It was not the first time the congregation of the Israelites had questioned Moses’ ability to lead them to the Promised Land. The first time they had questioned Moses was in the 14th chapter of Exodus when they had set up camp by the Red Sea after leaving Egypt. With Pharaoh and the Egyptian army drawing near they asked Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” The second time was in Exodus 15:22-25 when they complained against Moses and said “What shall we drink” because they could not drink the bitter water of Marah. Exodus 16:2-3 is about the third time when the whole congregation of Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness saying, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Each time the congregation of the Israelites complained against him, Moses sought God searching for a response to the murmuring congregation. Each time God responded: dividing the water of the sea on the pilgrimage to freedom, providing fresh water in the place of bitter water, and providing daily manna.
Which leads us to the complaint against Moses in the 17th chapter of Exodus as the congregation asks, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” As we hear this complaint against Moses’ leadership, it may seem as though we are hearing more of the same, but there is a significant difference between the complaints in the 14th, 15th, and 16th chapters of Exodus and the complaint of the 17th chapter of Exodus. That difference is found in the 7th verse of the 17th chapter of Exodus when Moses “called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
“Is the Lord among us or not?” For the first time in the book of Exodus the congregation of Israelites is recorded as questioning the presence of God. It is a significant change because they are making God, rather than Moses, the focus of their complaints. It is not that the congregation of the Israelites did not have the right to ask questions about God. After all, the Bible records other instances where the presence of God is questioned.
For example, there is the 13th Psalm attributed to David that asks these questions about the presence of God.
“1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I bear pain in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, 4 and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
5 But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
What is the difference between David’s questions about God’s presence and the congregation of Israelites’ question about God’s presence? The difference is found in the intent of the questions asked by David and the intent of the question asked by the congregation of Israelites. The intent of David’s question was to express faith in God. The intent of the congregation of Israelites’ question was to express doubt in God as seen when Moses named the place of their question as Massah, which meant quarreling, and Meribah which meant test. It was one thing for the congregation to ask, “Is the Lord among us,” but the intent of their question was defined by the addition of two quarreling and testing words – “or not?”
It is one thing when our questions about God lead us to faith in God’s presence. It is another thing when our questions about God lead us to quarreling and testing doubt about God’s presence. It is one thing to ask our questions about God with the sincerity of faith. It is another thing to ask our questions about God with an attitude. It is one thing to travel through the wilderness in the sincerity of a questioning faith. It is another thing to wander in the wilderness as we ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
It was in the sincerity of questioning faith that Moses responded to the quarreling and testy congregation in Exodus 17:4 by asking God, “What shall I do for this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
In response, God instructed Moses to do three things in Exodus 17:5:
- Faithfully remember God’s faithfulness when Moses struck the Nile with his staff in the first plague that turned the water of the Nile to blood.
- Faithfully equip the congregation of Israelites to respond to the grumbling and testing of God by taking some of the elders of Israel with him and going ahead with them to the rock of Horeb where God had first called Moses to lead the slaves out of Egypt.
- Faithfully encourage the congregation to realize that God was standing ahead of them at Horeb and answering their question, “Is God among us or not,” by using the resources that God made available in the wilderness as Moses struck the rock at Horeb with the same staff that he had struck the Nile.
Faithfully following God’s instructions, Moses changed the question the congregation of Israelites was asking from “Is the Lord among us or not?” to “How is the Lord among us?”
All of us face wilderness times when we must choose between questions that lead us to the presence of God and questions that will lead us away from God. All of us face times when we must prayerfully consider how we are drinking the water that flows from the faith that Paul wrote about in the first five verses of the fifth chapter of Romans:
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Is the Lord among us or not? How is the Lord among us?
What questions are you asking?
What Questions Are You Asking?
by Pastor Marc Brown
March 12, 2023
Accompanying Scriptures: Exodus 17:1-7, Romans 5:1-5
Fort Hill United Methodist Church
Order of Worship for March 12, 2023
Scripture Lesson Exodus 17:1-7, Romans 5:1-5
The Good News “What Questions Are You Asking?”
Music “How Can I Keep From Singing?” TFWS #2212
Closing Music “Love Lifted Me” arr. Ruth Elain Schram
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