October 1, 2023

"Is the Lord Among Us … Or Not?”

Rev. Scott Landis

Exodus 17:1-7

A few weeks ago, I preached a sermon entitled “Where was God?” It dealt specifically with the question of God’s presence during disasters – with focus on the fires that have recently devastated our island. The sermon got pretty wide circulation and elicited quite a few responses through emails, phone calls, and in-person conversations. It’s rare to receive so many responses to a sermon once it is preached, but to this one I am still getting heartfelt feedback. I’ve delighted in the fact that people seem to be wrestling with this question – one that theologians have wrestled with for centuries. 

It is easy for us, in fact it is quite natural to offer God our praise when things are going well – when our health is good, the kids are doing well, our bank accounts are solid.  But our song of joy may quickly change to lament when life takes a turn for the worse. It’s then that faith gets tested and our understanding of the omnipresence of God may experience doubt. 

The Hebrew scriptures describe an encounter in Moses’ life noting just how quickly the tide can change. The Israelites were thrilled to be released from Egyptian captivity and touted Moses as their hero. Miriam’s song (recorded just two chapters earlier in the book of Exodus) gives their departure resounding praise as she glorified the God who brought them out of Egypt and crushed those in pursuit in the waves of the Red Sea as the followers of Moses made their way to dry land.

“I will sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; The horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea. The LORD is my strength and song, And He has become my victory. This is my God, and I will praise Him. My father’s God, and I will exalt Him.”

But then they entered the desert. Their supplies began to run out. Their water jugs – empty. And they got scared. How would they survive? Their fear soon turned to anger, and then the need to find someone to blame. And who else but their leader – the one who had the bright idea to bring them out into this God-forsaken place holding forth the promise of “a land flowing with milk and honey.”

“Why did you bring us out of Egypt,  To kill us, and our children, and our livestock with thirst?”

And then Moses got scared. And he went to the God who called him to this position of leadership – a position he did NOT want, I might add, and cried out. 

“What am I going to do with these people?  They are about to stone me?”

In other words, “God, Help Me!” 

It was then that God provided a way. God offered the provision needed as water miraculously flowed from the rock at Horeb after Moses struck it with his staff – the same staff with which he struck the Red Sea and parted the water allowing safe passage for his people.  

But God also allowed the people to question God’s faithfulness as they angrily asked, 

“Is the Lord among us or not?”

“Is the Lord among us … or not?” It’s a really good and pertinent question. How we answer it should have an incredible impact on our lives. 

I imagine most of us would answer in the affirmative. Surely God is with us. But if we really believe that, the more important question is how is that understanding reflected in the way we live and move and have our being in the world?

There was a popular Christian anthem in the late 70’s which answered the question with some  beautiful lyrics,

Surely The Presence of The Lord Is in This Place
I Can Feel His Mighty Power and His Grace
I Can Hear The Brush of Angel’s Wings
I See Glory On Each Face
Surely The Presence of The Lord Is In This Place.

But again, I ask, is this your experience? And if so, is it something felt only in worship? When singing a beloved hymn? Or when receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion? Do you believe you would feel that same presence if you were out in the desert and your throat was parched, your fears magnified wondering whether you were going to survive? 

You may not be physically camped at Rephidim today – that is in an actual desert, but it may feel like it spiritually.  If that is the case, you may also have wondered, “Is God with me … or not?”

Most of us do not know the experience of living without potable water (unless you live in the few remaining burn areas of Kula), but I bet most of you have experienced – at one time or another – a dryness in your spiritual life as you have asked the same question as these early Israelites. “Is God with me or not?” 

Several years ago, I served on a national retreat team for clergy of the United Church of Christ. We would invite about 30 clergy from across the nation to come to a retreat center for 7 days and provide spiritual nurture, Whole Foods, adequate time for reflection, one-on-one spiritual direction, and a lot of rest. When they arrived on day one, they looked like (as my mamma would say) “7 miles of bad road,” but by the time they left, they look rejuvenated, renewed, and prepared to make some changes to better their lives. 

We would encourage them to commit to a covenant — specific spiritual practices, practical wellness practices including better eating habits and exercise, emotional support and care among other things - to help them more readily experience God’s presence that they could once again affirm is all around them. It’s an important aspect of our faith journey that I commend to you as well. We need to put into place these important practices in order to help us through the more difficult times. 

That’s not only necessary for our spiritual leaders. It is vital for each one of us. We will be unable to traverse the desert periods of our lives if we are not connected to the source of living water. The Lord who promises presence among us. 

A little over a week ago, I had the privilege of going to O’ahu for a few days to attend a spiritual wellness retreat offered by the Hawai’i Conference of the United Church of Christ. The retreat used as its theme, “My soul thirsts for the living God,” and referenced Psalm 42 where the psalmist records, 

As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

Psalm 42:1-2a

The psalmist honestly expresses his need and his desire. The psalmist knows the vitality of communion with the living God.  If you find yourself asking this profound question, “Is the Lord with us or not?” I invite

you to return again to your prayer or other spiritual practices. Return to the living God – here you will find your answer. Here you will find life-giving water. 


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