Leading Through the Tough Times

Pastor Kim Gilliland
Pentecost 17/Proper 21
SCRIPTURE: Psalm 78: 1-4, 12-16 and Exodus 17: 1-7
Then Moses cried out to the LORD, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
Exodus 17:4 (NIV)

GRUMBLE, GRUMBLE GRUMBLE

Here we are at week three of our journey to the Promised Land. On week one, Moses and the people thanked God for all that he had done to get them to where they were, how God had delivered them out of the slavery of Egypt and placed them on the edge of the wilderness where they could begin their forty year journey. Last week, just forty-three days into the journey, the people complained because they did not have any food. So God sent manna to feed them and God sent quails and the people were hungry no more.

Remember too, that there is a purpose to this whole journey. It is so that the people will learn to trust God, that God will meet their needs if they follow him wherever he leads them. It’s going to be a long journey

So let’s move on and see what happens today. We are reading from Exodus 17. It begins in Exodus 17:1 (NIV) like this: “The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the LORD commanded. They camped are Rephidim but there was no water for the people to drink.”

Before we look at this story too closely, let’s get a geographical update. It says that the people left the Desert of Sin – that’s where they were last week – and have moved on to Rephidim. Scholars are exactly sure where Rephidim is but we know that it is somewhere near the bottom of the Sinai Penninsula. We don’t have a precise timeline but we know that they have been traveling from place to place. Whether they travelled in a straight line of sort of zig zagged around we don’t know. All we know is that they are now are Rephidim.

We also know something else. They can find no water at Rephidim. That’s a problem. Remember that they are in the desert. In the desert, you don’t expect to find very much water but you still have to have enough to survive. And you aren’t going to survive very long in the desert if you don’t have any. This is beginning to sound a whole lot like last week. If you recall, last week they ran out of food and this week they have run out of water.

The reaction of the people is not unlike what happened last week. Exodus 17:2-3 (NIV) says, “So they quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses replied, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the LORD to the test?’ But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt to make us and our children and our livestock die of thirst?'” Grumble, grumble, grumble…

So, how’s that whole trust God thing going? Last week they complained about not having enough food and today they are complaining about not having enough water. Clearly they aren’t getting it because they aren’t trusting God for much of anything.

The interesting thing is that, so far, everything that they have needed from God, God has provided. In fact, God has provided when they could not provide for themselves. They wanted to be freed from the slavery of Egypt. They could not do it for themselves and so they called out to God who convinced Pharaoh to let his people go. They could not get across the Red Sea on their own and so they called out to God who parted the waters and enabled them to cross on dry ground. Last week, they ran out of food and nothing they could do would feed their families. They called out to God and God sent manna and quails. You’d think that after seeing what God had already done, they would be more apt to trust God. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. No wonder this journey is going to take them forty years.

But here’s a question for you. Are we any better? We say that we trust God but do we really? How do we know if we are trusting God? Maybe we know by comparing ourselves to the Israelites and what they did when things didn’t go quite the way they thought they should. What did they do? They grumbled and complained. So, is grumbling and complaining a sign that someone does not trust God? You bet it is. That’s precisely the reason why the Israelites grumbled – because they didn’t trust God. If they trusted God, why would they grumble? They wouldn’t have because there would be not need.

All of you know people who complain and grumble about everything. It seems to be in their DNA. Nothing is ever good enough. Every little thing sends them off into tizzy. And if they don’t get what they think they need or want, they can go right off the deep end. All of us know people like that. Some of us live with people like that. I know that there are days when Ruth will tell you she lives with someone like that. But here’s the thing. I think it’s true that most of us are sometimes like that. Most of us have times in our lives when, like the Israelites, we grumble and complain. Do you know what those times are? Those are the times when we do not trust God. That’s because if we did trust God, we would not be complaining. Instead we would be acting to improve things and we would be waiting in anticipation to see how God is going respond to our need. That’s what you do when you trust in God but that is not what the Israelites did. They just grumbled and complained.

Does this mean that we should never complain about anything? Yes, it does. If you trust in God, there is never any reason to complain. Listen to Paul’s words to the church in Philippi. Philippians 2:14-16a (NIV) says this: “Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life.” Did you hear these words? Do everything without complaining. Everything. Do you know what everything means? It means every thing, all things. It’s the opposite of nothing, It’s the same as saying that nothing is worth complaining about. Don’t complain about anything.

But someone will say, “Does that mean that I just have to sit back and take everything that comes my way like a nice little bunny?” No it doesn’t. There are all kinds of things that we can identify that need to be changed. There are people living in abject poverty. There are starving children all over the world. We need to treat the earth with respect. We need to do the same with each other. But none of those things will ever change by people complaining about them.

As Christians we need to be fully aware of the problems of the world around us and once we are aware of a problem we need to do the best with can with God’s help to sort those things out. To name a problem and then try to address it is not complaining. It’s about trying to make a difference. But the people of Israel were not doing anything to address there water shortage. All they were doing was complaining. Don’t do that. 

MOSES COMPLAINS

So, what comes next? There is a real problem. The people have no water and they are complaining. But now Moses gets into the act. Listen to what he does in Exodus 17:4 (NIV): “Then Moses cried out to the LORD, ‘What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.'”

The people are complaining and what does Moses do? He complains too. It seems that everyone is complaining about something. And that leads to today’s pitfall. It is one thing for the people to complain. That’s not good. It’s even worse when the leadership begins to complain because it means that not only have the people not learned to trust God, neither have the leaders. That’s a huge problem because if anyone needs to trust God it is the leaders. That’s because the leaders may not be perfect but they need to do their very best to model for the rest of the community what it means to trust and follow God. That’s why they are leaders.

Moses did a great job of modeling this for the people throughout their forty years together. But he wasn’t perfect – as none of us is perfect – and this is one of those times when his imperfect humanity shows through. All of the weight of leadership came crashing down on him and he gave it to the temptation to grumble. Let’s not forget that he has a real problem and he, as the leader, has no idea how to solve it.

This is a tough time for Moses. He’s getting it from all angles. The people are not happy. They are upset that things are not turning out as they expected them to. They are afraid that they are going to die of thirst in the desert and Moses does not know where to get water.

Let’s just pause for a moment and ask the obvious question. How much water are we talking about? To answer that question, we need to know how many people left Egypt on the Exodus journey because there had to be enough water for them and their livestock. So, now I’m going to give you a little teaching session. Exodus 12:37 tells us that about 600,000 men left Egypt plus their wives and children. That’s what it says in most English translations. If we take that at face value and extrapolate for the wives and children, we come up with a number of about two million people. But there are more than a few problems with that. First of all there is the logistical problem. A column of people numbering two million would be a very long column. In fact, it would be something like 300 miles long. But the actual distance between Egypt and Israel is only about 250 miles so, if they had gone in a straight line, the first people would be entering the Promised Land before the last people left Egypt. That makes no sense.

There are also various biblical problems with two million people. Deuteronomy 7:1 says that the Israelites would drive out of the Promised Land seven nations greater and mightier than they. If the Israelites numbered two million, where would they find those other seven nations with more than two million people? And if each of those nations in the Promised Land had two and a half million people, that means that the nations they drive out would number almost eighteen million people. That’s twice as many people as live in Israel today. Again that makes no sense.

Another problem arises with the number of firstborn. In Numbers 3:43 it gives a precise number of firstborn males who came out of Egypt. That number is 22,273. If we believe that two million people came out of Egypt and assume that half of those people were males that we end up with one million males. But if only 22,273 of those were firstborn, it means by extrapolation that all of the other males were not first born which means that every mother had to have on average about fifty sons. That seems unlikely.

So what’s the problem here? The problem is with the translation of the Hebrew word elep which most in most Bibles is translated as thousand. The truth is that it does mean one thousand. But it can also mean other things depending on the context. It can also mean troop or leader. It can mean clan or family. So it would make a whole lot more sense both biblically and just through common sense to understand that it wasn’t 600,000 people who came out of Egypt. It was 600 clans or families who left Egypt and headed for the Promised Land. And that, in fact, is what most reputable biblical scholars believe. The problem is not with the Hebrew text. The problem is with the English translation. The Hebrew word elep has simply been mistranslated. So there’s a bit of biblical study for you.

Having said that, we’re still talking about a lot of people. 600 clans of people plus their livestock require a lot of water. And there isn’t any. The people are complaining. And now the leadership is complaining. What are they going to do?

GOD’S RESPONSE

The people have complained. Moses has complained. But now God acts. Exodus 17:5-6 (NIV) says this: “The LORD answered Moses, ‘Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile and go. I will stand there before you by the rock of Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.’ So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel.”

What’s going on here? The first thing I need to say is that Moses is at his wits end. This is a tough time and he has no idea what he should do. But as a leader he does one thing right. He turns to God. As leaders, we have to remember that. When we don’t know what we should do, it’s always a good idea to turn to God because then we open up ourselves to his guidance, wisdom and strength.

Moses turns to God and God tells Moses what to do. He tells him to take some of the elders with him. Who are the elder? They are the leaders of the various clans and tribes of Israel. God wants Moses to take them with him. Why? So that the leaders will model for the people what they are supposed to do. What are they supposed to do? All they have to do is what God tells them to do through Moses. The leaders begin by following God.

And then God tells Moses to do the most unlikely thing. In the middle of the desert where there is no water in sight and there are 600 thirsty clans of Israelites God tells Moses to take a staff and strike a rock. God didn’t tell him to dig a well or find an oasis or lead him to a stream. God told him to strike a rock.

As outlandish as that sounds, do you know the most amazing thing about that? Moses did it. That’s faith. Sometimes faith calls us to do things that make perfect sense but sometimes faith calls us to do things that make no sense at all. Striking a rock in the middle of the desert makes no sense at all but Moses did it. The result is that water came from the rock to quench the thirst of the entire Israelite community. Once again, God has shown himself to be trustworthy.

Various scholars over the years have tried to explain how this was possible but I have yet to read an explanation that makes any sense whatsoever. We can explain the problem with thinking that two million Israelites left Egypt for the Promised Land. I can tell you that the Hebrew word elep is more accurately translated as clans or families rather than thousands. But I can’t explain this. I can’t tell you how God made water come from a dry old rock. All I can tell is that God did it. And believing that is an act of trust on our part. Moses trusted God enough to do what God said. The elders trusted God enough to do what Moses said. And we have to trust God enough to believe that God actually did what God said he was going to do. Not everything is explainable. For some things we just have to trust in God.

Once more God asks Moses to trust him. And once more, Moses leads the people on the road to trusting God. Some of the people are no doubt beginning to get it. Their trust is growing. When the people were held in bondage in Egypt, God said he would free them from the slavery and God did it. When the people ran out of food, God said he would feed them and he sent manna and quails. When the people were thirsty, God said he would give them water to drink and he gave them water from a rock. There is a pattern emerging here. The people are learning that God is faithful, that they can trust God to do what he says he is going to do.

That’s not to say that they will always get it right from now on. They still have some hurdles of faith to overcome. Sometimes they will slip up but they are on the road of faith. And they will discover that even in the toughest times, God is there and they can trust in that assurance.

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

We have so much, O God, for which to be thankful. There are the birds and the trees. There are the fresh rains and cool evening breezes. We have food and shelter, health care and security. We thank you for our families: our spouses and children, parents and grandparents. We give thanks for friends and neighbours who support us and care for us, sharing their gifts and gardens. We praise you for sunlight shining through stained glass windows and stars that guide our way through the night.

We thank you for the worship leaders of our Pastoral Charge who work so hard to make our worship worthwhile. We thank you for Heidi who is playing for the next couple of months, the Choir, the Worship Team, the techies and all the others who have their own special roles. Thank you for creativity and commitment. Bless our efforts and energize our spirits.

We pray for so many people who are hurting due to the natural disasters that have touch many people this last month. We pray for generous and timely reconstruction not only for buildings and property but also for shattered lives.

We also lift in prayer the situation in Myanmar where Rohingya refugees are running for their lives. We don’t understand that level of hatred when one group of people wants to destroy another. That is not what you created us to be like, O God, so we pray for healing and peace regardless of the political and religious affiliations of the people on the various sides. May your love, O God, be known and shown.

We pray for the sick at home or in hospital. We remember especially Millicent, Sharon, Helen, Don, Jacqui and Lou-Anne. Grant them healing and wholeness in their time of recovery and need.

Finally, O God, help us to remember that there is a purpose and calling for our lives. Thank you that you have created us with a unique skills, talents, experiences and abilities. Help us to faithfully fulfill all that you have planned for our lives. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE

October 1, 2017 / Pentecost 17 / Proper 21

SCRIPTURE

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Matthew 21:23-32; Philippians 2:1-13

CALL TO WORSHIP

Welcome to our time of worship.

It is a time to be fed, a time to be led, a time of rest and refreshment.

We gather with our God who serves us as we serve others.

We praise our God who provides all that we need.

PRAYER OF APPROACH

Holy is your name, O God, and awesome is your love. May your wisdom abound in us, in every thought, every word, every decision, and every action. Guide our affairs and give us discernment and understanding that would otherwise be beyond our human ability. We look to you in our time of worship, trusting confidently that as we seek to know more of you, you will fill us anew with your Spirit. Amen.

PRAYER OF CONFESSION

Merciful God, despite our sinfulness, you call us your children. We are thankful that salvation does not depend on human wisdom which is subject to change, but on your power, your character, and your faithfulness, which neither change nor fail. Help us to grow in understanding your word and your way so that we may be steadfast and immovable in our faith. Lead us into all holiness, we pray, and sanctify our every moment. Amen.

ASSURANCE OF PARDON

God wants the very best for us. God wants us to grow into the people whom we were created to be. That is why we have been given the gift of forgiveness and the grace of salvation in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God that, through our honest and heartfelt confessions, we are purified from all unrighteousness.

DEDICATION OF OFFERING

For food, for drink, for time and talents we offer our thanks, O God of all Creation. Your gifts are innumerable. Your love is everlasting. Grant us the wisdom to use all of your gifts for your glory and the good of our neighbours. Amen.

COMMISSIONING

We have come and we have been fed. It is time to return to the rest of our lives and share the nourishment that we have received in this place. Go into the world to be the hands and feet of God who will walk with us and be with us along every step of our journey.

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