Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Is God With Us?
Rev. Art Ritter
March 15, 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?”
I read a couple of interesting recent historical tidbits this week. On 2005, Pavel Mircea, an imprisoned Romanian serving time for murder, tried to sue God. The basis of the suit was breach of contract. Mircea contended, “God was supposed to protect me from all evils and instead He gave me to Satan who encouraged me to kill.” Just two years later, in 2007, Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers filed his own lawsuit against God. In a fit of eloquent alliteration, Chambers accused God of “fearsome floods, egregious earthquakes, horrendous hurricanes, terrifying tornadoes, pestilential plagues, and the like.” You may be comforted in knowing that both of these lawsuits were dismissed quickly. Both judges said that since God does not have a legal address, God can’t be summoned to appear in court.
In 1970, a collection of previously unpublished essays and speeches from author C.S. Lewis was published entitled, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. The title implied that God was on trial, and the title was based on an analogy made by Lewis suggesting that human beings, rather than seeing themselves as standing before God in judgement, prefer to place God on trial while acting themselves as judge. Where is God? Why is God absent? Why did God punish me? Why isn’t God punishing my enemies? Why is God allowing this to happen? It is not human behavior or attitudes or words that get judged. It is the action or apparent inaction of God that is weighed and ruled upon by humankind.
The setting of this morning’s Scripture lesson is the wilderness of Rephidim. Newly freed from bondage in Egypt, the Israelites have been traveling from place to place assisted by the direction of God. God has given them a pillar of cloud or fire as a guide. God has provided them with manna and quail, raining down from the heavens to ease their hunger. But now they have camped down in the wilderness and there is a new problem. Water has run out and dehydration is imminent. At first they are merely thirsty. Then thirst turns to panic. Then panic turns to anger and fury. The people of Israel confront Moses, and by extension, they confront God. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die of thirst? Give us water to drink!”
Moses went to God with the complaints. He was tired of being mistreated by these stubborn, complaining people. At the time, God’s response didn’t seem particularly helpful or practical. “Go ahead of the people. Take some of the elders with you. And take your staff, the one that you used to strike the Nile River. I will stand before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike that rock and water will come.” In a way, God was challenging the people of faith. Put me on trial. Assemble your witnesses. Be ready to judge. I will be there waiting.
Moses did as he was asked. He struck the rock and water came forth. We don’t get a lot of detail about the people’s response. One can imagine that they were filled with delirious joy and they ran toward the rushing water to get something to drink. Perhaps they were thankful, taking the time to offer God praise. Perhaps they were only concerned about easing their thirst and did not take the time to acknowledge God’s hand in the miracle. Moses must have sighed with relief. He couldn’t have possibly continued his leadership without some kind of action by God.
Is God with us? This question was one asked by the community of the faithful as they wandered in the wilderness long ago. The ancient people of Israel were afraid that they were all alone. Maybe it was a mistake to leave Egypt, even though they were enslaved. At least they knew what was there and what was expected of them. Maybe their Exodus was something done too quickly. Perhaps they had misread the signs. Perhaps they shouldn’t have trusted Moses. Maybe God had simply abandoned them.
Perhaps we are in a similar place as the people of Israel long ago. We are in a wilderness of pandemic, isolation, closures, stock market collapse, and great uncertainty. Like them we yearn for the known and seemingly safer places of our past. We wish things were like they were a month ago, this past Christmas or a year ago. We wish we were past this wilderness and safely residing in the Promised Land. We want our God to be a God who takes away the uncertainty, the anxiety, the pain, and strife. We want our God to be one in control and we want to see evidence of that power. We want our God to make it easier for us. When it doesn’t appear to be the case we ask, “Is God with us.”
We know that God is with us. Our cry isn’t really a question but a yearning of faith. We reach out and we seek God’s presence in the wilderness and in the darkness. God call us to go ahead with the promise of God’s faithfulness. God asks us to take the staff of faith, the reminders of where God has helped us in the past. God brings forth water from the rock, not as a final solution or victory, but as reassurance that God will provide for what will be needed in the still uncertain journey.
Is God with us? Perhaps the question is not so wrong when it is less of a question about God’s existence and more of a cry of honest faith about God’s presence. When we ask such a question, we are in a place where we contemplate our deepest needs and search for the hand of God. When we ask this question, we might be actually wishing for the presence of a God in the midst of our perilous journey. When we ask this question in faith perhaps we are really trying to grasp the presence of a God who lives among us now making all things new. When we ask the question we might find God as the God of the present and future, a God who promises to make all things new, a God who is present when we take the risks of faith to follow.