We Christians are in danger of believing in a “spiritual prosperity” gospel. We think that if we’re doing everything right, spiritually speaking, then life is going to be smooth sailing. This isn’t at all what scripture teaches. Instead, as the apostle Paul makes clear when he cites this passage in Exodus, we Christians are all on a wilderness journey. In order to survive, we all need the spiritual water that Christ our rock provides us.
Sermon Text: Exodus 17:1-7
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
We Americans will get to vote this November. Given America’s power, and its role in the world, that’s always a big deal. But it’s unlikely that our vote in November will have as large an impact on the world as the vote last week in Britain. I’m referring, of course, to the British voting to leave the European Union—a vote otherwise known as “Brexit.” Proponents of leaving the EU argued that Britain had sacrificed too much of its sovereignty to unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels—and, unlike in a democracy, the British people couldn’t vote them out of office.
So Britain voted to leave. Who knows whether it will be a good thing or a bad thing. But the bottom line is, the British thought EU leadership was leading them off a cliff, and they believed they could do better on their own.
Interestingly, a similar thing is happening in today’s scripture. Just a few months earlier, Moses had led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt—which was a great thing. Only now they were having second thoughts. They were in the wilderness; they were facing a more difficult journey than they had bargained for; and now, in today’s scripture, in this hot, arid climate, they are thirsty—and they fear that Moses is leading them off a proverbial cliff. “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”
I don’t think many of us Americans can relate to being really thirsty the way these Israelites are. After all, we have a luxury that the vast majority of people in the world don’t have: We turn on our faucets in our homes, and out comes fresh, clean, safe-to-drink water. As much as we want. And it’s cheap! Unless we buy bottled water, which becomes much more expensive. I was talking with an older gentleman recently who was comparing life when he was a kid to the lives of kids today. He said, “In the summer, we’d go outside with our friends first thing in the morning, get on our bikes, and our parents might not see us again until dinnertime. Our parents didn’t worry about us! And they didn’t send us out with bottles of water. We’d just drink from a garden hose when we needed to drink!”
And even though I’m younger, I certainly remember drinking from a garden hose. Everyone knows that garden hose water on a hot summer day is the best-tasting water of all! I was at the hardware store recently, and I noticed a tag on one particular garden hose that read, “Safe to drink water from this hose.” And I thought, “Are there hoses that aren’t safe to drink water from?”—because we didn’t give it a second thought when we were kids!
My point is, we live in the wealthiest, most prosperous country in the world—where we have the luxury of taking for granted the bare necessities that we need to live: things like water, food, shelter, safety. Even this past week, it’s been very hot and humid, but unlike our parents or grandparents, many of us have never lived without air-conditioning—in our houses, in our cars.
So before we judge the ancient Israelites for grumbling and complaining in the wilderness, let’s take a moment to appreciate how much easier we have it, in many ways, than they did.
And yet we still have much in common with them: because, like them, we have a devil of a time being happy.
Just last year in Rolling Stone magazine, filmmaker Judd Apatow, who has written, produced, or directed some of Hollywood’s most successful comedies over the past 20 years, was asked by an interviewer: “You’ve said that as an entertainer, all the success in the world won’t heal you. What did you mean by that?” And Apatow replied, “[Success] doesn’t do anything. There is a great distraction in thinking, ‘When I get to the top of that hill, it’s all gonna be awesome.’ And then when you get to the top of the hill, you’re like, ‘Oh, I guess now I have to really deal with my problems, because that didn’t work at all.’”
In case you don’t think that’s true, just last week I was talking to an acquaintance who—in his early-twenties, back in the ’90s—helped start a very successful online business. So successful, in fact, that by the time he was in his late-twenties, he cashed in his shares in the company and made enough money from it so that, in his own words, he and his family are set for life. He started another successful business. More recently, he earned a Ph.D. He became a professor at a college. He’s now writing a book. Success after success after success… from my perspective. Which means, I hate him! Yet, by his own admission, none of these things has made him happy or satisfied or contented; none of these things has brought him peace; none of these things has helped him find love.
Like Apatow said, “I guess I’ll have to really deal with my problems now, because that didn’t work at all.”
But admit it: we still walk by the tabloid rack in the supermarket checkout line, look at all the famous, successful, beautiful, wealthy celebrities there and think, “Maybe the headlines are true for them: Maybe they really are miserable. But you know what? If I had what they had—their wealth, their friends, their good looks, their youth, their good health, their popularity, their power, their influence—if I had what they had, I would truly be happy.” Notwithstanding their own misery, I would be truly happy.
And of course it’s a lie.
I don’t know what it is that you think you need to be happy; I don’t know what you don’t have now that you think you need to be happy, but I’ll bet there’s something… And not having it is making you dissatisfied; it’s keeping you from being as happy as you want to be.
You know what we human beings are like? We’re like a fish that’s made to live and breathe and thrive and flourish in the water—until one day we jump out of the water, onto a dock, and we’re flopping around on the dock. And while we do so, we spy things and people on dry land and suddenly we want things that we see there. We think, “I bet I’d be happy if I lived in that house. I bet I’d be happy if I had that car. I bet I’d be happy if that person loved me.” All the while, of course, we’re dying… because we’re not getting what we truly need to survive. Everything we need is back in the water. But we don’t know that, and we’re becoming increasingly uncomfortable.
Remember when Jesus, like the Israelites, was tempted in the wilderness? He had been fasting for 40 days and was on the brink of starvation. So Satan tempted him to turn a stone into bread. And Jesus answered him, saying, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” That scripture Jesus quoted comes from Deuteronomy chapter 8, and it was in the exact same context as today’s scripture: What we need more than bread, what we need more than water, what we need more than anything else is to be in a relationship with God—which means trusting him, depending on him, turning to him in his Word, listening to him as he speaks to us, obeying him. Every day!
Remember when Jesus was talking to the Samaritan woman at the well in John chapter 4? Jesus said that he could give her the kind of living water, which, if she drank it, would quench her thirst eternally. She’d never be thirsty again. This is the kind of water the Israelites need in today’s scripture more than they need physical water. This is the kind of water that we need. But my question is: Do we live as if we need it? Are we going to that well—every day—that well which is God’s Word? Because the main way that Jesus gives us this “water welling up to eternal life” is through his Word—to which we ought to turn every day.
And yet many of us don’t do that. Why? We all have a Bible—probably more than one or two in our homes. We don’t live as if God’s Word is as essential and necessary to live as water or food. But then… like that fish flopping around on the dock, we wonder why we’re not happy—why we’re not getting what we think we need out of life.
I’ve shared with you before that when I went to Kenya, I ministered with people who had nothing by our Western standards. Anyone in this sanctuary would be at least a hundred times wealthier than any of these Kenyan ministers I got to know while I was there. And yet they were all far wealthier than I am when it comes to having what they needed to make them deeply happy, joyful, peaceful, satisfied, contented… I want what they have, don’t you?
Having said all that, there’s a danger in preaching a message like this. And it’s illustrated in part by a cartoon that I saw last week:
It’s about the so-called “prosperity gospel”—the idea that if only we have enough faith, God will bless us with wealth and good health. One of the most popular “prosperity” preachers these days is Atlanta’s own Creflo Dollar. In this cartoon, the apostle Paul comes to Creflo in a dream and says, “You used the Book of Philippians to preach a prosperity gospel message again, Creflo. You said I wrote Philippians 4:13 and 19 to mean that God will give people anything they want, and that I was an example of that principle in action…” Philippians 4:13 and 19 say, “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me” and that God “will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory.” In the next panel, Creflo asks the apostle, “But Paul—weren’t you living a highly favored life full of material abundance?”
And Paul yells back, “I wrote that letter from prison, Creflo!”
I’m not saying that there are many Methodists in danger of buying into the prosperity gospel. But we do run the risk of buying into a gospel of “spiritual prosperity.” What do I mean by that? I mean: we risk believing that we Christians—if we really have our act together; if we’re living right; if we’re feasting on God’s Word; if we’re praying and having “quiet times” the way we should; if we’re obeying the Lord; if we’re worshiping the way we should—then we should be deeply happy all the time. We should be joyful all the time. And if we’re not joyful, then there’s something wrong with us—spiritually.
And, like Creflo Dollar, we quote Paul from Philippians to back up this conviction. Not the same verses, but a verse like 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” And that means, no matter what happens to us, we ought to be feeling this deep, inner joy, “which is always there, beneath all the troubles of life.” Therefore it’s wrong to be sad. It’s wrong to be depressed. It’s wrong to hurt. And sometimes we don’t tell Christian friends about how much we hurt because, well… we’re afraid they’ll judge us.
Brothers and sisters, this is also a lie. For one thing, when Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always,” the Greek indicates that he’s not speaking to individual Philippian Christians—in the singular. He’s speaking to the Philippian church—in the plural. As one author puts it: “It is not about how each individual is supposed to feel every hour of the day, but about how the life of the church is always to be a kind of advance celebration of the marriage of the Lamb”—referring to the Second Coming in Revelation.
Paul says, in so many words, that worship in church should be like a party—always celebrating what God has done for us in Christ. And we are always supposed to go to the party—by all means. We hope, once we go to the party, we’ll feel better—we’ll be comforted; we’ll get some strength and insight to deal with whatever we’re going through. But that doesn’t mean we’ll always feel like partying.
Even if we’re doing everything right as a Christian, we’re going to hurt sometimes; we’re going to struggle sometimes; we’re going to suffer sometimes. Why?
Because, like Moses and the Israelites, we, too, are in the wilderness. The Christian life, the Bible says, is a kind of wilderness. Paul makes this point explicitly in 1 Corinthians 10, where he compares the church to ancient Israel in the wilderness. Just as Israel was tested in the wilderness, so we’ll be tested. Just as it was hard for them, it will be hard for us. Life in this world is supposed to be hard.
Isn’t that a relief? If you’re struggling, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing something wrong!
Because please notice that unlike his grumbling fellow Israelites, Moses did have it all together, spiritually. He understands that man does not live by bread alone but by God’s Word. He’s living that way. But you know what? Like his fellow Israelites, he’s also thirsty—physically thirsty. And it hurts! And it’s O.K. to say so.
But if we Christians live our lives in the wilderness, we do so with hope: Because we know that this time of hardship and trial and testing is only temporary—and that God is using these experiences for our redemption. We know that we haven’t reached the Promised Land yet, but we’re on our way. And we’ll get there.
How do we know we’re going to get there? Because of what God did for us through the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus—because of what today’s Old Testament passage tells us that God did for us through the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus.
What do I mean?
Well, first we notice verse 2: “Therefore the people quarreled with Moses…” This is legal language—language of law courts. To “quarrel” literally means to go before a judge and sue someone—to bring charges against someone. The people are bringing charges against Moses. And it’s a capital offense, too, which is why Moses is afraid they’re going to stone him to death! Moses deserves the death penalty, the people believe.
And the crime that the people believe Moses has committed is treason: He’s betrayed them. Instead of leading them into the Promised Land, as he said he would, he’s leading them out in the wilderness to die.
And then something astonishing happens: God tells Moses to pass before the people, “taking with you some of the elders of Israel.” These elders are going to be the jury. This is going to be a public trial. Which is why God tells Moses to bring his staff. This staff isn’t merely a walking stick; it’s the staff which represents God’s judgment; it represents justice; it’s the same staff that Moses used to judge the Egyptians—by striking the Nile and turning it to blood.
But notice: Moses isn’t on trial here. Neither are the Israelites. No… God himself is on trial. This is what the scripture means when God tells Moses that he—God—will “stand before” Moses, rather than have Moses stand before God.
This is unheard of! These grumbling Israelites are the ones who deserve to put on trial for treason! After all, they’ve betrayed God at nearly every turn! They’re the ones who deserve judgment; they’re the ones who deserve condemnation; they’re the ones who deserve capital punishment.
But no… God is going to stand trial for them. God is going to be found guilty on their behalf. God is going to suffer the death sentence in their place. When God tells Moses to strike the rock, it means that the staff of God’s judgment is going to fall on God himself.
Does this sound familiar? Does this sound like the gospel?
Of course, Moses striking God with his staff isn’t going to “injure” God, but this is a symbol which looks ahead a couple thousand years to Jesus Christ, who is God in the flesh, and it looks ahead to his cross. Lest you think I’m reading too much into this passage, in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul refers to this very scripture when he writes, “For they”—the Israelites—“drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” On the cross, Christ the Rock was struck by the staff of God’s judgment so that we wouldn’t be.
As the prophet Isaiah said: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
1. John 4:14
2. This sermon point comes from Phillip Cary, Good News for Anxious Christians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 137-156.
3. Ibid., 140.
4. Isaiah 53:5