This was the sermon heard yesterday at my little church on the hill.
The retired and dearly missed comic strip, ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ presents one episode where 6-year-old Calvin is dragging his sled to the top of a hill. There’s only one problem: there’s no snow. Not a problem for our young hero. He looks to the sky and says, ‘Boy, it sure would be great if we had some snow!’ Nothing. ‘I mean it, I’d love some snow right now!’ Still nothing. Over the next few panels this little tantrum gets bigger and more involved. Calvin is running in circles, he gets down on his knees and begs, he shouts and wails and finally in the last little box yells, ‘Do you want me to become an atheist!??!’
In this light-hearted example, Calvin wants God to make things happen. He has a desire, what he sees as a need, for God to respond to his yelling to the sky for snow to fall. And he expects results! Otherwise, he threatens, I just might choose not to believe in you any more. Cartoonist Bill Watterson provides this look into a particular way in which some try to use or manipulate God into doing what they think God should be doing. In various places we can see this ‘prosperity gospel’ played out through televangelists, various books charging the believer to ‘name it and claim it.’ If you do good by God, or just ask sincerely or passionately or systematically enough, God will give you what you think you deserve.
But there is another side, a more grave side, to this issue. We hear the Israelites grumbling (as they often do) in the wilderness. They are tired. They are beaten down by the endless wandering. And in this particular story they are beaten down by thirst. One of humanity’s most basic needs is nowhere to be found. This is not some extra frill that God’s people are seeking. Instead they are crying out for a bare necessity.
It’s easy to say God is with us when things line up, when life is generally positive. But in other moments, those moments when our lives don’t seem to be going as we think they should be, those moments when life is genuinely rotten, the question ‘Is God among us or not?’ takes a serious tone. In those moments, moments where we are crying out for water like the Israelites rather than crying out for snow like Calvin, it is perhaps much more crucial to our lives and our own sense of relationship to God that we know God is among us. There is more of a sense of urgency, even of desperation, a greater need to know that we are not alone no matter how lonely we feel.
The Israelites are accused of testing God. They are demanding that Moses take care of them. They are demanding that Moses satisfy their thirst. They cry out for something they need and suggest that they were better off in Egypt. Sure they were slaves but at least they were better nourished. That really says something about their trust in God being with them! After a while they were wanting to go back to the oppressive earthly power that had enslaved them because at least then they were more certain that basic essentials would be provided for them to live. The Israelites are demanding one basic essential so that they may live.
A rabbi was asked a question by a pupil, referring to Deuteronomy 6:6: ‘And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart.’ ‘Why is it said this way?’ the pupil asked. ‘Why are we not told to place God’s words in our heart?’ The rabbi answered that it is not within humanity’s power to place the divine teachings directly in one’s heart. ‘All that we can do is place them on the surface of the heart so that when the heart breaks they will drop in.’
Life is full of heartbreak. People cry out from street corners and in cafes after a harsh breakup or failed marriage, ‘Is God among us or not?’ People cry out in living rooms or in cars on the way to or from work after listening to the evening news, ‘Is God among us or not?’ People cry out after burying their father, mother, a sibling, a spouse, a best friend, a son or a daughter, ‘Is God among us or not?’ People wrestling with mental illness or a terminal disease cry out, ‘Is God among us or not?’ Heartbreak and thirst cover the earth and in that heartbreak and thirst people cry out, ‘Is God among us or not?’
But there is another piece of the universal puzzle, a piece that only God can give. It is a piece that fills our hearts when they break, a piece that just drops in when we thirst and when we cry out. God’s transformative words, spoken to Moses, spoken to us: ‘I will be standing there in front of you.’ This is what God says to Moses when instructing him to strike the rock. I will be there in front of you.
Both the Israelites and Calvin think that unless water is present, unless it starts snowing, then God is absent. But in looking for water, the Israelites look past Moses. They look past their own families. They look past one another. They look past their children and their livestock. Calvin looks past the ground on which he walks, his own breath as he walks toward the edge of the hill.
We look for waters of relief from our grief and miss God’s presence in our tears. We look for waters of relief for loved ones and look past the person next to us offering us (wouldn’t you know it?) a cup of water. And in turn others look for waters of relief and may look past us. Our hearts attempt to close to prevent breaking, with God’s words clinging to the surface, ever searching for an opportunity to enter.
Is the Lord among us or not? We hear the promise: yes. I am in front of you. I will be in front of you. In our thirst God remains with us. God fills the cracks in our hearts with God’s presence. God stands in front of us through friends and family reaching out to us in genuine love. God stands in front of us through a song that soothes and a gentle smile and embrace. God stands in front of us as the sun’s rays warm our faces and the rain cools our tempers. God stands in front of us in the needy, the outcast, the hungry, and the thirsty. God pulls us together and invites us to help each other answer our question, ‘Is God among us or not?’
‘Yes, I am,’ says God. I am among the physically and spiritually thirsty and among those who might help in quenching that thirst. I am among the sick and the downtrodden, calling the oppressor to repentance and the oppressed to comfort. I am in burn units aiding in crucial decisions and celebrating anniversaries and milestones. I am in nursing homes, maternity wards, and psychiatric units. I stand in front of you calling you to each other, calling you to be my hands and feet, calling you to take up your staff and take care of one another.
I am among you. Look toward one another and believe.