Is The Lord With Us Or Not?
If you picture in your mind a map of Ireland… the word that probably does not come to mind is: mountainous. And you would be right. Ireland has a lot of beautiful green hills and rocky coastal cliffs, lots of bogs and lochs. But Ireland only has one real mountain that I know of, and that is Croagh Patrick. It is said that St. Patrick, in the fifth century, climbed up to fast and pray and banish all the snakes from the island – or so the legend goes.
But in the fifteen hundred years since then, people have been following in Patrick’s wake. Christians from all over the world come every year to this place to climb and to pray.
Now the unique thing about Croagh Patrick is that this mountain is shaped nearly like a perfect cone, almost like the mountain peak that a child would draw, a perfect triangle. And rather than finding a winding trail that goes around and around the mountain the trail heads straight up the side… So it is super steep and (problematically) the last mile of the climb is scree. So you would take one step forward and slide back down. Many people find that they have to climb on their hands and knees near the top.
The entire journey from the pub at the base of the mountain all the way to the summit takes about three to four hours if you’re a good hiker. And then its four hours back down, just because of just how steep it is.
Now, if this is sounding familiar, I told you all a little about my experience participating in this pilgrimage climb back in March, but (then) I glossed over the bumpy bits to get to the spiritual revelations … but this week, it’s the bumpy bits are the important part. Those are the spiritual revelations for this week.
Know this, from the outset. I made it to the top, I did… but it was not pretty. I consider this climb to be an experience in Exodus-style spiritual and physical wilderness. I whined the entire way… mostly internally… but still.
Now, let’s turn our focus onto our Scripture passage for today which will help us explore this idea of wilderness.
Over the summer, if you remember, we did a series on the book of Genesis. Ending with the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt. Joseph was a Hebrew man that was sold to some passing travelers on their way to Egypt by his older brothers. Sound familiar?
There Joseph finds himself, through a rollercoaster of events, raising to the level of the Pharaoh’s right hand man. And with his shining-star-political-presence in Egyptian leadership his fellow Hebrew people began flocking to Egypt because they now found welcome and hospitality under Joseph’s direction. And it was great! For a lot of years. But all to soon Joseph died… and the generation of people who were loyal to his leadership also faded – so the hospitality began to die away… All of a sudden there was a problem. The Egyptian people began to grumble about all these Hebrew people living in their land.
And so, what does the government do in the centuries to come? They make the Hebrew people out to be unwelcome guests, they talk about the Hebrews as scary illegal immigrants, as prolific interlopers, as people that need to be pushed out/ sent back from where they came from and even punished. The frustrated pharaoh did everything that he could to keep the population of Hebrews down … including rounding them up for forced labor (to build those famous structures and monuments that the Egyptians are known for today), and even instructing the midwives to get ride of all the Hebrew newborn baby boys. Thankfully the midwives were not fans of that idea.
Yet, nothing that Pharaoh did seemed to help his vermin problem… the Hebrew population grew and thrived, even despite the systematic oppression that was happening. They grew for something like 200 to 400 years, until they became a million people strong.
But all the while God was watching this oppression/these injustices and hearing their cries. So God sent Moses to Egypt to become their reluctant leader and to free them and bring them to the Promise Land.
So to skip ahead a few chapters of Exodus we find the Hebrew people released from their lives of oppression and slavery. Having already traveled though the parted waters of the red sea and they are now free! Just before our Scripture passage today we read this: “And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” And then they danced and sang and celebrated this new life of freedom. The Hebrew people must have been thinking, “This is great!”
“No more backbreaking labor. No more building monuments to the pharaoh’s vanity. No more threats of our children being snatched away to be killed at birth. We are free.”
But this joy, quickly turned to fear as they began to look around and take stock of their new life/ their new world. The wilderness. They are in the desert now. On their own. Empty handed and homeless.
As stomachs began to rumble, they realized that you can’t eat freedom. As mouths became dry just looking at the arid vastness ahead of the, they realized that you can’t drink the clothes on our back. Joy and celebration can’t shelter you or keep the sun off your head. They are now in a lifeless, still, desolate land. The wilderness.
All on their own. With only their trust in God to sustain them.
Unless you are, Bear Grylls and you get exceited about surviving on nothing but your wit and imagination… this was probably terrifying.
Imagine the fear and frustration. Imagine the lack of control they must have been experiencing. These feelings would really eclipse that sweet new taste of freedom.
And so the complaining begins.
“Moses! We have no food!”
“Moses! We have no water!”
“Moses! Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us?
“Thanks a lot Moses!”
“Answer me Moses! Is the Lord with us or not?!?”
That was the grand question, under all that complaining was this big spiritual/ theological question. The question that sums up the Hebrew people journey in the wilderness: “Is the Lord with us or not?” In their frustration and in their fear they started to regularly questioned God’s involvement in this whole thing. So regularly, in fact, that Biblical Scholars refer to this section of the Bible as the Complaint Narratives. There is even a predictable structure to it all…
First the people encounter a potentially devastating threat to their well-being.
Then, they complain to their leadership.
Then, the leaders take the complaint before God.
Then, God saves them by various means.
You would think that God would have gotten sick of all the complaining! Of this rhythm of doubt and mistrust.
Yet, when they moaned, “Save us from this slavery!” God sent them Moses. “Go Moses,“ God says “Keep them moving… I’ll take care of the Egyptians.”
And when they cried, “We have no food!” God said, “Go on! I’ve got this! I’ll send Manna and Quail for you. Just keep moving.”
When they shouted, “I’m dying of thirst!” God gifted them with water from the belly of a rock. Bringing life out of nothing. “I’ve got this, not a problem! Just go to that mountain over there! I’ll meet you in that place and there I will provide for you. Not problem. All you got to do is get up. Get up and move forward! I’ve got you.”
God, never grew weary of their fear or doubt. Never let it stand in the way of God’s promise to see them safely through.
And thank God that is still the case today!
The Hebrew people wandering through the wilderness is a story of pilgrimage.
Four thousand years later, when we gather to experience the stories of Exodus, we hear an age old story of humanity discovering just how patient God is. Just how loyal God it. Just how steadfast our great provider is.
The Hebrew people had to wander. They had to struggle with their fear. They had to ask, “Is the Lord with us or not?” over and over again. They had to learn to trust in God with the hard stuff and move forward…
This is something that every blessed creation of God has to do. Life is pilgrimage.
Wandering the wilderness, tackling the struggles of this life all while learning of God’s steadfast love.
Working on trust.
Now, to loop back to where I started from… I really love to hike. I love being in nature and exploring cool places…. But I am not exactly in Mountaineering shape. So, I whined the entire four hours to the top of Croagh Patrick. I kicked and screamed and moaned… every comfy looking rock that came my way I sat on.
People would pass me by talking about what a great and beautiful experience their climb was… and I would roll my eyes and wipe the sweat from my brow. Someone had the nerve to tell me on the hike that the record for the fasted summit was 50 minutes.
The locals that passed me, as if to rub it in, hiked the trail barefoot. Like they were taking a nice soft stroll through the park…
But you know what, I made it just the same. Every blasted miserable step I took getting up that mountain required prayer. It required me to turn my eyes to the heavens and ask God to remove that cramp at my side, to fill my lungs with air… It was a true pilgrimage.
Now, look at your life. Can you reflect back and see places that were rough? Places that required you to turn your eyes up to God just so that you could take your next step?
Times when you had to pray for the strength to go into the doctors office for yet another test or treatment? When you had to go to yet another class? When you had to calm yourself down, do some deep breathing, before you went to go talk to your spouse or your child during so kind of storm in your relationship?
These are moments of pilgrimage, moments that help us realize again and again that – yes indeed the Lord is with us.
But as always God is calling us to put one foot in front of the other. Because we will make it through to the other side. The wilderness is necessary, but it is not permanents. And God is with us every step of the way.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Magdalena’s Musings: The Thirsty Ones