Five weeks ago, I was already planning to preach on the people’s complaint against Moses’ leadership as they travelled through the wilderness in Exodus 17:1-7. Two weeks ago, I was in touch with a member of our liturgy team about my sermon title and the music for our worship. One week ago, I already had a rough outline, and last Friday I tweeted out my progress: “Working on my sermon for this Sunday: “The Lord Among Us”–with the people of Exodus 17:1-7, with us today in light of #COVID19, with us always #amsermonwriting.”
Earlier that week, I had wondered whether we might cancel our worship service, and each day the concerns continued to mount. The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Our provincial health officer discouraged all non-essential travel outside of Canada, asked for fourteen days of self-isolation for anyone returning from another country, and the cancellation of gatherings larger than 250 people.
Given the recommendations, our small congregation could have gathered for worship yesterday as usual, but like many other churches in our area, we decided to cancel out of concern for everyone’s health and safety, as part of what it means to love our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). And instead of preaching yesterday in the company of the whole congregation, I decided to share my sermon here along with some other helpful resources.
The Lord Among Us
“Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7). One preacher says that “this is the enduring question of all human beings.” It’s a question that many of us might ask at some point in our lives. When difficulty strikes. When we wrestle with questions and don’t like any of the answers. When we walk through the valley of the shadow of loss and death. Even when things go well, and we credit our own hard work and thank our family and friends, and forget that every good gift comes from God.
“Is the Lord among us or not?” When we don’t have a regular worship service. When social distancing means that we’re kept apart and feel less “us” than we might otherwise. When coronavirus and pandemic give rise to a wide range of responses from indifference to fear, from measured responses to hoarding. “Is the Lord among us or not?”
In the story of Exodus 17, the Israelite community faced a very real physical threat. Not a coronavirus spreading from country to country. But a threat to their small community travelling from the Desert of Sin to Rephidim. Today no one knows where the Desert of Sin was—but it wasn’t some metaphor for sin in the sense of trespass or debt or wrongdoing. It was a literal desert–a hot dry land—and the people travelled from there to Rephidim.
Today no one knows exactly where Rephidim used to be either. But the name is related to a Hebrew verb that means to “refresh” or “rest.” So we might take this to mean that the people travelled from the hot dry desert to a place of “refreshment.” Or since Rephidim is a plural form, we might say “resting places.”
The people might well have expected water at a place of refreshment and rest, but to their dismay and despair, there was no water, no refreshment after the hot, dry desert. This was the physical threat they faced. For to be in the desert without water was a death sentence—for them as individuals and as a community. So when the people complained to Moses, “Give us water to drink,” their concerns were well founded. They weren’t exaggerating when they questioned and accused him: “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” Without water, that could happen.They were in real danger.
So the people confronted Moses. Our text says they “quarreled” with him. And Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me?”
Today we might think of a quarrel as a rather trivial disagreement—like the quarrel of children over a toy or a quarrel over the last cookie. But I discovered that in this Exodus story, the specific Hebrew word translated as quarrel is actually a technical word, a legal word. So when the text says that the people “quarreled” it was as if the people were making a formal legal charge against Moses and his leadership.
In Canada today, we know that a prime minister can be removed from office by a successful no-confidence vote. In the United States, a president can be removed from office if an impeachment trial is successful. But when the Israelite people challenged Moses’ leadership, they sought the most severe penalty in the ancient world—the penalty of stoning. As Moses himself cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
This was not the first time the people had complained to Moses about water. Two chapters earlier in Exodus 15, the people had made their first stop in the wilderness at a place called Marah which means “bitter.” It was aptly named because the water there was bitter and undrinkable. So the people grumbled against Moses,
What are we to drink?
Then Moses cried out to the Lord at Marah, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood.
Moses threw the wood into the water, and the water became fit to drink.
In Exodus 15, God did a miracle at Marah to provide fresh water for the people, and in Exodus 17, God did another miracle to provide water for the people. Only this time, instead of showing Moses a piece of wood, God said to him,
Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel
and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.
I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb.
Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.
Moses turned to God, and God again gave the people water!
United Methodist minister Liz Goodman contrasts all of the loose stones in the wilderness with the stone that God used to give water to the people. Those loose stones were potential weapons, objects of threat, that the people could use to stone Moses. “How astonishing, then,” writes Goodman, “that the Lord chooses a stone as the source for a surprising wellspring….The worst threat becomes a wellspring of promise” (Sunday’s Coming from the Christian Century).
From that time, the place was known as Massah (which means “test”) and Meribah (which means “argument”).
Years later Psalm 95:8-9 would refer to this same place and this same time, saying:
Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your ancestors tested me; they tried me,
though they had seen what I did.
Even though the people had seen God miraculously provide water for them in Exodus 15, they still tested God through Moses in Exodus 17.
In Psalm 95, the place names serve as warnings: Don’t test God. Don’t argue against God. Remember how the people complained, and God acted in a powerful way. The same God at work in the past is the same God at work today. Psalm 95 underscores this by praising God in the opening verse: “Come let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.” (Psalm 95:1).
In fact, while the Psalm includes the warning from the story in Exodus 17, that’s a very small part of the psalm. Most of Psalm 95 is given over to praise:
For the Lord is the great God,
the great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.
Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;
for he is our God
and we are the people of his pasture,
the flock under his care. (verses 3-7)
Greater than the small stones in the wilderness that posed a threat in Exodus 17, greater even than the rock that provided water for the people to drink, in the words of Psalm 95, God is the “Rock of our salvation” (Psalm 95:1).
“Is the Lord among us or not?” For the Israelite people, YES, God was among them—the One who brought them out of Egypt, the One who provided water in the wilderness, the One who would be their Rock of salvation as Psalm 95 puts it. And for us today, YES, God is among us: when we face difficulty and joy, disappointment and victory, and even when we face a physical threat like COVID-19, God is with us always.
In 2009, MennoMedia published an adult study guide called Beyond Our Fears: Following Jesus in Times of Crisis. The reason for the book was clearly set out in the introduction:
For several years, medical authorities have been warning that the world is due to experience a serious flu virus on a global scale, equal to or greater than the flu pandemic of 1918. Despite our advanced medical technology, they warn, thousands of people will die, and many more will become sick. People will fear for their health. Naturally, people will want to protect themselves.
How will [we] respond to a flu pandemic? How will [we] respond to any other kind of crisis—whether a pandemic, a natural disaster, or even an outbreak of violence or warfare? . . . .
No one likes to think of disasters and pandemics. But crisis has always been a fact of human existence, and it can hit without warning. One problem for us in [North America] is that our technology and our wealth have led us to expect that we are immune; still, crises do come to our doorstep, as we have seen in Hurricane Katrina of 2005 and the SARS crisis of 2003.
In other countries, people are living with crises that are hard for us to imagine. Our Christian brothers and sisters in sub-Saharan Africa are coping with the AIDS pandemic, as well as other health problems such as malaria and malnutrition. Others deal with the unspeakable damage wrought in the tsunami of 2006 in Southeast Asia. Still others, living in Colombia, Iraq, and Palestine, live in the context of armed conflict.
The quote from 2009 ends there, and now—11 years later—we could add other crises to the list. We’re living in the middle of one now.
Yet even at this time, we are called to follow Jesus. Even at this time we can be assured of God’s care, just as God cared for the people of Exodus 17.
So today and in the days ahead, let us love the Lord our God with all of our heart and soul and mind and strength, and love our neighbours as ourselves—including our neighbours in the church, in our wider community, and world.
We don’t need to hoard supplies, but rather leave enough for others. We don’t need to act only in our own interests but to act in ways that protect others, especially those who are most vulnerable. Let us pray for the sick, the dying, the lonely, the fearful. Let us support health care workers and caregivers and others with special responsibilities. Let us pray for leaders and nations and for all people whatever crisis they face—for God’s wisdom, provision, healing, and hope.
Other Helpful Resources
Pandemic Resources from MennoMedia
MennoMedia is offering pandemic resources for free download:
- Beyond Our Fears: Following Jesus in Times of Crisis leader’s guide
- Beyond Our Fears: Following Jesus in Times of Crisis participant’s guide
- Don’t Be Afraid: Stories of Christians in Times of Trouble for ages 9-12 years
The following are excerpts only, so in each case, please use the link to see the entire prayer.
A Coronavirus Prayer
by Kerry Weber
Whether we are home or abroad, surrounded by many people suffering from this illness or only a few, Jesus Christ, stay with us as we endure and mourn, persist and prepare. In place of our anxiety, give us your peace.
Jesus Christ, heal us.
A Prayer for the Global Health Crisis
by Carlos Colón
O God our help in ages past, the God who heals and comforts; our Maker, and the Maker of wonders; the one who alone is worthy to be praised: incline your ear to us, and grant, in your mercy, the prayers of your people.
As we have hoarded our resources,
And in doing so
Have abandoned our witness.
As we have desired control,
And in doing so
Have not loved our neighbor.
Comfort the afflicted among us.
In their loneliness, provide care.
In their sickness, provide health.
In their weariness, provide rest.
We grieve the contagious fear that we consume and spread.
by Carol Penner
In these times of shutdowns and slowdowns,
when travel is restricted or banned,
as routines are disrupted and we spend
less time together or more time together,
help us zero in on what is essential.
Thank you that love is also contagious
and stronger than any virus.
You will be with us,
and we will be with each other
in sickness and in health.
for more encouragement and resources on doing ministry better,