Pastor Chris Tweitmann
When I was just about to start 4th grade, my parents bought their first home.
On our first day moving into that house, I met two boys who were my age.
They invited me to go for a bike ride and check out the surrounding neighborhood.
After we had been riding around for about close to an hour, they suddenly ditched me. Apparently, they thought it would be a funny story we’d laugh about later.
However, as I’ve shared with you previously, I am directionally challenged.
(SLIDE #1) Having no sense of direction and being new to the neighborhood,
I quickly found myself terribly lost and afraid. Nothing was familiar to me.
Disoriented, every street sign or landmark was just one big blur.
My anxiety kept increasing with every turn I made with my bicycle.
I kept riding around in what seemed like circles – the whole time waiting for
my parents to notice I was missing, to come find me. But hours went by with no change.
By the time it was getting dark, all my stress had traveled from my brain to my body.
I was sweating. I felt weak. My breathing was quick and shallow.
Finally, I just lost it and burst into tears.
Eventually, thanks to the kindness of a stranger, I found my way home. (SLIDE #2)
What I most remember about that experience was the feeling of total isolation (SLIDE #3)
– of feeling completely alone and beyond the reach of my parents.
Sometimes we can have a similar experience in our relationship with the Holy Spirit.
(SLIDE #4) Abraham. Joseph. Moses. Isaiah. Jeremiah. Elijah. The apostle Paul.
Martin Luther. C.S. Lewis. Dr. Martin Luther King. Mother Teresa.
What all these people have in common is having a season in their lives when they
couldn’t feel or hear God – when they had absolutely no sense of the Spirit’s presence.
(SLIDE #5) Or let us consider, David, the shepherd boy who became King of Israel,
the one who was famed to be a person after God’s own heart.
In the catalogue of lyrical poetry David recorded for us in the book of Psalms,
this is not one of his most requested tracks. It is not considered one of his greatest hits
– unless you’ve been there, unless you understand how he feels.
What David describes here in Psalm 22 is anything but feeling close to the Lord
but rather completely removed from the presence of the One David loved & held dear.
(SLIDES #6 – 8)
The problem and the pattern for David quickly emerges in the first two verses.
(SLIDE #9) David groans to God, but God’s presence seems far away & so David feels forsaken.
David cries to God day and night, but there seems to be no answer from the Lord
and so, David has no peace and can find no rest.
As David goes on in vs. 3 – 8, he shares how abandoned he feels.
(SLIDE #10) “Our ancestors cried out to you & you answered them – but not me. (SLIDE #11)
Not hearing from You, Lord, not able to sense Your presence, I am left feeling like a worm
– scurrying around aimlessly – ridiculed, mocked, & despised by everyone else around me.”
Most followers of Jesus I know have gone through a stretch of time,
sometimes even a prolonged period, where they have prayed
and reached out to God and perceived absolute silence in response.
(SLIDE #12) Sometimes what can cause us the most pain & confusion in following Jesus
isn’t what the Spirit says to us but the ongoing feeling the Spirit isn’t there at all.
It feels almost as if the Spirit is hiding from us or for some reason,
withholding his reviving presence.
In my life, there have been more than a few times
when I just couldn’t hear or sense a thing in my relationship with the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps you have had the same experience. (SLIDE #13)
You pray. You listen. You ask, seek, & knock. But you hear nothing but deafening silence. You search. You look. You scan the horizon for a sign, just a little direction.
And you can’t see anything – not even just a fingerprint of God.
If you’ve ever walked through this particular valley of feeling abandoned, dry, and desperate for a sign, some sense the Lord is still with you, then this message is for you.
And if you have no idea what I’m talking about,
this sermon is a message is one you still need to hear.
Because it’s not a question of “if” but “when” we will wonder, worry, and/or doubt that the Holy Spirit is still there – still listening, still caring, still working.
(SLIDE #14) It’s what the Christian mystics call, “The Dark Night of the Soul.”
(SLIDE #15) That feeling of being alone, of feeling distant or even isolated from God,
of not being able to sense the Lord’s presence, of getting nothing back but silence from God,
that feeling, that experience is real for us.
Why does God sometimes leave us feeling alone?
Why does it sometimes feel like God is silent in our lives?
Full confession. I don’t know the definitive answer to these questions.
All I’ve got for us today is what we can glean from the Word of God & what I can share from my own personal experience of living by the Spirit out of that Word.
So, let us begin to explore these questions by addressing
what the experience of God’s perceived silence or absence is NOT about.
This is important because many Christians assume or have been taught
this perceived silence or absence by God means they have done something wrong
and therefore, our Father has turned His face away from them.
Sometimes in the Christian community, we push the false logic of this assertion
even further, suggesting if you aren’t experiencing endless waves of
the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit cascading over your soul,
then maybe you don’t have a relationship with Jesus Christ.
I want to clarify this is not the message of the Bible,
of this sermon series about growing in our relationship with the Holy Spirit.
Despite how it often gets sold by some Christians, following Jesus is NOT
a daily cavalcade of burning bush moments where the leading of the Spirit
and the hand of God are dramatically, tangibly, and clearly visible for us.
Sometimes, more often than we’d like,
sometimes for longer than we perceive can bear,
God feels absent from our lives. The Lord can seem silent and invisible.
However, (SLIDE #16) when we walk through this shadow of doubt,
it is not a severing of our relationship with Jesus – our salvation in Christ.
(SLIDE #17) Walking through this valley is not a punishment or rebuke
by the Spirit of God because of our failures, our brokenness, our sin.
Yes, when we choose to follow our will rather than the Lord’s will through
the leading of the Word and the Spirit, our Father will let us go our own way.
God has given us free will and the Lord gives us the freedom to use it. (SLIDE #18)
However, our freedom to choose not to follow the Spirit’s leading in a particular area of our lives does not negate the greater freedom of the Lord to be relentless in following after us.
When we turn from the person of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit doesn’t shrug & walk away.
The Spirit continues to pursue us – to repeatedly tap us on the shoulder
and wait for us to turn around, to long for us to come back where we belong.
God never turns His back on us. He is long suffering in His patience, steadfast in His love, and abounding in His grace toward us.
Think about how many times in His relationship with Israel, God declares His frustration: “That’s it. I’m done with you.” Then in the same breath and still out of His broken heart, the Lord would say, “I’ll be right here waiting for you. And I’m not just going to sit idly by,
I am going to make you a way back to me even despite yourself.”
God is the lover who refuses to give up on us.
Beloved, never ever let the perceived silence of God, the feeling of the Lord’s absence
from our lives cause to question the certainty & security of our relationship with Him.
From the start of this relationship, our Heavenly Father has seen us at our very worst
– first, hiding, naked and afraid in denial of betrayal in garden and then later openly, defiantly, violently, and wrongfully daring to put Him to death on a cross.
And yet, despite the worst that we can do to ourselves, to each other, even to God,
nothing can or will separate us from His love.
There is no more definitive proof of this than God coming down to be with us in Jesus, than God in Christ suffering and dying for us on the Cross.
While we were yet sinners, God embraced us in a relationship of mercy, love, & forgiveness. And the Lord promises us that embrace is airtight.
He will never let us go. Jesus promises He will never leave us or forsake us.
(SLIDE #19) While from our vantage point, we may feel like we are separated from God,
and we may perceive God as being silent, and again, both that feeling and that perception are very real for us, (SLIDE #20) the truth is God remains with us & for us
– even when we can’t see Him, even when we can’t hear Him, even when we can’t feel Him.
We are never alone even when we feel alone
because part of what we need to understand about what Christ did for us
through the Cross is Jesus both faced and filled in the isolation and silence
borne of our sin – our divorce from God through our rejection & rebellion of Him.
(SLIDE #21) Jesus began this work in the Garden of Gethsemane as He prayed.
For the first time in his human life, Jesus encountered true and utter silence.
Twice Jesus asked for comfort and assurance from God and twice
Jesus looked into the abyss of humanity’s separation from God and received no answer.
Mark’s Gospel remarks this led Jesus to be overcome with a sense of absolute horror.
Mark describes the ultimate terror of screaming into the void and hearing nothing but the sound of your own voice, as nearly killing Jesus right then and there (14:34).
So overwhelming to the point of death was this sense of isolation upon Jesus
that he began to sweat drops of blood – a medical condition where one is
under such great strain, the capillaries in one’s body burst.
Jesus’ crucifixion began long before he was nailed to the Cross as He looked into
the total aloneness of the human condition apart from God at Gethsemane.
And once He was on the Cross, Jesus stared into the yawning darkness of
our isolation and separation from God as the shadow of death slowly overtook Him.
(SLIDE #22) His body bruised and bleeding, his breathing labored and weak,
his eyes rolling back into his head, Jesus looked up toward heaven
and could only see hell staring back at Him.
Jesus, whose voice cast out demons and calmed violent storms,
Jesus whose voice healed the most crippling of diseases
and brought life back to the lifeless, could only muster a whisper of a scream
– crying out these words from David: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
When we declare, when we believe Jesus exchanged his life for ours on the Cross
– paid the price for our sin and embraced our death – this includes
Jesus enduring our separation, our complete aloneness from our Heavenly Father.
Jesus looked into the abyss so we would never have to.
Jesus took upon Himself the utter isolation that is our existence
when we turned our face from God, Jesus closed that gnawing, terrifying abyss,
so that we would never have to wonder, never have to worry,
never have to believe our Father will ever turn His face from us.
Understanding that our greatest fear, our biggest doubt about our relationship
with the Holy Spirit is never true: we are not alone, we will not be abandoned,
and silence is not all we will be left with, the question remains
why sometimes it feels like the Spirit’s presence and movement aren’t
as obvious or perceptible as they are at other times in our lives.
(SLIDE #23) Another way of putting this is why is God seemingly less directive
and less hands on than He is at other times in our lives?
Part of the reason, it seems from the witness of the scriptures is
God seeks to grow and mature through such seasons. (SLIDE #24)
Something we fail to notice or just gloss over is in the story of the Bible,
there are frequent gaps in time between what God initiates in a person’s life
and when and how God’s work in their life comes to fruition.
(SLIDE #25) When the Lord calls someone to follow Him in the Bible,
God often sends that person through a journey in the wilderness.
Just ask Abraham. Or Joseph. Or Moses. Or David. Or Paul.
How long did Abraham and Sarah wait to hear back from God on the child
they were promised in the midst of their old age and infertility?
And how long did Joseph wait after being sold into slavery by his brothers until
he finally caught another vision of the dream God intended to fulfill through his life?
Moses waited in silence as a fugitive for 40 years in the wilderness
before he saw his burning bush and heard from God.
David was anointed the next king of Israel by Samuel,
but his coronation wouldn’t come until decades later.
In the meantime, he just returned back to the family pasture to tend sheep.
Even his legendary battle with big ol’ bad Goliath didn’t happen right away.
And then there’s Paul, thrown from his horse on that Damascus road,
converted from a persecutor of Christians to a follower of Jesus.
And yet it would be three long years in the desert and then another fourteen years warming the bench until the Spirit called his number to go and spread the Gospel.
Sometimes (not all the time), the very reason for our wilderness journey
is to break us down in order to raise and build us back up.
(SLIDE #26) God often does His best work behind the scenes
– in the thick of the valley where we can’t perceive anything is happening.
Consider how Joseph was being prepared during his extended prison sentence,
first in slavery and then being stuck in an actual jail cell.
Through his wilderness experience, Joseph learned how to run a large household
so that he could eventually run a whole nation and save that country and its surrounding neighbors from starvation.
Or how about David?
He wasn’t just killing time tending the flock after he was anointed king of Israel.
Out in the pasture, David acquired the skill to slay a giant.
Among the lowly sheep, David was given the insight to rejoice
in knowing the Lord as his shepherd.
The journey through the wilderness with the Lord is hard,
but it is not for our despair; it is for our growth & maturity – the strengthening of our faith, the building of our trust, the refinement of our character.
When everything else is stripped away, the treasure of our heart is revealed & clearly seen.
Sometimes we think we know the treasure of our heart, but often it takes walking
through the wilderness to confront the idols that distract and rival for our affections.
Sometimes when everything else is stripped away and silence is all we have,
we discover WHY we are in this relationship with the person of God through Christ.
Are we in it for the benefits and blessings of Christ or are we in it in order to
BE WITH Jesus – to engage, to learn from, to grow in & out of that relationship?
Are the Lord’s promises enough for us?
Or are we just in this relationship based on what the Lord can do for me?
Can we walk by faith in the promises of God alone – even when we can’t see, hear,
or feel those promises ringing true in our lives? (SLIDE #27)
Sometimes we need to walk through the wilderness so we can truly get to know Jesus. Because, the thing is, we can’t truly know Jesus is all we need until Jesus is all we have.
So, how do we walk through the wilderness?
How do we keep going forward when we can’t see where we are going?
How do we not go crazy from the perceived silence as we wait for the Lord to speak?
How do we fend off those fears and worries that how we are feeling now
is going to become the permanent future of our relationship with God?
Here a couple of brief encouragements to press on and to hold tight. (SLIDE #28)
First, don’t give up. Don’t stop praying – talking to God.
David models that posture of persistent prayer for us here in Psalm 22.
Job did the very same time as he walked through his dark night of the soul.
Keep praying and don’t let up. Scream if you need to.
Continue to speak through tears as they may fall.
Just keep talking and listening, even in the seemingly non-sensical groans
that rise out of desperation and exhaustion. (SLIDE #29)
One of the unappreciated works of the Holy Spirit is to enable us
to lift up to heaven what we can no longer put into human words.
This very gift of the Spirit validates that even when we perceive the Lord’s silence,
God is there. Never distracted. Always listening to us.
Always attending to us through His Spirit
both translating and receiving the cries of our heart when words fail.
As we continue to speak and to listen,
let us be sure to monitor and regulate the static and other volume in our lives.
Sometimes we can’t hear or sense the Holy Spirit because our lives are too loud.
Ex: My worry about having a pulse as a kid. Too weak. “Not there.”
A good friend told me to put the side of my head on my pillow
and to breathe slowly, to block out everything else and just listen. (SLIDE #30)
After a while, I heard it, the tiny, rhythmic pulsation of my heart beating blood into my body.
That a pounding whisper is always there keeping us alive,
even when we can’t hear it, even when we are asleep. So is with the person of the Holy Spirit.
Like Elijah, it is often in the silence that I find the Holy Spirit.
It is only as I turn down my preoccupations with other things
and turn over my anxiety and my worry, that I can begin to perceive
the pulsing beat of the Spirit not only keeping me alive
but continuing to do a good work in and through me – despite what I can see.
Hearing also means listening.
Sometimes, not always, I can’t hear the Spirit because I’m too busy talking over the Spirit.
I’m so fixated on telling God what His answer should be, what He needs to do,
I have no bandwidth to listen as God repeats to me who He is,
to listen and be reminded through the Spirit of how the Lord has worked and
continues to work in my life as well as what He is looking to accomplish in this world.
In this psalm, David honestly expresses his grief and his pain
– his perception of God’s absence and silence. He just keeps calling out to God.
But notice how David’s conversation changes as He listens.
David moves from extreme fear to confident hope. (SLIDE #31)
Even though he is still waiting for an answer, a sign,
David reorients his view of the present silence and loneliness
he is facing in light of God’s past presence and faithfulness. (SLIDE #32)
Doing this, not only enables David to hold on in the present
but even to give praise to God for the future that is yet unrealized to him.
This leads me to my next encouragement to us.
Recognize God is never truly silent in our lives, for He has given us His word.
This is the very reason why God gives us His written word – so that
we always can remain in a constant state of communication with Him.
In these pages is not just a story of people like us,
is not simply a collection of do’s and don’ts and rights and wrongs.
This is the revelation of the person, the character, and the will
– the mind, the heart, and the purposes of God. (SLIDE #33)
When we can’t hear the Lord, when we can’t see the Lord,
when the Lord feels so very far away, let us remember the Lord is
as close, as audible, as visible as His very word in our hands.
Sometimes when I am searching for a clear indication of the Spirit’s presence & voice
in my life, and I turn to God’s word, I find the Spirit already has spoken, is speaking,
but I didn’t hear, I didn’t listen because it’s not what I wanted to hear,
because I don’t like what the Spirit said.
There are other times when God seems absent or silent in my time
and I’ve turned to God’s Word and I’ve realized the Spirit had spoken
– given me direction previously and I ignored it.
Just like in any other conversation, the other person isn’t going to keep talking
if we aren’t going to pay attention.
Sometimes as parents we repeat things to our children, saying nothing else,
until they acknowledge and follow the directions that we just gave them.
Our Heavenly Father is no different.
God is regularly speaking to us through His Word and by His Spirit.
Sometimes what we perceive as silence in our waiting for the Lord to answer
is actually the Lord waiting for us to take His word to heart.
Not just letting it go in one ear and out the other but internalizing it,
meditating upon it, making it our own, living out His words in and through our lives.
We can’t receive more, if we aren’t following what we are given.
Just because the Spirit feels absent or silence
doesn’t mean the Spirit IS absent or silent in our lives.
Whenever we feel alone or abandoned by God; it is just that – a feeling.
A very real feeling but then again, what we feel is not the best indicator of what is true.
Feelings are fickle. Facts are not.
God’s word deals in facts – what is true, not feelings, which can change.
The person of the Holy Spirit,
contrary to how we often present and describe the work of the Spirit,
does not engage us through our feelings but rather through the truth of God’s Word.
(SLIDE #34) Rather than leading us to feel our way into our beliefs,
the Spirit guides to believe our way into feeling what is right and true.
(SLIDE #35) Faith is not borne of feeling. Faith is built on fact.
Our emotions come out of what we believe.
It’s not the other way around. If our emotions are the basis for what we believe,
then our beliefs exist on shaky and fluctuating ground.
Therefore, let our feelings arise from the facts of our faith.
And the fact is, through His death, Jesus has reconciled us to God.
The fact is, Jesus’ resurrection vindicates once and forever
all that could ever separate us from God. Even death itself has been removed.
The fact is, Jesus promised He would never leave us or forsake is.
The fact is, we are never alone even when we feel lonely.
God didn’t come down in Jesus Christ to leave you behind but to bring you home.
The fact is, Jesus didn’t come back from the dead so that we could end up wasting away in a tomb. The fact is, regardless of how we feel, the Lord couldn’t be
any closer to us than God is now through the person of the Holy Spirit. Amen.