The Seventeenth Sunday after the Pentecost, Year A
[Texts: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32]
Turning Whining into Water
Please pray with me:
O Lord, take my lips and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Thee. Amen.
This week, in the book of Exodus,
we find the Israelites where we left them last week:
in the wilderness.
And they’re doing exactly what they were doing when we saw them last week:
complaining up a storm.
Yep. They’re at it again.
So far, they have witnessed
the Ten Plagues,
the Passover event,
their own deliverance from Egypt,
the parting of the Red Sea,
and the miraculous appearance of manna and quail from Heaven,
and they are still whining.
This time, it’s because they’re thirsty.
Like last week, they’re starting to get nostalgic for Egypt.
Egypt– where they were enslaved for generations,
where they did back-breaking work in the hot sun building monuments to their oppressors,
where they were beaten, tortured, and sometimes killed,
where their infant sons were taken from them at birth to be murdered.
(But, hey, at least the food was better there!)
And they’re not just whining this time;
they’ve actually gone as far as to accuse Moses of dragging them out into the desert for his own sadistic reasons
so he could get his jollies watching all of them, their wives and children, and even their cattle die of thirst.
(Because that makes so much sense…not.)
I don’t know about you, but when I read this story, I’m about ready to just cuss them all out.
Moses– because he’s a better person than I am– turns instead to God with his frustration.
“Seriously, God? Do You hear what’s going on down here? You’ve got to be kidding me. What am I supposed to do with these people?!”
God commands Moses to take the elders with him and go to a specific location.
When he gets there, he is to strike a certain stone with his staff.
(And yes, this is the same staff that turned into a snake in Pharaoh’s court and was used to part the Red Sea earlier in Exodus.)
Moses does as he’s told, and a gush of water flows out of the rock, creating sort of a river or stream right through the desert. There is plenty of water for everyone.
Instead of breaking out the lightning bolts and the meteors, God, in His mercy, has provided for His people.
His whining, complaining, quarreling, doubting people.
His people who can’t seem to shut up for half a second
and remember who their God is
and what all He has done for them.
Guess what happens just one book later?
In Numbers chapter 10, the Israelites leave Sinai, the area where they are this week.
And almost immediately, the complaining starts again.
But before they leave this place, this specific spot in the wilderness of Sinai where water flowed from the rock, they give it a name.
When the Hebrews name a place, it is named in honor of its significance within their story– the story of their journey with God.
So, what name do they choose?
Maybe something to do with water?
Those are all good guesses, but no.
Let’s look at verse 17 together:
He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
“Is the Lord among us or not?”
That’s really the big question here, isn’t it?
It’s not really about food or water– although being hungry and thirsty probably made it harder for them to be patient– or wanting to go back to Egypt.
They wanted to know whether or not the God who got them out of Egypt was still there with them
as they journeyed farther and farther from what was familiar,
farther and farther into the unknown.
“Is the Lord among us or not?”
I’d hazard a guess that most of us have asked some iteration of that question at some point in our journey.
Maybe it was when our finances weren’t looking as good as we’d hoped.
Maybe it was when the medical report came back with bad news.
Maybe it was when a relationship seemed to be beyond repair.
Maybe it was when we stood at the grave of someone we loved, wishing we could tell them how much they meant to us just one more time.
Maybe it was when… you fill in the blank.
Whatever the case may be, I think this wilderness–
this place of trial and suffering,
of uncertainty and anxiety–
I think it’s a place we’ve all visited at some point in our lives.
And I think this question–
“Is the Lord with us, or not?”
I think it’s a question we’ve all asked at some point.
“Where is God in all of this?” we ask,
in those moments when everything in the world and in our lives seems to have gone so terribly wrong.
Desperate, exhausted, frustrated, afraid, we turn to God,
and with all the strength we have, we utter those painful questions that come from the deepest, darkest parts of our hearts:
“Where is God?”
“Is He still with us?”
“Has He abandoned us?”
“Has He forgotten us?”
We ask these questions of God during the dark nights of our souls, with broken hearts and tear-stained faces.
Over and over, we ask Him whether He is really still there.
And you know what?
I don’t think He minds.
I think we can ask God as many times as we want,
as often as we want,
whether or not He is still there.
And He will hear us, and He will answer us,
sometimes in big, spectacular ways,
and sometimes in still, small, quiet ways.
And, either way, I think He will be glad that we asked.
Because, here’s the thing:
God knows what’s in our hearts and on our minds
whether we choose to tell Him about it or not.
God already knows what we long to say to Him.
We’re not going to shock Him or upset Him or throw Him for a loop.
He already knows.
But I think He’d prefer that we just go ahead and say it.
I think God wants His children know that we are allowed
to say what’s in our hearts,
(even when it isn’t very nice)
to ask the questions that keep us up at night,
(even when it’s the fifty thousandth time we’ve asked)
to cry out to Him in distress,
(even when it sounds like a bunch of complaining)
I think he would much, much rather listen to our crying and our whining and our endless questions
than the deafening silence of His children being too afraid to come before Him and share our hearts with Him.
So when we wonder whether God is with us, whether God is for us, whether God loves us, whether God still has our back,
We’re allowed to ask.
We’re allowed to ask God if He’s there or not.
We’re allowed to keep asking
over and over and over.
(Seriously. It’s okay. He understands.)
That’s good news, isn’t it?
And here’s even better news:
One day, we won’t need to ask anymore.
One day we won’t have to ask whether He is with us,
because He will be with us face-to-face
for all eternity,
never to be hidden from our sight again.
As we journey through the wilderness of this life,
God, in His providence, will cause rivers to flow forth from the rocks,
nourishing and soothing us in the desert.
And, when this life is over,
God, in His grace, will bring us into that heavenly country,
the place which has been promised to us.
There we will find ourselves in His presence,
“gathered with the Saints by the river
that flows from the throne of God.”