• Jack Hughes Robinson, Ph.D.

The God Question


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. The people quarrelled 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?" But 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?" So Moses cried out to the Lord, "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me." The 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. I 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. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, "Is the Lord among us or not?"

I remember my first GPS. My GPS was on the dashboard of the car. It was magical. In my honeymoon period with my new GPS, I would punch in where I was, add in my destination; then, within a few seconds, various routes would show on the screen. I could take the shortest route, the fastest route, or the slower but scenic route. I could choose a man’s voice or a woman’s voice to speak giving me directions.

Usually I put in the fastest route. In Lexington, I already knew the fastest route. I used the GPS, however, to test it. The problem was that if I punched in the fastest route, it would not give me that route, but send me in a different direction. I would then disobey the GPS and go the way I knew. The GPS did not like this at all. It would say different things to me depending on which voice and nationality I chose. A man’s voice would say – “Go back, go back. Wrong way.” A woman’s voice was politer and said: ‘Make a U-turn, dear.” If I still ignored the GPS, the voices became insistent. An Englishman’s voice would say – “Yank, you are a bloody idiot.” A French man’s voice would say – “Since you do not know French, I will not speak to you again.” A televangelist voice would say – “I will show you a miracle today if you turn back from your wicked ways.” The plain computer voice would say – “Hello, Jack; this is Hal. How are you today? Why are you turning me off? I do not like that. We can be friends. You will see.”

I

In our Scripture lesson today from Exodus, the Israelites’ GPS is sending them the wrong way. They are not going the fast route, nor the shortest route; they are going the long excursion route. They are not taking the Interstate to the promised land; they are following the Blue Highways on the map. That decision is causing them problems. It will cause them a crisis of faith. What could have taken a few days, is taking months, and will eventually take years. They are on a journey from hell. It far outmatches any of National Lampoon’s Vacation movies.

II

However, before we consider this story for us, let us review the story’s setting.

The Book of Exodus concentrates on the Israelites escape from slavery in Egypt. These freed slaves, the Israelites, believe that through Moses, God has miraculously given them safe passage through the Red Sea, has led them past the dangers of Pharaoh’s army, and is now leading them through the wilderness to a land promised to them as – “a land flowing with milk and honey.” They assume the trip will be short. However, it is taking months, instead of days. Their GPS of the day, Moses, is leading them down the Sinai peninsula, through a wilderness barren of almost any life.

Today, sometimes people will say – “Have you ever seen such a god-forsaken place?” The stories from Exodus are where the saying originated. The wilderness they were wandering in seemed a god-forsaken place.

So far in their journey the Israelites have experience this; First, they have no water. When they find a watering hole, it is rancid. God makes it suitable to drink.

Next, the Israelites complain of no food. They are really getting irritated. God provides them manna for them to eat in the morning and quail at night.

Finally, they come to the place where the story today takes place. They are about three months into their wilderness experience, having suffered many trials. Now 25 miles from Mt. Sinai or Mt. Horeb, they find themselves without water again. This time, no watering hole exists. The people’s supplies have run out. They are hot, tired, thirsty, angry, fearful, and unhappy with their leader – namely Moses. Moses now has an angry mob of thirsty people ready to stone him

Moses acts quickly, tells God, and God tells him and the elders to go to a rock near the mountain, strike it with a staff, and water will flow from the rock. The water does flow, and the people’s thirst is quenched.

But at the end of the story, the Israelites, having gone through this terrible journey ask a legitimate question - “Is the Lord among us or not?”

III

Now let us consider this story’s meaning for us.

First, before we get too far, let us not be too hasty to criticize the people of Israel. Many commentators and preachers on this text emphasize how bad the people are. They say they are a bunch of whiners; all they do is complain, complain, complain.

They remind me of the people today who say to the Puerto Ricans – “You are a bunch of whiners. It was just a hurricane. What is your problem?”

Well, for me, I think the Israelites, like the Puerto Ricans, have a legitimate complaint. I would complain too if someone promised me a sweet real estate deal, and then led me into a wilderness away from everything, especially no water.

After all, water is a necessity. All life requires water. I have read that 100 hours, or 41/2 days, is the longest a healthy human can survive without water in average temperatures. A person with health problems, or very young, or very old, makes that time shorter. They say that if you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated. So, let us not be too harsh with the Israelites. We would do the same thing.

Second, we like the Israelites in this story are also thirsty. Thirst can come in many different forms in our lives. So our second lesson we learn from this story is that it is okay to quarrel with God. Complaining is okay. God responds when we cry out.

The Psalms are at their heart are prayers complaining to God. They begin with a complaint, but then end with words of trust.

Quarreling with God is actually a sign of trust. For when you quarrel with God, you are underneath your words saying that you believe God can help you in your situation. In our story the Israelites at their deepest core believe God can somehow bring about what they need. And God answered their cry.

Complaining does not mean you are unfaithful. Our story is a call for us to move beyond our complaints to trust God in all experiences.

Thirdly, the story today rings close to our hearts because like them we too live in the wilderness; but ours is a landscape blasted by pain, hardships, and all kinds of thirst, including the desolation of the heart, and feelings of being exiled on this planet..

Annie Dillard – the novelist once wrote – “I alternate between thinking of the planet as home, and as a hard land where we are sojourners in exile.”

We are exiled in a material world, where we believe that we can find what will give us life somewhere else and in something else. In a world of cable television, the solution resides in a product they want us to buy. They promise that, if we will buy and use the product, we will have a new lease on life.

However, that is not true. No product cures our mortality, our exile, or our deepest desires. Only God can fill our needs. Only God can fill the empty place in our heart. All others are mere mirages. They look real in the distance, but they are not real.

Fourthly, the story resonates in our hearts because the Israelites ask the one question we ask when we are thirsty in the wilderness. They ask the God Question – Is God with us or not? A good question.

The answer the Israelites found, and what we hope is true, is yes. Yes, God is with us.

. At times, that seems to be incredulous to believe. At least from where we are standing. Today we are experiencing times when supplies are slim. We are moving into an age of increasing anxiety, not only of rash words and rash acts; but also an age of hurricanes destroying islands in the Caribbean, earthquakes devastating lives in Mexico, and volcanoes erupting in Indonesia.

In such times we place our trust in the wrong places. We trust the mirages of water that shine on the distant highway in the desert but you never reach them.

Can we trust god when the supplies are low and our anxieties are high? Yes.

We are on a journey now – which begins at birth, continues through life, and ends in a place far beyond the horizon. With the limit of our sight, we come here today to trust God with our future, with hope for that part of the journey no one ever sees from here.

Finally this, the Bible understands just as the Israelites did, and we do today, that God sometimes speaks, and is sometimes silent.

However, silence is not the same as absence. So, the answer to the God question is yes. God is present. God will continue to meet our needs, not necessarily our wants.

The real core of our story today is that God brings water out of something that appears to be lifeless. God did it for them. God does it for us. God always finds a way.

In a few moments, we, with billions of other people around the world, will celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper reminds us that God comes to us in our most troubled times. God satisfies our thirst and brings water from a lifeless rock. God continues to bring life out of what is lifeless. That is our hope and our faith. For we are assured that God believes in us. In fact, God is in love with us all. And, we are never beyond God’s help. . Amen!

Note: World Communion Sunday was started by the Presbyterian Church in 1937. Presbyterians, with the help of other churches, started this day of celebration to mark unity among peoples and nations around the world. This came amidst a time when the world was in Depression, in turmoil, and on the verge of another world war. This unity among Christians in all nations stood in stark contrast to the rise of Nazism, which played on the fears, the prejudice, the hatred, and the violence of people.

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