Sunday, September 30, 2012

Is God Among Us or Not? [The Bible's Greatest Questions]

Bruce Nolan (Jim Carrey) is a mild mannered news-beat reporter facing a midlife meltdown. In one afternoon, the anchor desk position he deserved goes to his arrogant rival, Evan.  Then Bruce makes a fool of himself during a live on-the-air news report, and is fired. His car is vandalized, and when he attempts to save a vagrant from harassment, the gang turns on him and beats him up.  Finally, Bruce returns to his apartment and recounts the events of the day to his girlfriend, Grace. He is angry with his boss, his life, the injustice of the world, and most of all Bruce is angry with God!
    GRACE (gently): “Well, thank God you’re all right.”
    BRUCE (snorting): “God…yeah, let’s thank God, shall we? From whom blessings are raining down upon me!”
    GRACE: Later… “Stop being a martyr Bruce…” 
    BRUC: “I am not being a martyr. I am a victim. God is a mean kid sitting on an anthill with a magnifying glass, and I am the ant. God could have fixed my life in 5 minutes if he wanted to, but he’d rather burn off my feelers and watch me squirm.”
    GRACE (empathically): “Sweetheart, I know you’re mad. It’s understandable. What Evan did is slimy and wrong, but this day could’ve been so much worse. I’m just glad you’re okay.
    BRUCE (interrupting): “Okay? News flash! I’m not okay. I’m not okay with a mediocre job! I’m not okay with a mediocre apartment! I’m not okay with a mediocre life!”
    GRACE (hurt): “So is that what you think we have? A mediocre life?”
    BRUCE: “Perfect. Perfect…I’ll have the worst day of my life with a side order of guilt, please!” 

When bad things happen, we may be tempted to question God’s existence, or God’s goodness.  As Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt he not only had to face his own reservations about such a monumental undertaking, he had to face the skepticism of his fellow Israelites.  As they faced hunger and thirst, they questioned the goodness of God’s plan, asking Moses, “Is God among us or not?”  In Exodus 17:1-14, the response of the LORD to this situation reveals how we can overcome our own doubts, and the disbelief of those around us…

(i) Ask God for help.  So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” – Exodus 17: 4.  In the pages of Scripture, we find that God is very honest with us…that God expresses his love for us, his will for our lives, his disappointment and sadness when we disregard him, his joy when even one runaway son or daughter returns to him. 
Not only that, but God seems to appreciate our honesty as well. Moses has some of the most honest exchanges with God in the Bible.  When the LORD sends him to Pharoah, his first response is, “Why me Lord?  Please pick someone else!”  Elijah asks God to take away his life in the face of his adversaries (1 Kings 19: 4); and the Psalmist cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  (Psalm 22:1).  We can come to God with our deepest questions and complaints.  

Yet when Moses says to God, “What shall I do with this people?” he seems more burdened by the doubts of others than his own.  We live in a culture that does not always affirm our deepest convictions.  I know that there were times as a student in which I felt surrounded by skepticism and doubt. The point is that whether the doubts and questions come from within, or whether we feel surrounded and even attacked by the skepticism of others, we can go to God and ask as Moses did: “What should I do?”  I have found that when I’ve asked God for help in the face of doubts, he has always helped me…and what that help looks like is what we’re talking about today.

(ii) Stay on course.  We read in v. 1 that the Israelites are encamped at Rephedim, which is the last stop before their destination:  Mount Sinai (also known Horeb where the Torah is given, see also Num.33:15).  In other words, they were almost there, but doubts and disbelief once again threatened to delay them or derail them. In response to Moses’ question, “What should I do?” God says, “Go on ahead of the people….I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb…” – Exodus 17: 5, 6.  “Go on ahead of the people….”  Go where?  Toward the “Rock at Horeb” which is synonymous with the Sinai area.  The point is that the LORD was telling Moses to advance toward Sinai, not retreat; to continue according to plan (see Ex. 3: 12) with one variation…they would see the LORD standing on a Rock.

Here is a principle to live by: When you are filled with doubts or questions, unsure of which way to go, continue doing the last thing that God told you to do.  Moses knew that he was to advance toward Sinai, which is what he continued to do by faith.  In the same way, don’t rush ahead, wait on him, stay in relationship to Him, and know that as always he goes before you, that he is your Solid Rock when it feels like you’re on shifting sand. There are 20 references to God as our Rock in the Hebrew Scriptures alone.  In Psalm 18:2 we read, The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge.  And Paul writes that this Rock at Horeb was a foreshadowing of Christ himself who would feed us with the Bread of Life and the Living Water.  For They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” – 1 Cor. 10:1-4. When you’re not sure what to do…stay on course, continue walking according to his word, remain faithful to him, and know that he goes before you just as Jesus said to Mary, “Go tell my disciples that I am going before them to Galilee, there they will see me.” 

(iii) Consult the wise and experiencedNotice that Moses is not to go alone as he battles the skepticism of his people and perhaps some of his own reservations. “…Take some of the elders of Israel with you” says the LORD  - Exodus 17: 5 Who do you take with you when you’re in trouble?  When you’re going to the hospital?  When you need help studying for an exam? When you’re going to the altar on your wedding day?   When you’re doubting or afraid?  When you’re grieving or lonely or need a friend who will listen? Moses took some of the elders…and Jesus took three of his disciples on the night of his arrest to pray. 

Do you have a short list…of trusted friends with whom you can confide…do you have someone you can take with you, to encourage you, to listen to you, to pray for you?  That’s one of the reasons God has placed us together in his Body, the Church…so that we don’t have to go it alone! My Lifegroup is a small group of pastors that I have known for more than 30 years now.  We meet twice a year.  We all became pastors around the same time.  When we need advice or prayer, we know we can call one another and ask for that.  Just this last week I had the opportunity to help one of my dearest friends and a brother in Christ…and it was an honor, and honor to be asked to journey with him, just as he has helped me on so many occasions as well.  Prov. 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another!”  Believe it.

(iv) Fourth, Put yourself in the place where faith is possibleWhen we’re struggling with doubt we sometimes pray, “Lord give me more faith, and I will serve you.”  “Lord, take away my doubts, and then I will be able to obey you.”  But in order for God to answer this prayer we must put ourselves in "the situation where faith is possible" (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, New York: MacMillan, 1963, p. 72) the place where faith is expressed in action, and only the power of God’s command is enough to sustain us!  God told Moses, “Take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go…Strike the rock and water will come out of it!” – Exodus 17: 5, 6 God was telling Moses to put himself in the place where faith is possible…the place where he had to trust in what only God could do!   

You see, we want to “trust God more,” but we don’t want to have to “risk anything more” either.  There’s a powerful story where the disciples are in a fishing boat in the middle of a storm.  That’s when they see Jesus walking toward them on the water.  Peter, always the first to open his mouth says, “Lord if it is you, bid me to come out on the water with you.”  Jesus says, “Come!” We can imagine Peter’s next thought, “Now you’ve done it, Peter.  Why did you have to open your big mouth again.”  Peter did not know what would happen when he placed his foot on the water…but he could guess based on past experience as a fisherman.  That was the place for Peter where faith was really necessary.  It was not faith in his own faith, but faith in Jesus’ empowering command…he stepped out and walked toward his Lord through the waves. Do we really want a deeper assurance that God is among us, and near us?  Then we must put ourselves in the place where faith is possible.  Trust God as he gives us an assignment that only he can accomplish.   

Just the other day I was dealing with a situation that was truly testing my faith… I was losing hope.  It was a God-sized problem that only the Lord could solve.  But I saw a miracle where I wasn’t expecting one, I saw healing where I didn’t think healing was possible, and I saw the Peace of Christ rest upon a situation which was full of contention and strife and conflict.  Praise the Lord…for his miracles which daily increase my faith.

(v) Tell your story to the next generation.  “[Moses] called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?” – Exodus 17: 7. We might be tempted to skip over this last verse…as a kind of minor epilogue to the story.  Moses names the place where water came from the rock.  No big deal.  The real story was the miracle itself, right?  Well yes…and no.  The naming of that place was a way of impressing it forever upon Israel’s consciousness, a reminder that this was where Israel’s doubts and questions were answered, “Is God among us or not?”  Answer: “Yes!”  It’s so easy to plead with God for some situation, and then when it is fixed to our satisfaction…to move on as if it never happened.  When the crisis is over, and we don’t need God anymore, we go on our merry way. Who would treat a friend like that?  A friend that we only call upon in a crisis and then ignore the moment the crisis is over.  Friends, when God speaks or acts, we need to write it down and share it with others…whether God has worked a mighty miracle, or given us his unshakeable word to guide us.

Several times in Israel’s history, men and women set up memorial stones to remind them and all who passed by of God’s great provision.  In Gen. 35:14, Jacob set up a pillar where God had spoken and revealed himself to him and called the place Bethel (House of God).  In 1 Samuel 7:12, Samuel sets up a stone and called it, Ebenezer, or “Stone of Help” because it was there that the Lord helped his people again.  In Psalm 77: 11 we read,I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.  

How many of you have asked God for help, when you were surrounded by doubt and disbelief?  Who are those among us who knew that they had to stay on course…that they had to keep trusting in God though they couldn’t see what the future held, for He alone has the words of Eternal life?  Who here has taken some elders along for the journey, brothers and sisters wiser than you who could help you through a time of testing?   How many of you have been given a God-sized assignment that could only be accomplished with the Lord’s help…and found him faithful?  And how many of you have set up a Stone of Remembrance…have told your story of faith to the next generation and those around you.  If you trust in the LORD our Rock and our Savior today stand up today wherever you are reading this…stand on your feet today…give a testimony today to the next generation, and say together with me, “God is among us.  The Lord is among us indeed!”  Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen!  

Mighty Savior, we confess today our doubts and fears and our anemic faith. Thank you for your patience with us in times of questioning and disbelief. For hearing us when we cry to you “Why Lord?” and “Where are you?” For giving us the Rock of your word to stand on and to direct our path when the way seems unclear. For sending us those who are wiser and more experienced than we are, who can help us to see you when things seem unclear. For giving us God-sized assignments in which we discover your presence and power again. Lord Jesus, our faith is not in our faith, our reason, or our goodness, but in You: the Alpha and the Omega, the Rock, the Wellspring of eternal life!  Amen.

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