In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Ivan Martynushkin, Harry Oakes, Laurence Ward, Roger Dixey.
These are names that you may never have heard before, but these four men found themselves looking in to the closest thing to Hell on Earth that humanity had experienced in 1945.
These men were amongst the first Allied forces to enter the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. Pope Benedict said of these places:
“In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a dread silence – a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this? In silence, then, we bow our heads before the endless line of those who suffered and were put to death here; yet our silence becomes in turn a plea for forgiveness and reconciliation, a plea to the living God never to let this happen again.”
I wonder, when these men found themselves in these dark places, whether they ever thought “Is the Lord among us, or not?” Not just ‘Does God exist?’ – but is He with us in this place of suffering? Is He guiding us, comforting us, loving us, protecting us? Does our faith journey have meaning?
Tonight’s reading from Exodus is particularly suitable for this Lent period when we review our relationship with God and we reflect on Christ’s time in the wilderness and his preparation for His Passion.
The people of Israel, freed from Egypt, have been wandering in the desert prior to tonight’s reading, fed by the grace of God with Manna and quails. They don’t need to do anything for it; just go out and collect the manna they need each morning, and wait for the quails to come each evening and twilight. God provided the people with what they needed, day in , day out. The people occasionally lacked faith, though; even when told not to gather too much manna and try and store it, they would do and sure enough the surplus rotted. They didn’t always have the faith that God would deliver the manna the following day.
In our reading the people are concerned that they are now going to die of thirst in the desert. There is no water to be had at their camp-site, and despite the fact that they’ve been adequately provided for so far, they seem to go off the deep-end, demanding that Moses finds them water.
Moses rightly points out to them, in verse 2, that they are questioning and testing the Lord. And I can almost hear him adding the word ‘again’ under his breath…
To be honest, the people DO seem to be singularly lacking in faith in God’s continued help. They’ve seen miraculous experiences– the plagues of Egypt, the first Passover, the parting of the sea and the destruction of Pharoah’s army, Manna from heaven, the very fact that after wandering a desert they’re still in a fit state to whinge about things at all – would certainly suggest to me that God has this covered.
But the people continue to protest the situation, to the degree that they’re ready to physically attack Moses, and Moses speaks with God, requesting some assistance. God advises him what to do, and the immediate problem is resolved.
Moses rather pointedly names the place where God’s gift was given as ‘Massah and Meribah’, which means ‘Proof and Contention’. Once again, the people have put the Lord to the test, and have asked the question ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’
Faith is never easy; even for the people of Israel, who experienced a much more ‘hands on’ relationship with God than we do, they still found it easy to start doubting when things started getting a little tough. If you think about how long we manage without water, no more than a few days or a week, then you can see that all this took place in a very short time-frame. Despite miraculous bread from heaven in their bellies, the people STILL end up questioning whether God is still on their side when they feel at risk or experience suffering – even when it’s for a short time, and even when they have had direct experience of the power of God.
I imagine that the inmates of Belsen, and the people who liberated and helped them back to health, must have also asked that question – ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’. After all, our relationship with God today is not so intimate and ‘hands on’ as was the relationship between God and the people of Israel. Very few of us have experienced directly physical miracles such as Manna from heaven and the parting of the Red Sea. We rely on faith; and I can imagine that faith was tested within the camps.
In our own day to day lives, I’m sure there are moments when we ask ourselves ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’ We see friends and family suffer from illness; we hear of cruel murder and rape on the news; we witness the inhumanity of men towards each other in war, and the see millions of people in risk of starvation due to drought and conflict.
I have asked that question many times over my life. ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’ More specifically, ‘Is the Lord with ME, or not?’
The Lord IS among us; it’s just that unlike our reading tonight, we don’t get the ‘behind the scenes’ stuff. In the reading we hear how God tells Moses what to do. God works through Moses. The God that put Himself in a Burning Bush to speak with Moses could just as easily made water cascade from the rock at Horeb without Moses being there. But God works with His people, with His servants, with US.
Was God amongst the people in the death camps?
Yes, he was. He was there in the presence of the German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who saved 6000 Jews from execution. God was there in the form of Maximillian Kolbe, a priest who ministered to camp inmates and finally took the place of another prisoner condemned to death. He came in the form of Ivan Martynushkin, Harry Oakes, Laurence Wand and Roger Dixey to liberate and help those inmates.
It may seem odd to us – almost cruel – that God works in this way; as an omniscient and omnipotent God it’s well within his capabilities to simply ‘deal with this’ directly. But He delegates; he responds to our unspoken questions and heartfelt prayers by letting the Holy Spirit work through humans. God isn’t just among us; God is within people around us at these dark times.
In our lives, God is among us in the form of what the American children’s entertainer Fred Rogers called ‘the helpers’: ““When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” I’m sure that we’ve all experienced these helpers – anonymous well-wishers, good samaritans, good friends, caring family. Folks who make things easier for us when times are desperate.
In a world that is increasingly hard and cruel for so many people, we should be ready to let the Holy Spirit work through us when God wants us to help out. It’s doubtful that we’ll be asked to make the sacrifice made by Maximillian Kolbe, run risks like Schindler or witness the horrors seen by Ivan, Harry, Laurence and Roger.
But we can be ready and willing to let the spirit work through us, so that when people ask ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’ we can ask that at this time, in this place, the Lord is indeed amongst us working through us.
Reader Joe Pritchard
Readings for the sermon and links: