The First Presbyterian Church of Blackwood
21 East Church Street
Blackwood, New Jersey 08012
Sermon Notes – Sunday, October 1, 2023
Rev. Beth Thomas, Guest Preacher
“God Gives More—Again!”
Road trips are never easy, are they? Some of the scariest times in my life have been on mission trips with various church youth groups. Herding teenagers and driving a 15-passenger van requires big faith, tons of energy and a strong sense of humor.
On a mission trip. for every heart-warming moment spent around a campfire there will be times when some boy picks up a steel pipe at a construction site, decides to play baseball with it and accidentally swings it right into the forehead of the pretty blonde girl he is trying to impress. Yes, she was rushed to the emergency room and yes, she was fine. Fortunately, her mom was one of our chaperones. God is good.
For every moment of unbridled joy amongst teenagers there will be moments of great angst—like the time a lively young girl colored her hair purple for the trip, only to jump into a swimming pool and have it turn a disappointing shade of grey. They don’t really teach you how to deal with a fashion emergency at seminary, but could have been so much worse. God is good.
For every moment on a mission trip when you are sure these kids really do love the Lord and even, almost like you, there will be those moments when you get up in the middle of the night and make your way outside to the restroom, only to return and find that some sneaky someone (probably with grey hair) has locked you out of the rustic cabin you and the girls are sleeping in. It is a chance to see the sunrise. God is good.
So, it’s also good to remember Moses and his experiences in the wilderness narratives, especially when you are a Youth Pastor. Teenagers, like the Israelites have short memories.
Let’s review where the Israelites are coming from: Right before this journey through the wilderness the Israelites have survived not one but 10 plagues that God sent to Egypt; their first-borns were spared in Pharoah’s rampage to cut down their population and they have escaped through God’s miraculous Passover event. You would think that they would be forever grateful and thankful that they have been set free from the land of Egypt where they had been enslaved and persecuted in many ways for many years.
And after the escape the miracles continued. Here they are following that miraculous cloud during the day and that pillar of fire at night—both assurances that God is with them and is leading them. And oh yes, they have also experienced and survived that little incident at the crossing of the Red Sea.
And, when they complained about being hungry, God sent and continues to send them manna every morning and quail every evening. Maybe not fine cuisine but enough to fill them and keep them going. So don’t they have enough visual and tangible proof that God loves them and is with them and is providing for them? The signs are everywhere, aren’t they?
What about in your life? How have you seen God at work? Has God helped you in the past? Can you remember that and draw on that when times get difficult?
I draw great comfort from remembering a time when our boys were about 7 and 9 and our finances were about zero. God provided by giving me a freelance writing position at the News Journal newspaper and provided even more by having the editor send me on a story about a young mom who was opening a resale toy shop in her home. At that time, she was hunting for a big-ticket item--used Fisher Price Treehouse--for a client. We not only had one sitting in our back yard we also had two boys getting too tall and too cool to use it. Not only would I get a paycheck for my story, but I could also sell the treehouse. God is good!
But I don’t always remember God’s provision when new troubles arise and the Israelites, I think, had some memory problems too. In our story today the group has just emerged from the Wilderness of Sin, which doesn’t sound like a very good place to have been, and traveled to Rephidim. But, alas, there is no water there and once again the people complain to and quarrel with Moses.
They say things like, “Give us water to drink! Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”
And Moses cries out to God, saying what all pastors may say at least once in their lives, “What shall I do with these people? And God answers Moses yet again and as usual God provides.
Michael J. Chan writes on the “Working Preacher” website that the Israelites had still not learned the lesson that “where God leads, God provides.” Is that a lesson we have taken to heart even in bad times? It’s a challenge, isn’t it?
Chan, however, can summon some sympathy for the Israelites, as he writes, “They are not only on a journey through the wilderness, they are also on a journey of the soul—being transformed from an earlier existence as an enslaved people to that of an independent nation. Unlearning the habits of domination—reinforced by Pharaoh’s extractive and cruel system of slavery and subjugation—is difficult, painful and patient work. Accepting kindness and generosity when all one has known is violent exploitation was never going to be a quick and easy process.”
He continues, “Few would disagree that one of the Bible’s most difficult commands is the call to trust. This is especially true when the world teaches you that your survival depends upon [the] distrust and skepticism [encountered in slavery].”
So maybe we too need more empathy for the Israelites. Maybe before we judge them we should as the saying goes, “walk a mile in their sandals.” Have you ever been given just one day to cook a special meal, put some animal blood on your doorframe and then run from your home with your family carrying everything you can in your arms?
If you are like my family if you were moving from your home, you would use cars and trucks and moving vans. You would know where your new house would be and even if you drove through some sketchy neighborhoods to get there you probably wouldn’t feel the stress the Israelites did. Today we think moving the Comcast account and getting the television to work in our new homes is stressful—how much harder was it those following Moses? Aren’t changing jobs and moving high on that list of personal stressors?
In other words, how difficult is it to move not just to a new home but into a completely new sort of life? It’s all harder than we might think, isn’t it? Change is hard. We had our kitchen remodeled a few years ago and it took me a few months to remember that the spoons and knives and forks were now in a new drawer. I don’t know how I would keep track of the utensils if I was busy wandering in the wilderness!
And when we stop and remember the culture of the times, we encounter another huge change for the Israelites. Just think, in all of their history they were used to meeting God in their tabernacles or synagogues. But now, God was no longer confined to the holy of holies. God was right there in the wilderness with them taking care of ordinary things the people could no longer take care of, things like providing food and water for themselves. How could they trust this new God? That had to be an enormous stress.
What about you? Are you trusting God or thirsting for spiritual water you are trying to find on your own? How hard is it to let God be in control of your life? Do you expect God to show up in the mundane moments of your life and do you recognize God when this happens?
In this scenario, things play out pretty much as they always do in the wilderness. The people encounter a problem and take it in complaining voices to the leadership. The human leaders take the complaint to God and God provides, often in wondrous and unexpected ways.
We would never think this particular group of people would ever question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” But at some point, in our lives we may all ask that question. And maybe it comes from a fear that at any given moment may seem bigger than our faith.
But isn’t it interesting that the Israelites and we, too, find it easy to believe that God is with us when we have what we need but tend to feel abandoned when we don’t?
Moses is always quick to remind the people, “Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.” Yikes! That might make a big difference. Who are your complaints against? I suspect that God is big enough to handle whatever we give him in our grumbling voices but I also suspect that God would much rather hear our thanks and praise.
Some of the key verbs in this story are from the Hebrew words for “test” and “quarrel” and reading this in our homes or in our lovely sanctuaries we don’t quite comprehend that. We, who have the comfort of knowing how the story ends, tend to see the Israelites as ungrateful grumblers. We forget how very new this experience was and how very different it was to suddenly be free. Adding thirst to the already overwhelming stress of life during the Exodus wasn’t just a little inconvenience.
Also writing on the Working Preacher website, Anathea Portier-Young says 100 hours is about the length of time a human body can survive in average temperatures without access to water. Heat decreases that number as does what you are doing—so walking long distances, in the desert sun, carrying all your belongings—shortens the timeline for dying of thirst.
So, Moses handles these complaints the way he did all of the grumblings. He prayed and God in turn used Moses in some of the most extraordinary rescues in the history of Israel. In this case God told Moses to use all those rocks that were at hand in this deserted place and find water there. God had a much better use for those rocks than letting the people stone Moses with them.
God said to Moses, “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. 6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7
Terrance E. Fetheim writes, “God leads Moses to help that is available in the world of nature. God has created the world in such a way that it has healing capacities in and through which God can work in positive ways on behalf of its creatures. They will be able to find the most elemental resource for life. Water does in fact run through rock formations and so it is a matter of finding the places of flowing water. The actions of both God and Moses enable [this] hidden potential to surface.”
That is one powerful staff that Moses uses again and again to help solve the current problem. In Exodus 4 soon after God met Moses in that burning bush, God used Moses’ shepherd’s crook as a sign of divine power by turning it into a snake. In Exodus 7 God instructs Moses to take that same staff and strike the Nile turning its life-giving water into blood and later a strike from the same staff parts the water of the Red Sea. Using it again this time to provide water assures the people that Moses was as powerful in the wilderness as he had been at home.
But no wonder Moses called the places in this story Massah which means test and Mribah which means quarreled. Both names appear again in Psalm 85 This is a psalm that is a call to worship and obedience, and to this day we can read:
1 O come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
And later, in verses 8-
O that today you would listen to his voice!
8 Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
9 when your ancestors tested me
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
So today, as water supplies even in this country become unsafe from chemical spills or neglect, as glacier receded and an estimated one billion people lack access to safe drinking water, remember all of those times when God has heard your cries and answered them and be like Moses and take your concerns to God.
Look around to see whom in your midst might still be thirsting for water-spiritual water and look for what surprising resources are available right here in this congregation that God use in creative ways. In what ways will God intervene and lead you to solutions? You may never hold a powerful staff in your hands, but you can always put your hands together and pray. Moses did. Amen.
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