“Is the LORD among us or not?” That’s the real issue in our text this morning from Exodus chapter 17. Now on the surface it doesn’t seem like it is. Instead it appears as if the issue is water to drink. But if we think it’s only about water, then we have missed the point. The truth is, we often do.
Our text this morning tells us about events that happened after the exodus from Egypt as Israel made her way towards Mt. Sinai. We learn that “Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the LORD, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.” Rescued from Egypt by Yahweh, the people were now making the journey as God had directed. This was God’s show. He had brought them out of Egypt. He had told them the destination toward which they were journeying.
However, the trip hit a snag. The people camped at Rephidim, but there they had no water to drink. Now this was not some kind of manufactured “crisis” like you see trumpeted on social media every day. It was a real problem. Let’s not lose sight of that.
But the bigger problem was how the people of Israel responded to it. We learn in our text, “Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’” The people responded by turning on Moses. For the people, the issue was water. They needed it. They didn’t have it. And so they got angry at Moses and demanded it from him.
Yet in Moses’ response we learn that there was something more important happening. He said to them: “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” The Israelites had come in anger to Moses. They had made demands of Moses. But Moses wasn’t just anybody. He wasn’t there because he had put himself there. Instead, he was Yahweh’s servant. God had put him there to lead the people. To quarrel and dispute with Moses God’s servant about the lack of water was to put God to the test. It was to raise the basic question: “Is Yahweh among us or not?”
Lest we think that this was just a momentary lapse, our text goes on to tell us: “But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?’” The people were all in as they complained. In fact, Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
So God told Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” Moses did this and it produced water, just as God had promised. Finally we learn in our text, “And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’”
“Is the Lord among us or not?” That’s the question Israel raises in our text. The occasion for this question is a lack of water. Let’s be clear: this was a real need. It was a real problem. Israel faced a challenge that was difficult and frightening. Their error was not in recognizing this fact. It was instead the way they responded to it.
Their response was to quarrel with Moses and say, “Give us water to drink.” This was not the action of faith. This was not the language of faith. To speak to God’s servant in this way was to raise the question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” It was to raise the question in a way the asserted a negative answer. No he is not. Because if he were, he would never have let us be in this situation in the first place.
But that is where Israel was wrong. And that is where we are often wrong. We don’t want to experience hardships. We don’t want difficulties. In our way of thinking, we believe that if God really loves us he will use his power to give us nothing but good things. He will shield us from everything bad. And conversely, if we are experiencing bad things then God isn’t doing his job. He has abandoned us. “Is the Lord among us or not?” The answer is obviously no.
But the truth is that God uses these moments. He allows these things because we need them. We need them because we continue to be sinners in whom the old Adam dwells. Until we die or Christ returns there is always part of us that wants to turn away from God. There is part of us that wants to ignore God. There is part of us that wants the all the blessings, while taking God for granted.
We all have seen parents who give their children everything – who spoil them – in spite of the fact they act like ungrateful brats. We recognize that such giving is not loving. Instead, it is only fostering behavior that is detrimental; it is not helping them to become mature individuals who can be a blessing to others.
Scripture teaches us that our heavenly Father acts like a father. Proverbs says, “My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” The writer to the Hebrews quotes this text and then adds: “Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.”
God does allow things to occur in our life that we don’t want. They are things that we don’t like. They are experiences that crucify the sin – the old Adam – within us. That’s not something that is enjoyable. But they are also experiences that force us to turn away from ourselves and to turn towards him. And that is God’s goal – to turn us towards him in faithful trust and dependence.
In our text God says to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.” Yahweh tells Moses to take his staff with him. God had given that staff to Moses when he called him at the burning bush. Moses had been instructed to use it to bring the plagues upon Egypt. He had been ordered to use it when God parted the Red Sea and rescued the Israelites from the Egyptian army. That staff had a history – it was tied to God’s action that had rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. It had been part of God’s action to redeem Israel.
Next Yahweh said, “Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” We probably focus on the action of Moses striking the rock with the staff. But the most important part of this statement are the words: “I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb.” Yahweh said that he would be there. “Is the LORD among us or not?” It was a foolish question.
“Is the LORD among us or not?” It is still a foolish question no matter what is happening in your life. For proof, we look to the cross. This too has been tied to God’s action that has rescued us from slavery to sin and death. In fact, it has been the means by which God has redeemed us through the death of his Son, Jesus Christ.
Before Jesus Christ, the cross had never been a symbol of peace and comfort. But then again, everyone who had ever died on the cross had stayed dead. Jesus Christ didn’t. Instead, on the third day he rose from the dead. By passing through death he defeated death. He emerged from the tomb as the risen Lord, who has now been exalted to the right hand of God in his ascension and exercises all authority.
“Is the LORD among us or not?” In the incarnation, the Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us. He was Immanuel – God with us. And he is still Immanuel. He is Immanuel – God with us – through the preaching of his word. He is God with us as he forgives our sins in Holy Absolution. And in the Sacrament of the Altar he is true God and true man still with us today.
God is with us through all these means as the Holy Spirit gives us forgiveness and strengthens us in faith. As God allows experiences to enter our life that demonstrate our helplessness he turns us toward himself, the One who is present for us. He is present to sustain us. He is present through his Means of Grace to enable us to grow and mature as Christians – as his children.
So if you are facing challenges this morning; if God has allowed circumstances to enter your life that reveal you are not in control – circumstances for which the only hope and help is God – don’t be surprised. This is what God does because we need it. This is what God does because he loves us with a love far more pure than the self-love we lavish upon ourselves.
Yet because of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus and his Means of Grace there is absolutely no doubt about the answer to the question, “Is the LORD among us or not?” Of course he is. Come now to the Sacrament where Immanuel will be God with us in his true body and blood. Through this he will forgive your sins. Through this he will comfort you and strengthen your faith. Through this he will come to us now and provide the assurance that he will come in glory on the Last Day so that we never are tempted to ask the question again.