“Is the Lord among us or not?” It’s an interesting question asked by Israel and a question that many Christians have most likely asked when times of difficulty arise. “Is the Lord among us or not?” It’s different to a person who doesn’t believe in God who might say – there is no God when tragedy strikes. How can there be a god when there is so much evil.
Israel didn’t disbelieve in God’s presence but pondered “is the Lord among us or not”. Israel asked that question because after Moses had led them out of Egypt they encountered periods of difficulty in the wilderness where there was no food or water.
As we follow Israel on their journey from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land of Canaan, it seems that despite all that God had done for them in the past it mattered nothing to them each time they faced difficulty. God had protected them from the 10 plagues that ravished Egypt including protection from the destroying angel that took the life of every firstborn in the land known as the Passover. He led them out but when they faced the Red Sea and couldn’t go further they cried out: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” Moses parted the Red Sea and they went through on dry ground while the Egyptians were swept away when they followed and chased after them. The Israelites were ecstatic and sang a song about the event. Which leads us to today’s reading.
They are still in the wilderness and there is no water: 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?” It is a human tendency to question God in difficult times and wonder why suffering happens. Despite all the goodness and favours we receive from God in our lifetime we tend to judge God on what we presently face. Let us thank God that he doesn’t judge us on those one occasions when we mess up through sin.
St Paul saw suffering differently to the point where he said today: We boast in our sufferings – or in some translations – we rejoice in our sufferings. How could he say that? Because for Paul he saw suffering as a reminder that this life is not where we put our hope in. And he explains that later in Romans chapter 8 when he says – I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. Paul also saw suffering as an opportunity to increase our faith when says 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.
Israel never got to that point of growth because every time they faced a time of suffering they grumbled about God and wanted to go back to Egypt.
And so when they entered into the Promised Land they were easily led astray by the foreign gods of the people in the land because their gods seemed to have more to offer. As Christians we need never doubt “is the Lord among us or not” because he has promised in our Baptism – I am with you always till the end of the age. And he confirms that when we come to Holy Communion that he is among us – here – take and eat – this IS my body – take and drink – the IS my blood.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans he confirms God’s presence among us: Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. Maybe at times it feels like God is absent but he never is.
Even Jesus experienced that absence at the peak of his suffering on the cross – my God, my God, why have you abandoned me. But the book of Hebrews reveals the mystery in that suffering much like Paul did today.
The writer says – But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters That does not sound like a God who is absent from us.
But our experiences vary. The early church had a term for the experience called – Deus Absconditus – the God who absconds – the God who is hidden. Referring to a God who has withdrawn from the immediate details of the governing of the world. And that’s how we often experience God. Like the 2 disciples on the road to Emmaus. They walked forlorn – heads bowed down in despair because they thought Jesus was the one.
They tell of their regret to the stranger walking with them. The stranger being the hidden Jesus. So although their present experience was of an absent Jesus, he was closer than they actually realised.
He walks, talks and opens Scripture. He then breaks bread and their eyes are open but then he immediately disappears.
This too is our experience. We experience God at certain times – in Word and Sacrament but then he seems to abscond. Is the Lord among us or not. So we go back to where God has revealed himself. To our Baptism.
To God’s Word in our Bibles. To the Lord’s Table to receive his body and blood. And then we take God with us into the world and we become the presence of God to others. We are God’s light in the darkness of the world.
Paul also describes this hidden God in Colossians 3 when he writes: You died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Is the Lord among us or not? Indeed he is and we need never doubt that for the one who said “I am with you always” is trustworthy and true.