However, it can be difficult to maintain this big picture perspective. When we are in a good place in our lives, when we are on the mountain top, it can be easy to feel that God exists and is present with us, or perhaps when we are on the mountain top we don’t even think about whether God exists or is with us at all. Life is good on the mountaintop. God is in his heaven and all is right with the world. We don’t really need a big picture perspective then.
In the desert many scary things await us. It can be unbearably lonely in the desert. There are wild animals in the desert. Water is scarce if not completely absent. There is little to eat. The days are unbelievably hot and the nights unbearably cold. In the desert, we become aware of just how small and vulnerable we are. In the desert, we becoming painfully aware of how little control we have over the externals of our life. In the desert, we become excruciatingly attune to how much we need and desire God. And we cry out to him. We beg God during the desert and valley times of our lives to help us, to save us, to take care of us. We desperately seek assurance that we are not alone, that God is with us, and that God loves us. Sometimes we even get angry and complain. Pain and suffering can do that to a person. Pain and suffering can make us cry out. Even if our journey through the desert is leading us to an even more fertile land than the one we left behind, it can seem that the pain of the desert will overcome us, and we can long to return to the land we left behind. It can become almost impossible to maintain a larger perspective. In spite of our best and most noble efforts, we can become mired in the desert sand.
The Israelite story is one of countless peaks and valleys, fertile land and desert. It begins with Abraham and Sarah. It begins with the peak of being called by God to parent a new people. It is followed by a valley in which Abraham and Sarah fail to conceive a child, struggle to find a way, and eventually find themselves blessed with a son in their old age. Then we continue through the life of Jacob and his contentious relationship with his brother Esau. Jacob is no saint. He steals his brother’s birthright from him. He tricks and connives his way after many years in exile back into the good graces of his brother. He fathers 12 sons, but finds his favorite son is taken from him. His family endures hardship and famine. He and his family are eventually rescued from certain starvation by this formerly missing favorite son, Joseph. He and his family find new life in Egypt. Peaks and valleys, fertile land and desert—the pattern repeats itself again and again.
The descendants of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and his several wives, and Joseph and his siblings, enjoy many good and fruitful years in Egypt. God is in his heaven and all is right with the world. And then there comes a Pharaoh who does not care about the Israelites, who in fact despises the Israelites. This Pharaoh hates them so much that he enslaves them. And into the desert they go. They groan under the yoke of their suffering. The Israelites cry out to God to save them, to remember His promise to them. And God responds. God sends them Moses. They have ascended to the mountaintop again. They are freed from their oppression. They are freed from their bondage. They are free! That is, until they find themselves in the desert again.
This time the desert is literal. It is empty. It is hot. It is cold. There is little food. There is very little water. They have no idea where they are going and what they will find when they get there. It seems that God has freed them from their miserable slavery only to let them die in the miserable desert. They get angry. They cry out. Maybe they wonder if God is even there. And God responds. For me the most important part of the story is not the miracle of the water coming from the rock, but that God responded, and God responded with love.
Is God with us or not? This is not a question that is ever answered for us once and for all, and God knows and understands this. Because what the Israelites yearned for, what we yearn for from the deepest core of our being, is for God to be with us. We desire God to be with us in the messy, every-day-ness of our lives. When we are in the desert of an untimely death, an unexpected illness, a lost job, a loveless marriage, years of infertility, a flood, an earthquake, a drought, we want to know that God is there. And each time we enter the desert again, we need to know again. God knows this and understands this. To ask the question, “Is God with us?” is to acknowledge our deepest yearning, our deepest need. And God, the God who created each and every one of us has enough compassion for our questions. Amen.