Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Is God Here?”
Rev. Art Ritter
September 27, 2020
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
There is an old story that I am sure you have heard before, about a monk who joined an order in which individuals were allowed to speak only once every ten years. And then the speakers could only use one sentence. After the first ten years, the Abbot of the monastery called the monk into conference and asked, “So how are things going?” The monk replied, “Food bad.” After the second ten years, the Abbot called him into conference again and asked, “How does it go with you?” This time the monk replied, “Bed hard.” Finally, after the third period of time the monk walked into the Abbot’s room and announced, “I quit.” The Abbot replied, “That really doesn’t surprise me. Since you got here, all you have done is complain!”
Kent Crockett tells the story of a woman, new to her neighborhood, who decided to do something nice to get to know her neighbor. She baked a pie and carried it next door. This sounds like something Gail McKillop would do, doesn’t it? The neighbor was thrilled. “For me?” she asked. “How thoughtful. Thank you very much.” Because the neighbor liked the pie so much the woman decided to bake another one the next week. When she took it over the neighbor took the pie, quickly thanked her, and then shut the door. The woman took another pie over the next week and the neighbor responded, “You are a day late with the pie.” Yet the following week the woman baked another pie. This time the neighbor said, “Try using a little more sugar next time. And don’t bake it quite so long. The crust was too hard on the last one. And next week I would prefer cherry to apple.” That next week the woman was much too busy to bake any pies. When she passed by her neighbor’s house on the way to run an errand, the neighbor opened a window and yelled, “Hey, where’s my pie?”
Sometimes it is easy to get so caught up in the events of life that we begin to consider our blessings as entitlement. We might appreciate the gifts of God for a moment, perhaps even give thanks for what we have received, but then we quickly complain when they don’t quite suit our needs or meet our standards given the situation of our days. Sometimes in our want, in our suffering, in our fear about the future – we forget to trust in the faithfulness of that and those who provided for us in the past. We complain out of a sense of anxiety and fear that we won’t be safe or won’t have enough. We murmur that we haven’t gotten what we need or what we deserve. We question whether things will ever be the way we would like them to be. And in our complaining we fail to remember the past, we ignore what is before us in the present, and we dampen the possibilities that are there for our tomorrow.
In the Scripture lesson this morning, the people of Israel were once again in the midst of their wilderness wanderings. They had just gone through a Red Sea crisis, a water crisis, a food crisis, and now they faced another, perhaps more serious water shortage. They were in the middle of a desert where there was absolutely no water to drink. Little children were getting dehydrated. Livestock were drooping. Adults were getting increasingly desperate. And so the people of Israel did what people in that kind of situation do. They grumbled and complained. They quarreled with Moses saying, “Give us water to drink!” In spite of everything that God had done for them in the recent past, they were quite willing to put God to the test. Moses summarized the situation very well with a single question, “Is God among us or not?” He was asking, how will we know that God is here? We will believe and trust in the power and presence of God when God gives us water. God has to pass the test of giving us what we want or we won’t believe that God is with us, among us, or for us.
Perhaps we can sympathize with the people of Israel. It feels like we have been wandering in the wilderness quite a bit lately. We are looking for health care experts and scientists to provide a cure or a vaccine that medical manna or that water from a rock- something that will take us from the desert of this pandemic. We look for any kind of expert who can tell us what we want to hear, perhaps even if that information runs counter to science and reality. We want what we need. The current political campaign seems like a never ending chorus of complaints and negativity and untruths. I don’t know how Moses would have handled attack ads against him. The ravages of hurricane and flood, heat and fire might make us question whether or not another kind of plague is upon us. The civil unrest, the police brutality, the anger and the protests, the riots and the looting, the hateful words and closed minds may lead us to believe that we have been left alone in our division and in our quarrels with one another.
Where is God in all of this darkness and evil? With so much going wrong around us, where is the evidence of God’s goodness among us? Perhaps God has given up on us after all. I am certain that in the past few months there have been times in which our souls have cried out, “If you really are God, you would…” Or perhaps we might want to say, “If you really loved us, you would….”
Kathyrn Matthews writes that whoever wrote this book of Exodus didn’t focus on the nice and comfortable times that the people of faith must have found. Instead we find readings of the people in want, and examples of the faithful in doubt. Matthews says that perhaps it is because the lessons of life are best learned in the difficult times. It is only when we are thirsty in the wilderness that we discover that we have not exercised our gratitude and humility quite enough. If the pandemic has taught us nothing else it has taught us that we take the good things and the good times for granted until those things are missing from our lives.
Eventually God provided for the people. Moses was told to go and meet God who would go before them and stand upon a rock at Mt. Horeb. Moses would strike that rock and water would come of it. The people would drink. The fears and terrors of the day would cease. And perhaps most importantly, the hope of tomorrow would be confirmed and understood.
Theologian Gerald Janzen compares the doubts of the people of Israel complaining about their lack of water with our own doubts at different points in our lives, in times when things get tough. In response he asks us to remember the “oasis points in our past.” Oasis points are those moments when we had everything we needed and it was easy to say that God is good, and also easy to count on a future that draws us forward, confident of what lies ahead. Janzen writes that the people of Israel probably didn’t have any idea of what lay just ahead of them on that mountain and how it would shape their lives. But when water gushed from the rock at the foot of Mt. Horeb, the same mountain where eventually Moses would receive the Ten Commandments, that water gave them not only sustenance for that particular day but also sustained them hopes for the future. Janzen believes that on that day, trust in the future promise meant more than the immediate quenching of thirst. Believing in tomorrow superseded a cup of cool water.
Perhaps those writers are correct. Perhaps the wilderness experiences of life are places of testing of the divine-human relationship so that we can learn more about God’s presence. Maybe we won’t learn much about God in times in which we don’t need God or when God is taken for granted. We learn more about God and we learn to trust more in God’s promises for tomorrow by leaning into our God’s presence in the midst of harshness and disappointment. In his book Drinking from a Dry Well, Thomas H. Green says that “faith is a way of seeing in the dark, and hope a way of possessing what is still beyond our reach.” Green continues by saying that the wilderness is a way of emptying ourselves of all the little things we desire so that only God remains. When the other wells of life run dry, when we realize and understand for what we really thirst, then the living water can flow from dry rocks in the wilderness. Then we can trust enough in our provision for tomorrow that we can move on in faithful steps.
Author Frederick Buechner reminds us that “to be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nevertheless. Even in the wilderness, especially in the wilderness, you shall love God.”
The story of the people of God wandering in the wilderness is a story that happened long ago. The miracles of manna and water from a rock are miracles we might not be able to fathom and perhaps belong to a time so far away. But this story is important because it speaks to our own time: our own wilderness, our own needs, our own questioning, our own complaining, and our own prayers. The people, assured of God’s provision in the present, walked forward in the future.