Exodus 13:17-22 – The Presence of God

Pillar of Cloud and Fire

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.” So, God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, “God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.” They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. (NRSV)

From a human perspective, God makes a lot of nonsensical decisions in the Bible. Telling Noah to build a big boat in a place with no water; Abraham to leave everything, and later, to sacrifice his son; Moses to stroll into Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let the people go; and, the people to walk through a body of water without getting wet. Indeed, its as if God has an odd predilection for making weird requests of people.

Although today’s Old Testament story gives us a glimpse into God’s thinking, the people were not privy to that information. Yes, God’s people were experiencing an unbelievable exodus out of Egypt. Their wildest dreams could not have imagined such a reality as strolling out of slavery having seen not one but a string of miraculous wonders. Yet, God was not done with the miracle thing.

Although many people would really like to see a miracle happen in their lives, rarely do we think about the circumstances we might need face for that miracle to occur. God typically asks folks to do some outrageous-sounding things to set up the miracle.

An entire nation left Egypt with celebration only to be told to go in a misdirection toward the Promised Land, as if God were somehow geographically challenged. I can imagine that decision had Moses raising a Spock-like eyebrow and the Israelites wondering if God was off his celestial rocker. There is, however, a reason why folks like Noah, Abraham, and Moses obeyed instructions that didn’t make sense to them at the time: The Presence of God.

It is the personal Presence and power of God which makes all the difference.

For God has not promised to create an existence with a zero factor of hardship. God, instead, has created a world that is full, vibrant, and alive with Presence – and a zero tolerance for bullies like Egypt. The uncertainty, doubt, and mystery of the future is thoroughly mitigated with the effusive Presence.

When sitting with patients in the hospital who struggle with the unknown of why they are there and what will become of them (and their families) the last thing I do is try to fabricate reasons so that it makes sense. It doesn’t, and I’m not going pretend that it does. Rather, I remind them of what I do know: The Presence of God is here. God does not go out of his way to give us an easy life. God does, however, go far out his way to communicate his glorious Presence with us.

Pillar of Cloud and Fire 2

God kept constant vigil over the ancient Israelites, powerfully seen with the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. Nothing was going to happen to the Jewish people without first passing through the mighty hands of God. Not only do I know God is with us, I also know he neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121). When God keeps vigil, God keeps vigil! No smoke or bathroom breaks with God. God’s vigilance is relentless and wondrous, giving assurance to the godly and terrifying the ungodly.

Once we are out in the wilderness of uncertainty, there is no turning back.

That’s okay. The Presence of God patrols the area and divinely guards our every move. For the Christian, the Presence has found its fulfillment in the person of Jesus. Although Christians everywhere serve a risen and ascended Christ, the Divine Presence remains with glorious constancy through the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the One who is consistently alongside us, empowering us and advocating on our behalf. The beautiful theological truth here is that God is both transcendent (far above us) and immanent (intimately close to us) at the same time, all the time.

Armed with such a robust theological understanding, trust and confidence come to us without having to resort to ginning up positive thoughts. Instructions and commands which seem like nonsense? No problem. The Transcendent and Immanent One has the Presence all over it. In between a rock-and-hard-place (or an Egyptian army and a Red Sea)? Not an issue. I willingly place myself there knowing that with the Presence, the miraculous is about to happen. We need not buck the difficult circumstances. The Presence has got this.

So, then, let us pray for the Church and for the world, and let us thank God for the great Presence: In the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ, we pray to you, Almighty God, and Father. From the rising of the sun to its setting, we pray to you, ever-vigilant Lord, on behalf of those in despair and darkness, that they may find the hope and light of Christ; those in fear of death, that they may find faith through the resurrection of Jesus; prisoners and captives, widows and orphans, and all those who today need a blessed assurance of the Presence; through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. Amen.

Click God With Us written and sung by Terrian Woods as we contemplate The Presence among us.

Matthew 9:18-34 – Faith

Jesus healing the blind
Jesus Healing the Blind by Johann Heinrich Stöver, 1861

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, crying loudly, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he entered the house, the blind men came to him; and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you.” And their eyes were opened. Then Jesus sternly ordered them, “See that no one knows of this.” But they went away and spread the news about him throughout that district.

After they had gone away, a demoniac who was mute was brought to him. And when the demon had been cast out, the one who had been mute spoke; and the crowds were amazed and said, “Never has anything like this been seen in Israel.” But the Pharisees said, “By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.” (NRSV)

In these days of staring into the face of pandemic, I often find myself uttering the ancient prayer of the Church: “Lord have mercy.  Christ have mercy.  Lord have mercy and grant us your peace.”  For me, the COVID-19 virus is getting real, real fast.  I feel the heaviness of hospital staff, and of families experiencing the weight of concern for loved ones with the virus.

It is in such topsy-turvy times as these that I come back again and again to deep spiritual convictions which inform what I do each day.  One of those underlying creeds is this:

Jesus is trustworthy, no matter whether my faith or the faith of others is small or great.

In our Gospel lesson for today, two blind men were healed according to their faith in Jesus.  The diverse healing accounts of Jesus in the New Testament, whether the faith was large or small in those healed, leads me to the conclusion that:

It isn’t faith itself that heals, saves, or transforms – it is Jesus.

What the healing accounts have in common in the Gospels is that they are directed to Jesus as the object of faith.  It isn’t about the level of faith, but about where the faith is placed.  For the Christian, faith itself doesn’t mean much if it isn’t in Jesus.  If I place a large and sincere faith in an inanimate object such as money; in a position of power; or, even in my own independence, my faith isn’t worth much.  If I have a huge faith in a doctor or a psychiatrist to heal my body or my mind, I will quickly discover there are limits to their abilities.  If I have a confident faith that my family will meet all my needs, my faith will eventually run into failure when they let me down.  That’s because the ultimate object of my faith is Jesus.  If all my faith eggs are in the church basket, my faith will eventually face a crisis because it is a misplaced faith.  Furthermore, the answer I provide for others is not simply getting them to attend church or to adopt my moral code. I believe Jesus heals, transforms, and delivers people from sickness, sin, trouble, and overwhelming circumstances in his own good time.

Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  (Hebrews 13:8)

We know with certainty that circumstances change, as everyday seems to bring new levels and permutations of unprecedented alterations to our lives – and through it all, Jesus remains as the ever-present Savior, seated at the right hand of God ceaselessly interceding on behalf of those who offer even the slightest mustard seed of faith.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep me both outwardly in my body and inwardly in my soul, that I may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.  Amen.

Psalm 22:23-31 – Full of Suffering

“Let all those who are suffering eat and be full!
Let all who seek the Lord praise him!” (Common English Bible)

cry of dereliction

“Suffering” is a word we’d like to avoid.  Simply saying or reading the word can make us cringe.  Suffering? No thanks.  I’ll pass on that.  Yet, something inside of us instinctively knows we cannot get around it.  Everyone suffers in some way.  It is endemic to the human condition that at times we will suffer physically, financially, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

That’s why I believe there is such talk within Christian circles of miracles.  It’s more than understandable.  A chronic pain sufferer wants relief; she prays for a miracle of health.  A small business owner is bleeding financially; he looks to God for an immediate miracle of wealthy clients.  A beloved senior saint knows that she is afflicted with something, and she’s told it’s Alzheimer’s; she prays for the miracle of deliverance, even to be taken home to be with the Lord.  A young adult finds himself in the throes of depression and has tried everything to cope and get out of it; he petitions God for a miracle out of the deep black hole.  The believer in Jesus keeps experiencing a besetting sin and just can’t get over it; she looks to God for the miracle of not struggling any more with it.

These and a thousand other maladies afflict people everywhere.  There are stories out there.  Folks who have experienced a miracle tell of their wonderful deliverance.  But what about the rest?  Those without the miracle?  Do they have a lack of faith?  Has God forgotten them?

christ-in-gethsemane

Oh, my, no.  God sees, and God knows.  God understands suffering.  Jesus knows it first-hand.  Remember, it was Jesus who said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Even Jesus cried out in his suffering.  But there was no deliverance coming for him.  There was, instead, deliverance coming for us.

Sometimes the greatest miracle and deliverance of all is to be freed from the need for a miracle.  The reason God doesn’t just offer immediate relief from everyone’s suffering and bring a miracle is that he is doing something else: Walking with us through our suffering.  God oftentimes has plans and purposes for us well beyond our understanding.  We simply are not privy to everything in his mind.

We may not get the miracle we desire.  But what we will get without fail is God’s provision and steadfast love all the way through the suffering.  Where is God in your suffering?  Jesus is suffering with you.  You are not crying alone; Christ weeps with you.

Let, then, those who suffer, eat and be full.  Let them be satisfied with the portion God has given them.  What’s more, let them offer praise to the God who is right beside them in every affliction and trouble.

God Almighty, you are the One who knows suffering and affliction better than anyone.  I admit I don’t often understand what in the world you are doing or not doing in my life and in the lives of those I love.  Yet, I admit that I have found in you the comfort, encouragement, and strength to live another day in my trouble.  For this, I praise you; in the Name of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Matthew 8:28-9:1

            At some point all people, including you and me, must deal with Jesus.  Why? Because he is a force to be reckoned with.
            Eventually, we know that a storm will come.  It may be sunny today, and the forecast might predict more sun or partly sunny for a while.  But we know the weather will change.  Here in Wisconsin we’ve had an unusually dry winter so far.  Not very much snow.  It’s coming, though.  There will be a snow storm.  It won’t be here today or tomorrow.  But it will come.
            Jesus will come.  A person might not have to contend with him today, maybe not tomorrow.  But, eventually, there will be a whopper of a storm and you will have to deal with it.  In today’s Gospel lesson, two men described as being severely influenced by demons approached Jesus.  Inside of them was such a terrible inner storm that they shouted at Jesus.
            Jesus, however, has authority over storms.  He commands them as he wills.  As fierce as the men were (the demons were so many that they were exorcised into a herd of pigs), Jesus had the authority to deal with the situation.  The storm within the men subsided.
            Yet, the storm picked up with the townsfolk.  It seems they had been living their merry lives with no thought to Jesus.  But he showed up.  They had to contend with the authority right there in front of them.  They chose poorly.  We are meant to see a connection in the story between the demons who begged Jesus, and the people of the town who begged Jesus.  They didn’t humbly beg to follow him; they begged him to get away from him, to leave them alone.
            Jesus is an authoritative force to be reckoned with… and he’s coming to your town.  Maybe not today, perhaps not tomorrow.  But things will not always be the way they are right now.  People will have to face Jesus.

 

Jesus Christ, Son of God, you are Lord over the wind, the waves, and the weather.  You also command the unseen, and they obey.  You are God with us.  Oh, that all people would beg to follow you and not beg you to leave!  I am grateful for your power and authority over all things.  Amen.