Lent 3 - Year A - March 22, 2014

 Exodus 17:1-7    
Psalm 95    
Romans 5:1-11    
John 4:5-15
Homilist: Lawrence Downing

This week’s Reading from Exodus 17 records the story I first heard as a child. Where? Cradle Roll? Uncle Arthur’s The Bible Story? (It is not in there.)  A sermon? I can’t tell you. It is one of the many narratives that draw again and again back to the Old Testament. Stories are much more interesting than a bone-dry theological discourse, no?

I was struck by the relevancy of the account. How could the timing be better? When I read the passage, we are smack in the throws of drought. A drought, one reporter opined to be, “Of biblical proportions.”  Only a slight change in situation between those days and ours: we have no Moses. There is no Mt. Horeb, nor rock nor rod that struck the Nile and, until a few days ago, no water! 

These factors are not what caught my attention. No! What stopped me cold was the Great Question that arose from among the People of Israel as they contemplated their demise. They reflected back on the recent water/rock event and verbalized what others only in the safest places dare ask: Is the Lord among us or not?

The Great Question! Is the Lord among us or not?

What state of mind lay behind this profound interrogative? Anger? Despair? Wonder?  At minimum is the matter of testing and trust. The place-names Massah” and “Meribah” will long be associated with Israel putting Yahweh, and sometimes Moses, to a test.

In our passage, both Yahweh and Moses are under threat. Moses is the direct recipient of the people’s wrath; so, by implication, is Yahweh. At the center is the question of trust. The people doubt whether their leaders, the human and the divine, can see them through their wilderness experience alive.

If you were in Moses’ sandals, supposing he had put them back on at some point, how do you answer such an audacious, irreverent question? Or is it so audacious? So irreverent?

We can, from our time perspective, offer quick and, in our eyes, perceptive response: Get with it people! Who, pray tell, brought about the rescue from Egypt and the pursuing hoards?  Manna from heaven fed you. How do you explain the plethora of quail? And the water from the rock? Want to talk about the day Moses stood before that rock and, Whack. Out gushed water. And you ask, “Is the Lord among us or not? How juvenile?

 Really? What about now, our day? Is the Lord among us or not? What about events in our world? Our nation? Our church? Our university? Our life? Is the Lord among us or not?  The question begged answer then and so it does today. 

Consider Israel’s recent past as they tented in that Wilderness of Sin.  An enslaved people witnessed a remarkable series of events that ended in freedom march. They broke the bonds of slavery and fled Egypt land. Soon thereafter, as they bunched together, the Sea of Reeds before them and Egyptian pursuit, they witnessed one of the most memorable events in history: at the command of their messiah, the waters parted and a nascent nation trekked forward. 

With the Song of Moses ringing in their ears, they found themselves isolated in a desert place, attention focused on one thing: water. The dilemma gave force to the Question, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

When we bring God into the equation we immediately raise the stakes. An appeal to the “God Factor” changes the conversation. It matters little the issue. When there is crisis, we can expect someone to raise the question of God’s role and purpose in the causative event. One may even venture that conversations of God’s presence are in direct proportion to life threats. When all is going well, the “God Factor” is quiescent. Put life in peril, the “God Factor” takes a more dominant place. We, or one we love, struck down by disease, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Life takes an unwelcome turn, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Well might believers in Crimea and the Ukraine lift their voice: “Is the Lord among us or not?” And in the Sudan, Iraq, Palestine—where do we stop the Trouble List?

We can empathize with the ancient pilgrims who trekked the desert wastes and called their leader to account and questioned how the stories that lay deep in memory past applied to them. Noah. Abraham. Jacob. All well and good for them. What about us? Is the Lord among us or not?

 In response to Moses’ fear of violence against him and his cry for help, Yahweh instructs him to move in front of the people, not away from them. He is to get out where he will be seen and to take with him trustworthy leaders and the staff with which he struck the river Nile in the first of the mighty acts in Egypt.  He is then to proceed until he sees a rock Yahweh will designate by “standing” upon it. Standing upon it? What an image! Yahweh, in a desert place, standing on a rock. Moses is to strike that rock with the staff, and that blow will bring water gushing forth.

Yahweh on a rock? Where was the I-phone when it’s needed? What a missed opportunity! (What a great name for a church: “The Yahweh on a Rock Church.”) The point of the story is not to give a descriptive account of Yahweh’s appearance. It is to inform of a miraculous event. The pilgrim people have been supplied water where there was none before. From the unlikeliest of all spots, a rock. Not just any rock, but a rock upon which Yahweh stood. The elders, in the absence of a video camera, are there to report what they saw.  

The miraculous that were part of Israel’s Promised Land journey, when taken together, suggest an answer, which leads us to ask another: Does quantity or uniqueness provide assurance of God’s presence?  

Since earliest times women and men have sought answer to the question of  God’s role in human events. The writer of Job; the Psalmist; the Wisdom literature; the prophets. Leap ahead to New Testament events.  In the NT, consider the one who speaks, in slightly modified form, the Great Question:My God, my God, why have you left me?” 

Stop for a moment and consider: Of all questions, this is the one we might well expect some worthy to answer.  Yet, at the cross on which the Son of God was placed, as in the wilderness, the question stands alone—there is no answer given. The silence is deafening! What an opportunity is lost! Or is it? Does not the corpus we call scripture provide answer?  Story builds upon story.

The prophet’s voice, sometimes quiet, at other times a roaring thunder, proclaims God’s will and, at times, interprets motive and action. The prophet pierces the mysterious veil and says, “Listen, this event, this person is relevant to you and to your future. Here’s why.” And today? What of today? I suggest it is our task to tease out the application to our day, our life, and, if our ear is tuned, give response.

We preachers and denominational leaders, in our efforts to satisfy those who wonder “Is God with us or not? voice assurance that indeed God is among us now. Dare not doubt! Not only is he with us, he has “remnantized” us. What profound insight! No silence at the end that leaves us hanging lose, bewildered. Yet, through the mists of doubt, questions linger: what do these voices know that they who were silent lacked?

I suggest it is our responsibility, each one of us as individuals, to give answer to the Great Question: Is the Lord among us or not?  We cannot answer for another. We are our own prophet, our own interpreter.  “Is the Lord with me or not? Is the Lord with you or not?”  The silence that follows? The silence invites our answer..