"It will be a long and arduous way to the question, What is God like in times of crisis? and more particularly, Who is God, to whom we pray?” It is the claim of theologian Gerhard Sauter in his book Protestant Theology at the Crossroads. Partly in response to the atrocities of September 11, 2001, Sauter’s writing comes to us after the first great crisis of 21st century and yet before the beginning of the current one. The economy of our nation is increasingly unhealthy. The economy of the wider world around us is suffering right along with our own. People are trying to find a way to respond to the crisis; to survive not just financially, but also to preserve those things that are most important to how they live and to who they are. ‘What is God like in times of crisis?’ People are discovering that it can be a long way just to get to the question.
As faithfully as he could Moses has led the people of God through the wilderness. Finally, they have arrived at the threshold. “Take a long look, Moses,” God says to him. “See the vast expanse. Imagine the people settling in and growing up as a nation.” “Take a look, Moses,” says God, “but know that you yourself will not be going there.” Perhaps a legend, perhaps an historical account, perhaps it is a combination of both, in any case, what matters for God’s people about this story of God forbidding Moses to enter the fulfillment of the promise is what it can tell them about the kind of God they have in crisis and who is this God to whom they pray.
‘The guidance that brought them here was not yours, Moses, but mine,’ says God. ‘And so the people will go forward without you.’ ‘Their freedom was won for them not by you, Moses, but by me,’ says God. ‘And so they will go forward without you.’ ‘You have come a long way, Moses, literally and spiritually,’ God says. ‘I will now spare you the realization that the journey of my people has really only just begun. And so they will go forward without you.’ ‘Though they have not always known it, though they have not always believed it, yet I am the kind of God that has been with them all the way. And so they will go forward without you.’
The economic health of our nation is in trouble. A collusion of our government’s determination to ignore a growing disaster and corporate greed for fast and easy money with a willing disregard its consequences has inflicted upon this nation and our world a systemic financial paralysis. Businesses are closing because they cannot find the funding to pay their rent or their payroll, or to renew their inventory. People are finding that suddenly they cannot retire as soon as they had carefully planned. People with good credit are struggling to find a loan to purchase a home, an automobile, furniture, or a college education for themselves or their children. People far removed from the halls of national government and the arena of higher finance are now suffering the consequences of the marriage of official irresponsibility with professional greed. And while the consequences of their behavior continue to penalize virtually everyone, yet some of the most guilty parties themselves seem to be escaping justice.
And so, people around us are angry; perhaps we are angry, too. People around us are nervous, scared. Perhaps we are scared, as well. It is a time when perhaps we are asking, and rightly so, Where is God in this time of crisis? Who is the God to whom we may turn and pray? It is a time, perhaps, of a modern-day wandering in a modern-day wilderness. Perhaps people are seeking a modern-day Moses. Be careful.
In their own day, Jesus and the people around him are afflicted with leadership that has lost touch not only with the people but with any desire to be in touch with the people at all. Leaders of the people, both civic and religious, have largely abandoned their sense of responsibility for the people and their accountability to them. The local tetrarchs, governors of the provinces and regions, are allied with persons and agencies who hold higher political authority than do they. In this case, the higher authorities are the Roman procurators. They hold veto power and have final say over all matters social and political. Therefore, it is politically expedient for the Hebrew authorities to kowtow to their higher powers, that is, if their status and privilege are more important to them than the good of their own people.
Meanwhile, the Pharisees provide the people religious instruction in the outlying towns and cities. They focus on proper observance of minute rules that describe what is allowed and what is forbidden for the people of God. The Sadducees focus on ensuring the use of proper forms of worship at the Temple in Jerusalem: things like proper attire for the worshipping public, proper offerings and sacrifices, and having the proper people in charge. Therefore, these religious authorities of the people find it expedient for their own sake to tend to securing their own positions of privilege and status and to tend the spiritual good of the people as simply an afterthought.
Into this environment comes Jesus. Into this environment, Jesus will send out his followers. He in his day, they in theirs, are, as the Apostle Paul puts it, ‘shamefully mistreated,’ declaring the Good News of Christ Jesus in spite of ‘great opposition.’ Yet if, as Paul puts it, they speak not ‘from deceit, or impure motives or trickery;’ if they speak not with ‘words of flattery, or ‘with a pretext for greed,’ or to ‘seek praise from mortals;’ if instead they are, as Paul describes it, caring dearly for the people with a nurse-like tenderness, why then do they all meet with determined opposition?
Isn’t it precisely because of the way that they come speaking? Isn’t it precisely because they seek ‘not to please mortals, ’not to gain popularity and influence and status and power? Isn’t it precisely because they come instead seeking to please God in the only way that there is to do it: celebrating together and sharing with others the experience and knowledge of the Love of God for all?
The apostles in their day and Jesus in his, perhaps we in ours, can well understand, that a government that has given itself over to political prostitution and a financial system that has given itself over to unaccountable greed will always work hard to hide the truth and to confuse those who are seeking it. What will they do, the apostles of Jesus? What will he do, Jesus himself? And what will we do, you and I, as we journey through this crisis to the questions: ‘How will we find God to be in this crisis?’ and ‘Who is this God to whom we pray?’
The theologian Gerhard Sauter goes on to write, “…only retrospectively…[can] we perceive… God’s…surprising providential activity and care.” “And so,” he continues, “we call on God to preserve our sense of time and to provide [us] spiritual experiences of ending and [of] new beginning.”
There will come and end to this crisis, of this we must be sure, and we will know a new beginning. Until that time, God wants us to know what the ancient people of God learned: that, more than anything else, it is our relationship with God that brings us along on our journey through our wilderness. Like the people of Jesus’ day, God want us and the people around us, those seeking truth and those seeking to deny it, to hear Jesus’ words and to experience the power of his example: no religious or political authority, and no position as one; but only God’s relationship with us brings us forward from where we have been, and only God’s relationship with us will take us beyond whatever lies ahead.
In the days and weeks and months ahead, God will continue helping us to see beyond the long and arduous way of this crisis. God will continue helping to gaze upon that vast expanse of the goodness being done all around us, and which we ourselves are doing; and calling us to help others lay claim to it with us, a promise to us all from God. God will continue helping us to hear the truth within us, and calling us to help others hear the truth within themselves, to speak the truth that God is raising through all of us together. And God will continue helping and calling us to love. For there within the love that you or I receive from those around us; there within the love that you or I give away to others; there, together, we find God, loving us all, and showing us the way.
And so may Almighty God, who has taught us that in returning to God we shall find quiet confidence and strength, grant that by our prayers and labors and those of all the Church, the world may come to know the revelation of God in our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. Amen.