“Is the Lord With Us or Not?”
“What have I just done?” It was the spring semester of my first year of seminary. And I had just signed up to spend the summer interning as a chaplain at a nearby prison. The idea of ministering to men in prison had been exciting to me and theory, but now that it was becoming reality, I was becoming terrified. What do I have to offer these men? How can I possibly relate to what they are going through? Will I have the right words? Will I have enough strength? What will I see and hear? All of a sudden I was filled with so much doubt about this calling.
That evening I went to worship at my church stilled filled with all of these thoughts. I don’t even remember what the sermon was about I was so distracted. All I remember is going up, receiving communion, sitting back down and praying. And in that moment of prayer, God interrupted. God had a message for me. As I told God that I couldn’t do it, that I wasn’t strong enough or wise enough, God said back, “Wait a minute Alex. You aren’t doing this alone. You don’t have to be strong enough or wise enough or have all the right words already. I will be with you. I will be guiding you. And with me, you can do this.”
And God was right. That summer was one of the summers I grew the most, as a pastor but also as a person. I didn’t always have the perfect words or lessons in talking to the men, but I didn’t need to. Because the Lord was already at work in that place, and together we learned from one another. We shared our stories. We prayed. We sang hymns of praise. Those men began to care for me as much as I cared for them. I still had a lot to learn, but I was able to enter those walls each day, because I knew God was there with me, ready to do something special.
You don’t have to be a chaplain in a prison to know that feeling of “What have I just done? I can’t do this.” It may be your first year of college, or when you have gone back to school after years or even decades of working in between. The classes and place may feel overwhelming even as you know this is where you are meant to be. It may be a new job, or a new career. It may be a calling God has put upon your heart to serve somewhere, or to teach or sing or speak in front of people. And you may start out very excited, but at some point you face that moment of questioning. “God, can I really do this?”
In those moments, you are not alone. The Israelites who followed Moses out of slavery thought the same exact way. For centuries they had cried out to God to free them and lead them into a new land. And the Lord heard their cries and delivered them from Pharaoh. God did everything possible to free them – showing miracles, bringing down plagues, speaking through Moses, even parting the Red Sea. And as the Israelites marched across the sea, they did so with songs and laughter and celebration at their freedom. They were excited at new possibilities faced them.
But as their songs faded, their excitement turned toward fear. They were now in the wilderness of Sinai and they did not know this new land. On their journey to the promised land, they didn’t know what challenges would lie ahead. They did not even know how to be free. They did not know how to gather their own food, find their own water, and create for themselves a new community. And they began to ask themselves, “What have we done?”
And just like us today, when we get scared and worried, we begin to look for someone to blame. They pointed at Moses and said, “Why did you bring us here? At least as slaves we had food to eat and water to drink.” They blamed God and said, “Surely it would have been better if we had just died in Egypt.” They fought and quarreled with one another. Their fear and their doubts overtook them.
But at each moment when they are ready to give up, God shows up. God shows them a way. When they are hungry, God brings them manna from heaven. When they need leaders, God appoints elders for them. When they need guidance. God speaks to them on Mt. Sinai. And when they are thirsty, God brings forth water. With just a tap of Moses’ staff, God turns even the rocks and the desert into a place of new life.
At the end of this passage is a question. “Is the Lord with us or not?” The Israelites have been using it to complain with for days upon days now. It is sort of their way of trying to make God feel guilty. But they never took the time to actually consider the answer to their own question.
Yes. Of course the Lord is with them. There is food on the ground every morning. There is clean water pouring forth from rocks. They are now free individuals, rescued from slavery. They have been called children of God and a great nation of priests. Yes, God is with them. Yes, they don’t have to have all the answers on their own. On each step of this journey to the promised land, the Lord will be with them. So instead of grumbling, instead of fear, instead of turning back around and going back to slavery and oppression, God is telling the Israelites to march forward, to keep going, to trust in what God is doing. Because with God with them they are enough.
There is a song by a Northern Irish Christian folksinger I like named Brian Houston. And at the beginning of one of his song he sings, “Why is the church so defensive? Why is she frightened and confused?” When I hear those lyrics, I know there is a lot of truth in them. We are a people called to follow Jesus, but often we are hesitant or scared to do so. We stay away from what is risky or new or different When there is a calling or a voice that calls us to think and act differently, instead of welcoming it, we often get scared and we say, “Not yet, not yet.” Or we say, “That’s just not how we do it here.”
And instead of following that new calling, we turn to bickering and arguing amongst ourselves. We fight over the color of carpet or the style of lighting or who gets to use what room or a million other small things we can find just so we won’t have to face that risky new thing God is calling us to do.
But there are times God’s word does break through. There are times when the church says, “Yes, we will find housing for families who are homeless. Yes, we will turn our sanctuary into a dining hall for those who are hungry. Yes, we will welcome and sponsor a refugee family into our community. Yes, we will support and ordain this person called to ministry who is gay or lesbian. Yes, we will go and follow our calling, even if we risk something doing it.
When these moments happen, I find them to be amazing. The fact that you all had the courage and vision to start a preschool here I find amazing. The fact that Gretchen Ward heard a calling to go to Honduras and help heal women and children I find amazing. The fact that you are willing to turn this space into a food pantry and a blood drive and a space for children to play and sing I find amazing.
Every time I see someone do something this radical, I wonder, what gives them the strength? How did they ever believe in themselves this much? And then I remember this question from Exodus. “Is the Lord with us or not?” If not, then yes, it’d make sense to be afraid. It’d make sense to doubt ourselves. It’d make sense to never do anything risky or new.
But if God is with us, what can possibly hold us back? If God is with us, what do we have to fear? If God is with us, then what dream, what vision, what calling is too big?
In this season of Lent, let us cast off our fear and worry. Let us stop being so hesitant. Let us speak up for justice and mercy and love. Let us march forward, even if it is something risky or strange or new. Because like those Israelites going into the promised land, we too have a great calling. We too have been given new freedom and new life. We too have a big part to play in God’s story. And as we take those risks and follow those callings, if anyone asks us, “Are you sure you can do this? Are you sure you are strong enough?” answer them back, “Is the Lord with us or not?” Amen.