Is God with us…or not?

According to our text (Exodus 17:1-7) this was the question asked by the people of Israel to Moses when they arrived in Rephidim and found themselves without any water. After demanding water of Moses and accusing him of leading them out into the desert only to die – they then ask this question – “Is God with us or not!?”

The text assumes that their question displayed a complete lack of faith in God, a God who had shown them countless miracles over the past recent weeks… leading the people out of slavery in Egypt, allowing them to miraculously cross over the sea on dry land with the Egyptian army in pursuit, a God who had already provided water for them miraculously at Marah (Exodus 15) as well as initiated the provision of manna – their daily bread (Exodus 16). Yes, it’s true – their question did represent a tendency to easily forget all that God was doing for them.

Later in the New Testament in the book of Hebrews, this same incident is recalled and again, the people of Israel are soundly criticized for their hardened hearts and unbelief.

So yes, perhaps one lesson to be learned here is to stand firm, as much as we are able, in our faith that God will be with us and provide for us – through any and all circumstances. And yes, we should never forget all of the myriad ways in which God has miraculously looked out for us in the past.

But as I read this text it feels like there may be another side to the story. After all, it was tens of thousands of people (old and young) along with their cattle and other possessions. They were in a desert climate – severe heat – wandering for hours without any drinking water. How long would you survive before a sense of panic set in? How many miracles would you have had to experience before you could honestly say that your dry throat and crying children at your side brought you absolutely NO sense of anxiety?? (By the way, how many reports last week did you hear of panic buying before YOU got in line to pick up toilet paper?)

This story in Exodus does not provide a lot of detail. Although Moses is clearly exasperated with the people, it doesn’t appear – at least here – that God is angry with the feelings expressed by the people of Israel. The following details appear:

  • God tells Moses to take some of the leaders and go ahead (before) the people to the rock of Horeb
  • He is to use his staff, the same staff that God had commanded Moses to use on countless other miracles, to strike the rock
  • God would, in fact, be there with them, by the rock
  • Water would miraculously come out of the rock and provide enough for all to drink
  • Moses would name the place “Massah” and “Meribah”, referring to the quarrelsome nature of the peoples’ attitude toward Moses, and to their hardened hearts of unbelief toward God.

So what are we to make of this account? What lessons should we take away for ourselves? Briefly, I offer the following:

  1. Let God know about the anxiety, and yes, even anger that you may be feeling. God can handle our outright questioning of God’s presence among us… and accusations of absence. It’s true that the people of Israel were guilty of forgetting recent miracles of provision on their behalf. And we, too, are often guilty of forgetting God’s powerful work in our own lives. But there are also plenty of examples of doubt, anger, and lament within scripture – times when even people of faith felt free to accuse God of being absent and uncaring. Is it possible that this too could be an expression of faith?
  2. God is, in fact, with us – whether we feel it – or are aware of it – or not. Just as God was present at the rock of Horeb for Moses and the people of Israel, God is present for us.
  3. This text offers us much to think about in regard to our present situation with COVID-19. What are we most anxious about? How can we be praying about this situation? How can we stay in touch as a church family during a time of social distancing? Are there surprising resources (like a rock!) that God may use to provide for us during this crisis?

The words from Philippians 4:6-7 may be a good balance of speaking honestly with God, as well as accepting the amazing peace and presence of Christ into our lives during these stressful days. May this peace be yours.

Philippians 4:6-7

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

(The above is a brief summary of our text and message at JCC last Sunday, March 15th)