Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Sermon: Is God With Us?

Exodus 17:1-7

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 personally!

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.” [1]

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.

[1] http://www.nacr.org/center-for-spirituality-and-recovery/recovery-from-doubt-experiencing-god

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