“Is the Lord among us or not?”
We can understand why the people of Israel ask that question and maybe it’s a question we’ve asked ourselves at various stages of our lives both as a church and individually.
It’s a question that comes from a place of great uncertainty and confusion, a place of discouragements and setbacks, a place where our doubts threaten to overwhelm our faith.
The people of Israel probably asked that question, “is the Lord among us or not?” while they were still in Egypt enslaved to Pharoah and being treated with harsh injustice.
And when Moses eventually led them out of Egypt and across the water they thought the answer was a definite “Yes, I am with you”. They saw God’s hand at work in delivering them from their captors and they saw God’s presence with them, leading them towards the land He promised them.
But then the going gets tough, the wilderness is an inhospitable and often dangerous place to live and they don’t seem to be getting much nearer that land of promise. The doubts niggle away, they get very hungry and very thirsty and they wonder if it really was God acting to save them. They even begin to think they might have been better off staying in Egypt where at least they had food and water, they might have been slaves but that life was familiar and they had learnt how to cope with it.
The question “Is the Lord among us or not?” is a profound one for the people of Israel. It goes to the heart of their identity and their belief that they are God’s chosen people.
If God is not with them then what’s happened? Has God deserted them and left them to fend for themselves?
Have they in some way angered God so that he is punishing them with hardship and suffering?
And what if they’ve been mistaken throughout generations and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob hasn’t chosen them for himself.
At it’s deepest and most profound level the question may be “Is there a God at all?”
We may not be able to relate to the plight of the people of Israel in the wilderness but I think all of us can probably relate to their experience of confusion, doubt, and fear for the future.
Some of the time our journey of faith is relatively smooth without too many obstacles
or puzzles to trouble us. But sometimes things happen that make us really wonder where God is in our lives.
There are the times when we have no sense of direction or purpose. We sense that we probably “ought” to be progressing towards some unknown goal but God doesn’t seem to be leading or guiding us and it feels more like we’re going round in circles without getting anywhere.
Is God going to show us the way or not?
There are the wilderness times of suffering. The times when our hearts are breaking, we’re grieving or facing serious illness or loss.
Is God going to offer us comfort and relief from the pain, or not?
There are the times of stress – extreme busy-ness that exhausts us and takes all the joy out of life.
Did Jesus come that we may have life in all its abundance, or not?
It’s very honest and very real to have these questions and it’s also very honest and real to be angry when, like the people of Israel, we feel forsaken, lost and confused.
Much later, of course, this time in the wilderness takes its place in the story of God’s people. It turns out to have been a time of suffering and struggle, certainly, but also a time of finding a new identity, of learning to walk more closely with God and to recognise his presence among them.
God’s answer to the people of Israel is “Yes”. It’s Yes when miraculous food from heaven satisfies their hunger and It’s Yes when water suddenly flows from a rock and satisfies their thirst.
When we ask that question God’s answer is “Yes” It’s Yes when life is bleak and grim but a friend holds our hand and stays alongside us. It’s Yes when our faith is shaken by doubt and our prayers dry up but friends pray with us and for us – their faith carrying us until we can walk by ourselves again.
It’s Yes even when that doesn’t feel true and we start to wonder whether God ever has been with us or even whether he exists at all.
No matter how many times we ask that question, “Is the Lord among us or not” I believe the answer will always be “Yes he is, he always has been and he always will be. Thanks be to God.”