PONDERING THE QUESTION
September 28, 2014 by Ken Dale
The question is: ?Is the Lord with us or not???? The context for us this morning is the people of Israel. In Bible study this past Wednesday our text came from Exodus 14 ? the central event for the people of Israel and an event that is lifted before them constantly so they remember who God is and what God does. The Exodus is a powerful event. God acts directly for the people ? even jamming the wheels of the Egyptian chariots as that army perishes in the sea that has been parted so the Hebrew people can be freed. Remember that scene with Charlton Heston? And add to that the pyrotechnics of pillar of fire and cloud! Wow! It?s God against Pharaoh and God wins big time ? and it?s all for those people.
But how short is their memory. Last Sunday in our pre-mustache-failure reading from Exodus 16 we heard of the people getting hungry ? and in verse 2 we read ?The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness??If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt?for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.??? And today in the next chapter verse 2 ?The people quarreled with Moses and said, ?Give us water to drink??. why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst??
It?s an interesting contrast isn?t it? The story of God?s mighty acts in chapter 14 is followed by the Song of Moses in chapter 15 which proclaims ?The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father?s God, and I will exalt him?? But in chapters 16 and 17 they are complaining to Moses thinking it would have been better to be back in Egypt. And Moses cries out to God, ?What shall I do with this people?? It’s early in their 40 years of wanderings. So they have recent, vivid memories of the miraculous presence of God who saves them through the plagues and rescues them from Pharaoh’s army as the waters are split open for their escape across the Red Sea. They have been led by the pillar of fire and even receive manna and quail to fill their stomachs. These Israelites, have each experienced the work of God first hand in the darkest of circumstances. Peter Gomes says They have evidence. But what they want is personal satisfaction. Can we relate? “I’m hungry!? I’m thirsty! I’m lonely! I’m broke! I’m hurt! I’m sick! What will you do about it God? Are you with me or not?” Faith is affirmed as long as results are immediate, but what about the long pauses of silence and stillness when darkness descends and there is no response from God? What happens when the promotion doesn’t come, the championship game is lost, the diagnosis is cancer, the marriage cannot be saved, a child will never get well ? those times in life when we find ourselves in the wilderness without a water fountain in sight? “Is the Lord among us or not?” Suddenly wilderness becomes a state of mind and spirit for anyone who attempts faith.
If we look at the story we see that God is still there. It is a matter of God?s grace once again ? the God who gives. And in this story God seems not to mind being put to the test ? and responds with bread in the morning and with water from a rock. I can?t help but notice that what they need is actually right there in front of them. Granted the bread in the morning is something different ? but the water from the rock is right there ? they just had to break through the surface. That?s a powerful thought-provoking image!
It makes me think of the Wizard of Oz. The Tin Man wanted a heart, the Scarecrow wanted a brain, and the Lion wanted courage. And in their efforts to help Dorothy and Toto they discovered they already had what they were seeking. It was discovered as they helped one another.
In the gospel lesson we get yet another parable ? brief and to the point. Two sons who are told by their Dad to work in the field. One says yes and doesn?t, and the other says no and does. Then comes the question ? which of the two did the will of his father? The answer is obvious that it is the first ? the one who did regardless of what he said. The point in the parable is aimed at those to whom Jesus speaks ? the chief priests and elders ? the religious authorities of the day. Jesus’ point is that they know what to say ? they say the right things about belief, they stand for the right things, but do they do that which God calls them to? Jesus thinks ?not!?
How do we hear the parable? I?ve long loved and been personally challenged by the ol? adage ?the road to hell is paved with good intentions.? Sometimes in our minds we have such good intentions that we feel we have done things we have really only thought about doing. Think about it ? sending a card, visiting a sick friend, reconciling or mending a broken relationship, writing a check to support that good and worthy cause, or offering some other ?in kind? support ? including yourself – that act of goodness and kindness for the benefit of others or those in need – and we all have our lists ? I know I?ve got mine! We need to do those good intentions.
But the point is not to do it out of guilt ? but to do it out of a sense that it is the right thing to do ? it is the thing that God calls us to do. Hearing this story, we may think that Jesus just outsmarted the Pharisees by using their own methods against them, but I think nothing would have made Jesus any happier than to have the Pharisees understand the joy of living their faith. To go back to last Sunday?s parable of the vineyard workers ? the joy of working in that vineyard. Jesus wants them to learn a better way, to stop thinking that holding the right opinions is enough and to start caring with hands as well as heart. ?Jesus is suggesting that they trade in their beliefs for a fresh experience of God, but they couldn?t bring themselves to do that. ?In this church I would love to see more joy, such as that seen in those who worked on the Bike Maine event and in the joy I felt when I bought a bunch of boxes of crayons for the school bags we?re making for Church World Service. The lady at the counter said, ?Boy, you?re going to be doing a lot of coloring.? I thought ? not me but somebody will be! There?s been a great response on that school bag project ? and I hope all involved have experienced that joy. We need to experience the joy of more ?hands on mission? together ? certainly the opportunities are there.
Paul certainly captures it in our reading from Philippians this morning:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.