This sermon is part of the sermon series "Living in the In-Between". See series.
This is our final sermon in our series on Deuteronomy. We have been in between the wilderness and the Promised Land, waiting and listening. We have discovered the importance of memory for our imagination. Today we encounter one of the last invitations for living in transition.
Deuteronomy is painfully realistic.
Deuteronomy has a strikingly sad ending. This is the last book in the Torah—a section of the Bible the entire thrust of which is organized around the promise of land for the people of Israel. Yet the promise is not fulfilled. Deuteronomy ends with the hope of entering the land, but not with the actual fulfillment of that promise. This is like having the Gospel stories leave out the resurrection of Jesus.
Added to that, the greatest prophet Israel has ever known, who has guided God's people for 40 years through the immense pressures of the wilderness, dies without entering the Promised Land. It is a harsh and difficult ending for both the reader and the characters in the story. We've been asked to wait in between, we've waited, and now we're ready to have the promise fulfilled. Instead, the Torah comes to a close with the nation of Israel still seated on the banks of the Jordan, grieving the death of the greatest leader in their history.
One thing that strikes me about this ending is that it makes Deuteronomy an incredibly honest book. In many ways, it reflects our experiences in life. For a lot of us, life doesn't wrap up into a nice, neat bow with a happy ending. This is not like a sitcom—where all of life's conflicts and troubles are wrapped up in 30 minutes. No, Deuteronomy presents us with the harsh realities of life and of living in between.
We have all moved through deep suffering and great loss of various kinds. Dreams have been dashed, and we've had to learn to cope. This book affirms our reality. And while the end of this book suggests this, this is not the ultimate message of Deuteronomy. This is not a call for us to simply cope with difficult times; we are called into something much bigger. We are called to hope.
This is not a call to hope in the perfect fulfillment of all our desires. This is a call to hope in something much more abiding—we are called to hope in God's promise of being with us. In spite of all Israel is suffering, Moses reminds us, "It is the Lord who goes before you, and the Lord will be with you and will never fail you or forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged." It is a strange kind of boldness that stares down fear, death, and suffering and proclaims like a trumpet in the darkness: Do not be afraid; the Lord will be with you.
God promises his presence in the midst of our pain.
I have to confess I used to find this a bit baffling. The promise of God's presence in the midst of suffering always seemed like a cop out to me. I would often think, God it's very kind of you to offer your presence, but your being present isn't going to fix my problems. I've got a better idea: Why don't you stay up there in heaven and undo whatever is happening to me—just waive your magic wand and make this stuff go away.
I'd like to ignore this promise, but I can't. Even Jesus, in his last words to his disciples, takes a page right out of Deuteronomy and promises his presence, not a perfect life. Right at the end of the Great Commission, his last words are, "And remember, I am with you always, to the very end of the age." He is not promising that all our dreams will come true. Instead, he promises his presence.
My problem was, I was contemplating God's presence in the abstract. I had forgotten the tangible impact that God's presence has on us. This was made clear to me in an experience I had when I was a hospital chaplain at UCLA Medical Center.
I was working in the liver unit at the time. UCLA is a level 3 trauma hospital, which basically means they get all the sickest people around. There was a doctor there who literally wrote the book on liver transplants—one of the most complex transplants you can do. As a result, we saw a lot of very sick patients. I was making my rounds one day, just walking around and introducing myself to new patients. It's a strange thing, because you never know what you're getting your self into.
I remember walking into this room, and lying in bed was a woman in her late 40's. A few family members were in the room with her. She was so jaundiced that even the whites of her eyes were yellow—a sure sign something wasn't working right with her liver. I'd been there long enough not to be shocked by this—it was pretty common. We sat and chatted for a while and I immediately found her to be a full-spirited woman with a great sense of humor. She would joke with me, and she made it clear she wasn't religious or anything, but she tolerated me anyway. She had just been admitted and didn't know what was wrong with her. They had had some tests done, and they were waiting for the results. As we sat there, the doctor came in and proceeded to tell her that they discovered a cancerous tumor on her liver that was seven inches long. In my experience, tumors are frequently measured in millimeters. This gives you a sense of how significant this was.
When my patient asked what the next steps were, the doctor responded by saying, "The tumor is inoperable, so what we can do is make you comfortable." Everyone was silent. We all knew she had just been given a matter of weeks to live. It was a shock to everyone—myself included. As the doctor left, the woman looked over at me with eyes that said as clear as day: "Okay, chaplain, do your work. What words have you got for me?" I sat looking right back at her with nothing to say. There was nothing to say, and I knew it. After what felt like an eternity, she finally looked at her family, looked back at me, and said "Do you mind giving us a minute?"
My heart sank. "Absolutely." I squeezed her hand and left the room. I was beside myself—why couldn't I have read the situation? She clearly didn't want me there. I was intruding on a personal tragedy—what was I thinking just sitting there like some voyeur? I didn't sleep that night.
The next morning, I went to find her again. I had worked out at least something to say, just to help me feel like I did something. But I couldn't find her. She had been moved to another floor, and they didn't have the new information yet. It was two days later when I found her. I walked into her room, ready to open my mouth, when she interrupted me with, "Shane, I've been looking all over for you!"
I was dumbfounded. She motioned for her family to leave, and when we were alone she invited me to sit at her bedside. She took my hand and said, "I've been looking all over for you. I can't tell you how wonderful it was to have you there with me the other day. I didn't have to worry about anything—God, or heaven, or death, or anything after this life. I knew that it was all going to be alright, just by you being there."
Just by my being there. I couldn't believe it. I hadn't done a thing—I hadn't offered any sage wisdom or advice; I had no words of comfort. I was merely silent. All I had to offer was my presence—but it wasn't really my presence. There was nothing special about me, but she experienced God's presence through me. The power of God's presence amidst suffering was made real to me that day. God with us has the power to overwhelm darkness, despair, and doubt. Immanuel—God with us—is at the heart of our Gospel. Jesus came to be with us in the dirt, mud, and difficulty of life. God's promise of his presence in Deuteronomy is echoed and fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
We should anticipate God's presence.
If life is difficult, if you find hope elusive while you are in between, I think you are called to pray for Immanuel—God with us. Pray that God will give you an experience of his presence. God's presence may be experienced in a variety of ways. One of those is God mediated through our community, the people around us. There is an ancient ritual also designed to evoke the mystery of God's presence. We in the Protestant tradition usually miss it.
It is perhaps the oldest and most familiar ritual in the Christian tradition: Communion. And as a symbol, we use it to remember. However, it is more than that. It is also a ritual that invokes God's presence. For 1,500 years before the Protestant Reformation, it was always understood that this ritual brought the presence of God into our midst. But our tradition cut this off and said, "God is nowhere to be found in the bread and wine; they are only symbols." Now I don't know how or where God is in this ritual; I don't know if God's in the bread and wine, or if he's present and mediates through the gathered community celebrating an ancient ritual. But I do know that we would do well to recover a theology that affirms the mystery of God's presence in communion. And now, as we live in between, may we experience the presence of God as we partake of the gifts of God.
Shane Hipps is lead pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church and author of The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church (Zondervan, 2006).