Maintaining Trust in the Time of Tribulation
Sunday March 3, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Third Week of Lent
Reading I (Exodus 17:3-7) Reading II (Romans 5:1-2, 5-8)
Gospel (St. John 4:5-42)
In the first reading today, we hear about the place that is called Massah and Meribah: the place where the people tested God. They grumbled against the Lord and against Moses. They said, "Why have you brought us out here into this desert to die?" and they questioned whether or not God was with them. Now we have to put things into context: These are the people who had seen the Red Sea split in two; they walked through it with the water like a wall on their right and on their left, and they saw it crash down upon the Egyptians. These are the people who saw the ten plagues visited upon the Egyptians just a couple of months [prior to this]. It is not like these were things they had told their children, and then their children told their children but they never experienced it - these are the people who had experienced these things themselves. They had seen the works of God, the mighty wonders of the Lord. And now, because they were thirsty out in the desert, they doubted that God was with them. Even though the cloud had been before them like a pillar of cloud in the day and a pillar of light in the night and wherever the cloud went they followed and it led them all the way to Mount Horeb (which was Sinai) where they would be able to be in the presence of the Lord, they doubted; they questioned. They lacked in faith, in hope, and in charity.
Saint Paul speaks of this also, in the second reading, and he tells us that it is by faith that we have received the grace in which we now stand, the hope that is ours, and the love of God that has been poured forth into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. We have these gifts. The question is do we use them and are they strong enough in us to be able to withstand whatever might come?
When we look at what the Lord does (again, going back to the first reading): He brings the people out into the desert and He lets them experience their own weakness, their own helplessness. There is nothing that they can do on their own. Would that people of this society would understand that. But instead the media has convinced us that we can do everything on our own: "We do not need anyone or anything beyond ourselves. Everything is possible for us because money can do it all." Money can do nothing. It is false. It is a false hope that people place in their finances. It is a false hope that people place in the media. It is not of God! But this is what people have decided to buy into because they can get their hands on it, they can grasp it, they can look at numbers on a page and say, "I'm rich! Look at all the money I have!" It can be gone tomorrow, and then what are you going to do? On the day that the stock market collapsed, thousands of people committed suicide because their hope was lost. They did not look to God; they looked to their money. On the top of our money it says In God We Trust - not "In Greenbacks We Trust" - In God We Trust.
We need to look at this very seriously because we profess our faith in God, but most of us do not live it. We profess that we have hope, but most of us really do not. The Holy Spirit has been poured forth into our hearts so that the love of God could be within us, and most of us have very little love for God and the love of God that is supposed to be pouring forth from our hearts. Most people looking at us would really wonder if the love of God is even there at all. The Lord told us that He would give to us living water, water that would well up to be a spring that wells up to eternal life. That water is the Holy Spirit, the sanctifying grace of God that has been poured into our hearts. But how many of us recognize it there? For how many of us can it really be said that the love of God is welling up within us and leading us to eternal life?
It is a necessity that we get our house in order very quickly. The direction of this world is leading us right out into the desert where we are going to thirst - not a physical desert, we already live in a spiritual one. But all of the things that we are holding onto are going to be stripped away. And what are we going to have? Are we going to be like the Israelites out in the desert that grumbled against the Lord because they did not have water? Are we going to be like the Israelites who grumbled against the Lord when they did not have their bread and they longed for the fleshpots of Egypt? "We would rather go back and be slaves than to be out here with God" is, in essence, what they were saying because they did not have faith in God.
Look at the pattern. The Lord leads them out into the desert. He lets them experience the hunger before He does anything. He lets them experience the thirst, as we saw in the reading today, before He provides for them; letting them know their own helplessness. He then provides in a way that one would never guess: He provides manna in the desert for the people to eat - something that they never had experienced before. Today He tells Moses, "Take the staff that you have in your hand and go over and hit the rock. Strike the rock and water will pour forth for the people to be able to drink." Who has ever heard of water coming forth from a rock?
It is similar to when we talk about the Holy Spirit coming out of our hearts. God tells the prophet Ezekiel that He will take away our hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh. Maybe we need to pray that God will strike the rock in our hearts so that the water of the Holy Spirit, the grace of God, will pour forth once again the way that it is supposed to. Water can come forth from this rock of our heart, but only if we have the faith in God, only if we have hope in what God is going to provide, only if we have love for God that is so strong that it will not be overcome by any of the temptations of the world, of the flesh, or of the devil.
We are going to be tried, and we are going to be tried sorely. The Lord tells us that when that time comes "if it were not shortened, even the elect would fall astray." We cannot suggest that this is going to be an easy time. He tells us, in fact, that it will be a time of tribulation beyond anything that has been known up to that time or ever will be known again. The only possible way any human being is going to make it through that is if the faith in God, the hope in God, and the love for God is so strong within us that we will rely solely upon Him to provide in ways that we do not understand and that we would never guess.
But everything is there for us; the Holy Spirit has already been given to us. He has been given to us because of faith, and He provides the hope, and He is the love of God. It is all there within our hearts. But if our hearts have become petrified, how is the Holy Spirit going to be able to work unless we ask God to strike the rock so that the Holy Spirit will be able to do His work? But we have to allow it. God will not force Himself upon us, and so He will put us out into a desert. He may be doing that already in many of our lives. If you look around at your life and you see that things are not going the way you had expected, the way that you had decided if you were going to control it (the way we would like to do so many times), if it is not going that way, if we do not seem to have control - that is the Lord. He is the one providing for you. He is stripping away the things you have been hanging onto: the money, the materialism, and all the things you thought would provide for you in a worldly way. If God is taking that away, do not grumble and complain; get down on your knees and say, "Thank You. Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ!" That is what we need to be saying if these things are happening to us because He is testing us. He is doing to us what He did to the people of Israel out in the desert. He is letting us feel the hunger and the thirst because He is going to provide in a way that we would never imagine.
But none of us would ever turn to Him to allow Him to do that unless we had first experienced the desolation, unless we had first experienced what it is like to be without. Then, and only then, can God provide in another way. When what is natural fails, then we will seek the supernatural. And God will provide those living waters for us, if only we are willing to allow it. The people of Israel grumbled and they wondered if God was in their midst. Jesus goes to a Samaritan woman and she says, "I know that the Messiah is coming, the one who is called the Christ." Jesus looked at her and said, "I am He." Do we believe that? Do we trust that? Do we have the kind of faith and hope in Jesus Christ, do we have the love for Jesus Christ that is going to give to us the strength to be able to make it through the desert? Do we rely on Him in supernatural ways? Or do we keep Him at an arm's distance because we think we can do it ourselves, because that is what we have been taught and told by the media, by the worldly ones, by the ones who have no faith in God so they think they can handle it themselves?
I ask you: How is it that your sins are going to be forgiven unless you rely on Jesus Christ and unless you humble yourself and get down on your knees and confess them to a priest? We live in a world that thinks they do not need to confess their sins to a priest: "That is medieval superstition and foolishness. We don't need such nonsense." And so they stay in their sin instead of allowing God to forgive them because they have no faith in the way that God has provided. How is it that the supernatural life of the soul is going to well up within you and become a spring that wells up to eternal life unless you have absolute faith and confidence in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ whom you receive in the Eucharist? For so many people, this has now become nothing more than a symbol, a reward that they receive because they showed up at Mass on Sunday morning. They come before Him in the state of mortal sin and they stick their hand out like it is a piece of bread. They refuse to believe that this is their God.
God will provide in ways that we do not sense, that we do not see, that we do not feel. He will provide for us in ways that we cannot understand. He will ask, simply, that we make an act of faith - an act of faith that, indeed, though you cannot feel it and though your memory may not suggest it, your sins are really gone when you confess them; an act of faith that, even though you do not feel any different, you have just received Jesus Christ in Holy Communion and that is God present within your soul, really and truly present within you, and He is working to purify you and to strengthen you so that as you go out into the desert of this world - and as He leads you more and more deeply into the spiritual desert - you will be strengthened by Him so that you will not grumble, so that you will not complain, so that you will not doubt, but you will know that God is with you. He will speak in your heart and say, "I am He, the One who speaks with you."
He is right there. He has not abandoned you, and He will not abandon you. But the only way we will know that is when we experience the extraordinary way that He will work in our lives. We have experienced it many times, but do not rely upon that. Learn from the people of Israel, who saw the plagues in Egypt, who saw the Red Sea opened, who had been fed with manna in the desert, and when they experienced a little bit of thirst, they grumbled and complained and wanted to go back to slavery, wanted to go back to Egypt because they thought they had it easy there. When we look at what God has already done in our lives over and over again, and still, when the slightest inconvenience pops up in our lives, we grumble and complain. We look for the worldliness; we look for the security of the money and the food and the materialism that we can get our hands on. We doubt God and we grumble against Him.
What is going to happen on the Day of the Lord when He visits this world and He takes it all away from us, when we cannot even handle the slightest inconvenience and we have seen Him work in extraordinary ways? What is going to happen when He takes it all unless we come to believe that He is the One, that He does not abandon us, that He will provide for us? We need to learn those lessons now. If He is doing that now, count your blessings and praise Him abundantly because He is allowing you to struggle and to suffer so that you will learn that He alone will provide. And if He is not allowing you to go through that, then pray: Pray for faith and for hope; pray for the Holy Spirit to break the rock that is your heart so that He can work there, so that the water will be able to pour forth into abundance of life in a way that you would never ask or imagine, and let the Lord work.
Only when you are out in the desert recognizing your own helplessness, only then, sadly, do we turn to God. But it is then that, if our faith is strong, if our hope is unwavering, if our love for God is firm and secure, we will see the Lord work in a way that we would never be able to imagine. In extraordinary and supernatural ways, He will work in our lives. But we must trust Him first. Our faith must be strong. He will give to us water, but only if we ask. That is what He promised the Samaritan woman: "If you knew the gift and the One who asks you, then you in turn would ask Him." Know Him. He is with you and He is in you; already, He is there in your hearts. When you receive Him today in Holy Communion, ask Him for the gift, for the gift of living water, for the gift to break that rock that is in your chest - the heart that He wants to be able to transform to be like His, a heart that will be broken so that the water can pour forth and well up to eternal life.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.