When you read today’s passage from Exodus, you might be tempted to get the
wrong point. It would be easy to look at the people and their arguments in the
passage from Exodus and think that the most important part of the passage is
about complaining. Moses led the people out of Egypt and ever since they have
been uphappy. But in today’s passage the stress hits a new height. The people
are now, not just complaining, but now they are arguing with Moses.
So we could think that the passage is about helping people to learn better
ways of bringing their problems to light. But that isn’t the point. The real
function of the passage is in the very last line – “Is the Lord really with us
or not?” That’s the crux of the issue. That’s why the people are afraid. That’s
why they are panicked and concerned.
When we read the story, we think, “How can they not know”. Obviously, God
has been with the Israelites from before they stepped out of Egypt. God saw
their plight and has walked with them all along the way. God brought plagues to
change Pharaoh’s heart, God parted the seas, God provided food in the form of
Manna so that they would not be hungry. From our perspective as we read about
miracle after miracle, it is obvious that God is with them. But to the
Israelites, who day by day are walking through the desert, and who day after
day are struggling to live, it is easy to keep forgetting the past, because
they are lost in the worries of today, so they lose trust, and they are afraid,
and they wonder “Is God with us?”
For those of us today, who are reading the story; rather than be judgmental
of the Israelites, we should admit that ultimately we have the same question, that
critical question at the end of the passage: “Is the Lord really with us or not?”
Often our worries both for the church and ourselves, is that very same
question. As we go through life we wonder, “Is God there, or not? Is God real?”
This is especially on our minds when things are not going well.
And this is natural. It is natural to wonder, even to doubt God’s love,
God’s care, and even if God exists, when the circumstances of life are not
going well. When you are in a hospital bed facing life or death, when you are
going through a horrendous divorce, when you are watching your child ruin their
life – these questions can pour forth from us. And the longer the situation
lasts, the more emotional we can become. What starts as a nagging thought in
the back of our mind, suddenly becomes such a worry that we start to be
argumentative and to complain.
We may have very real complaints, like we don’t have enough water; or that
the medicine isn’t helping us, or our ex is treating us like dirt, or our child
won’t talk to us; we may have very real complaints, we may be lacking something
that is necessary and life giving, but what if there is also a spiritual issue
behind our complaints.
In some cases, the reason we become angry, the reason we start arguing with
the doctors, or the lawyers, or even our family members is because we are
afraid that God is not walking alongside us. We are afraid that we have been
abandoned and left to die in the desert places of life. We no longer trust that
our future is protected by the one who made us. Our situation has created a
cloud of doubt within us. We feel like we have lost our faith. I find it
interesting that it is so obvious to us that God was with the Israelites and
yet at the same time it can be so hard for us to see that God is with us
Perhaps if someone were to write the story of our lives out for us, we
would be able to see it. Perhaps if we read the heavenly account, to see
miracle after miracle that has occurred in our lives, whether we were aware of
them or not, then maybe we would feel just as confident that God is with us as
we are confident that God was with the Israelites.
One of the exercises that we assign to new candidates for ministry is to
draw out their lives as a river. The river starts at their birth and it flows
through time to where they are today. Along the way, there have been twists and
turns, slow and calm places, and places with rapids and waterfalls. There may
be places where new streams merged with ours or waters split into diverging
streams. They are to draw it, and present it to the other candidates.
Perhaps the next time we are tempted to ask whether God is with us, we need
to do the river exercise, and draw out our lives on a piece of paper. Then, as
we look at that river, where are the places where we felt God most closely?
What are the times when we know that God protected us? When have we experienced
miracles that truly saved us? Often what we discover is that God has been with
us throughout our lives, and although we are afraid today, although we have
worries, God has been faithful in the past. We can draw on that to help us with
the situation we are currently in, to help us trust that God is with us now.
Barbara Milligan, writing for the National Association for Christian
Recovery writes about how she “was haunted by questions like, Am I really
saved? Does God really love me? Is there really a God, and did Jesus really die
for me, or did somebody make all this up?”
Questions that might be summed up in the same question the Israelites
asked, “Is God really with me or not?” She then writes that looking back
through her life helps her when she asks those questions: “I remember the dark
nights of crying out to God when I was lonely or afraid, and the warmth of
God’s presence that often came to me within minutes. I remember sensing that
God was leading me as I decided to move 400 miles from my childhood home
without a job or a place to live. I remember God beginning to heal my emotional
wounds, freeing me from some codependent patterns and helping me develop
healthy boundaries. And I remember many of God’s personal, daily gifts to me–a
hummingbird in flight, staring into my face from two feet away, or an
encouraging conversation with someone I trusted, or a glimpse of something good
that God was doing in a situation that had tied my stomach into knots.”
“Despite my doubts, God met me in all those ways, and more. Over and over,
I was invited to experience God. I experienced God’s presence, God’s guidance,
God’s compassion, God’s comfort, God’s nurturing, God’s strength, God’s love
and many more aspects of God’s character.”
You see the good news is that although we doubt, although we worry,
although we are afraid, it does not mean that God is not present, and God is
not at work. Our doubts do not hold God out of our lives.
Our worries do not prevent God from working. Look at this passage. Even
though the people are complaining and argumentative and even though Moses has
no idea what to do with them, God steps in, gives instruction and leads the
people to thirst quenching water.
Often in our lives, even though we do not deserve it, even though our trust
in God is not all that great, even though we may argue and complain, God
actually does good and miraculous things for us anyway! Why? Because even
though we are sinners, God loves us and will not leave us – ever. Even when we
fail to see God there.
So the point of this passage is not, stop whining or stop arguing with the
pastor, although I might like it to be. No, the point of the passage is that
when we are worried and afraid, and we find ourselves angry at all around us;
perhaps we need to be reminded that, “Yes, God is with me.” Read the story of
your life, look at the heavenly account, and see just how much God has done for
you. And then use that to reassure yourself that God will continue to be with
you in the future – even if that future leads you out into the desert with no
water. God will not abandon you. Ever.