Sunday, March 23, 2014

Lent 3A Sermon -- March 23, 2014

Is God With Us, Or Not?

For audio recording, please click this link:

Exodus 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

When my kids were younger, they played a computer game called The Oregon Trail.  Oregon Trail is supposed to teach children about19th century pioneer life. The player assumes the role of a wagon leader guiding a party of settlers from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon's Willamette Valley via a Conestoga wagon in 1848. Over the course of the game, members of the traveling party can fall ill and die from a variety of causes, all of which flash up on the computer screen -- measles! snakebite! cholera!  Playing the Oregon Trail is a grand adventure, a way for kids to virtually experience a dangerous journey through the wilderness without the inconvenience of actually leaving their 21st century perch in front of the computer.  I found the Oregon Trail sort of creepy, as I recall how casually the kids would loudly announce the sudden deaths occurring in cybersace.  “Hey mom, guess what?  My whole family just died from typhoid.  Again.”
Most of us do have never been through a remotely “Oregon Trail” kind of experience in real life. Earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes.  Rebel uprisings, government takeovers and crackdowns.  We’ve had a rough winter that we’ve certainly enjoyed complaining about, but life-shattering natural and manmade disasters are about as real to us as what we see on a screen.  We probably understand as much about the reality of such experiences as my children knew about what it was like to be 19th century pioneer on the Oregon Trail.  We can read about disasters and wars, and thanks to computer technology we can even virtually experience them.   But, most often we are left to interpret true disasters from a safe distance.  And the more distant we are from an event, the more likely we are to get the story wrong.
I think today’s story from Exodus is a text we very often get wrong.  All of us have heard at least one sermon about those murmuring Israelites who miserably fail in the business of faith.  From a distance, it seems that what we have on our hands today is a group of ungrateful people. After all, look at what God has done so far in this story.  The Israelites have been freed from slavery in Egypt, led through the Red Sea, and have so far been kept alive with sufficient water, manna and even quail.  God has done all of that for the people, through the person of Moses. 

In our text today, the group has arrived at their new camp in Rephidim and things don’t look so good in this new place to which they have been led by Moses.  There is not a drop of water to be found and pretty soon, the people begin to get thirsty and they panic.  And like most panicky people tend to do, they Israelites begin to flail and yell for help like someone drowning or surrounded by fire:  Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”  Despite all that a faithful God has already shown them, they are convinced that they are about to die.

“Who do these people think they are?” says Moses.  “Who do these people think they are, testing and quarreling with God?” We may ask the same question.  Who do these people think they are?  Who are these people with such small, puny faith?  Haven’t they learned anything since Egypt?

This text begins to open up a little, if we narrow our focus, and really look around at where we are in this text.  In fact, let’s take at look at the wilderness existence from the point of view of a single Israelite.  Imagine if you can…all of your life, you have been a prisoner.  From your small and limited vantage point as a slave in Egypt, you’ve heard whispered rumors and vague promises about freedom.  Freedom is a concept so foreign to you that the possibility that you could be anything other than a servant to Pharaoh has never crossed your mind. Suddenly, you are kicked out of Egypt, the only home you’ve ever known, and find yourself out in the middle of a desert running for your life. You’re chased by Pharaoh and his army, and escape by the skin of your teeth.  Then comes the walking and walking for weeks on end. The trek through the wilderness is a daily struggle for survival.  Nothing prepared you for this.  Life in Egypt was difficult, to be sure, but it was a life that was small and predictable.  In Egypt, you had a place to lay your head at night.  In Egypt, there was familiar food to eat, and even an occasional break from the unrelenting heat.  But here you are, catapulted out of your small, limited life into a vast and frightening wilderness. At this point in the journey, just six months out of Egypt, you can only dimly remember the initial elation that came with the first breath of freedom.  You don’t trust your leaders who seem to be leading you in circles.  You thought you were leaving Egypt for a better life.  But every day, you are becoming convinced that this journey was a terrible idea.  Given the grim reality of daily life on the road with Moses, you have begun to romanticize about the good old days back in Egypt.

It is not at all surprising that at least some of the Israelites begin to wonder if they wouldn’t have been better off just staying put in Egypt.  It is always tempting to critique the troubles of the present by improving the memory of what was in the past.  When life has become unmanageable in its current state, we all have a tendency to wax nostalgic for some better time that never actually existed.  But the Exodus story tells us that once you have left Egypt and entered into God’s reality, life will never be the same and there is no going back to who you once were.  The future lies ahead out there, somewhere, formless and mysterious as a dream.  And only the God of mystery knows how to get you there.  And the only option is to keep moving forward.

This is scary stuff.  I do not believe there is one of us who wouldn’t prefer a predictable outcome to the wildness of freedom.  Egypt starts to look pretty good when you can’t sleep at night and the anxiety of not knowing what’s next begins to creep in.  When provisions run low, when deep thirst sets in, when your belly begins to ache from hunger, it’s easy to forget that God is not only with us, but out ahead of us.  
You see, that question at the end of the text:  “Is God with us or not?” really is the punch line of Exodus.  And the rest of the Hebrew scripture seems to flow out of that question.  And it is a question that flows out to us, who are the inheritors of the journey begun in Egypt.  “Is God with us, or not?” is a question resonating when we find ourselves in desolate places, gasping for breath. In times of deserts and drought.  When life feels unlivable.  When prayer dries up.  When hope for something better seems stupid and love is just too much work. It is the question that hangs over us wherever and whenever there is the kind of suffering that brings us to our knees, or the kind of suffering that we carry around like a continuing dull ache.  The question, “Is God with us or not?” has been so much a part of human history for so long that to ask it seems almost rhetorical. 

And the question of God’s presence with us is never more finely drawn than in the season of Lent, when we begin another wilderness journey, this time to Jerusalem.  The question that rings over the Israelites in the desert is the same question that haunts us as we stumble along a shifting landscape with Jesus toward the cross.  From a distance, such an event seems a terribly tragic ending to the story of Jesus.  In Lent, everything is falling apart, and taking this long road to the cross seems a very bad idea.  We wonder if there isn’t an express train to whisk us past all that is still to come…the journey, the Passion, the betrayals, the denials, and the crucifixion…right to Easter and resurrection.

Some of us are being sustained by God in dry places but do not recognize it. We have been unable to trust our full weight and the weight of our burden to God. We are like that man who fell over the edge of the cliff and managed to grab with both hands a root sticking out of the side of the cliff. Dangling there, he looked up and shouted, "Help! Is there anybody up there? Help!"
A strong voice came from a cloud above the cliff, "Yes, I am here, my son. Trust me and let go of the root."
There was a moment of silence, and then the man shouted, "Is there anybody else up there?"

This is part of what Paul has in mind, I think, in today’s passage from Romans.  Our journeys through the dry deserts of life are not, as it may have appeared to an individual Israelite, circular misadventures leading to nowhere.  Paul understands the pain of life; there’s nothing distant or disinterested about Paul’s language in Romans.  Paul understands that there are plenty of alternatives to the Lenten progression.  One alternative is not to go on the journey at all, to keep holding on to the roots of the past and remain back in Egypt where life is awful, but also controllable.  Egypt is where our expectations are so low that we’ll never be disappointed.  That’s the way fear operates in our lives, when we would rather remain locked in our familiar ways of doing things, even when such habits of mind keep us dangling from a cliff, or even hurt us deeply.   Instead of opening up our lives to God’s better intention for us, we are fearful to take the journey at all. 

But Paul says not only should we not allow ourselves to become stuck in fear, but to boast in our sufferings, because the bad stuff teaches us “endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  Before the manna and the quail and the water, there is the love of God which we don’t need to seek, but is continually poured into our hearts.  Love that is as light as air and strong as iron.  Like living water that never runs dry, God’s love is like an overflowing fountain in the desert.  God’s love is the voice that whispers in the night, “Don’t be afraid.  Seriously. You can do this.”

God’s love gives us the hope that grace will come – slowly but certainly.  We may not experience grace as water gushing from a rock.  It always seems like grace creeps in slowly at first, like a stubborn and dawdling Spring thaw.  Dean Leuking has a lovely metaphor drawn from the realm of a glacier rather than from the realm of the desert that describes the grace of God.  He writes:

A tiny rivulet of flowing water between tons of ice and snow is called a winterbourne.  It is hardly discernable, but it is there.  And as it continues to flow, the icy mass that threatens to choke it, gradually gives way.  The tons of debris does not choke the winterbourne.  That tiny stream finally melts away the icy mass over it.

Every year, during Passover, our Jewish brothers and sisters recite the Exodus story so that every generation will remember not only how easy it is for us to lose sight of God when we are in the wilderness, but also so we can be confident that God will never abandon us.  Even on a good day, we are easily distracted people.  We allow fear and cynicism to rule us. Our emotions are fractured, our loyalties are divided, our commitment is fleeting, and, like the Israelites, we want what we want when we want it. If we allow it, the season of Lent takes us to places where we may practice our spiritual survival skills, skills that can become weak in our more well-fed and watered seasons.  Skills that can build up our endurance in order that we may see the small cracks in our lives which reveal the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Skills we need in order to detect and uncover that tiny trickle of living water when our spiritual thirst overwhelms us.  

God is always leading us into better future than we could ever come up with ourselves.  And God will water us with grace all along the way, pouring love into our hearts so that we may never be thirsty.  What God requires, what God wants for us most lovingly is nothing more and nothing less than all our attention.  God wants our attention so much, that in the fullness of time, God once and for all time answered the question of, “Is God with us, or not?” with the resounding yes! that is Jesus Christ.  Emmanuel. God with us and for us, to the end of time.  

Wilderness journeys give us time and space – precious time in which we are able to turn our full attention to God. How much richer would we be if we considered not just these 40 days of Lent, but our whole lives as time in the Lenten desert?  What if we awoke every morning, determined to look for the movement of the Holy?  What would our lives be like if we were attentive to God in the same manner that God is completely and forever fascinated with us and all of God’s creation?  This is not just the territory of the monks and the mystics, my brothers and sisters.  I truly believe that God is in all, just waiting for us to notice God’s amazing work among us.  

If we take the time to give all our attention to this God who is leading us with loving care, we will see how Holy Spirit is at work in every moment of our lives.  If we trust the One who loved us so much that he was willing to take on our flesh and abide with us, we will discover not just trickling streams, but gushing fountains of living water that never run dry. We will be led by the One who fed us in the wilderness to a table that is overflowing with good things for all who hunger for righteousness.   Thanks be to God.