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Wiesel said, "Someone behind me asked, `Where is God? Where is He?'"
The story in our text is the third in a series of complaints the newly delivered Hebrews bring to their leader Moses. Pharaoh's army was practically still sinking into the sea when the people stopped singing God's praises and began bemoaning their hard circumstances instead. When drinking water grew scarce in the wilderness and what water they found turned out to be "bitter" and undrinkable, the people immediately turned on Moses, crying "What shall we drink?" (2) Moses went directly to the Lord for an answer, and Yahweh provided the means for making the water sweet.
The second confrontation came shortly thereafter. Israel found itself traversing the hard land of Sin (which is a place, not an activity) located between Elim and Sinai - roughly the "middle of nowhere." This time the Hebrews complained to Moses that they were starving, not thirsty, and would surely die a miserable death if something were not done. Their mood was so mean-spirited that they sarcastically wished they had died "fat and happy" as slaves in Egypt. God's solution was the gift of morning manna and evening meat (quail) (3) which stopped the complaints for a while by stuffing the complaining mouths of the Israelites with more food than they could possibly consume.
Now we have this third confrontation and the subject is water again. No doubt, finding good drinking water for this large number of people was a continuing challenge, but the text makes it clear that the direction and duration of this journey was being established by none other than the Lord. Still, when no water is found at the campsite of Rephidim, the people once again demand that Moses do something about it. They berate him loudly for ever bringing them into this wilderness to die.
By the way, if you have ever thought it might be fun to lead a group of religious folk, Moses' petition here is instructive. It is very often not very fulfilling. "What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me." (For what it is worth, lots of pastors know that feeling.) God's response is to have Moses get out of there, take a few of the wiser, calmer "elders of Israel" with him, take the same staff he had used in Egypt to strike the Nile and turn its waters into blood and use it to strike a certain rock from which fresh, pure water will begin to flow. TA-DA!!!
After Moses carries out his instructions and the miracle comes as promised, Exodus records the name of this place as Massah (test) and Meribah (quarrel) as a testament to the Israelites' mutinous behavior. The miracle was the divine response to the question, "Is the Lord among us or not?"
The question echoes down through the centuries almost every time tragedy strikes, whether it be huge enough to make international headlines or small enough to be intensely private and personal. The Jews had an ancient saying: "Where Messiah is, there is no misery." But then came Jesus, the one we are convinced is the Messiah, and the saying is changed to: "Where misery is, there is the Messiah." Follow Jesus around and note where he went and with whom he spent his time; see his compassion, a word which means "to suffer with." The cross of Christ is the sign and the assurance that the God who made the world still loves the world and, in that love, groans and grieves with the world as well. As the hymnwriter has it,
under sorrow's iron rod,
then they find that self-same aching
deep within the heart of God. (4)
To finish that story of Elie Wiesel from the concentration camp, as the prisoners watched the executions about to take place with someone angrily whispering the question, "Where is God? Where is He?'" At the signal from the commandant, the chairs were tipped over and there was total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. Many of the prisoners in the crowd were weeping. In a few moments they were marched past the gallows. The two adults were dead, but the third rope was still moving. Being so light, the young boy was still alive. For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death. The prisoners had to stay and watch, not allowed to turn away, looking at him full in the face.
Behind Wiesel the same voice came again...the same question again: "Where is God now? Where is He?"
And Elie Wiesel quietly replied, "There he is. He is hanging on those gallows." Where misery is, there is the Messiah.
On millions of printed plaques, colorful posters and wall-hangings around the English-speaking world is found a modern parable which for some might have become trite in its repetition, but resonates deeply with those who find themselves in the midst of a dark night of the soul. You will recognize it.
One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there was only one. This bothered me because I noted that during the low periods of my life when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints. So I said to the Lord, "You promised me, Lord, that if I followed You, You would walk with me always, but I noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has been only one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed You most, have You not been there?""Is the Lord among us?" Where is God? You can answer that as you come to his Table.
1. New York, Hill and Wang, 1960
2. Exodus 15:22-25
3. Exodus 16
4. Timothy Rees, "God Is Love, Let Heaven Adore Him," 1942
5. Mary Stevenson, "Footprints in the Sand," Copyright © 1984 from original 1936 text