Posted on January 28th, 2013
“What fools, those Israelites, for asking ‘Is The Lord among us?’!” Isn’t that what you thought, when you heard the story in today’s first reading, from Exodus? It’s pathetic. God preserved their life in the Passover, then parted the Red Sea, then He turned the bitter waters sweet, then He gave them Manna, bread from heaven. It doesn’t take a doctorate in theology to detect a pattern: Israel has a difficulty, they cry out to the Lord, the Lord saves them. Again, and again, and again.
But still they complain. And not just a bit of moaning, the way you do when the weather turns cold or your quarterback can’t finish the big game. No, they quarrel: “Therefore the people quarreled with Moses…. and the people grumbled against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children…?’” And the summary of their message is given at the end: “Is the LORD among us or not?”
You know the “right” answer to that question. You know it when you hear this story read: “Of course the Lord was with them.” And you know the “right,” or pious, answer for yourself. Of course the Lord is with you. But I could take a very early retirement if I had $5 for every time someone has said to me, “Pastor, I know God won’t give me more than I can handle, but …” (By the way, that’s one of the more common misquotations of the Bible, which actually says that God will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able to bear, but will provide the way of escape.) Now what people really mean is, “Pastor, I know God won’t give me more than I can handle, but it sure feels like I’m teetering on the precipice. I am about to fall.” Have you been there? There are two kinds of Christians. The ones who have been there, and the ones that will be.
When God withholds from you a spouse, a child, a job, it is hard not to say, “Is the Lord among us? Does He care about me?”
When your son or daughter wanders into darkness and nothing you do, nothing you say, nothing you pray, brings them home again, it is hard not to say, “Is the Lord among us? Does He care about me?”
But then, how many things do you do that effectively say, “The Lord is not among us”? Every willful sin, every deliberate word or deed that is impious and ungodly, “The Lord is not among us.” When you look at pornography, drink when you should stay sober, shout when you should stay quiet, rage when you should stay calm, compromise when you should boldly confess, greedily grasp when you should generously give – in all these you say, “The Lord does not see, does not care, does not influence me.”
Yet for all that, you are not happy. What you thought would give you pleasure brought pain. The revenge tasted bitter, the argument left you more angry, the failure made you more depressed, the moment of pleasure was followed by a lifetime of regret. And now what is left but your grumbling, murmuring, complaining. You grumble to, and about, your wife. You grumble to, and about, your boss. You grumble to, and about, your pastor.
Moses says, “Your complaints are really against God.” So what does God do? What would you do? Wouldn’t you punish the complainers, make an example of the whiners? They’ve learned nothing, they’re ungrateful, they’re ready to stone Moses. So what does the Lord do? He gives them exactly what they want: water from the rock, water to drink.
It makes no sense. They don’t deserve it. But that’s what God does: He gives His gifts to the undeserving, the unworthy, the stubborn, even the whiners and complainers.
It’s more concrete in today’s Gospel reading: the men who got hired at the end of the day, barely working an hour, got paid for the whole day. And the men who had worked the entire day were angry. “It isn’t fair!” they complained. And it wasn’t. Because the kingdom of God isn’t fair.
For if God’s kingdom operated by fairness, heaven would be empty. But God isn’t fair. He is merciful. God isn’t just with you, and be glad for that! He is generous. He gives water to complainers ready to kill their pastor, He gives full wages to slackers who showed up one hour before the shift ended, and He even wants to be generous beyond measure with you.
“Is the Lord among us?” The name of our church is a confession. Immanuel—God with us—is not simply the remembrance of the sign given in Isaiah 7, “A virgin shall conceive and bear a Son and shall call His name Immanuel,” God with us. The name of our church is no mere historical commemoration of the birth of Jesus, who is Immanuel, God with us.
The name of our church is a confession that the Lord is among us, He is Immanuel, God with us still – for He is a God who cares not only about ancient Israel and first-century Romans but us trapped in the petty ruins of this life.
What a horrible thing it would be to have a God who is fair, one who would stone the ones about to stone Moses, one who would pay the workers exactly what they earned, one who would give you precisely what your sins have deserved. But you don’t have a God who is fair, but one who is merciful.
“Is the Lord among us?” You answer that question every time you are merciful to your neighbor. The Lord is among us when you put aside your resentment and your grudges. The Lord is among us when you treat suffering people with dignity. The Lord is among us when you make not just abortion but its root causes your problem, when you care not just about life in the abstract, but the lives of real people in all their messiness.
“Is the Lord among us?” He answers that question in this Sacrament, where He gives you wages you did not earn, bread you did not buy. To us sinners He gives not what is right, not what is fair, but what is good. Here in the Eucharist He is generous beyond measure.