When God's Presence is Absent: “Is the Lord among us or not?”


Exodus 17:1-7

17From 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. 2The 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?” 3But 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?” 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5The 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. 6I 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. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Sermon

There is a famous story in India where a Hindu child once said to his playmate: "If you can tell me where God is, I will give you a mango." The playmate replied: "If you can tell me where He is not, I will give you two mangos."


Most religion teaches that God is omnipresent, that God is everywhere, and therefore, nothing can escape God’s presence. Our own faith tradition affirms that claim. Both the Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament are filled with passages bearing witness to the omnipresence of God. Prophet Jeremiah claims, “Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? Declares the Lord” (Jer 23:24). According to Proverbs, “The eyes of the Lord are in every place”(15). Then the Psalmist declares: “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?” (139). Similarly, the author of Acts says, “He is not far from each one of us” (17). These are only a few of many passages acknowledging the all-permeating presence of God.


Yet, it is worth noting that, like everything else around us, the Scriptures are full of contradictions. There are places where the absence of God is overwhelming. The Bible does not always assume that God is present everywhere. There are times when God’s absence is felt and is painfully acknowledged. The same Psalm that affirms God’s omnipresence also acknowledges the divine absence. The Psalmist prays with brutal honesty, complaining when God appeared distant: “Why do you stand afar off, O Lord? Why do you hide Yourself in times of trouble? How long will You hide Your face from me? (10:1, 13:1).


The book of Job is another place where the search for God is a painfully difficult task. Job lost his friends and family, and throughout his suffering, he struggled with God’s apparent absence. The kind of God Job wanted was absent, the one who would fit his notion of fairness, one who would give him whatever he asked for. In his despair, Job poses questions that God doesn’t answer, and he wondered why me? When it got too much, he complained and cursed his life, saying, “I wish I had died in my mother's womb or died the moment I was born.” (3)

In the New Testament, we find Christ on the cross crying: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” his words were not just expressing anguish and dismay. But he felt the divine absence, as he hung on the cross.


And this morning, we meet the Israelites in the wilderness wandering with doubts and questions: “Is the Lord still with us or not?” Maybe, the ancient Israelites feared, they were all alone. Perhaps they are thinking that exiting Egypt was a big mistake.


There is so much doubt expressed in their questioning. There is so much doubt expressed in the Bible. People of faith, at one point or another, have doubted if God is still with us or not. I am sure the question is not foreign to most of us.


What our story of faith suggests is that doubting and questioning is an integral part of faith because it is our faith that leads us into the gulf of the unknown. It is our faith that gives us the courage to risk. And with risk comes the fear of failure. And out of the anticipation of failure and loss, we start to question and doubt our decisions. “Was this the right thing to do?” “Should I have done something differently?” “Have I made the wrong choice?” “Should I have waited a bit longer?”

Our doubts never leave us. Out of our questions emerges something new and novel. Sometimes, if not often, the people who doubt are seen as a project to be fixed. But “Is the Lord among us or not?” is a good and relevant question.


It is difficult to say how it felt to ask it in the Bronze Age, but in 2020, as we know there is no presumed truth, countless books question God and the Bible, most brilliant scientists can peer through the Hubble telescope and see nothing.


We do live in a remarkable epoch. The old certainties and stabilities have been swept away. Questions we thought we’d avoid have come back to haunt us. The extraordinary events of recent years – from the outbreak of coronavirus to Global warming to the rise of violence in the Middle East to the ongoing crises of Gaza Strip… and to add to all this, we know for a fact that the churches around the world are shrinking, that God often seems to have walked off the stage.

In such a time, what better question could there be? Is the Lord among us or not?


We know for sure that the cry ‘where is God?’ echoed through the last century, from the holes of the first world war to the carpet bombing of the second, through the Gulag and Auschwitz, through the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda.


In our present century, we face the same question: “Is the Lord among us or not?” Where is God? Is He still with us, not?


Have you ever asked this question? Have you ever wondered where God is in all this? Is God in the midst of tragedy, be it personal or social? Where is God when we need him the most? When a child suddenly dies; when the earthquake strikes; when a pandemic breaks out; when a house burns down or when the flood comes and when droughts occur.


Is God among us or not? Is God in the gut-wrenching diagnosis, in the shrinking paycheck, in a broken relationship, in the untimely death?


When the Hebrew people asked this question, they were in the wilderness of Rephidim. Maybe they'd misread the signs and thought that God had abandoned them. Newly liberated from slavery, the Israelites have been traveling from place to place under God's command. They've seen pillars of cloud and fire. They've seen manna rain down from the heavens, and quail appear to relieve their hunger.


But now they're camped in the wilderness, water has run out, and dehydration is looming over them. As thirst devolves into panic and panic into a fury, the Israelites confront their leader — and by extension, their God. "Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die of thirst?" they ask Moses. "Give us water to drink!"


There they are reminiscing over the system of oppression - at least they had food and water, so what if Pharaoh and his slave-master were in charge.


Moses is not impressed with their nostalgic outburst. Faced with the angry crowd, he takes their request to God, who asks him to go out in front of the people with the staff in your hand and strike the rock, and the water will come out of it. Moses obeys, and miracle follows.


Then when the ancient Hebrews named this place, Moses called the watering rock "Meribah," and "Massah." Not, "the source of abundant water" or "the rock where the Lord provided," but a place of trial, contention, and strife, reminding all future generations that when their faith was on the line, they felt the divine absence right there in the wilderness; they in fact questioned and doubted God’s presence.


The narrative is a stark reminder that the God we worship is not afraid or offended by our questions and doubts. Is God with us or not is a question that matters today as ever. To ask it is to register our need, our yearning, and our hope. To ask it is to journey into radical freedom, knowing that the God of both wilderness and water is compassionate enough and interested in our questions. It is to know that our faith may lead to difficult places and press us to ask difficult questions.


German theologian Paul Tillich famously writes that “Being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt.” The God we worship invites our inquiry. The God of Abraham and Moses and Jesus is not afraid or offended by our doubting or questioning.


Our faith, it seems, is an exercise of living between the presence and the absence of God. This is the reality of our faith; there is no guarantee that we will always feel the presence of God. But maybe, just maybe, as we go through the moments of joy and sadness, moments of success and failure, through questioning and doubting, we will learn to live in and surrender to the mystery of our faith.


Something of this sort is wonderfully displayed on a wall in a cellar in Köln, Germany, where Jews had hidden from the Nazis, an anonymous author wrote an inscription: "I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. I believe in love, even when not feeling it. I believe in God even when he is silent."…….

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