January 13, 2010

Presence and Estrangement: A Mystery Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 12:42 am
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Exodus 17: 1-7
Colossians 1: 15-23

This morning’s lectionary readings have to do with a mystery—not a theological mystery, but a mystery in the sense of a detective novel. In a mystery, there are a number of clues, but how they tie together, and how they provide the solution to the problem is not given until everything is wrapped up at the very end of the story. Our Old Testament reading sets the stage for the mystery, by providing us the clues. The epistle reading takes the very same clues and ties them all together to answer the question raised by the Old Testament reading.

If we compare the Exodus reading with the epistle reading from Colossians this morning we will find that both touch on a similar theme, identified by the question the people of Israel ask in the last verse of this morning’s reading: “Is the Lord among us or not?” The question raised has to do with the presence of God, and how we know whether or not God really is present with us. This, then, is the mystery: how is God present with his people? Or is he?

The setting for the question in the Old Testament is a series of three tests to which God had put the people of Israel after having delivered them from slavery in Egypt. The first test took place shortly after Israel was delivered from the pursuing Egyptian army at the Red Sea, and God provided water for them after the water at a place called Marah was too bitter to drink. At the next stage in the journey, there was no food, and God again provided by giving the people manna, a kind of bread in the wilderness, and quails, to eat. In this last reading, there is no water at all, and God commands Moses to strike the rock at Horeb so that water can flow, and the people can drink.

There are several implicit assumptions raised by the question, “Is the Lord among us or not?”, and the passage addresses each one of them. First, the question “Is the Lord among us or not?” raises the possibility that God is only present if he provides for our needs. If he does not provide, he must not be present.

Perhaps surprisingly, neither Moses nor God challenge the assumption of the question. Rather, the question is answered, but in such a manner that the questioner is questioned. By giving Israel what they want, the problem of judgment shifts from God to Israel. So, first, God’s presence with the people has already been shown in that he has delivered the nation from Egypt and formed them into a nation. God’s presence had already been shown in his creation of a community. At the same time, however, there is a paradox in the text in that the questioning of whether God is present indicates an estrangement between God and the very community he had created by the exodus from Egypt. By questioning God’s presence, Israel indicated its estrangement from the very God who had created the nation by delivering them from slavery. Could the God who had created Israel as a people, and delivered this people from slavery, not provide for his people in the desert?

Second, in the miraculous signs of providing water and the food of manna and quails, God showed that he could indeed provide for his people, but the miraculous nature of these signs shows that God can provide because he is the Creator. The God who can bring water from rocks and manna from the desert is the God who shows that he is present with his people because he is the Creator of all that is, including the natural world in which there are deserts with no food and water, but also food and water in the desert. God could no more be absent from his people than his people could be absent from the very world in which they live, the world he created.

This leads to another paradox. Because God has provided for the community he has created with food and water in the desert, he has demonstrated that he is indeed present after all, but in such a way that his presence now calls the people he has created into question. Where Israel had demonstrated their estrangement from their Deliverer by asking whether God is present, God’s demonstration of his presence shifts the question of judgment. The people failed the test that God had set for them by bringing them into the desert by showing that they did not trust in the presence of the God who had delivered them and would continue to provide for them.

And this is where the Old Testament passage leaves us. God is present for his people, but in such a way that his very presence calls his people into question at the same time that he answers their prayers. We also might ask, how can God be present for us when his very presence calls into judgment the estrangement created when we question whether he is present for us or not, whether he can be depended on to provide for us.

When we turn to this morning’s epistle reading in Colossians, we find the very same themes appear, and the same answers given, but in each case, there is a twist, something new that resolves the mystery raised by the questions “Is the Lord present among us or not?” . . . “How can God be present with us if we are estranged?” The key to the puzzle is in the verse just before the one where our epistle reading begins this morning. Paul writes, “[God] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Col. 1: 13-14) Jesus, God’s beloved Son, is the solution to the problem of how God can be among us when we are estranged.

So, in answer to the main question: “Is the Lord among us or not?,” Paul’s answer is that the Lord is indeed among us. Where his presence with Israel had been that of Creator and Deliverer, his presence in Jesus is more than that; it is a personal presence. Jesus, Paul writes, “is the image of the invisible God.” “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Just as, in Exodus, God demonstrated his presence as Creator through miraculous signs of water and manna and quails, so, also in Jesus, God’s presence is indicated through the miraculous sign of new life in his resurrection from the dead. As Paul puts it, Jesus is the “beginning, the firstborn from the dead.” God can raise Jesus from the dead because he is the one who creates life to begin with. But the resurrection of Jesus does more than point to God’s presence as Creator. Because Jesus is God’s personal presence, “the image of the invisible God,” the Son whom God has raised is also the pre-existent Son, the one through whom God has created the universe: Paul writes, “For by him all things were created—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col. 1: 15-17)

As God had created a new people with his deliverance of Israel from slavery, so now God has created another new people, through the personal presence of his Son. Because this new people, the church, is united to Christ in his resurrection, the church is Christ’s body. As Paul writes: “And he is the head of the body the church.” (v. 18) But where, in Exodus, Israel failed God’s test by asking whether God was present, and God’s answer to the question in gifts of water and food was not only a sign of presence, but also indicated a judgment on Israel’s estrangement in asking the question, things are different with Jesus.

In Jesus, God is present not only as the God whose presence we wonder about, the God who might calls us into question, but as one of us who who has taken on our very question. He is the answer to the question of whether God is present by himself being God’s presence as one of us. In Jesus, God is a human being. In this, Paul indicates, lies the solution of how God can be present among us when we are estranged from that presence. Where, in Exodus, our estrangement means that God’s presence calls Israel into question, in Colossians, the opposite happens. Jesus takes our part on himself, and God in Christ embraces our estrangement. So, says Paul, “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Col. 1: 20) Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus has undone the estrangement that humanity had placed between itself and God when we questioned, as we still question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” So Paul writes: “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled, in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.” (Col. 1: 21-22)

Finally, in the desert, God responded to Israel’s question, “Is God among us or not?” by demonstrating his presence. He gave them the water they asked for. In Christ, God not only has become personally present for us, but, through the waters of baptism, God is present for us as he enables us to share in the very resurrection life of Jesus his Son. In Christ, we are not only reconciled from our estrangement from God, but we live a new life that comes from our sharing in the resurrection life of Christ himself. Paul writes later in Colossians: “For in [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him who is the head of all rule and authority . . . [H]aving been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses . . . God made alive together with him.” (Col. 2: 9-10, 12)

So, wrapping it all up. Here’s the place in the mystery novels when the detective steps on stage and explains how it all ties together. How do the clues fit to answer the questions: “Is the Lord among us or not, and can we trust him to provide for us?”, and, “How can God be among us when our very asking of the question indicates our estrangement, our lack of trust of whether he is with us and can be trusted?” And here is the answer. The Lord is indeed among us. He has among us in Jesus. Jesus is God’s personal presence among us. He is the one through whom God created the world, the one who took on our flesh, who died and rose as one of us, and took our estrangement on himself. When Jesus came among us, God himself, the very Son of God came among us, as one of us. Although we showed our estrangement to his divine presence by putting God-with-us to death, his resurrection overcame our estrangement by bringing us a divine presence that means forgiveness rather than judgment, and new life, rather than death. When Jesus rose from the dead, he created a new community, a new Israel, his body, the church; he is the rock from which we drink the new living waters that cure our estrangement, and give us life.

Is the Lord among us or not? Jesus is “Immanuel.” He is God with us. Amen.

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