A Side of God We Really Don’t Want to See: Exodus 33:12-23
a sermon preached at The Federated Church, Weatherford, OK
In all human relationships-- with our spouses, our children, our friends—there are ebbs and flows, aren’t there?
There are days when we wonder why in the world we ever got married, had kids or keep in touch with so and so from high school . . .
But, there are days when we love beyond any words we can articulate for love.
Maybe it was your wedding day. . . .
Maybe it was the morning your child was born . . .
Maybe it was that girl’s weekend when you laughed and laughed till the sun came up. . . .
If you’ve ever been there . . . if you’ve ever experienced such bliss in your life where you feel safe enough to ask your loved one for anything—then you’ll understand what is come in our Old Testament reading for this morning.
For Moses and God have quite a good thing going on too. And Moses thought he reached such a level of devotion and trust in God that he feels he could ask for the ultimate expression of intimacy with the Divine: show me all of you!
And it was true: Moses and God were pretty close. But how did this happen?
Emotional bonds to dear ones, in my experience, often grow out of conflict.
Times when either you’ve made it through what feels like the unforgivable sin, only to realize the other person is a saint enough to forgive you. Or times when everything is swirling around you and it becomes a case of you and your partner against the world.
And for Moses and God, they’d experienced both!
If we go back one chapter earlier than we read in our text for this morning, what we’ll find is the great calf incident when the conflict came.This was the scene: for many months, Moses is up on Mount Sinai having holy time with the Lord—receiving the words of the law on the tablets, written by God very own hand. Can you imagine what an amazing experience that was?
But, in Moses’ absence the people gathered at the bottom of the mountain. They talk about how lost and left out they feel. They collect all the gold they can find in the camp and create an object to worship, in the shape of a calf, creating their own object to worship like the other religious traditions of the time. They ignore the 10 commandments (which they already had), and each man and woman does what is best in their own sight.
You can imagine how well this went over when God saw what was going on and Moses came down the mountain. . . .
The divide between Moses and the people was thick in the air.
In verse 9 of chapter 32, the Lord speaks of it saying, “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.”
Since there is a chapter 33, we know that the Lord’s anger does not get the final word. The people are allowed to live. But like misbehaving teenagers, God grounded them (or in Biblical terms: God sent them a plague).
You can imagine how this changed the dynamic of the relationship between God and Moses—both in God’s disappointment with the people who Moses was seeking to lead and in “you and me” against the world sort of way. Moses was truly the one human being that God could trust.
In fact, earlier than we just heard read a few moments ago, we learn that God and Moses had taken their relationship a notch or two closer together.
Moses traveled a good distance outside the camp and pitches a tent where he could be with God alone. It was the ultimate man-cave if you will. A place where Moses could revel in his beautiful relationship with the Divine without the pesky less mature human-lings able to bother them . . .
In fact, verse 9 says of the splendor of this tent: “ As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses.”
Moses and God were BFFs and everybody knew it.
All was be swell, right? But let’s recap. These were not two schoolboys. It was God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth!
But, in this cloud of closeness, Moses wants even more.
“We’re so close, God” Moses says. “And I’ve done everything you’ve ever asked of me.”
“Very true.” God replies.
“So, can you promise me a thing or two?”
“What do you want Moses?”
“I want you to go with me. You—just like we are in this tent.”
And as the conversation continues, God says no. You can’t have out there what we have in this special place of meeting. But you can have my presence and peace wherever you go.
(Isn’t that something that we ought to go back to more often? God says we are never alone and can always have the Lord’s presence and peace wherever we go).
But it wasn’t enough for Moses. He asks the Lord to “Show me your glory, I pray.”
But the Lord says, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”
And instead, the Lord offers up his backside. It’s not what Moses wants to see. It’s not what Moses asks for. And it is a reminder of the fact that God was not just another pal.
But, wow, as many commentators of this passage relate, what God offers is more than what most have seen of God throughout the scriptures: a visual encounter. And, Moses already had a visual encounter with the Holy at the burning bush a few years back!
Humorously, Professor John Holbert of Perkins School of Theology in Dallas asks this question about the passage: “Is it possible that God is mooning Moses?”
I don’t know about you, but it’s not the sight of God I’m dreaming about seeing one day—a mooning.
And we get no indication as the story continues that Moses was thrilled about it either.
I think this is the case because we are a people who like certainty. We say to our co-workers and children, “Look me in the eyes when I am talking to you.” We say to a friend telling us a story, “Are you sure those facts are true?” We say to our partners: “Are you sure that you love me the most?”
In our closest relationships, we want to know that we know that we know!
And the same is true, I think in our relationship with the Divine. We want to know that we know that we are on good terms. We want to know that we are loved and cherished. The side of God we most want to see is what is found in the light of day where all is very CLEAR!
Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her newest book, Learning to Walk in the Dark about our fascination in modern Christianity with certainty and what can be known in the light. In fact she gives it a label saying what you find in most churches in America is “full solar spirituality.”
She says you’ll know a full solar church when you find because: “Members strive to be positive in attitude, firm in conviction, helpful in relationship, and unwavering in faith.”
And while it works well for awhile—I mean who doesn’t like to go to one of the Disneyland of churches everyone is so happy and helpful? It can’t be sustained and remain authentic.
Things happen like: “you lose your job, your marriage falls apart, your child acts out in some attention-getting way, you pray hard for something that does not happen, you begin to doubt some of the things you have been taught about what the Bible says.”
And in cases like this, solar spirituality churches say just pray harder, just have more faith, or trust that everything happens for a reason!
Have you been told things like this from a church you attended? I know I have.
Taylor—most helpfully though, gives us another vocabulary for what our life in communion with God can be, though it is a side of God that we don’t often want to see.
She calls it “lunar spirituality”—or learning to walk with God in the dark.
And though most of us hear the word “dark” and think, oh, that must be bad. It’s not. Darkness can be a gift of clarity. Because if we think about it—even in the darkest night there’s always some light!
When is the last time you took a walk outside of the city limits at night? Do you remember what you saw?
I’m a city girl and don’t get out much into the country in the evenings. But the last time I visited my in-law at their farm in Georgia, I can remember being overcome with the light of the stars I had not seen in a very long time. It took my breath away in fact to stop and behold the glory of the night sky, of God’s creation—that I’m usually so in a hurry to get inside for that I miss.
Taylor affirms this when says, “The way most people talk about darkness, you would think that it came from a whole different deity, but no. To be a human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, failing down and rising up. To want a life with only half of these things is to want half a life, shutting the other half away where it will not interfere with one’s bright fantasies of the way things ought to be.”
It’s as if our vocabulary of God has got to change if we really want to know the Lord! For the God of the dark nights, the God of the backside view, the God of the mysterious, who can feel so close to us in one moment and distant in the next: is who God is.
And though it might not be the God want to see—as Moses experienced it, if we follow the path of God’s kingdom, it is what it is going to be.
St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “Those of us who wish to draw near God should not be surprised when our vision goes cloudy, for this is the sign that we are approaching the opaque splendor of God.”
And while the theology of “solar spirituality” or “God is the light” are part of our journey—it’s just NOT what we’ll experience all the time.
Like in our relationships with our spouses, our children, and friends, we aren’t going to be in total harmony 100% of our journeys together, even more so with our relationship with God. There are going to be times when we are in the dark. There will be nothing we can do about it, except to sit, to walk and to learn from God there.
We learn that God is altogether not like us.
We take comfort in the fact that God is not like us—and we can’t see all of God’s glory—because the problems of our lives, of our world need a much bigger solution than any human can even wrap their brains around!
And most of all, we are transformed by a side of God that is not like us.
As we wait in the dark we are transformed by God’s grace.
We are transformed by God’s compassion.
We are transformed by God’s sovereignty.
So that as we go through the days of our lives, we aren’t so surprised when the worse possible things happen to us and when the dark nights of the soul come.
We have the capacity to believe when God says; I will send you forth with my presence and my peace. And so we go forth into the world differently, even when the darkest nights surround us.
Though this may not sound like good news to you today, church, I am going to boldly tell you that it is.
It’s good news for all of us who have found ourselves in seasons of life that we really didn’t want and bouts of sadness that just won’t go away.
It’s good news for all of us who have ever doubted our faith or wondered if we were really a Christian.
It’s good news for all of us who like to sit out at night and gaze at the night sky feeling overwhelmed by how vast this universe really is!
Sure, there’s a side of God that none of us might ever want to see, just as Moses experienced long ago, but there’s a lovingly mystery waiting to meet us in those moments when we feel farthest away!
Thanks be to God.
[P.S. If you'd like to read the introduction to Barbara Brown Taylor's book, check it out here. Great stuff!)
Kevin and I recently returned from a short visit to South Georgia where all of his family lives but us. One of the joys of every visit we make down to Georgia is time that we get to spend with our four young nephews. It’s always fun to spoil them and then get to leave when they start fighting . . .
I always find myself playing with of my nephews, Landon, age 9 who seems to latch onto me from the moment I walk in the door till the moment we leave. When I can get him off my IPad (where he’s proceeded to load every new video game imaginable) we play board games.
One of the games that we often play together on the floor of my in-law’s living room in Rummikub. Success at Rummikub depends on good draws of chips and insightful strategy of matching rows of numbers and colors.
But, if you draw the smiley face—you find yourself with the game-changing tile! I love watching the glee that comes across Landon’s face when he draws it. For I know in that moment he thinks he’s hot stuff!
For with the smiley face, you can play almost anything and get rid of the numbers on your tray faster.
Much like in other games, the smiley could be called the ultimate trump chip or trump card because when you have it in your line-up, the rules no longer matter anymore. You can really do whatever you want!
In the same way, Matthew 18:15-20 seems to present us the ultimate trump card when it comes to life in Christian community.
And in sum it says this: if someone in the church sins against you, go and talk to them in private. If they won’t listen to you, take 2 or 3 more people. Then if the “sinner” refuses to listen to you then, tell the church. If they don’t listen to the church then let them go on their way without blessing.
Or in other words, my Bible verse trumps you.
You don’t have to do a very exhaustive search on the Internet to find Christian ministries who have framed their governing boards around what many of them call the “Matthew 18” principle.
Everyone from the Association of Christian Schools International to Focus on the Family to Lifeway cite Matthew 18 as the formula by which to handle conflict in the church.
But, the Bible as I come to understand it never gives us a checklist. As Jesus is teaching, it is always about a conversation into what life in the kingdom of God entails. And it is always more complicated than it seems at face value.
Consider this. A Methodist pastor friend of mine in Virginia once told me the story what happened at his church after a long tenure in a particular community. He had become particularly passionate about connecting his congregation with a church in Rwanda.
The Rwandan church was located in a community where hundreds of families were out of reach from life’s most important essentials, especially water. After several exchange trips where members of the Virginian church went to Rwanda to visit and the pastor of the Rwandan church came to America, it was decided that the Virginia church would help bring fresh water to the community.
It would be a large chunk of the church’s budge to fund such a sustainable project—literally nowhere near a major city so they pipelines would be long. But the pastor knew it was the right thing to do. And the Rwandan church couldn’t have been more grateful. Even though one church leader met with him once to explain her concerns otherwise the pastor thought overall the church leadership was behind him.
This was until the deacons from the church board appeared at his house one night. They brought their Bibles and said that they needed a word with him. After settling in into the pastor’s basement living area they read part of our scripture passage from this morning. They told him what they really thought of the Rwandan project.
“It’s our Christian duty to tell you that you’ve sinned. Building that well is a waste of our resources. You should be caring first about the community in the local area first, not the Africans.”
Furthermore (they went on) if the pastor wanted to continue at their church, all contact with the Rwandan church must stop immediately.
But I’m sure you can imagine that this pastor was devastated. Maybe he’s misjudged the pulse of the church and led with a lot of gusto but such did not warrant the “visitors in the night” intrusion as he would later call this incident.
In the end, the church did stop its ministry in Rwanda (sigh) but the pastor (I guess luckily) didn’t loose his job over it.
But what bothered him the most was how the deacons used scripture. It was as if this Matthew 18 passage was the trump card to get the pastor to do what the deacons wanted him to do.
A story like this one is not an isolated example. I know dozens of churches wrecked by conflict that goes back to the same sort of thing. It’s the stuff of the worst of church life is made of.
Our pattern becomes we take scripture. We present it from the perspective of “you’re a sinner” and “I, the real Christian” knows best. And then we use scripture to hurt people. We really hurt people.
This is not to say that discipline isn’t important or sin isn’t really or talking to those in whom we have conflict one-on-one isn’t a good idea. BUT, how we use our so-called trump card of power in numbers has to be handled oh so carefully (if at all).
But it is important to consider that the lection ends this way: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them.”
To help myself get the point I wrote it out like this:
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone remembering that I, Jesus, am there with you.
But then if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses, remembering that I, Jesus am there with you.
If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church . . . remember that I, Jesus am there with you
As simple as the addition is, it sounds different doesn’t it?
And this is what Holy Spirit abiding with us, and blowing through us, and giving life to the church in the first place is all about.
We are never alone. We are never abandoned. God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is with us.
And because of this WE CAN CONNECT to those most impossible people that we don’t understand or appreciate. So, we don’t have to waste so much of our time labeling particular people as "sinners." But, we let the Spirit of God do the work of joining our hearts.
Thanks be to God that the one who holds the “trump card” is not us-- but the great mystery of the Spirit, always at work.
I’ve Made an Unforgivable Mistake . . . Psalm 51: 1-12
Besides the common saying that “there are two things that you can be certain of in life death and taxes” I would add two more things. You can be certain that human beings will do stupid things from time to time and also not want to admit that they’ve done so.
(This would never happen to anyone in this room, of course).
When I talk today about “making an unforgivable mistake” what I mean by this is more than just forgetting to take out the trash when your spouse asks you to, or leaving your child at daycare too long, or even forgetting to pay your mortgage one month but a point in your life when everything hits a bottom. A point when the consequences of your actions loom like a dark, dark cloud over your head. And, in such moments of crisis, we have several choices.
When we make such huge mistakes, one choice we have is to lie.
Two friends were going out for drinks one Friday night and went a little overboard. Instead of calling a cab or another friend to take them home, the two friends got in the car and decided to find their way home. When they began to swerve all over the place and soon found those flashing blue lights behind them, the two men made their choice. They played fruit basket turn over in the car with the passenger coming to the backseat and the driver coming to the passenger side. They curled themselves into a ball like children and pretended to be asleep.
When the officers came to ask who was driving the car, both gentlemen had blank looks on their faces as if aliens had driven them to the side of the road. Neither of them would admit they drove or knew who drove the car, even when they were handcuffed and taken to the station for questioning. It seemed that lying was just easier than telling the truth.
Or, when we make mistakes, we also have the choice to blame other people or influences.
A famous poet once said: “You can smile when all goes wrong and you have someone else to blame.”
I don’t know when is the last time you’ve been in a room with children, but when you are, you’ll probably notice children are more sophisticated than you think at the blame game.
When you get a group of them together and ask, “Who make a mess of the toys? Or, who spit on the floor? Or, who bit the girl sitting in the corner crying?” You probably won’t get a straight answer right away. Even before children and utter complete sentences many of them learn the game of pointing fingers at others. “She did it.” “No, she did it.” “No, he did it.” From the mouths of babes through our adult life, blaming other people is just easier than taking responsibility for our own actions.
Or, when we made mistakes, we also have the choice to simply hide, avoiding all consequences put together.
You only need to read a newspaper to check the headlines on CNN to see this scenario played out in a modern context. Especially for those in positions of leadership and/or power, it is a whole lot easier to use your influence to avoid consequences than it is to be full of integrity.
Names like John Edwards, Tiger Woods or even Arnold Schwarzenegger probably bring to our minds stories of scandals gone wrong—simply because these men decided to spend more time covering up the truth instead of facing it.
In our Old Testament reading for the day, we find the poetic work of the great king of Israel, David. A guy who not only lied, blamed others, but also hid when it was discovered he had messed up big time.
My hope is that as we examine this passage today we will look both at the truth our human condition but also that we would find great hope our God whose mercy is never-failing when we think we’ve made an unforgivable mistake.
To get the whole story about Psalm 51, we have to go back to 2 Samuel to learn that David wrote this when all was going wrong for him. Things were especially bad for David because no one, you see, really ever expected him to many any mistakes. He was the golden boy of his generation. He grew to be the man young women swooned over and older women said, “Isn’t he the cutest?” He was seemingly the perfect answer to Israel’s crisis of leadership.
Though his predecessor, Saul had tried to lead the kingdom of Israel both in God’s ways and in defeat of their enemies, his personal jealousies among many other things meant he was unsuccessful. When David came on to the scene, we know had great success over his enemies right away.
The saying went Saul slayed thousands of enemies but David killed ten thousands making David, even more popular because peace started to come to the land. And, even the Lord sang his praise calling him “A man after God’s own heart.” I can imagine how easy it was for David to begin to believe his own press.
But, then there was this beautiful woman bathing on a rooftop. (Now, you and I know about this as a sweet children’s Sunday school lesson. But if we are to read it as adults we know that the tale goes from G rated to for adults only).
Bathsheba was bathing and David. Bathsheba’s husband out-of-town, so David just could not help himself. Even though he could have had any available woman in the kingdom and already had several wives in his household, greed and lust got the best of David. He has an affair with Bathsheba.
When David got word that Bathsheba was now carrying his child, he makes a plan whereby Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah is sent from war so that the child could be thought to be his. Yet, when Uriah refuses to lie with his wife on his furlough from war, David makes sure that this little problem will be disposed of quickly and quietly. David sends Uriah’s troops to the dangerous front lines and soon he’s dead. Pregnant Bathsheba now moves into the palace with David and has his son.
While the cover-up seemed to work and from the outside everything seems ok, all was wrong with David life at this point.
Everything was about to catch up with him too. The man after God’s own heart had committed adultery and ordered the murder of an innocent person. He was hiding his wrongdoing.
David should have known that something was up after Nathan, the great prophet of the country, shows up at his doorstep, but he doesn’t say a word. It takes a convicting story and a truth in your face kind of accusation from Samuel: “You are the man!” before David begins to own up to what has occurred.
Yet the beauty of this David’s response in 2 Samuel 12:3: “I have sinned against the LORD.” David does something that few in our society do when all goes awry in front of their eyes. He says he was wrong. He says he messed up. He stops all rounds on the blame game and he confesses not only these things but that he has sinned against the Lord.
But had David made THE unforgivable mistake? Adulterer, murderer, liar, coveting his neighbor’s wife? You name it, he could easily have been judged by the three strikes and you are out rule of our modern US justice system. To many at onlookers in David’s time, they could have easily said, “Well, get the furnace ready. . . for we know that David guy is going to burn, burn, burn in hell for eternity.”
This leads us to the bigger question of are their unforgivable mistakes?
Well, let’s stick close with what David does after he comes back to his senses of reality. David turns to the Lord. David realizes that yes, he’d done things that had hurt his family, Bathsheba’s family and even his nation, but above claiming that he done wrong against God.
Look with me at chapter 51, verse four: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.” You see, David wasn’t trying to do anything to get out of his mess other than recognizing he deserved any punishment he might receive. David was acknowledging that “sin is a problem concerning God and his relation with us. Not anyone else.”
Because of this, David’s confession turns attention back to God. He recognizes that any real help he could have comes from God. “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whither than snow.” In admitting wrongdoing, David says his future lies in the hands of God.
And what David was asking for was not the self-deprecating type of confession “I’m such an awful person there’s no way that God can forgive me” BUT an invitation for God to come into his life and in a new way. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” (10).
David asks for God to bring into existence in him what was not there before. To, create in him a different outlook. We know this as he’s chosen the same Hebrew verb that was used to describe the creation of the world in Genesis 1. David desires a new creation in his very being.
Yet, in the end, I believe this Psalm becomes more about God and God’s character than it ever was about David anyway.
Psalm 51 shows us the mercy of God at a level that is mind-boggling to most of us.
David’s sin was forgiven (he was allowed to remain on as king of Israel, and even have another child with Bathsheba after the first one dies who eventually became king Solomon!). It’s amazing isn’t it?
In a culture of logical thinkers, it is hard to believe that God would love us, as he did with David when we make such a mess of our lives sometimes.
It is hard to believe that God loves us unconditionally and can give us clean hands and a pure heart again when we ask because such a love is nothing like we experience even in our best of human relationships.
It is hard to believe the hiding, the lying, and blaming others way of doing things could be exchanged for a better way of being just as we are by a God who longs to create something new in us.
It is hard to believe that our God can make the crushed bones in us rejoice afresh, for such type of hope is not what we see readily in our society today. Such a hope rarely exists.
But, yet, the message of Psalm 51 reminds all of us again today that such unbelievable statements are actually true.
Though you might be sitting in your pew thinking this morning, “I’ve not murdered anyone this week or committed such life altering event such as adultery…. (which I applaud as a pastor) so what is in this text for me?”
I offer you this morning that this text speaks to all of us who in some way or another are wandering around in the messes of our own making.
When we truly get honest with who we are—I know that all of us have some “thing” in the back of our minds that we believe God doesn’t like about us or an act done to us that continues to bring us shame, even years after the act has passed.
But let the excuses cease! Let me be your messenger this morning to remind you that we ALL are offered the opportunity of restoration. Today, we are given this stop of the journey to confess the ways we’ve fallen short of the mark of God’s best for us knowing that as we cry to God: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit” that God will do just this.
If you’ve made a mistake, if you’ve made a really big mistake, or if you’ve made a really, really big and unforgivable mistake, I give to you today a God who lovingly desires to keep relationship with you intact, no matter what. Those you hurt may or may not forgive you, understand you, or work on reconciliation with you. Yet this fact remains: you are loved even still. I give you a God today who longs to re-create a clean spirit in you— so that you are whiter, whiter than snow for now and forevermore.
When you were a child what were your dreams for your life? What did you want to be when you grew up? What did you imagine your life would look like?
Did you dream of being a doctor, a lawyer or a firefighter? Or a grand supreme winner on Star Search (as I did at age 6)? Did you hope you'd one day get married? Did you wish you'd one day have children that were as beautiful as Barbie and Ken and living happily ever after in Barbie's pink house? Did you draw pictures of the home you'd believed you'd raise your own children in one day with a red door and shutters that open and closed with ease?
But the reality is that as much as each of us had dreams and hopes for what the days of our life would hold, in actuality all of our lives in some way or the other has not worked out as we planned.
It's true as it is said, that no child grows up and says to their parent or caregiver, "I want to be an addict when I grow up." "I want to
get a divorced after a long custody battle with the woman I thought I'd love forever when I grow up." Or, "I want the house I bought with my life savings to go into foreclosure when I grow up."
The reality is: sometimes we don't even make it to the Star Search stage outside the makeshift one in our own living room. Sometimes, we find ourselves in mid-life living out of our car and not the house with that red door. Sometimes, our children grow up not to look or act like Ken and Barbie and drive us completely nuts.
Some of these situations, of course, stems from moments when we've lacked willingness to make good choices, but a lot of it comes from life just being life, in this broken world of ours that seems to become more broken all of the time. And, as a result, there are moments-- and you may have had one of them week-- when you want to throw your hands up in the air and say, "This is not the life I planned for myself." Or, "This is not the life I really want to be living. Ahhh!"
For as much as we've had good intentions and good desires for our lives-- to own a home that can be a blessing to our family and others, to be in long-term partnership with someone in whom we can love unconditionally and who loves us back, to be a parent who sees our children having children, life doesn't give us what we always want. It is often even our purest and deepest desires that just don't seem to pan out. No matter how hard we worry, pray and hope for the best and as much as we watch others being blessed, it seems that our hands come up empty time and time again.
If this is the situation that you find yourself in this morning-- wishing for things in your life that you don't have, then you are in great company as we examine our Old Testament reading for this morning among the Israelites. For they too, had a good desire, a need in their lives that they longed to be fulfilled yet simply was not. They were thirsty. I mean, really, really thirsty without a drop of water left.
I don't know the last time you were thirsty. I can't remember when this was for me. It's rare in our water bottle and water fountain on every corner culture that we "die of thirst" literally or metaphorically in this neck of the woods very often if at all. Water is something we have enough of, almost always, unless of course a tropical storm threatens to come through and our neighbors hoard the bottles of water off the shelves at Safeway and Giant leaving nothing for the rest of us . . .
But, in the wilderness where the whole congregation of Israelites found themselves on this journey from Egypt to the undefined and yet undiscovered Promise Land was, the resource of water was everything.
To find water was to find life and either you had it or you didn't: their search for water would be uniquely tied to who they were as a people. For example, just three days after crossing the Red Sea-- the big and dramatic-- experience of faith, the group was short on the provisions of water and the Lord had provided and God directed them to some springs. But again, they were without saying to Moses in verse 2, "Give us water to drink."
And, such was a good, normal, everyday, essential need, right?
H2O, we know, is critical to our very existence: the definition of a need. Most medical professionals will say that a human being, in reasonable to good health can only live between 3-5 days without water before suffering from extreme dehydration and shock leading to death.
So, while, we read Exodus 17 with thoughts in our head like "here they go again complaining," simply the Israelites sought to express a deep need when they told Moses, their spiritual and administrative leader, "We must have water now!" This "following God" and "making a new life" for themselves plan was not working out.
In the meantime, however, what were they to do? How were they to wait? How were they to respond to an unmet need that they were powerless to fix? Did it mean that their need was not really a need? Did it mean that God had abandoned them and truly wanted them to die as they feared? It sure felt that way . . .
It's easy to kick the dog when you are down right? And, so, went the days of the lives of the Israelites and their relationship to Moses. As they perceived God not giving them the life they wanted, they took out their pain on the easiest next best thing: Moses. Voicing their frustration to the point that we hear Moses fearing for his life in verse 4-- believing that in their extreme thirst the crowd might stone him if they didn't get a drink and fast.
Moses' natural response to the crisis as a leader was fearful of the crowd's response, but tempered. We hear in the words of this text, Moses wanting the crowds to simmer down, stop bothering him and simply trust that God could provide-- as this was God's job to meet their needs.
I can imagine, if I were a member of the crowd, I would have found Moses' calm as a cucumber leadership style really annoying.
Trust that God would provide? "Oh, Moses," I would have said, "It's so much harder than that. When, tell me, when God is going to get God's act together and find us some water."
For, secretly they hoped that in Moses' bag of superpower, bring on the 10 plagues kind of tricks, he could lead them by another spring and they'd worry about water no more. But, such was just not going to happen.
A friend of mine shared with me this week a similar frustration with the world and with God. After being out of work for the past nine months due to a company downsizing in these difficult economic times, she is currently at the end of her rope. After sending out over 500 resumes, doing everything she can to do what experts say to do when you are looking for work: networking, staying on a schedule everyday and trying not to get down on herself even as the funds in the bank account slowly begin to run down, she feels the best parts of her life are dying more every day.
After interview after interview, rejection letter after rejection letter, and sleepless nights and pleas to any religiously minded person she knows for prayer, my friend shared she was beginning to think that God had forgotten her. No one in her life seemed to care that she was out of work and without a job coming her way soon, she might lose everything she's worked so hard for including her modest home. Life was not certainly turning out as she wanted.
But in the spirit of these same frustrations, the Israelites were asked, beginning with Moses, to be active in their faith of God and to begin to see beyond their circumstances in a way they'd never seen before.
These were Moses' instructions from God: "Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile and go. . . . Strike the rock" God said, "and water will come out of it."
I can imagine that laughter erupted from the crowd and anxiety of what might be next (if this didn't work) consumed Moses' thoughts. This God they were serving was just getting crazier and crazier all the time . . .
Professor Amy Erickson puts it like this, "It strikes me (pun intended!) that God choose to bring water-- and the life it symbolizes and will impart-- out of something that appears to be lifeless. . . . Out of Egypt and out of the wilderness, God will find ways to make life flow in the unexpected ways."
Even with all the pre-rock striking anxiety, when it does work, the provision of water is NOTHING like they expected.
The water came not from a spring (as it did before) nor from going back to Egypt (as they had suggested). The provision was resurrection before their eyes! That out of something that seemed life-less and certainly not life-giving, out flowed streaming of living water: a big ole rock!
Which begs us as a congregation, as seekers of this same God to wonder: where is our water? Where is our rock to turn to? Where is our spring? Where can all the hurting hearts among these pews this morning find hope once again? Where is the spring where we can know life can be and will be better than this?
Using our text for a guide this morning, our answers come in thinking for a minute about the quandary of the "My life didn't or isn't turning out the way I wanted" situation altogether. Let me ask you the same question of you in a different way.
Does scripture tell us that in life, we should expect to receive the dream we dreamed for ourselves when we were a child? Does scripture tell us in life that we should expect, as we follow God, that our lives will look exactly like everyone else around us?
I hate to burst your bubble this morning, but the answer to both of these questions is no.
Never does God promise us that in this life we'd get everything we want or that we can be confident that our lives will fall in the patterns just like our those around us.
But, if our unmet desires, are desires of lasting value, that are in line with the people who God has created us in all of our uniqueness to be-- then, we'd better watch out. God is going to be showing up in our lives in unexpected places, just as God did for Israel.
Showing up in places in our lives that we thought were long dead-- dead friendships, dead partnerships, dead vocational aspirations, or dead paths we'd traveled down our lives before-- and pouring from them water once again.
Not only so that we can receive what we've longed for, but so that the community around us can be reconciled and blessed by God too. Notice in this provision of water, not only is water given, but reconciliation. Moses, once distraught that the congregation would stone him, recognizes the Lord was among them and they all experienced God's provision together.
And, indeed our lives still might not turn out as would have liked them too (such may never change), but if we are open to God's direction, God's rocks of blessing, then I dare say our lives might turn out better than we'd ever dreamed from our days of playing with Barbies and Gi-Joes.
If you've noticed this morning the title of the sermon, "The Intention of Vision" you might be thinking, that all of this is nice but has nothing to do with casting or setting a vision. Yet, such could be farther from the truth, even if I haven't made such a point explicit for you this morning.
For when we are intentional about seeing our life as God see it-- not as worthless, not as used up and wasted and most certain not dead-- then, we begin to have vision for what is up head.
Vision, if you and I want to see the world from God's perspective . . . for ourselves, for our families, and for our church, begins with laying down the ideas we have about "What we wanted to be when we grew up" so that we as children of God, can help us see "what our Heavenly Parent wants us to be when we grow up." Which is what the month of stewardship every October is indeed all about-- re-centering our lives on God's vision for us, instead of just our own.
This morning, when you came into worship this morning, you were given a stone. It's yours to keep or throw away (as long as you aren't going to throw them at your pastor anyone else). But, if you feel so led, I'd invite you to have this stone be for you this week and in the weeks ahead a tangible symbol of your intention to align your life with God's vision for you and for us collectively as a church. I invite you to simply hold it in your hand as we sing our hymn of commitment in a few minutes.
May it be a reminder of the one who can bring forth water from the largest or oldest or most regrettable stones that surround your life-- remembering every time you touch its smooth texture that indeed the Lord is with us. And, will never leave us to face our perils of the journey alone.