World Communion Sunday, October 1, 2023
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
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 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?” 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 quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
In 1972, a book entitled Evidence that Demands a Verdict, created an instant sensation. It was written by a man named Josh McDowell, who presented what he considered an air-tight argument for the claims of Christianity and the existence of God. Using certain historical facts and philosophical ideas, he put the modern skeptic on trial, peppering the skeptic with questions about his doubts, forcing him into a so-called intellectual corner, and then demanding that he render a verdict on the evidence in front of him. In essence, McDowell put humanity on trial.
The idea of humanity being on trial is not a new one. In fact, it is baked into our liturgies and hymns. And it is the basis of one of the classical theories of the atonement - that is what the death of Jesus means for us. This atonement theory is called the penal substitutionary atonement, and in it, an angry God is both judge and jury. And all of us have been found guilty of our sins. The punishment is death. But, as the theory goes, instead of punishing us, God punished Jesus. Jesus died in our place, and thus, the wrath of God is satisfied.
But this is just one theory of the atonement. There are many others. There are all kinds of way to look at what the Cross means. Likewise, there are all kinds of ways to look at the human condition and how we all experience being alive. And that’s a good thing, because while we might be comfortable thinking about God as judge when life is good, or God as judge for all those other people who deserve it, it’s much harder to think of God as judge when our life is overwhelmed by suffering. In those moments, it sometimes feels as if the roles change and the evidence that demands a verdict is the seeming silence or absence of God in the face of our suffering.
I know that to even suggest such a thing makes some folks uneasy. But I am simply giving words to what most of us have thought when the innocent are gunned down in schools and churches and on American streets. Whether we want to or not, we wonder: is the Lord among us or not? The earth teeters on the edge of ecological collapse and we fear for those who will come after us. And we wonder: is the Lord among us or not? The doctor gives us the worst news. We lose our job and cannot pay the mortgage. Our relationship crashes and burns. Those we love die. And we wonder: is the Lord among us or not? And sometimes, in the heat of suffering, we even demand that God give us an answer. It is God who is on trial – an idea as old as the Bible itself.
The children of Israel were wandering in the Sinai Peninsula after their liberation from slavery in Egypt. They camped at a place called Rephidim because they had heard that there was water there. They had plenty of quail and manna, but nothing to wash it down with. And they were dangerously thirsty, their tongues thick in their mouths. But that promise of a long, cold drink of water helped them to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Promises often do that. When they arrived at Rephidim, however, the spring had gone dry.
A panic based in the survival instinct set in and created a mob mentality. And they turned on their leader Moses: “Give us water to drink!” they demanded. The Hebrew language is actually stronger than that: “You - give us - right now - water to drink!” Their anger was so hot that Moses actually feared being stoned to death. In a panic, he replied: “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” The words translated as “quarrel” and “test” are actually legal terms. They imply that Moses and God are both on trial by the people.
Notice that in that moment of suffering and need, the people are not afraid to call God out. And notice that no one is struck dead for questioning God. No one is punished. Instead, God tells Moses to take some of his elders and to go to Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai. He is to take the same staff that he used to turn the waters of the Nile into blood during the Plagues on Egypt. And then God said: “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.” So Moses did as God said, and sure enough the rock became a spring. People drank their fill. Children splashed and played. Old folks soaked their tired feet.
Now Moses could have named this new spring anything he wanted. If it were me, I might have called it “Rocky Waters” or “Gushing Stone.” But Moses called it Massah and Meribah which can be translated as: “Is the Lord among us or not?”
One might assume that by naming the spring for their doubts, Moses was sticking it to the people. “I’ll show you. I’ll name it after your blasphemy so that every time you come here to get a drink, you’ll be reminded of your shame.” But I don’t think that’s what he was doing, because to say that implies that we have no right to complain or question or to expect that God will be God.
In the piety of my childhood, there were lots of things we were not allowed to do. But one thing we were strongly encouraged to do was to be honest with God. And if that meant a good argument with the Almighty every now and again, then so much the better. Now, don’t just take my word for it. Read the Psalms! They are full of arguments with God; of deep and bitter disappointment with the way the world is being run. They regularly entertain the question: “Is the Lord among us or not?”
I remember a time when I came to believe that the Lord was not among us. I was a young pastor, struggling with so many things that I lost count. They culminated in a crisis of faith so profound that I remember offering the Pastoral Prayer in church on Sunday and thinking that I was likely just talking to the air. -- One night, this crisis reached a tipping point. I was either going to have it out with God or just be done with God. And so, unable to sleep, I lay in my bed and rehearsed all the things that God had not done for me in my suffering. I won’t tell you exactly what else I said to God that night, but let’s just say, it wasn’t very polite. And after I finished giving God a piece of my mind, just for good measure, I said: “And if in your divine justice, you decide to kill me during the night and throw me into hell, go ahead.” And then I rolled over and went to sleep.
Much to my surprise, I woke up the next day – alive. I was not only alive, but I was changed. I had wrestled with the angel and I had prevailed. I had argued with the Almighty, and I had survived. I didn’t magically have all the answers, but my spiritual life began to take on a deepness and a trust and a realness that I had not yet experienced.
Oh, I still have doubts and fears. But I have come to believe, with all my heart, that doubt and fear and anger are not the enemies of faith. They are the practice of faith; sometimes, even, the result of faith. We are doubtful and fearful and angry precisely because we do have faith in the goodness of God and we long to see that goodness in the world. And when it is obscured or slow in coming or seemingly absent altogether, we demand an answer.
The children of Israel were pushed right to their limit. And sometimes so are we. I don’t know why faith works like that. But it does. I travel through the parched and harsh desert of life, again and again and again. And every time I think that this time there won’t be any water, grace gushes from the most unexpected places, the most unexpected people. Streams in the desert. Bread and wine for my starving soul. And I know again, if only for a moment, that the Lord is indeed among us.