Water from the rock
17 The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, travelling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 So they quarrelled 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?”
3 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?” 4 Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
5 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. 6 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. 7 And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarrelled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Psalm 951 Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.
3 For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods.
4 In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him.
5 The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.
6 Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker
7 for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. Today, if only you would hear his voice,
8 “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, 9 where your ancestors tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did. 10 For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.” 11 So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”
Peace and hope
5 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Comment on Romans 5
Romans 5 is one of three chapters in Romans that people in my background often choose to memorize. Romans 1 to 3 is a discussion of the basic human condition. All people have access to God’s grace, whether they are Jews or Gentiles. God judges all people on the basis of their response to that grace. God gave the Law to the chosen people, the Jews, in order to shape them into the people among whom God would come in the flesh. This gift of the Law is a great gift, but it is not the Law that saves. God’s grace saves—whether through the law or without the law.
Chapter 4 makes the argument that Abraham himself is saved by grace through faith. Jews think of Abraham as their father and thus also the one who prepared the way for the Law; but, says Paul, it is the fact that Abraham believed God’s promises that released God’s grace in his life: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about – but not before God. What does Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ … He received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”
Romans 5, then, builds on this argument: “1Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.”
What else do we want in life? We struggle with the circumstances of our lives, searching for peace. Over the past several weeks Lois has been reading old diaries from high school and college. They have led to conversations about what life was like when those of us now in our 50s or 60s were teenagers. I don’t know about you, but if someone came to me with a time machine, I would pay good money not to go back to when I was 16 years old. It’s not that my high school years were unhappy—quite the reverse; but there is an undercurrent of struggle to life in general that leads us to search for peace.
I think of friends of ours, missionary candidates getting ready for overseas service, who are home after several years at Providence. Their son is struggling with the moves they are making, so that they have decided not to send him to school for the remaining months before they go overseas again. I can identify with him. At 14 I was a student in Zimbabwe. At 15 I was a Grade 11 student in Pennsylvania, and at 16 moved to a second school for my Grade 12 year. Then at 17 I made it four schools in four years, beginning at Messiah College. Such changes are hard; we seek for peace and resolution in this life.
If you want more examples, read the advice columns in the Winnipeg Free Press. You don’t need to evaluate the quality of advice given; simply note the constant struggle to deal with hardship, often revolving around relationships with other people. In fact, Paul tells us that the decisive relationship is peace with God.
When you are integrated and at peace with the Creator of Reality, you can deal with anything. Then Paul observes the normal process that seals this peace in our lives: “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
Paul gives this specific progression because it was the experience of the first Christians. They lived with the constant reality of persecution. The first generation of Christians welcomed outsiders into their worship, but with the persecution that began under Nero (probably around 64 AD) a system grew up in which outsiders had to go through extensive teaching before they were allowed to attend worship. To be a Christian was to suffer, and Paul tells the Romans that this pattern was actually their blessing. (Compare Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:11.) Paul wrote Romans five to 10 years before persecution became a daily reality, but such matters do not grow suddenly out of nothing. We know from the book of Acts that persecution began with the birth of the church.
The remaining verses of the text grounds this process in Christ’s own suffering on the cross, which was God’s expression of love. Even when we were God’s enemies, Christ was our best friend and made a way for us to find peace and reconciliation with God.
So our basic thought: Christ’s suffering was God’s love to give us peace. Christ’s love and suffering also then becomes the pattern for our lives: Our suffering becomes the way through which God’s hope is released into our lives more and more, bringing greater peace and joy.
Exodus 17Turn to the account in Exodus 17. Chapter 14 gives the account of crossing the Sea and finally becoming free from the Egyptians. Chapter 15 is Moses’ and Miriam’s song of praise for their deliverance. At the end of that chapter begins a recurring theme—trouble with finding water. Since they spent 40 years wandering in the desert south of modern Israel, we can expect that they would have trouble finding a good supply of water. In chapter 15 they found water, but it was not drinkable, until Moses treated it under God’s direction.
Then in chapter 16 the people are hungry and searching for food. God provided through quail that came in the evening and manna that came each morning, except for the Sabbath. The incident with the quail is told again in Numbers 11, with God’s judgment on those who complained that God was not taking care of them. These chapters tell how the Israelites tended to forget how God cared for them in the past and to complain about present hardship. Repeatedly God gives them new grace for the present moment.
Then comes the story we heard earlier: There was no water in the dessert, and the people grumbled and complained. Moses took their problems to God, who told him to strike the rock in front of him. When he did so, water came out, and the text implies that there was enough water to satisfy their needs.
Note several points in the text:
· Evidently the people had been at Horeb earlier, travelled around for a bit, and returned to this place. I am not convinced that we need to know this geography well, at least partly because I doubt that we can know it well. The names refer to places we can no longer identify with certainty. But we do know that Horeb and Sinai are used to refer to the same events in Exodus and in Deuteronomy. Moses received his commission in Exodus 3 at Horeb. The law is given at Sinai in Exodus 20ff; in Deuteronomy 4 and 5 the law is given at Horeb. Whatever we make of these two names, clearly Horeb is place where God meets his people with unique clarity and power.
· The people’s complaints are part of a regular pattern. They could not rest and trust in what God had done in the past; they wanted God to do something for them in the present. We’re a lot like the Israelites in this respect. As Lois and I have looked over our past life together, we notice that the hard times have faded, as we experience God’s presence and goodness in the present. I notice also that, when we were experiencing trouble, it was harder to remember the blessings.
We’re like that. We live in the present, and we tend not to be satisfied with what God has done in the past. Because God is gracious, he responds to our need and works in the present also.
· God tells Moses to take his staff—the staff he had used to strike the Nile River. This identification reminds Moses to remember the past. Moses could remember the great actions of God in setting his people free, reminded by holding up the staff he had used in the Exodus.
These events come together to reinforce the pattern Paul describes: God works in our trouble to strengthen our relationship with him. God works in our hardships to draw us closer to himself. Therefore, Paul and the writer of Exodus might add, remember God. Don’t complain against God, but remember what he’s done for you before, and trust God to work in the present also.
The psalm we heard read makes that same point with its final verses: “8Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, 9 where your ancestors tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did. 10 For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.’ 11 So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”
It is in fact possible to anger God by rejecting him; but that is a minor note in the combined narrative. God’s grace and love are greater than his anger, and we can rest in his readiness to work in our lives. God’s wrath is real, and we are wise not to test him, but God’s love also is real.
Bringing the Passages Together
So what do we do with these passages today? We are in the season of Lent. How do we use these passages to help prepare us for the joy of Easter? Easter of course is the great story of how God’s self-sacrifice in Christ brings the greatest joy imaginable. How do we prepare for Easter? The Psalmist tells us; “Do not harden your hearts [against God].” When trouble comes, don’t use your troubles as a reason to turn against God, but rather use them as the opportunity to hold onto God more tightly than ever.
Let me use an analogy. I played soccer in my college days. I remember how we trained in soccer camp. We went for a three-mile run before breakfast, and then had three hours of fairly intensive training after breakfast, finishing with wind sprints. I was dead tired, but we did 12 ten-yard sprints, followed by eight 25-yard sprints, followed by six 50-yard sprints. Between each sprint there was a short, very short, rest. Finally we did four 100-yard sprints, without stopping, no rests in between. I remember turning for the final 100 yards, convinced I would fall over before I got to the end. Then coach started running behind us and yelled out, “Anyone I beat gets to do them all again!” I found I had more energy left than I realised and finished the last 100 yards remarkably quickly.
Why did we do that? Conditioning! Why do people do resistance training? Conditioning. If such training is true of our physical bodies, should we be surprised that God uses a kind of resistance training for the whole person, body, soul, and spirit? It is as a child tries to walk with no one holding on that the child falls—and also actually learns to walk. It is as you experience the wilderness of God’s absence with trials piling up—and still cry out to God in hope and fear—that you grow in your relationship with God.
Our passages suggest three basic steps when the troubles of life overwhelm you:
· Remember what God has done in the past. Take out your staff that God used in the past and get ready to use it again. Remember who God is.
· Trust in God for the future. Strike the rock that God tells you to strike, whether you see how God will work or not.
· Use repeated actions—such as prayer, communion, and other rituals—to remind you to trust in God. I use the Lord’s Prayer every morning. An old missionary friend used to say that when he got up in the morning he would have a cup of coffee with Jesus, referring to a time of prayer and reading the Bible as he drank his morning coffee.
Please note also a lesson you should not learn from these passages. Don’t think you cannot complain to God. The problem with the Israelites was that they tested God. Their complaint was an effort to replace God at the centre of their lives. That is rebellion. But the Psalms make clear that the stronger our relationship with God is, the more clearly we can take our trouble to God. The Israelites complained to each other and ended up rebelling openly a few chapters later. Don’t rebel; but don’t think that God does not want to hear your pain. There is no better place to complain than directly to God.