I imagine that most of us have had the experience of playing hide-and-seek with a child so young that they think that if they can’t see you you can’t see them. You remember, that hilarious moment when the two year old covers their own eyes and says ‘I’m hiding!’. And you have to decide whether to pretend that they are right and that you can’t see them….or break the magic of the game. It’s charming in a toddler, but of course would seem crazy or tragic if an older child or an adult tried it.
In this story from the prophet Jeremiah, God is teasing the prophets, telling them that they are behaving like toddlers. They have been saying all sorts of crazy things and pretending these things are what God has given them to say. They are lying to the people and making all sorts of ludicrous claims, the kind that gullible people believe. It’s as though they think that God can’t see them or hear what they are saying. And so God says to them, ‘Am I a God close by – and not a God far away..’ or ‘I’m here! I can hear you!’ These stupid peophets ought to know better. God can hear them and God knows they are speaking a load of rubbish. They can’t hide from God. God is not far away, but right here, with you…
The trouble is that these prophets thought that God was only in the Temple in Jerusalem. They thought that, since the people were in Exile far away, that God couldn’t be there. They thought that God was only in their homeland, only in the place where they’d found him originally, that God could only be near to them right there in the holy city. But Jeremiah knows that God can be near us to even when we are far away, that God comes near to us in far away places, because God is not the God only of the temples and the holy places, but the God of all places, all of heaven, all of earth. God is always nearby.. God is never far away. God is a God nearby.
Funnily enough human beings often seem to default to the idea that God is a long way away and not right here among us, within us even. On the whole we prefer our Gods to be ‘up there’, in heaven, on Mount Olympus or in a special Temple where we are not allowed to go very much, or only to be found in words so incomprehensible that no-one can really make head or tail of where exactly that might be.
There are lots of things, even here in our own church, that conspire to make it feel as though God is far away – and not nearby. So, we read from the Bible, from the very book that we believe tells us more about God than any other book, in a slightly different voice from our everyday voice. We say our prayers in language that’s a bit different and a bit more obscure than the words we use to live our lives. We go to see sacred wonders and amazing places by going on long journeys to so-called ‘thin places’ where we think that God might be especially close. And we eat bread and share wine that’s not quite like the bread or wine we eat every day and say that there, in that special bread, God is especially close. This seems to be the way we often see things and the position we readily fall back into. We are not so very far perhaps from those prophets that Jeremiah knew. We live as though God is a God far away. But God is a God nearby.
And Jesus came to tell us, to show us, to do anything he could to make real for us, that God is a God nearby. God does not live on a holy mountain or in a special Temple. God doesn’t live in heaven, far away from earth. God does not have to be conjured up in special words or a holy language. God is a God nearby. God is right here and right now. God is with us. Not just when we say that at Christmas, but every day. God is a God nearby.
Any minister, any preacher worth their salt, has to tell you not about the God they have read about it in books, not the God they’ve discovered in the halls of Oxford or in special churches and academies, not the God they’ve heard about somewhere in their youth when religious experience was immediate and raw. Any preacher has to be able to say that God is here, right now. God is a God nearby. And I have read many books, I have visited many churches and cathedrals and temples. I have lived through many a time when God was close. But today I am called to tell you that God is not just a memory or a subject or an interest of mine, but a lived experience. And I need to tell you this because I think it is your experience too or could be – because what else does a church have to offer apart from an experience of the living God?
But let me, out of modesty or cowardice – who can say – first tell you about someone whose books I’ve read, who has inspired me to trust and know that God is a not a God far away, that God does not live only in the church of the holy sepulchre in Jerusalem or in the libraries of the world…
Frederick Buechner, an American Presbyterian novelist and theologian, is a faithful follower of Christ, who has written much personal memoir and testimony, not as an exercise in pride, but as a reaching for understanding of his own life and that of others. He does it because he believes that God is not a God far away from anyone of us, but a God nearby. I love this piece from his writing…
‘…If God speaks to us at all in this world, if God speaks anywhere, it is into our personal lives that he speaks. Someone we love dies, say. Some unforeseen act of kindness or cruelty touches the heart or makes the blood run cold. We fail a friend, or a friend fails us, and we are appalled at the capacity we have for estranging the very people in our lives we need the most. Or maybe nothing extraordinary happens at all – just one day following another, helter-skelter, in the manner of days. We sleep and dream. We wake. We work. We remember and forget. We have fun and are depressed. And into the thick of it, or out of the thick of it, at moments of even the most humdrum of our days, God speaks.’ (Buechner, 1982, p2)
God is a God nearby.
God speaks into our lives. And not perhaps in words out loud, or in words written on the wall, but through the experiences of every day when suddenly we know that life is worth living, that goodness is real, that love is always stronger than hate. I could not stand here if I did not believe and experience that somehow, even if I’m not always very good at explaining it… but perhaps it defies explanation…
Perhaps most of us are a bit like that toddler – the one holding her hands over her face and saying ‘You can’t see me’.. We can’t see what’s before us in our experience because we have shut our eyes. We have forgotten how to see the presence of God in so much of what happens to us. We look for God in the properly religious places, but we forget that God is much more interested in the ordinary stuff of our lives than the bit where we are being ‘religious’. Those bits, the being religious bits, the bits like this very hour on a Sunday, are only helpful if they unfold the rest of our lives, if they open the window on our daily lives and reveal the wonder of them and the God-enchanted nature of them. The religious bits are not ‘the thing’ at all, they are just a door way into the wonder of life, the beauty of God and extraordinary life-changing power of knowing that it’s the love of God that has made you and is with you. God is a God nearby.
This week I heard a great story about someone who was carrying his sleeping daughter in his arms back from a shopping trip. Her head was on his shoulder, her whole small body asleep and tucked into his. They got back to the car and he managed, while holding her, to get himself into the driving seat – not easy but he did it without waking her.. and just sat there for a bit relishing the moment. Then, a man approached and said, ‘Give me your phone’… But then the man said, ‘You will want a picture of this..’ And he took a beautiful photo of a moment between that parent and child. There are moments when the beauty of life is just made manifest… God is a God nearby.
A few weeks ago I got talking in a cafe to someone called Jack. Jack has learning difficulties of some kind. He told me a great deal about Formula One racing, about breaking records and speeding cars and their drivers. I had no work to do that day, and I was in no rush. I could just join in and talk and listen. He was no bother at all. I enjoyed it. There was a connection. And it was good. Just Jack and me and the God who loves us both with a fierce love. God is a God nearby…
I’ve been walking alongside someone in my family this week whose going through a really tough time. There is Skype and there is Whatsapp and we can keep in touch. My heart aches for their pain and I have to bear it with them – I can do nothing else because that’s just what love is. I pray and know that God is with us, joining us in love, offering hope, present when I am there and when I can’t be. God is a God nearby.
Sometimes, often, my heart aches because so many people seem to have no sense that God is real, or that if God is, then it is doesn’t really matter, as though God is nothing more than a theoretical possibility, to prove or not to prove, but nothing more than another thing that might or might not be part of the universe. And I don’t ache just because I want the church to be full of people praising and delighting in God, but because I believe that the God who loves me and you, loves everyone too. And that the love of God is stronger than any power in the world. God is a God nearby.
I have known the presence of God in the birthing room and beside the death bed. I have sensed the nearness of God on the cliff tops and in the city streets. I have been blessed to see the love of God in the smiles of those who show kindness to those others can’t abide. In moments of joy and moments of grief, I have come to know that God is a God nearby. God may sometimes be silent, sometimes out of my reach, but there is nowhere I can go, nowhere at all, where God is not to be found. I am with the Psalmist who wrote Psalm 139. God is a God nearby.
I pray that for you, whatever your life is right now, you will know that God is nearby. However faraway you feel, however faraway you take yourself, or however far away experience leads you, God will not leave you.
We talk a lot in the church about being those who follow Jesus, about coming near to him. But today, the message is that God is following you, God has made a friend request, God has ticked like on your page, God is nearby. And God is holding you with love. Thanks be to God who is God nearby, Amen.