Exodus 17:1-7

Despite the constant reminder that God was with them not only in the form of verbal promises, but visually and tangibly in the form of the pillar of cloud and fire which guided the Israelites they questioned God’s presence “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7).

Recently in speaking to people and reflecting on Covid-19 people questioned, where is God in this pandemic.  Has God gone on holiday?  Have you wondered where God is at this time or at other times in your life?  Have there been times in the past that you have questioned this but now in hindsight can see God was present? 

I find it is easier to see God in hindsight although even then it can be hard like in the famous Footprints poem who’s authorship is debated:

One night I had a dream.
I dreamed I was walking along the beach
with the Lord.

Across the sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of
footprints in the sand,
one belonging to me, and the other to the Lord.

When the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that many times along the path of my life
there was only one set of footprints.
I also noticed that it happened at the very lowest
and saddest times in my life.

This really bothered me
and I questioned the Lord about it:
“Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you,
you’d walk with me all the way.
But I have noticed that during the most
troublesome times in my life
there is only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why
when I need you most you would leave me.”

The Lord replied:
“My precious child, I love you and would
never leave you.
During your times of trial and suffering,
when you see only one set of footprints, it was then
that I carried you.”

In addition to God’s visual presence, the Israelites also had the daily reminder of God’s caring provision in the form of manna, which arrived six days a week. Signs of divine activity were everywhere and yet the Israelites continued to complain and “quarrelled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” (Exodus 17:3).  The Hebrew word for “quarrel” often refers to legal disputes, but in non-legal contexts, as this one is, it is usually translated as “strive” or “struggle” which suggests open antagonism between Moses and the people.  Despite all God has done the difficulty of the journey has eroded the people’s trust. Hostility has now replaced belief, and Moses is afraid for his life. He asks, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me” (Exodus 17:4).

In your experience what is it about the hard times that can get in the way of faith and trust?  Is it just human nature?

The people blame Moses.  Israel had still not learned a crucial lesson: where God leads, God provides. But before we criticize the Israelites too severely, we should note that they are not only on a journey through the wilderness, they are also on a journey of transformation.  They are being transformed from an earlier existence as an enslaved people to that of an independent nation. They are learning a new way of being a new way of seeing the world.  As they learn the new, they have to unlearning the old.  The old habits of domination of slavery and subjugation.  It is difficult, painful, and patient work. It is not something that happens quickly.  It takes generations.

This is not the last time the people of Israel face an identity crisis.  Later when they become exiled by Babylon they again need to figure out who they are and how they be in the new situation they find themselves. The pain of this is expressed so well in Psalm 137 and inspired the song “Rivers of Babylon” a Rastafari song written and recorded by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of the Jamaican reggae group The Melodians in 1970 and re-popularised in Europe by the 1978 Boney M. cover version.  You can listen Boney M’s version by clicking on the link:

Covid-19 has required us to ask ourselves how we worship and be the church in a new way.  Even when we regather for worship it will be different.  We are not able to sing, we will need to be spaced out, we can not mingle with each other before and after the service.  It has made me ask some questions:

  • How do we sing the Lord’s song when we cannot sing?
  • How do we show love to one another when we can’t shake hands or embrace? We can’t even sit close to each other.
  • How do we show hospitality when we can not enjoy a cuppa and morning tea with each other after the service?

As the Israelites experienced hardship we see some familiar dynamics at work, the tendency to find someone else to blame.  We see this tendency in humanity from the fall onward; when Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge and began hiding from God and shying away from responsibility.  Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake; neither take responsibility and turn to God in repentance.  This is sin and it is this that separates us from God for God is always waiting, wanting to forgive if only we would turn in repentance. 

We still look for someone to blame when we find ourselves in difficult situations.  We look for the scape goat who can take the fall for us.  And rather than turn to God we look for other people to fix it.  Maybe we do that because they then conveniently become the scape goat.  We can avoid the difficult discussion of why God allows bad things to happen, and how we are complicit in the problem.  

When we think of climate change and even the pandemic in what ways are humans complicit in the problems?

Here the people attribute blame to Moses.  Faced with the many challenges on the Earth, we all face the temptation to either blame others, expect someone else (governments, corporations) to fix it, or avoid facing up to a difficult bigger picture.

In response to Israel’s murmuring, God provides a miracle: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink’” (Exodus 17:5-6).

The responsibility to attest to the presence of God is not left up to Moses but is the work of the team.  This story makes clear that the position of witness should not be limited to one individual. It is the task of all who have experienced God’s loving kindness to speak about it and, give others reasons to trust in God in all circumstances.

Rev Tammy Hollands