Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

We have been following the people of Israel in the desert. What does it mean to be in the desert? What comes to mind when you picture a desert? It’s a place that does not support life. There is neither food nor water, nor shelter from the scorching heat. But God led them into the desert. For the people of Israel, the desert is a training ground. It’s where they learn to depend on God alone to supply all their needs. It’s where they learn to live by faith, and not by sight.

What is faith? The word “faith” in the English language has more than one sense. It appears in the phrase the “Christian faith.” It then refers to a body of beliefs that make up the Christian faith. But it also appears in the phrase “I have faith in him.” Then it refers to the act of trust. That is to say, it means “I trust him.”

Our lessons appointed for this Lord’s Day invite us to consider “trust.” Or, seen from the opposite end, lack of trust. Why do we struggle with trust? Social researchers tell us that we are living in an age of mistrust. When Americans were asked in 2017 whether they had trust in the United States Congress, only 6 per cent indicated they did. According to author Charles Eisenstein, the prevailing sense out there is that our institutions have betrayed us. They are not serving their declared purpose. If they were, social inequalities would narrow, mental health would improve, environmental disasters would be fewer, or at least less severe.

When people lose confidence in their institutions, they turn against those they hold responsible. That accounts in part for the widespread hatred for our political leaders in our nation today. This is nothing new, as we see in our first lesson. The people of Israel turn against Moses. They hold him responsible for the national disaster they expect to overtake them. Their little children are dehydrated, their herds are languishing, and the parents are desperate. People can’t go longer than three days without water. So they did what we can already predict they will do, based on what we have already seen. They grumble and quarrel with Moses. Give us water to drink, they demand.

We may pause here to remark how curious this demand really is. Has not God already been feeding them in the desert? They complained that they had no meat, and God provided them with the quails. And then he also gave them the manna, which he spread like a blanket on the desert floor. Can we relate to this experience? We may have been in a very bad place in the past, no doubt more than one for most of us. We did not know how or even if we were going to make it through. We may have cried out to God then. Well, if we are here today, then God must have delivered us. If God came through for us in the past, then why can’t we trust him in the present?

It seems to me that we have at least two problems. First, our memories are not very good. God’s help in the past does not come to mind when we face a crisis in the present. That is why the Bible insists that we bring to mind what God has done for us in the past. Remember what God has done for you, Moses instructs the people of Israel. That in fact is the theme of the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Bible. God’s past deliverances are the basis of our confidence now. When we are in trouble, we can go to God in prayer and say: “Because you helped me in the past, I am confident to ask you for help in the present, because you are faithful.” The second problem is this: our present trouble always seems far worse to us than any past trouble. We may say to ourselves: God may have helped me in the past, but I don’t see how God can help me now. This is a bigger problem. I am in real trouble this time.

The people of Israel do not call to mind what God has done for them in the past. If they had, they would not be complaining against Moses, but hoping in God. But their trouble seems bigger to them than God. Their thirst overwhelms their trust, and they lash out against Moses. They question his fitness to lead them. They imply that he lacks good judgment. After all, isn’t he the one who brought them out of Egypt into the desert to kill them and their children and their livestock with thirst? Again, it is curious to see how they leave God out of the picture. It was not in fact Moses who brought them out of Egypt; it was their God. But they forgot God entirely; they did not trust God enough even to pray to him, to beg him for water.

When we face a crisis, does it occur to us to turn to God? Do we go to God first? Or do we fret as if God is not there, as if God is not involved in our lives? It does not occur to the people of Israel to go to God. Instead, they turn against Moses, as we have already mentioned. But this is irrational, driven by destructive impulse that blinds them. They should have already known that Moses is obedient to God. He is a competent and trustworthy leader. But when times are bad, we need someone to blame. Yet this does not help our cause. When we turn against our leaders, they become anxious. Moses does not bring before God the people’s need, but rather his own fear. “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

God is the only actor in this scene who is not in distress. He is not overwhelmed by the trouble that his people are facing. He knows exactly what he is going to do. This ought to give us comfort. No trouble we face takes God by surprise. God is not at a loss as to how to meet our needs. With God there is a way forward even when it seems to us there is no way. God patiently instructs Moses to meet him at the rock at Horeb. With the staff that he used to strike the Nile, he is to strike the rock, from which water will flow, so that the people may drink.

 

Thus, there is a dramatic resolution to this crisis. Again, God proves to be a faithful provider. But what is missing? While the people get what they need, there is no sense that they accept it as a gift from God. There is no response of joyful gratitude; there is no expression of worship. They do not set up an altar on which to sacrifice thank offerings. They do not set up a monument at Horeb to memorialize the place where God miraculously provided for their needs. This episode in the life of God’s people is remembered not for the miracle of water from a rock, but for their complaining.

Moses calls the place Massah (which means “testing”) and Meribah (which means “complaining”). Those words recur in the Bible (Psalms 78, 81, and 95) as a reminder to future generations. Remember what God has done for you in the past, as we have already mentioned. Remember, so that when you are in need in the wilderness, you will not complain and put God to the test. Remember how God met his people’s needs again and again when it seemed that they were God forsaken. 

It is important for us to learn from Israel’s past. That is why we read the Old Testament, and not only the New. In 1 Corinthians 10, the Apostle Paul tells the people that the things that happened in Israel’s past serve as examples to us today. Now we know there are positive and negative examples. The first teach us what we ought to do. In this connection, we talk about positive role models. Parents want their children to have positive role models, so they have an example to follow. Paul himself was a positive role model for the people in the churches he served. “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me–put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9). The second teach us, however, what we ought not to do. These too are important. If we have seen people come to ruin, then we want to find out more about them, so we can avoid their mistakes. In this connection, we don’t talk about positive role models, but about cautionary tales. At any rate, we can and must learn from both. In our lesson today, we learn from a negative example, from a cautionary tale. The people of Israel did not trust God. We ought not to follow their example, but rather trust God.

Let us conclude by making two observations about trusting God, or, more exactly, about why it is a struggle to trust God.

First, we have to make a conscious decision to commit. If we refuse to commit, if we delay making the decision until God proves to be God on our terms, then we are like the people of Israel. “Is God among us, or not?” It’s as if they are saying: “Unless God can prove himself, then we will not trust. Seeing is believing.” But in the Bible, these terms are reversed: believing is seeing. We have to make that commitment if we are going to see God at work in our lives. It is the condition for seeing. If we refuse to make that commitment, then we will not see.

If we turn to our second lesson, we find this refusal there. The gospel features an exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders. Presumably, if they want to know by what authority Jesus is teaching, they want to know whether he is from God. But Jesus keeps this from them. And why? Because they refuse to commit. They did not acknowledge the authority of John, whom God sent to them to prepare for the reception of the Messiah. Instead, they are agnostic about him. “We do not know.” This is the response of those who do not commit. But if this is how we respond to the invitation to trust God, then we should not expect to see God at work in and around us.

The second observation is this. Trusting God means to be comfortable in the uncertainty. God provides for our needs. God works salvation in the middle of human crises. But we cannot know in advance how or when God will. Hence the need for trust. But the longer the delay, the more the uncertainty. Or the harder the circumstances, the more the uncertainty. And the more uncertainty, the greater the struggle to trust.

In this there is a gauge by which we can measure our growth in trust. The more comfortable we are in our uncertainty, the greater our trust.

Can we prevail in this struggle to trust God in the desert? Can we submit to the test to which God is putting us, so that our trust will grow? Or will we instead put God to the test, complaining against him, and refusing to trust him? Let us be among those in the first group. Amen.  

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