What do you expect when you come along to church? Do you expect to come away feeling like you’ve just had the most amazing experience ever being blessed by being in the presence of God? Do you feel like you’ve had that mountain top experience like Peter, James and John when Jesus appeared before them in dazzling white speaking with Moses and Elijah and you just don’t want to leave or you can’t wait to come back again? Or maybe not.
Maybe you’ve come along to church and gone away feeling less than ordinary. Maybe you’ve come back from Holy Communion and felt no different. Maybe you’ve come along to sing your heart out and found hymns so difficult to sing or songs you’ve never heard of and you’ve wondered – what’s the point. Maybe the service has ended and people are saying how great the sermon was and you can’t even remember a word that was spoken. Maybe you’ve spent your whole time trying to keep your child quiet and not taken anything in. Maybe you’ve come along and no one has spoken to you or noticed that you’re visibly upset. Or maybe you missed a week and nobody noticed.
These are among the many experiences that I hear about and experiences that I too have felt. They are experiences that make us wonder like Israel and ask – “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7) Questions of faith don’t get any more basic than that, do they? “Is the Lord among us or not?”
It is the question the disgruntled Israelites asked in the desert. At times it is our question too to our experience with God. But why did the Israelites ask this question? After all that the Israelites had witnessed God doing it’s amazing that they still ask whether or not God is with them. But one thing it does show – if we judge God’s presence with us on physical proof it will never last.
No matter what God does for us today, as soon as something bad happens we will question our faith. And that’s why Jesus resisted the people’s request for more and more miracles. Because they kept asking for more and more. And that’s what happens when your faith is based on personal experience. We then begin to look for worship and church life for reasons that don’t build up our faith but entertain us. And all of a sudden worship becomes even more meaningless and boring even though initially it was very entertaining. So we need to think about our reason as to why we come to church. Is it to be entertained or to be nourished by God’s presence with us?
God had worked powerfully on Israel’s behalf to rescue them from Egyptian slavery. Once freed they had no sooner set out across the desert when they “… grumbled against Moses and Aaron. Their thinking became very irrational: Why couldn’t we have died in the land of Egypt instead of coming into this desert to die of famine?” Even though God had performed a great number of miracles the people did not trust that God would continue to care for them.
Grumbling became the Israelites’ way of life and how they dealt with adversity. In their anger they turn on Moses as representative of God. At one stage they even asked Aaron to make new gods for them- a golden calf which they thanked for leading them out of Egypt. (Exodus 32) Moses becomes the focus of their anger, but they are really angry with God. They grumbled for food, now they need water. They complained to Moses and once again God provides for them. Despite their lack of trust, God brings forth water from a rock. Their faith in God was so shallow: God has freed them from slavery, fed them in the desert, given them water from a rock and promised to give them care and guidance during their 40-year journey. But they will continue to grumble and distrust God each time adversity struck.
We have a lot to learn from this lesson from Israel. As we read their experience we know there was never a time when the Lord was not with them. But in their experience they believed otherwise. God provides for us each day but sometimes we believe otherwise. We are reminded again and again of our dependence on God and God’s gracious generosity towards us in the Prayer Jesus taught us. “Give us this day our daily bread.” But it is so easily forgotten.
So too we can easily forget what church and worship are and that God has promised to be here with us and for us. And when we come away from worship feeling uninspired we can feel like saying – Is the Lord among us or not. So rather than look at what we want to get out of worship we need to keep looking again at what God brings in worship – and for that we look to Paul who details what God brings: We are justified by faith, We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
We have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; We have the glory of God. This may not be what we feel but it’s what we have.
There are times when I don’t feel saved – but I look to what God has promised. What I feel and what I know are 2 different things – and which one do you think Satan works on? When we have our faith based on what we have rather than what we feel, we then have strength for those times when we would question our faith, as Paul again says: We know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and 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. So while suffering may be what we experience, raising lots of doubts and questions, God’s love being poured into our hearts is what we have been given.
If our faith is based on what we want and what we experience then suffering places a huge challenge to our faith. And we see those churches that base their faith on experience say things like, if you had more faith you would be healed – or you are suffering because you don’t have enough faith. And so the Israelite’s faith in God began to waiver every time their experience became negative. And we then begin to question God’s love for us and as the Israelites concluded because of their experience – Is the Lord among us or not.
For Paul, God was always among us, particularly in those times when our human experience would suggest otherwise with statements like: For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. And God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8) In 2nd Corinthians Paul spoke about the power of Christ resting on him in those times of suffering (2 Corinthians 12:9) – times when we might be tempted to ask – is the Lord among us or not.
God doesn’t prove his love for us by preventing difficult times in our lives. No, God affirms his love for us by drawing near to us like a loving parent draws near to their child when they are suffering. When a child suffers it doesn’t mean the parent doesn’t love them. But what suffering produces in a parent is an empathy that draws them even closer. And for those of you who are parents you know that you would gladly take their suffering on yourself. And that is what God has done as God made him who had no sin to become sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). The sweet exchange of the father for his children. That’s the reality of God’s love for us even if we don’t feel it.
The problem with dealing with experiences is that they vary. What happens in one situation may not necessarily happen the next time. What happens for one person may not happen for another. You may pray for healing and are healed but next time the healing doesn’t come. I’ve seen it so many times. Faith is about promise and promise is about trust. That’s what Israel didn’t do – they didn’t trust that God would provide for them. That was the basis of the very first sin with Adam and Eve – they didn’t trust God and wanted to be like God instead. Jesus resisted that temptation to turn rocks into bread and knew God would provide. He didn’t grumble and he didn’t fail to trust. And he took that trust right to the cross.
Sometimes our life experience make us question God as even Jesus did when he cried out – my God, my God why have you forsaken me. But he would learn that God didn’t forsake him and he won’t ever forsake you. That’s God’s promise and it’s not about how we feel but about what God has promised. Is God among us or not? God is certainly among us as he promised in the living waters of our baptism – I am with you always. And he is certainly among you when you receive Holy Communion. This IS my body. This IS my blood.
Is God among us? Yes he is because that is what he has promised.