The imperceptible helping presence of God

A sermon for Proper 21

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

So last week it was some two and a half months into their wilderness journey when the Israelites began to complain about the lack of breakfast and dinner. This morning, well we don’t know how long it’s been. I looked at a map that marks the Exodus journey, and it’s near as far from Sin to Rephidim, as it is from the sea to Sin. That wasn’t much help, because we really don’t know where Rephidim nor Sin actually are. We do know Horeb and Sinai are the same place. The Bible tells us that in chapter 19 they get to Saini, so if they don’t get to Sanai until then, how do they draw water at Horeb/Saini in chapter 17, as we read today? Cartographers are scratching their heads. Theologians remind us “Hey – Horeb means mountain of God.” (Hoezee) essentially: this is where God is. And since Israel is asking “Is God with us or not?” let’s not worry about there where of this mystery, let’s learn from what’s happening.

For the third time since their departure Israel faces extreme thirst hunger (Ex 16:1) or thirst (Ex 15:25). Before they complained. Today they quarrel. Quarreling does more than raise the emotional level. The root of ‘quarrel’ is a legal dispute. (Portier-Young) (Harrelson) Walter Brueggmann notes “Israel isn’t complaining about being thirsty, they are demanding proof that God is present.” He writes:

The only evidence of Yahweh’s presence that Israel will accept is concrete action that saves. Thus Israel collapses God’s promise into its own well-being and refuses to allow Yahweh any life apart from Israel’s well-being. (Brueggemann)

Terence Fretheim notes, they are seeking a way to coerce God to act, (Fretheim) much like Satan is tempting Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple to goad God to act. (Brueggemann)

We all know Jesus tells Satan “… it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Mat 4:5ff) So we know testing God is a dangerous idea. But the real danger here, is perverting the relationship with God. Israel has essentially tried to place God at their beck and call. Moses isn’t really much better. Yes he turns to God, but not to seek help for Israel; he’s asking God to save his skin. (Brueggemann)

This behavior leads to two sorts of unfaithful and dangerous behaviors. The first is to not take reasonable precautions, like wearing seat belts, while proudly proclaiming “God is my protection.” The second, and in my experience, is more prevalent, leads people to think, and say “God did not heal me/you because I/you don’t have enough faith.” (Fretheim) I don’t know about you, I’ve heard both. Both are flat out corruption that reduces faith to utilitarianism, (Brueggemann) a philosophy that seeks the good for the most, of greater concern,  its focus is consequences, not inherent value or motives; ( utilitarianism) and consequently ignores those frequent times when our way, our desire is not God’s way nor God’s desire. In many respects it reduces God to a product that commercials do their best to convince you will not only solve your immediate problem, but subliminally suggest it will transform your life beyond your imagination. (Ashley) (Brueggemann)

Now we all know stories of floods (Gen 7) and fire (Gen 19) and pillars of salt (Gen 19:26) and plagues (Ex 7) and the wrath of God. So we might be taken back a bit by God’s response. There is no wrath, no scolding, not even a moment of “Now listen here …,” ~ there is none of that. (Hoezee) God tells Moses, “Get your staff, take some leaders; go to the rock at Horeb. I will be there; strike the rock and water will come out of it so the people may drink.” That’s it; ~ and not.

Moses used that very same staff, to make the waters of Nile undrinkable (Ex. 7:17). Once again, Moses is God’s manifestation of a divine extension of creation. In turning the Nile red with blood, in holding back and returning the waters of the sea, God, through Moses, demonstrates divine creative activity. Here a creative act provides Israel with water; and as water is essential to life, it’s also another gift of life.  (Petersen and Beverly Roberts Gaventa) (Fretheim) That water is under rock formations in the area does not negate God’s hand at work. Once again God is working through the natural and through the human (this time Moses) to provide blessings, and to give life to God’s people.

We are in the midst of our own wilderness trek. Though we are not likely to run out of water, indeed if you ask the road engineers we’ve an overabundance of the stuff, but, we have faced experiences that give rise to the questions “Is God here?” or “Has God abandoned us?” As God is imperceptibly standing in front of Israel at Horeb, God is imperceptibly here. God did not abandon Israel in the Sin dessert, God has not and will not abandon us here. That is not to say that God will grant us every wish. 1. Not every wish we desire is life giving, and 2. God’s ways and timings are not ours. So, while it is desirable to express our concerns to God, it is also desirable that we seek God’s reply and presence, which, by this morning’s story, is likely to be discerned in nature and/or in/or by family, friend, or stranger. And when we experience the presence of God, it’s our calling, actually a requirement of our baptism, to share it; in reality to seek and share it. (BCP 304)

When a community or a church has questions of God’s presence, when a church seeks God’s voice, God’s guidance, it’s the work of all the leaders, of all the people. Not all the work is the same, nonetheless, everyone is a part of: the questioning, the seeking, and the discerning process. It’s hard work. I’m not so sure ours is as hard as Israel’s trek across the desert, at least it’s not as physically challenging. I am sure we are not alone. I want to go back to our Baptismal Covenant. Not the proclamation of faith, which is critical, not the praxis vows, which are equally important, but to the response we make as each vow is presented: “I will, with God’s help.”

So, by the circumstance of numbers we find ourselves called to discern a new or different way of being Church, in the Episcopal tradition in the Delta in the 21st century. It’s not a rite of the church but rather a necessity of the church. We might hear the calling “Will you seek a way to be the church right here, right now?” In my heart I know our reply “We will, with God’s help.” Amen.

Works Cited

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Ashley, Rev. Dana’e. Sermons that Work. 28 9 2014.

Brueggemann, Walter. The New Intrepreter’s Bible. Ed. Leander E Keck. Vol. Exodus. Abbingdon Press, 2003.

Fretheim, Terence E. Interpretation A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING. Ed. Patrick D Miller, Jr. and Paul J. Achtemeier. Vol. Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Exodus 3:1-15. 28 9 2014. <;.

Petersen, David and Beverly Roberts Gaventa. New Interpreters’ Bible, One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abbingdon Press, 2010. ebook.

Portier-Young, Anathea. “Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7.” 28 9 2014. <;.

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