The launch of ‘Voices’ – an exploration of people, prejudice and protest
The God who Hears
Readings: Exodus 3:1-10; Psalm 28; Mark 10:46-52
These readings are a small selection from a huge number we could have chosen to illustrate that the God we believe in is one who hears. In the Exodus passage we read how God said to Moses: “I have observed the misery of my people in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters …”. This is the beginning of the story of rescue and a new life.
It is a common biblical theme that God hears the cry of the poor and oppressed. The laws in Exodus tell people not to abuse an immigrant, a widow or an orphan: “If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn …”
“If you take your neighbour’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be his only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries out to me, I will listen …” (Ex 22:21-27)
God hears the cry of the poor and weak. He hears those that others try to shut up, like the blind man in Jericho. He hears those who cannot articulate their needs. The word mostly used for prayer in the Old Testament in not “prayer” but “cry”. God doesn’t need neatly formulated prayers. We don’t have to “know a prayer” before we can cry out to God. He hears inarticulate cries. As Paul says, “… the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Rom 8:26)
There is a power in the cry of the weakest person, because it switches on the infinite power of God. There is a poem by Robert Browning that describes a tyrant who becomes obsessed with a desire to hurt and destroy one insignificant little man who irritates him by his very weakness and insignificance. He tries all ways to get at him. But then:
“Just my vengeance complete,
the man sprang to his feet,
stood erect, caught at God’s skirts, and prayed! –
So, I was afraid!”
This is the nature of the Bible message. The social structure of the Egyptians was like their pyramids: only one man, the king, could be at the top, and he represented God. But the Bible story tells us that God, the greatest power of all, was with those at the bottom.
The Bible was written against the background of great powerful empires – Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome – but its message is always that the God who was with the oppressed was more powerful than them all, and they all fell. Today we are under a great worldwide empire – the empire of the global economy with its ruthless profit-making and materialism. We are told there is no hope of beating it: we have to join it and live by its rules. But it inflicts enormous suffering: austerity, cuts to services, physical and cultural impoverishment, hunger and the destruction of the environment. If we believe the Bible’s message today, it tells us that this system will fall, because God is on the side of the poorest and most helpless, and no system that makes things worse for them can survive in the long run.
But what about the short run? The Bible is full of the anguish of those who cry out and do not seem to be heard. The Psalm Jesus quoted on the cross begins:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”
This kind of prayer is very frequent:
“Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Ps 10:1)
A very frequent prayer is “How long, O Lord?”
“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (Ps 13)
We all know that feeling. Perhaps the worst thing about pain and trouble is not knowing how long it will last. But this not knowing is what makes our faith, faith, and not knowledge. The answer often given in the Bible is “wait for the Lord”. Waiting too is part of faith. But that can be hard. The Book of Job at one point has a moment of utter despair. Job describes the plight of the poor of the world. They harvest the crops for others while they themselves are hungry. They tread the wine presses but are thirsty – so true of the world in our own time. He concludes by saying: “From the city the dying groan, and the throat of the wounded cries for help; yet God pays no attention to their prayer.” (Job 24:12). We can all feel like that sometimes. That is the test of our faith.
But we who are generally healthy and comfortable need to remember that the prayers of others need not always go unheard. Someone once said he had often thought of asking God why he allows so much suffering in the world and does nothing about it, but he was afraid God would ask him the same question.
And what of all those who have suffered without relief, who seem not to have been heard on their entire lifetime? What about all those people in recent weeks who have drowned in the sea or been suffocated in the attempt to find a place where they can live in safety? Any answer to prayer is too late for them. But God hears even the cry of the dead. Near the beginning of the Bible we hear God saying to Cain: “Listen, your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”
God’s response to that was a curse on Cain: it was a cry for vengeance, as we often find in the Bible. But the Letter to the Hebrews refers to that cry in a different way: it refers to “Jesus … and the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb 12:24). The blood of Jesus too cries out, but it cries “Father, forgive them”. This is our hope in a world of suffering and injustice – not violence, but the invincible power of love.