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There has been a lot of talk about crisis lately… especially in the world of Wall Street and Main street… Haiti and hurricanes. There has been a lot of complaining and a lot of blaming going on if you read the news, surf the net, watch tv, or listen to the candidates or your friends. If someone were to describe our days, it might sound like the opening from the Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times and the worst of times…" but for many, it feels like the worst of times.
And if it doesn’t feel that way to us personally at the moment… we may fear that those times are coming. These are the times you wish you could simply fast forward through… And Israel certainly wished they could have fast forwarded through their crisis.
Barbara Brown Taylor helped me see this when she was describing the story of the Exodus. "It’s the story that describes Israel’s long and difficult journey with God… a time where they spent not 40 days in the wilderness but 40 years, which is Bible shorthand for a long, long time. When the people were still working six days a week making mud bricks for the Egyptians, the wilderness looked like heaven to them. Imagine! No work, no whips, no foreign masters with their foreign gods- just a clear, quiet passageway to the promised land. That was before they got into it, of course. That was before the sand coated them like a second skin, before their lips cracked from too much sun and too little water, before they began to dream of Egypt. Like people on any difficult journey, they would have preferred to sleep through it-to take a Xanax and to wake up in Canaan feeling rested. Instead, they found themselves living out on the edge, where everything was exaggerated. In the wilderness, everything becomes 110% what it is. Without all the usual background noise and distraction, there is nothing to dilute reality. All of the ordinary filters do not work. What you see is what you get, and nine times out of ten you get a lot more of most things than you want…(It doesn’t take much to undo you…to push you off the edge). Perhaps, this is why the wilderness is so often a place of spiritual testing in the Bible." 
There is no place like the wilderness or time of crisis to put one’s faith to the test, do you think? That’s what Israel learned. Last week, they were crying for food… this week… they are about to die of thirst. It was the worst of times. So bad that they will give names to this campsite in the journey: "Massah" meaning test and "Meribah" meaning "quarrel." This will be the place where they asked a very basic question that many have asked in their own wilderness. I bet you have asked it: "Is the Lord among us or Not?"
Do you blame them? I don’t. I’ve wondered the same thing, haven’t you? Oh, I used to think that if you were a person of faith… a Christian… the deal was… "I will believe in you God and you will provide for all my needs-maybe even my wants. I will believe in you God, and you will make sure I won’t ever have trouble again… you’ll make my life easier, my team will win, I’ll never have a sick or sad day and you will send me directly to the Land flowing with milk and honey… "
But along my journey of faith, I learned it simply doesn’t work that way. I learned that indeed sometimes God leads us not to where I want God to lead us… but God may lead me to where I may need to be led for my own good.
For can I tell you a truth that I’ve learned about the journey of faith, at least for me? It is not so much in the best of times when I am sitting beside the still waters and God is comforting my soul… times I welcome by the way… so often it is in the worst of times… when I’m in a wilderness… it is then I have an encounter with the living God in a profound way… discovering God providing for me, guiding me and even leading me to a new stage in my faith journey-in my relationship with God.
I don’t know about you, but for me as I look back on my journey… my profound growth spurts in faith have come far more often in the wilderness, than they have at the resorts. Oh, don’t get me wrong– I love the resorts and retreats and conferences that feed my soul… but there is something about the wilderness that tests me… makes me dig deeper… and makes me think about what I believe and why I believe… that moves me to a deeper level with God.
Don’t ever assume that in those wilderness moments when you wonder, "Is the Lord among us or not?" or "Is this what following the Lord gets me?" … don’t ever assume God is not present even when it feels like a God-forsaken circumstance or place. For the truth is, God may never be closer to you than at that moment.
This was the lesson at Meribah and Massah. When they were asking "Is the Lord among us or not?", they learned that indeed God was with them… God had never left them. In fact, God is everywhere in this story-did you notice that?
It was God who led them there… God is with Moses as he listens to his frustration and anger… God stands in the presence of Moses and the elders as God gives instructions for provision… God doesn’t even reprimand the people for complaining… God just provides… using Moses and that staff he carried with him… using just what he had to meet their needs of the moment.
This story get’s me to wondering… where have you met God or experienced the presence of God in the wilderness? How has God provided for you? What resources has God provided… what staff do you hold in your hand that might be a means by which the Lord will sustain you or see you through such a time?
A couple of weeks ago I received an email from Endy who told a powerful story of such a time when God provided just what was needed in the worst of times for a people and a church in crisis. Endy is one of our faithful elders at the Kirk who serves on the Session. I don’t know if you know this, but Endy is very involved in helping refugees from Ethiopia find a new home here… he along with others, helps congregations of Ethiopians find a home here as a worshipping community… we have one here at the Kirk that meets every Sunday afternoon.
These are brothers and sisters in Christ who have literally wandered in the deserts to find a way home. Many can tell you about walking deserts and what it means to be hungry and thirsty in a way few of us have ever known. For them the story of the Exodus is not simply a story in the Bible, it is their very personal and real story.
Recently, Endy was kind enough to share the story of a mission trip that he and others took back to their home in Ethiopia a few weeks ago. You may not know this, but the political situation and the church situation in Ethiopia has been very difficult. As a people and a church, they have been in the wilderness so to speak. But Endy shared with us the wonder of what the Lord can do and how God provided in a very desperate situation. He’s given me permission to share the story of his trip. I encourage you to hear how the Lord used Endy and those leaders to provide in a very difficult situation.
"We set out on a mission impossible. It was eight of us, former pastors and church leaders residing in the US living in different states. We took the journey with lots of prayers, tears and brokenness. Brokenness, as some of us were in the midst of the conflict before they came to the US and with the realization that we had directly or indirectly contributed to the conflict and needed forgiveness ourselves. So we, for the most part were wounded healers, so to speak. It was this way that the Lord lay on our hearts to go on a mission for reconciliation and healing and thereby reunification of the split churches.(The) Ethiopian Evangelical Church is one of the fastest growing churches with about five million members and is a sister church of the Lutherans and Presbyterians. It is very vibrant and is very active on both evangelism and social justice/community development. 12 years ago, the church was engulfed in a bitter conflict with one of its Synods…not over doctrine or theology but one that involved ethnic politics. The rift grew to a point that the two sides decided to settle their differences in the court system. There were many litigations including property rights against the break away congregations. The synod finally established itself as a separate church. 26 mediation groups made their best efforts to bring the two sides together and reconcile but were not successful. The church lost its vision of the Gospel and its mission and message of love and forgiveness was obscured. This was a heart breaking news for all its members and friends nationally and internationally. It is in such a back drop that our group went to Ethiopia trusting the Lord almighty to do mighty miracle knowing that we could do nothing that others before us did not do. One thing was so heavy on our hearts though. There was a sense of urgency and urge to continually pray. We knew that our only redemption was to go back to the Bible principles.
When we went (to the city of) Addis Ababa the Spirit of the Lord lay on our hearts to start repenting of our own transgressions and wash each others feet first and we did. We felt blessed in doing it. When we met with both sides separately we started to wash their feet and asked for their forgiveness. At first they refused but then they let us do it anyway and they started to melt and they also started to pour out their heart and tears and repent of their sins.
When the two groups finally met we sang some songs and our chaplain ministered to them in the Word…. First the main church leader… got up and started to speak and pour out his heart and regrets and started to ask forgiveness from the other side. He took up the towels and pitcher and basin and started to wash the feet of the Synod president. They both hugged and started to sob and cry and asked each other forgiveness. There were at least 30 leaders from both sides in the room and each took turns to wash each others’ feet, asked each other forgiveness and hugged each other and no one in the room was without tears.
After similar healing ministry, the breakthrough came about when we had pastors and elders of congregations from the two other churches in the city come together one Thursday evening at the church we usually met, probably 300 of them. There were songs and the Word was ministered followed by Holy Communion. Before the communion the leaders of the two churches started to talk and it was time for confessions, asking forgiveness and again feet washing and tears. The spirit of the Lord moved upon the people and the two sides who have not talked to each other for 12 years in many cases started to hug and cry and ask each other for forgiveness. The place felt heavenly. The peace was sealed with the Holy Communion.
A week later an agreement was hammered out and the two sides signed a document to reunite and close all outstanding court cases and establish a transition committee for a smooth integration to be completed within one year’s time. … Here is the word the Lord gave us before we left the US (from Jeremiah 32:26) "The Word of Yahweh was addressed to me as follows,
‘Look, I am Yahweh, God of all humanity. Is anything impossible to me?"
God bless you,
Most of us, had we been a part of that story a year ago in such a time of conflict and crisis, most of us may well have wondered, "Is the Lord Among us or Not?" Surely they must have wondered…And just as surely, they now know the answer… of course… of course the Lord was among us. The Lord never left. The Lord was listening… and ready to lead them once again… to that place where they will learn that even in the wilderness… God will be there for them. Always and forever ready to provide just what they need. Amen.
1. Journal for Preachers, date uncertain