THE PEOPLE COMPLAIN
The Bible is a very big book filled with lots of great stories and teachings. Today, we’re going to read one of my favourite stories that appears right near the beginning of the Bible in Exodus 17. It’s about the people of Israel. They are just at the beginning of a very long journey away from their old home to a new home that God has promised them. They don’t exactly where it is but God has promised it to them and so it they often refer to it as the Promised Land.
But it’s a long journey and the people are impatient. And they are getting rather crabby starting to complain about things. In today’s story, they complain because they are thirsty. Let’s read their story starting in Exodus 17:1-4 (NIV):
The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 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 up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”
Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
So what do we learn? The first thing we learn is that the people have a leader. His name is Moses. Remember his name because Moses is a pretty important man in the Bible. Moses is the leader of the people of Israel. Moses is leading them on their journey to a new home. What else do we learn? We learn that they are travelling in the desert. What’s in the desert? There’s sand in the desert, lots of sand. What isn’t in the desert? Water. There isn’t much water in the desert. And the people are thirsty. They need to find water. And not just a little water. There are thousands of people on this journey so they need lots of water. And not just for themselves. They also have farm animals with them to take to their new home. They have sheep and goats and who knows what else. And all of them need to drink to stay alive.
What do the people do? They complain to Moses: “We need water. Give us water to drink. You brought us out here into this desert where there is no water. We would have been better off back in our old home. There was lots of water there. Now we are all going to die of thirst.”
Crab, crab, crab. The people are complaining. And maybe they have a point. After all, they do need water and won’t get very far without it.
How does Moses respond? He complains to God: “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.” Moses doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know where to find enough water in the desert for all of the people and all of their animals.
How many times do we sound just like the people of Israel? For us the issue probably isn’t water. We happen to be surrounded by water. If you want water, all you have to do is turn on the tap and you will have more water than you could ever possibly drink. And if you’re fussy, you can buy bottled water or flavoured water or sparkling water. Water, water everywhere.
We don’t crab about the water. We complain about other things. Hey God, how come life is so hard for me? How come nothing seems to be going my way? How come I can never catch a break? How come every time I try something it backfires? Sometimes we complain about important things. How come I don’t have enough money? How come I can’t buy that new car? How come I can’t find a decent job? How come my kids are so rebellious? Those are all real problems. But sometimes we just crab about trivial stuff. How come there was no butter in the butter dish this morning and I had to use the cold hard stuff? How come I have to do the dishes again; I already did them twice this week? How come the last person to use the milk left the empty bag in the container and put it back in the fridge? How come there’s never any toilet paper in the bathroom when I need it? How come it had snowed yesterday? How come someone sat in my pew this morning? Crab, crab, crab, crab, crab! Do you know what I mean? Don’t get me wrong. Some of us have real concerns but sometimes we complain about the silliest things.
So the people have complained to Moses: “We have not water. Give us something to drink!” And Moses complains to God: “What am I supposed to do with these people? Where am I supposed to find enough water for everyone?” Now it’s God’s turn to respond. We read what God says in Exodus 17:5-7 (NIV):
The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front 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 at 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. And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
God’s hears Moses complaint and what does God do? God tells Moses to take a stick and hit a smack a rock and then water will come from the rock. And not just a little water. There will be enough water for everyone to drink.
You have to admit that this all sounds more than a little strange. Can you imagine what must have been going through Moses’ head when he heard what God had to say: “Okay God, so I have all of these thousands of people complaining that they don’t have enough water which, admittedly, is a legitimate complaint. But your solution is that you want me to take a stick and use it to strike a rock. And from that rock, we will get water? God, are you kidding me? Can’t you just show us the way to the nearest oasis or river? I don’t know about anyone else but, in my experience, rocks are not generally a very good source of water.”
We can’t really blame Moses, can we. Trying to get water from a rock is a bit of a head scratcher. But Moses chooses to trust God and give it a try. After all, there really weren’t any other options available so why not? And what happens? Moses does what God tells him to do. He takes a stick and hits the rock and enough water pours out to meet the needs of all the people and all of their animals too. Problem solved.
LEARNING TO TRUST
It’s a great story but what can we learn from it? Part of what we can learn is about trust. Clearly the people did not trust Moses to find water and, by extension, neither did they trust God to direct Moses.
In some ways, that’s understandable because it takes time to learn to trust anyone because it doesn’t always come naturally to us. It can be a real struggle to learn that God is trustworthy. That’s because it’s so much easier to trust something that we can see, touch, taste, hear or smell. We can’t do any of those things with God. We might be able to connect with our senses many of the things that God has made. We can feel the cool of a snow flake when it lands on our cheek. We can smell the flowers in the springtime. We can hear the songs of the birds in the morning as the sun comes up. We can see the moon on a cloudless winter night. We can sense all of these things but none of them is God. God is beyond all of that.
So how do we learn to trust in God? We learn to trust God by first choosing to trust God. It usually starts with little things. You say a prayer, “Okay God, it’s the first day in this new scouting group. I’m a bit nervous but I hope that I can find some friends and a place to belong.” That first meeting is a good one and you have a good sense that this is a place where you can belong and, because of that, you learn a bit about trusting in God. And then it’s time to find a part-time job after school. You pray that you will find a job that you like and that has good people to work with, something that fits your schedule. And guess what? You find one. Now you have a couple of things where God has come through. Trust is building. But then you get a bit older and start wondering about dating. You meet the girl of your dreams and you start to go out together. It’s all going well and you pray that this will be the one with whom you will spend the rest of your life. But it doesn’t work that way. She breaks up with you and you are heartbroken and almost feel that God let you down. But then you meet someone else and she’s perfect. You end up getting married and you’re very happy. And then you realize that the reason the other girl broke up with you was because God has someone better in mind. And more trust is built.
Do you see how it works? Eventually you find yourself praying to God for things for which you never would have prayed before. Sometimes God answers the way you want. Sometimes God has something else in mind. Sometimes God seems to be silent. But all the while your trust in God is increasing.
You learn to trust in God by choosing to trust in God and then seeing how God responds. That doesn’t mean that we just let God do everything. We still have to do our part but we can trust God to provide that which we cannot do for ourselves.
The people of Israel had to learn to trust God. That would take time and experience and this complaint about water was one of the steps along the way by which God would prove his faithfulness and the people of Israel would learn to trust him.
That’s the first thing we can learn – to trust God. The second thing is that sometimes the very best things come from the most unexpected places. Who would have thought that God would solve the water problem by telling Moses to smack a rock. You can smack a rock all you want but chances are the all you will get is dust.
How did that happen anyway? How did God do that? I’ve heard a few explanations that might make a little sense. The one that seems the most reasonable is that when God told Moses to strike a rock with a stick that the rock in question wasn’t like a rock that you might find on someone’s front yard. There simply would not be enough water in a rock that size to satisfy all of the thirsty people and animals. When God said a rock, he meant the rock on a cliff face. Think of a big, big high cliff made of rock. Sometimes in those cliffs there is a stream of water running below the surface. That’s quite possible and it happens all the time. When I was a kid, we used to explore the caves that were created by underground streams on the Niagara Escarpment. What if there was a stream of water running just beyond the surface of the rock. When God told Moses to strike the rock with his stick, God told him to do it in just the right spot. And when he hit the rock, it was enough to break the surface of the rock and let the water start pouring out. I don’t know if that’s what happened. The Bible doesn’t tell us. But it does show that it is possible. Moses may not have known where the water was but God did and God told Moses where to strike the rock for maximum effect. And enough water came out to satisfy their thirst.
What this tells us is that sometimes the things that we need come from the unexpected places. Who would have thought that water could come from a rock? But it did and it was just what the people needed.
I want to put that in terms of people. Sometimes God brings just the right person into our lives to help us out and sometimes that is the most unexpected person. In fact, sometimes it is the very last person we would expect.
I want to tell you a story about Joshua. Joshua was a boy I met when I was a minister in a church up north in Espanola. Joshua was a very special boy but he was also very different. He was born with a serious medical condition that meant that he would never be able to play with other children. He could never go to school. He would never hug his parents. He would never talk or walk or be able to feed himself. In fact, he would never be able to do anything really except lie in a bed while others looked after him. Some people might wonder why anyone bothered keeping Joshua alive. But there were others, like myself, who know that God had given Joshua a purpose.
He was special and his parents loved him very much. They kept him home most of the time but sometimes they had to take him to the hospital where the nurses and other staff looked after him.
I confess that I liked it when Joshua was in the hospital because that’s when it was easiest to visit him. I used to go to the visit the hospital every week and every week I would see people with all sorts of illnesses and medical conditions. Some of them were not serious but some of them were very serious. And some people were getting near the end of life. But they were my people from the church I pastored and I always tried to give them the very best care I could. That was sometimes hard to do because I didn’t want to see people I cared about suffer. None of us want to do that.
On those days when Joshua was in the hospital I always made a point of visiting him last. That’s because I always found it very peaceful to be with him. He didn’t talk to me but sometimes I talked to him and he was an excellent listener. Usually, I would sit beside his bed and watch him with his eyes closed. And sometimes I would hold his hand. He had big hands for a boy but they were always warm and his skin was a soft as soft could be. And I would listen to him breathing slowly, in and out, in and out in a very steady rhythm.
It didn’t matter what kind of day I had had sitting with Joshua always helped me feel better. I visited him often because he was in the hospital a lot. Eventually, I saw him as a friend. Before I left my friend, I would always take his hand and we would pray. I don’t know if Joshua heard the prayers. I never once got an reaction from him at all but I know that God heard them and that’s all that mattered.
Joshua became a very special person in my life. The interesting thing is that I wasn’t the only one who thought of Joshua this way. When I went to visit him, it wasn’t unusual to find one of the hospital staff sitting beside his bed holding his hand just like I did. And sometimes, they had their heads bowed in prayer.
I got to know some of those people and all of us agreed that Joshua was very special boy and that we were glad to have him in our lives.
But what dd he bring to us? One word. Peace. Joshua was the most peaceful person I ever met. He exuded peace. It just came out of him. It flowed out of him like water from a rock, washing over anyone who was near, taking away the concern and the burdens of life, maybe not forever but at least for a few moments which helped to make the day just a little bit easier. When I look at the people who made a difference in my life over thirty-six years of ministry, Joshua is right near the top.
God meets our needs and answers our prayers in some of the most unusual ways. The people of Israel were thirsty and God met their need in the most unusual way, by providing water from a rock. In experiencing the power of God, the people learned to trust in God’s love and care for them. What is your need? God already knows what it is. Trust him to meet those needs in unexpected and surprising ways.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Holy God, Source of Life, you have graced the earth with an abundance of living breath. You have provided all that is needed to sustain us. The land is covered with mighty forests and tiny insects. Mammals and reptiles roam the majestic mountains, the deep valleys and peaceful plains. The lakes, rivers and oceans support many wonderful creatures from single cell amoeba to the giant and powerful whales. In the skies overhead, the birds and flying creatures live and play out their existence. How great are your works. How mighty are you deeds. How gentle is your caring and compassion.
In the middle of your Creation, you have placed us, your people, to be caretakers of all that you have made. We regret that sometimes we misuse the resources and spoil the work of your hand but we thank you for giving us more chances than we deserve. Thank you for being a Loving God who forgives and seeks to reconcile us with you and with one another again.
Thank you especially for Jesus, the Suffering Servant, who gave up his life as the perfect sinless sacrifice. In him we have new life not only here but also forever in eternity.
We remember those who need your healing touch this week. We pray for Mark, Carol, Ron and Sheila. Give them the courage to reach out in faith and grasp the new life that is theirs in Jesus Christ our Saviour. As we pray for others, we become aware of the areas in our own lives where we are in need of healing. Touch us in those innermost places and make us whole.
Holy Jesus, hold out your hand that we may grasp it in ours. Reach down to us from the heavens as we reach up to you. Reach up to us from the earth as we search for roots and a firm foundation. Reach out to us as we reach out to you, our friend and brother.
Bless our living, our dying, our rising, our falling, our health and our sickness. Bless every aspect of our lives and our being as we call to you in faith.We pray all of these prayers in the name of your glorious and humble Son Jesus. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
March 12, 2023 / Lent 3
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; John 4:5-42; Romans 5:1-11.
CALL TO WORSHIP
ONE: Come, let us sing to God.
ALL: Let us shout for joy to the Rock of our Salvation
ONE: Come, let us praise God;
ALL: Let us enter God’s presence with thanksgiving.
ONE: God is alive in Jesus Christ,
ALL: and we are the people of God’s pasture.
We come before you, O God of Majesty, with excitement and anticipation. You fill the heavens with songs of joy and provide our feet with a firm foundation. Your angels spread your love to the farthest reaches of Creation. How great you are! We lift up our voices to give you praise, honour and glory. Delight us with your touch. Inspire us with your presence. Come, renew our lives.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
We come before you in this season of Lent with an awareness of our own sinfulness. Despite your great goodness, we often chose to turn away. We turn from the ugliness of the cross with the knowledge that it is we who should hang there, not your sinless Son. We stand at the stone-covered entrance of the tomb and remember that it is our dead bodies that should be shut away in the cold and lonely rock. Forgive us, O Christ, for believing too little and too late. Have mercy upon us.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
The cross of Jesus reminds us of our sin. But let us not forget that the story of Lent does not end on Calvary. The stone will be rolled away. The tomb will be empty. In Jesus, we are made whole.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
With joyful hearts, we bring our gifts, held in hands prepared to do your work to the glory of Christ and the good of Creation through the Church of your calling.
Go forth in the name of Jesus to offer the refreshing living water of the Spirit which quenches the thirst of all who seek after the holy way God. Go in peace.