring to God what is really in you, not what you think is supposed to be in you, even if your questions has a serrated edge: “God, where are you?!” What we’re always needing to get down to, when it comes to a deep relationship with God, is the real me talking to the real You. Not me as an actor on stage talking to a god of my own distorted invention. Let God be God, and you be you.
So bring yourself and your tear-stained questions to God. “How long, O Lord?” And listen to him answer, “’I know the plans I have for you.’ Declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” (Jer 29:11). What are the plans? We are dying to know. So, the verse goes on: “When you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you” (Jer 29:13-14). That’s the plan. It’s often in the dark times that we seek God with a fervent passion that we could never muster in the daylight. It’s in those times that we realize that what we really need. It’s God.
Therefore, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, … he will come to save you” (Is 35:4). And at precisely the right time, God indeed came. “When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law” (Gal 4:4). Our one great need – our need as sinners – is to have peace with God. Therefore, the last thing we really need from the God who is there – the very last thing – is to have a sweet and pleasant life that never confronts us with our own true condition. God answered our question of “How long” at exactly the right time. And he answered it with a crucifixion. Not yours. Not mine – although we certainly deserve it. But his own Son’s. On the cross, we witness the greatest miracle in the Bible, the miracle of restraint – when the Father sat on his own hands, doing nothing at all. Because God, who exists in sublime independence, chose to enter a relationship with us even though it would cost him everything and us nothing. So, he did nothing, even when his own beloved Son cried out humanity’s own question, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46). He did nothing. No miracle, no answer, no help. Because, you see, he also loved you.
Just as Isaiah prophesied over 700 years before it happened, your God did come. He came as the answer to humanity’s greatest need – sending his own Son to endure far more than you and I will ever have to. All because he wanted a loving relationship with you. However, just because God came and took care of your greatest need, doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen again. We already talked about reasons why God allows trouble into our lives. Often to bring us closer to him. And although we may still cry out, “How long, O Lord?” or “Why have you forsaken me?” your motivation is completely different. Because you know that he never abandons you, and never acts out of anger, disappointment, or rage. But all things work together. Even in troubled times, God promises to do great things. And so we ask, with a sincere heart, “Why, Lord, have you allowed this to happen? What great thing will you work from it?”
Always the master teacher, Jesus often uses opportunities to meet a physical need also to teach a lesson about spiritual need. Having heard of Jesus and the great things he had done elsewhere, a crowd of people brought to Jesus a deaf man who could hardly talk. Knowing the man’s need, Jesus didn’t simply speak a word of healing – he wouldn’t have heard it. Instead, Jesus took him away from the crowd, away from the distractions. Jesus then put his fingers into the man’s ears and touched his tongue. His actions touched deep. “I know your need” Jesus was communicating. Then he looked up to heaven – the source of all great things – and said, “Ephphatha!” which means, “Be opened!” At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly (Mk 7:31-35).
In much the same manner, after Jesus had ascended into heaven, Peter and John addressed a need that was deeper than just physical. A lame man sat at the temple gate where he begged for money every day. “Look at us!” (Ac 3:4) Peter called out. “Silver or gold we do not have… but we do have something better” (Ac 3:6). “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Ac 3:6). And although the ability to walk was far better than just some money to get through another day, don’t miss the important words that Peter used. “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” This gift comes to you not from us – two mere men – but from Jesus who is the Christ! This man obviously understood who did this great thing, because rather than running through the city streets praising Peter and John, he went into the temple courts, “walking and jumping, and praising God” (Ac 3:8).
In both of these instances, a physical ailment was turned into physical joy! And because there had first been the dark time in their lives, their joy was multiplied! They told everyone they could! When the people saw the man who used to sit and beg at the temple gate, they were filled with wonder and amazement! The people who saw the deaf man healed couldn’t help but talk about it with overwhelming amazement! “He has done everything well! He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak” (Ac 3:37).
And how vivid of a picture do these physical healings paint of the spiritual healing that Jesus has worked and continues to work every day. It is Jesus Christ of Nazareth who gives a hand up to those who are not just lame, but dead in sin. And as he works through the Word and melts our hard hearts he proclaims, “Ephphatha! Be opened!” to our hearts and minds so that we can understand his Word, understand the sacrifice of his Son for our sins, even understand that the hardships we face in life are by no means signs of the Lord’s abandonment, but in time – maybe not until the last day – will serve as evidence that “He has done everything well” (Mk 7:37). It’s what Isaiah has been saying all along. “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Is 35:5-6). Their great need, turned into great praise for God!
It’s a marvel to see that sometimes God gives troubles to put his goodness into perspective. I realize that it seems God has given you more than you can handle, that it seems like far too much for you to take… yet here you are. Here sits the lame man. Here stands the deaf man. The miracle is that people who have suffered the most are often the ones singing the loudest at Christmas, “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” Their hearts are racing and their mouths shout for joy! Not because God’s peace and mercy are supposed to be in them, but because they are. Theirs is a heart-pounding intimacy with God, of a kind and a strength never dreamed of by people who have never known pain. There is a depth to these people, not in spite of the things he has allowed into their lives – he doesn’t do it lightly – but because of them. He’s on his way for you too. So “be strong, do not fear; your God will come” (Is 35:4). He knows when to say “When.”