Experiencing YHWH’s Presence - Reflections on Exodus 17:1-7

by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, September 25, 2023

Experiencing YHWH’s Presence

Exodus 17:1-7

The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher

          I cannot honestly say that I have ever had an experience of the presence of God. Oh, I have surely felt as if God was in the same place I was in on notable occasions: my marriage day, as I watched Diana walk down the aisle in 1969; the birth of daughter Sarah (I was not allowed into the delivery room for son Darius’s birth—it was simply not done 49 years ago); perhaps the day I delivered the sermon at Highland Park UMC on graduation day, the year of my retirement from Perkins School of Theology, after 33 years on the faculty. I could add times and places on vacations at beautiful locations: New Zealand, Austria, England (where our family lived for a year), and Fiji, among many others. 

          Given all that, I still must say that I have never had a “real” experience of the presence of God. Not like the one that today’s text describes, not an occasion where the leader of Israel, Moses, takes his magic staff, strikes a rock, and brings water gushing forth, thus stopping the mouths of his recalcitrant and complaining people, at least for a time. What I wouldn’t give for such an event, water appearing in a place where no water could possibly be.

          I am hardly alone in my desire for some genuine evidence of God. History is replete with so-called miraculous occurrences. Cancer is cured, without any apparent medical rhyme or reason.  Wooden or marble statues of Mary bleed real blood. The face of Jesus appears on a tortilla chip, or a screen door, or in a passing cloud. Holy places announce physical cures: Lourdes, France, Chimayo, New Mexico, and Madjagorge in the former Yugoslavia, among many others. We religious types crave proof in order to shut the mouths of our detractors, and to shore up our skeptical minds. Just a small sign, God, we beg, so that this business of faith may not be so hard.

          I have on more than one occasion spoken precisely as those ancient Hebrews spoke: “Why is it you brought us up from Egypt to bring death on me and my children and my livestock by thirst?” (Ex.17:3). This is a literal reading of the Hebrew text; the pronouns of the verse do shift from plural to singular, making the outcry against Moses and YHWH that much more personal and anguished. Or, perhaps more often, I, as a religious leader, pastor, and preacher, have echoed the words of Moses’ reply to them: “What shall I do with this people? In just a little more time, they will stone me!” (Ex.17:4). Moses quite literally fears for his life in this experience, and has probably feared for his life from the minute he was called by YHWH at that cursed burning bush.

          I once, during an interim pastorate at a large Texas church, where the well-loved and immensely popular previous pastor had been removed from the pulpit due to accusations of inappropriate sexual activity, was confronted in the church by a large, nearly inebriated man, who stuck his face close to mine, and threatened me by saying, “You are the most arrogant son-of-a-bitch I have ever met!” I later imagined that if he had had a gun, I might well not be writing this essay. During this pastoral stint, my bishop was literally run off of a highway by someone who may well have been a member of that church. Oh, how I longed for a magic staff to strike any old rock and force water to pour forth, astonishing the crowd, demonstrating my power, showing those detractors that their attacks on me were going to be met with divine force, with miraculous authority. Come on, God, I prayed, a little proof, please, of your presence!

          Unlike Moses, no such proof for me was forthcoming. The threatening man went unanswered by God who apparently remained silent. The bishop survived his dangerous auto experience, but the perpetrator was never discovered and never apprehended. My brief four-month pastorate of that church ended on Christmas Day, 1994, and ended with some quite sincere acclamation and adulation for my time among them. However, they were mostly happy to see my back and were more than anxious to receive their new pastor. No rocks spewing water were to be found there. 

          Well, was God in that place or not? I am convinced that God was there with me, but I have absolutely no real proof of it. It could well be that my missteps while there, and there were more than a few, were merely my own failings, the result of my own ignorance and weakness. Now that nearly 30 years have passed, I do not wish to sugar-coat my time in that church, to wrap it all up in a glowing bow, to forget the many nights of fear, the many days when I was clearly over my head. I suppose I now see myself rather more like Moses at that infernal bush, being told by God to go, and when I simply had no desire to get involved, was told by that God that God would really be with me. But the sign God offered to Moses, and perhaps to me, was “When you get the people out of Egypt, you can serve me on the mountain.” Well, easy enough for you to say, God! How am I going to get them out? That is the problem. Looking back on it all, I think God was there, however hidden, however quiet, and that I still worship God on the mountain, or now in Los Angeles, near the ocean. “Is God among us or not?” Little proof may be forthcoming, but the hard work of faith and trust remains.

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