Is the Lord Among Us or Not?
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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?” (Exodus 17:7).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“Is the Lord among us or not?” That’s what the Israelites demand at a place called Rephidim. Not, “Why is God letting this happen to us?” Or “What is the Lord up to?”, but “Is God even here like He said He’d be?”
Talk about change. Three chapters ago, in Exodus 14, the Lord had led them across the Red Sea on dry ground before drowning the Egyptian army in pursuit. The people of Israel sang God’s praises for their deliverance in Exodus 15. Then in chapter 16, the people complained that there was no food, and so God fed them with manna and quail in the wilderness. Now the people are openly quarreling with God’s appointed shepherd, testing the Lord. “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Rephidim is not far from Mount Sinai in the Horeb mountain range where Moses had tended sheep for his father-in-law Jethro. As they move forward from the sea, the hills are getting higher, the valleys are getting narrower and full of rocks, and springs of water are nowhere to be found. They’re in a strange land, a little on the tired side, worried about the future and getting thirsty; and as the anxiety mounts, that pillar of cloud that’s been leading them starts to look like just a cloud, not the presence of the Lord. Facing hard times, God’s gracious promises are replaced by their nagging doubts. Whenever adversity comes along, people are immediately tempted to think that God has let them down or left them behind; and it’s no difference for these people in the wilderness. Has God brought them out there to die and then abandoned them? And is Moses His chosen instrument for this drawn-out death sentence? “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Who would have blamed Moses at this point if he felt like taking his staff and going back to tend sheep for Jethro, who still lived nearby! After putting forth every effort to serve the people, they are ready to turn against him as soon as the first trouble arises. Even the most obstinate sheep don’t threaten their shepherd with bodily harm. “What shall I do with this people?” he asks the Lord.
Although the people prove themselves faithless, God remains faithful. He has a plan: “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 does so. At Horeb, he strikes the rock where God stands, and water flows. The people drink and are satisfied because the Lord has provided. Moses names the place “Massah and Meribah,” meaning something like “testing” and “quarreling,” because through their quarreling with Moses, the Israelites are testing the Lord, doubting His faithfulness, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
The Lord answers the question with a definite “yes:” In His mercy, the Lord again gives evidence of His love to these undeserving people. Water flows from the rock, and by that water He keeps His people alive.
It’s a story of miraculous provision, this water flowing from a rock; and that by itself is a reminder of God’s care for His people, including you and me. But there is far more to this story than that: when you hear this story, think of your Savior, for this text (like all Scripture) is given to point you to Christ.
St. Paul explains, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:1–4).
The Israelites of the Exodus were under the cloud—they were led forth by the Lord, who was present with them. They passed away through the sea, and they were baptized in the cloud and in the sea—released from slavery in Egypt by the Lord’s promise attached to the water of the Red Sea that drowned the enemy and made them free. They ate food that the Lord provided. They drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ, says St. Paul—the Lord Jesus was there with His people long before His Incarnation, and He provided them with water to drink that sustained them in the wilderness.
This Lord is your Savior, too. Like Israel, you were once in slavery, too. Not to Pharaoh, but to sin and death. The Lord brought you out of slavery by passing you through the waters of Holy Baptism. He drowned the enemy of your old sinful flesh by water and His Word, and you emerged a new creation, one of God’s holy chosen people. Since then, He has fed you—with every Word that proceeds from His mouth, as well as with the Bread of heaven, His very body and blood. You’re not in the Promised Land of heaven—you’re still in the wilderness with its many hardships and rocky roads; but there is no question that the Lord is with you.
But you’re also made of the same sinful flesh and blood as those Israelites who demanded, “Is the Lord among us or not?” When you’re bogged down with adversity, shadowed by illness or injury, worried about loved ones or your own future, the Gospel just sounds like mere words. Your baptism feels only like a quick splash of water in the distant past, and the Supper feels like an empty ritual of unsubstantial food. It is not that these things have lost their power, that they are no longer the Lord’s means of grace for you. Rather, it’s just that you’re tempted to see your troubles as far more real than the Lord’s promises and deliverance. This danger is real: for if you see your afflictions as greater and more real than the Lord’s promises, then you have made them into a false god! And if you see yourself as beyond God’s help, then you might well just decide to forsake Him.
This is the dangerous temptation to unbelief. Hear how St. Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 10:5-10: “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.”
Beware: The time will come when you will be tempted to doubt and ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?” You may think your quarrel is with a pastor or another Christian who repeats God’s promises to you; but your quarrel is actually with the Lord, who has already redeemed you and numbered you among His people, and promised you His faithfulness.
When that time should come, remember this story of the people of Israel in the wilderness, and remember that the Lord proved His presence and gave them water when Moses struck the rock. But more than that, remembering Paul’s words that “that Rock was Christ,” remember the cross. Up on the hill at Calvary, the people demanded to know, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Except it was with different words: “If you are the Christ, save yourself! Come down from the cross and we will believe,” they declared.
Jesus didn’t come down from the cross. He could have, but He stayed in order to die for the sins of the world, that He might be the Rock, the cornerstone on which the Church is built. As Moses struck the rock and water flowed, the soldier pierced the side of Jesus, and blood and water flowed. Where you are tempted to wonder if the Lord is with you, He says, “Here I am in the waters of Holy Baptism for you.” “This cup is the New Testament in My blood for the forgiveness of sins.”
Is the Lord among us? Absolutely! He is as near to you as His Word and His Sacraments. He forgives your sins and doubts. He promises His presence with you through this wilderness to the Promised Land, for by water and Word He has said to you, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This wilderness will not always be a pleasant place to be; but as our Epistle for today reminds us, the Lord will use the hardships of the journey to strengthen your faith all the more.
In our Gospel, we heard of another barren wilderness—an area of Samaria outside the town of Sychar, at the site of Jacob’s well. There, a Samaritan woman with a scandalous past meets a thirsty stranger who engages her in conversation. And, over the course of the conversation, He reveals to her that He is the Messiah—and that He is there in that thirsty place for her, to forgive her sins and to give her everlasting life—to quench her thirst for redemption. In fact, He declares, “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Jesus doesn’t look like much of a Messiah that day, but rather a weakened man in need of water. But by His Word, He gives to her salvation. The Lord is there with her.
So it is for you. At the cross, Jesus doesn’t look like much of a Messiah, but rather a weakened man who says “I thirst” before His death. He doesn’t question: “Is the Lord among us or not?” but confidently states: “Lord, into your hands I commit My Spirit,” and then He breathes His last. But His death is for you, that He might give you the living water of everlasting life. Though you do not see Him in this wilderness, there is no doubt that He is among you. He speaks His Word to strengthen your faith. He feeds you with His true body and blood. And because the Lord is there with you in His mercy and grace, you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.