Is the Lord Among Us or Not?

Exodus 17:1-7 | Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 | Philippians 2:1-13 | Matthew 21:23-32

Jeremy Richards

The Israelites have seen a lot in the past few chapters of Exodus. We haven’t really been following that story line in our previous sermons, so let me refresh you. They were enslaved to the Egyptians, but God sent Moses to free them. After 10 increasingly devastating plagues, the Egyptians finally let the people go. In each of these plagues, the Israelites and the Egyptians saw the power of God. When the Israelites left Egypt they were led by the presence of God in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

The Israelites left Egypt, but they hadn’t made it far, only to the Red Sea, when the Egyptians caught up with them. Pharaoh and his people had decided they didn’t want to give up their free labor after all. Once again, the Israelites and the Egyptians saw the power of God. The pillar of cloud moved from the front of the Israelites to the back, and stood between them and the Egyptians, so the Egyptians couldn’t get past. Then Moses raised his staff, and God divided the Red Sea and the people walked across on dry land. Then, when the cloud let the Egyptians pass, they rushed after the Israelites, but, once the Israelites were safely on the other side, Moses let his staff drop, and the Egyptians were swallowed up by the sea.

So the Israelites have seen some wild stuff. They’ve seen God show up in ways they never would have expected. To see the things they’ve seen, and to have God accompany them as a pillar of cloud and fire, they must have thought they were invincible. They must have thought they were destined for great things.

But here, in our reading today, the spectacular has faded away and the ordinary has set in. They’re lacking a basic necessity: water. Who cares about a pillar of cloud and fire, or 10 plagues, or parting the Red Sea when you’re about to die of thirst in a foreign and barren place?  

It’s easy for us to shake our heads at the Israelites. They always seem to have such a bad attitude. They always seem to have such little faith. But, let’s be real, if we were them, we’d do the same thing.

The truth is, God has put the Israelites in a precarious position. God has made them completely depend on God. God has led them into the wilderness and God says God will take them to a land that they’ve never seen, but they don’t know where that is, so they have to depend on God. When they didn’t have food, in last week’s reading, God had to provide manna and quail for them. They had no way of feeding themselves. Now, they are thirsty, and once again, they have no way of knowing where to find water, because they don’t know the terrain. Once again, they are completely dependent on God.

And while life under Pharaoh was awful, survival in slavery seems better than dying of thirst in the wilderness. Most of us would probably agree if we found ourselves wandering in the wilderness, watching our children and loved ones suffer dehydration and heat exhaustion.

We would ask, like the Israelites, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” We would also ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

The Israelites have entered a physical place, that we often experience spiritually.

We’ve asked ourselves, at times, “Is the Lord among us or not? There are times we’ve felt closer to God, times we were excited about what God was doing. We’ve seen God work in our lives and the lives of others. But those times can be few and far between. For us, like the Israelites, the spectacular quickly fades into the ordinary.

In fact, the church season we’re in right now, the Season After Pentecost, is also called Ordinary Time. It represents the everyday life of the Christian. In other church seasons we are looking forward or backward to some event – for Advent it’s the birth of Jesus, in Lent it’s preparing for the passion, in Easter we celebrate the resurrection – but during Ordinary Time there’s nothing we’re really looking forward to, or back at. We’re just…living life.

Ordinary time represents ordinary life, those periods of life when we sometimes feel spiritually parched. Maybe you’re in that season now. Maybe you haven’t seen any big movements from God lately. Maybe you’ve begun to question the things you saw back when you thought you did see God move. Was that God, or was that your imagination? Was God’s hand in this event or that event, or was it just coincidence.

We ask, during ordinary times like these, “Is God among us or not?”        

The Israelites have entered the Sinai Peninsula and, while there’s a shortage of water and a shortage of trust in God, there is one thing there’s no shortage of: rocks. Rocks are everywhere. If there’s one object that could represent the ordinary, the everyday, the unexciting for the Israelites, it’s a rock. Rocks are like coffee shops in Portland: they’re everywhere.

So it’s interesting that a rock becomes God’s object of salvation for the people of Israel. This God who has shown up in plagues and a burning bush and a pillar of cloud and fire shifts gears, away from the spectacular and into the ordinary. God tells Moses to take his old, ordinary staff, and simple strike the rock and water will come out. No frills, really.

The Israelites probably didn’t expect that, after all they’ve seen. They didn’t think to look at rocks to find salvation. They probably weren’t seeking God out in something so ordinary. In fact, they didn’t seem to be seeking God at all.

As far as we can tell, there was no initial request for God’s continued provision. Instead, the Israelites simply expect God or Moses to deliver what they need without being asked, and they’re angry when God and/or Moses don’t deliver. They find themselves camped at Rephidim and when they don’t find any water there, they simply say to Moses, “Give us water to drink.” Pretty direct, right? Pretty ungrateful? No, “thanks for saving us, thanks for holding your hand up that whole time we crossed the Red Sea, even though I’m pretty sure that was tiring.” No, “thanks for the manna.” Nope. They just demand water. And they don’t even think to ask God. They go to Moses, instead, and expect him to make it happen. It’s like they’ve already forgotten about God, or maybe they think something like providing water is too elementary for God. God levels cities and parts seas, God doesn’t deal with basic necessities.

Whatever the case, they go to Moses and not God, and it’s only after Moses goes to God, seeks God, that God provides.

Are we the same way sometimes?

Do we look around at our ordinary lives, full of rocks that all look the same, and wonder where God is? Why isn’t God showing up? Why don’t we feel God’s presence? Do we lose faith in God because God hasn’t shown up in the ways we expect God to? And all the while we’ve done little to seek God out, to let God know that we are thirsty?

There’s a really interesting passage in 1 Corinthians in which Paul kind of does what I’m doing here: he spiritualizes the story of the Israelites’ sojourn in the wilderness to make a spiritual point to the church in Corinth. In this passage he says, “For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10). The spiritual rock that accompanied them was Christ? What does he mean “accompanied them?”

Well, according to Jewish tradition, the rock that Moses strikes in this passage continued to follow the Israelites for the rest of their time in the wilderness. It doesn’t say this anywhere in the actual writings of the Old Testament, but Jewish rabbis asked the question, how did God continue to provide water for the Israelites, like God provided manna and quail every day? And they said, “Well, the rock that Moses struck must have just followed after them.”

I don’t think that Paul necessarily literally believed the rock followed them, maybe he did, but he uses that story to draw a connection to Jesus as the source of spiritual water. This might bring to mind the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, when Jesus tells her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water…whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Paul is saying that, just as the Israelites’ physical salvation came from what appeared to be an ordinary old rock in the wilderness, so our spiritual salvation comes from a seemingly ordinary first century Jew. Jesus, for all intents and purposes, is so…ordinary. The poor son of a carpenter. No special education or degree. He’s one of millions, billions, of working class people who have lived throughout history. There’s nothing to set him apart, as far as the naked eye can see. He’s like a rock in the wilderness: ordinary.

That’s all the chief priests and the elders see: a nobody. “Who gave you this authority?” they ask him in our Gospel reading. In other words, “Who do you think you are?” He doesn’t have the right qualifications.

But in Jesus, just like the rock in the wilderness, God provides for the people, God provides for us.

But we can be like the Israelites sometimes, and like the chief priests and elders. Sometimes we want the spectacular, not the ordinary, and we want it to appear with a flash and a bang. We want to be wowed by the presence of God without doing any seeking ourselves.

But our readings today show us that God shows up most often in the most ordinary of things: a poor Jewish carpenter, a rock in a wilderness filled with rocks.

Our world is surging with the presence of God, just below the surface, just as there was water surging under the thin crust of rock in the wilderness. Jesus is following us, disguised as the ordinary, just like the rock that followed the Israelites. There is beauty all around us. There is magic all around us. The Divine is all around us. Think about the beauty of our bodies, the miracle of sun and rain, the mystery of new life being created and growing in someone’s belly. They are ordinary, and yet they are absolutely divine.

What rocks have we passed by without noticing? Rocks with God standing right beside them, as God stood beside the rock at Horeb?

Where have we missed God in the midst of the ordinary?

There are wells of water all around us – in silence, in prayer, in Scripture…in one another, in a walk in the park, in our jobs, in the wonder of simply existing, being alive, loving and being loved. These are ordinary things, and yet extraordinary. They are rocks waiting to break open and fill us with the knowledge of God, if we would only take time to tap into them.

They are a resounding “Yes” to that age old question, “Is the Lord among us or not?”