Scripture: Exodus 17:1-17
I was talking with an older gentleman in a church I once served. He lived with his granddaughter and her husband and young family—he helped to cook and clean and carpool the kids around. He was complaining about “kids these days,” and how different things are today compared to the “good old days” when he was growing up. He said, “Back in my day, in the summer, we’d go outside with our friends first thing in the morning, get on our bikes, and our parents probably wouldn’t see us again until dinnertime. And they didn’t worry about us! And they didn’t send us out with bottles of water. We’d just drink from a someone’s garden hose when we got thirsty!”
And even though I was much younger than this man was, even I remember drinking from a garden hose. Everyone knows that garden-hose water on a hot summer day is the best-tasting water of all! The last time I bought a garden hose I noticed a tag on it that read, “Safe to drink water from this hose.” And I thought, “You mean there are 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, toxic garden hoses notwithstanding, we Americans have a luxury that the vast majority of people in the world don’t have: We turn on our faucets in our homes, turn on the spigots outside, and out comes fresh, clean, safe-to-drink water. As much as we want. And it’s relatively cheap!
Clearly, the people of Israel in today’s scripture don’t have that luxury. They are thirsty. And they let Moses know it! Verse 3: “But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?’”
Listen: I’m not minimizing the Israelites’ need for water. Whereas you can survive weeks without food, you can only last a few days—or less—without water… I’m not making light of their crisis, it’s just that… if you read the previous two chapters in Exodus, you’ll see that “grumbling against Moses” in the midst of a crisis is a recurring theme. In chapter 15, a few days after crossing the Red Sea out of Egypt, the people came to a stream called Marah. They couldn’t drink the water because it was bitter. They grumbled against Moses. Moses prayed. God intervened and, voila! Fresh water. In chapter 16, the people are hungry. In fact, they’re hangry. So they grumbled against Moses. Moses prayed. God intervened and, voila! God sent quail for them to eat in the evening, and in the morning he sent something they’d never seen before—bread from heaven, called manna. This white, flaky stuff—fine as frost on the ground… it tasted like wafers made with honey. It was perfectly nutritious, and they could eat their fill of it and be satisfied.
For the next 40 years, as Israel wandered in the wilderness, God fed them with this manna.
With this in mind, doesn’t it seem crazy, even foolish, that their first response to this latest crisis—a lack of water—is to blame and accuse Moses—and ultimately to blame and accuse God—of leading them into the wilderness to die?
I remember as a five- or six-year-old child learning to swim. My dad would take me out into the part of the pool where I could no longer touch the bottom. While I clung desperately to the side of the pool, he stood a few feet away from me. And he wanted me to swim to him. But I couldn’t touch the bottom there, and what if I didn’t make it into his strong, waiting arms? See, even though he was nearby, I didn’t really trust that he would keep me safe. I was so afraid I was going to drown. And he said, “Brent, if I didn’t love you and want to keep you safe, you would have been dead a long time ago!” I don’t think I understood what he meant when he said it, but I do now: he was saying, in so many words, “Haven’t I proven that you can trust me? I’ve kept you alive this long. What makes you think I’m going to stop now? What makes you think I’m going to let you drown now? Trust me.”
In the same way, hadn’t God proven himself trustworthy to the Israelites? God did not miraculously lead them out of slavery in Egypt, miraculously lead them through the wilderness with a column of smoke and fire, miraculously lead them across the Red Sea, while the water welled up on each side of them, like two walls, miraculously release the water and drown Pharaoh and his army in the sea, miraculously purify a stream of bitter water for them to drink, miraculously feed them in the evening with quail, miraculously feed them every morning with manna, only to bring them now to this place called Rephidim, where he would now let them die of thirst.
Like I said, it’s crazy… even foolish… to think that way. And yet, here we are.
If the Israelites had learned the lesson of chapters 15 and 16, instead of grumbling to Moses and believing that he and God were going to let them die, they should have said to themselves, “It’s true that this riverbed at Rephidim is dry. It’s true that we’re thirsty and need to drink. It’s true that, based on these circumstances, our situation seems pretty hopeless.
“But you know what? God is unimpressed and unintimidated and undeterred by measly things like circumstances.
“After all, we were trapped at one point—with the Egyptian army on one side and the Red Sea on the other. There was no way out of these hopeless circumstances. There was no way out, but there was a way through. And God brought us through them! Through the Red Sea! He made a way through for us. And it was glorious!
“Obviously God will do it again! In fact, I wonder what miraculous thing God will do for us this time? I can’t wait to find out how God is going to glorify himself and rescue us from these circumstances this time. I can’t wait to see what he’ll do!”
Well, that’s what the Israelites should have said… if they had learned the lesson of the previous few chapters. But they didn’t.
But guess what? God loves them enough and is patient enough with them to teach them to trust in him… And that’s why God has put them in this situation. That’s why he’s testing them! To teach his beloved people, slowly but surely, to trust in Him!
Because God knows that grumbling—like most instances of anger in our lives—is a sure sign that we’re not trusting in God.
And maybe the Israelites would deny this: “What does God have to do with this? We’re not mad at God; we’re mad at Moses! He’s the one who’s led us into this mess!” And sure enough, look at verse 2: They said to Moses: “Give us water to drink”—as if Moses were hiding some secret stash of water somewhere, and he’s unwilling to share it with them. That’s ridiculous! Then in verse 3: “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt…?”
And there’s so much irony here! Because we know things that the Israelites don’t know. We know that rescuing Israel from slavery and leading them to the Promised Land was most assuredly not Moses’ idea! On the contrary, look at chapters 3 and 4: Moses tried to tell God a dozen different ways that he was not the right man for the job. He tried to talk God out of his plan! Moses did not want to do this! So it’s no wonder that Moses points the Israelites to the One who is ultimately responsible for the situation they’re in.
He says, in verse 2, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” In other words, he’s saying, “Your problem is not with me… You think it’s with me. It’s not. It’s with God! You’re grumbling against me, but I’m not the one you should be angry with. God is the One who’s responsible; God is the One who has brought you here! If you’re going to be angry with someone, at least have enough faith to be angry with Him.”
Because at least if you’re angry with God, you’ll be angry with the One who’s in a position to do something about it!
There’s a lesson there for us: Every time you grumble… every time you complain… every time you get angry… turn your grumbling and complaining and anger into a prayer! Because at least you’ll be directing your grumbling and complaining and anger in the right direction… in the direction of the One who has the power to actually do something about it! Even if God doesn’t change the circumstances, let him give you whatever grace or insight or peace you need to handle the circumstances! Don’t stop praying until God does that for you!
Twenty years ago, when I was still an “angry young man,” instead of the “recovering angry older man” I am today, I saw a fantastic and deeply Christian movie called The Apostle, starring Robert Duvall. It’s not a kids’ movie, by any stretch—it’s PG-13—but at its heart of it is a strong gospel message. In the movie Duvall plays a successful, energetic Pentecostal preacher named Sonny who gets into a lot of trouble—among other things, his wife cheats on him, he loses his large megachurch in Texas, and well, some other bad stuff—most of which he’s responsible for. At one point, he’s moved in with his mother, played by June Carter Cash.
And one night, in the middle of the night, Sonny is pacing the floor of his bedroom—shouting at the ceiling. Turns out he’s praying. And here’s some of what he says:
Somebody, I say, somebody has taken my wife; they’ve stolen my church! That’s the temple I built for you! I’m gonna yell at you ’cause I’m mad at you! I can’t take it!
Give me a sign or somethin’. Blow this pain out of me. Give it to me tonight, Lord God, Jehovah. If you won’t give me back my wife, give me peace. Give it to me, give it to me… Give me peace. Give me peace.
I don’t know who’s been foolin’ with me, you or the Devil. I don’t know… But I’m confused. I’m mad. I love you, Lord, I love you, but I’m mad at you. I am mad at you!
Ever since I was a little boy and you brought me back from the dead, I’m your servant! What should I do? Tell me. I’ve always called you Jesus; you’ve always called me Sonny. What should I do, Jesus? This is Sonny talkin’ now.
And as he’s pacing the floor and shouting at the Lord, in the middle of the night, the phone rings. His mother answers it. It’s a neighbor calling: “It sounds like you have a wild man over there. Is everything okay? Is that your son?” And Sonny’s mother says, “That’s my son. Every since he was a little boy, he either talks to the Lord, or he yells at the Lord. And tonight, well, he just happens to be yelling.”
Notice the people of Israel don’t even have enough faith to yell at God… They don’t think God is going to do anything about it. So they just go and yell at Moses instead! Does the require any faith to yell at Moses. He’s right there in front of them!
I’m a lot like them!
I wish I had learned all those years ago something that Pastor Sonny in the movie understood: If you’re going to be angry, be angry with God. Tell him about it! Turn your anger into a prayer. God can take it. He knows you don’t like this situation that you’re in. But as Pastor Sonny understood, since ultimately he put you in this situation in the first place, it must be part of his plan for you. Listen: if he had a plan for his people Israel 3,500 years ago, he has no less of a plan for his people today. And if you’re in Christ, you are a part of God’s people!
And when I say this, some of you are thinking, “Who me? I’m a nobody! Who am I that God should have a plan for little old me… and my life?”
Listen… Don’t you believe it!
Let me share one of the most astonishing promises from the Bible. It comes from 1 Corinthians. The church to which Paul was writing was badly divided—over a number of issues. Among other things, the church was split into factions based on which apostle was their favorite: Some said, “I belong to Paul; he’s my guy; he’s the best.” Others said, “No… Forget about Paul. I belong to Apollos! He’s a much better preacher!” Still others said, “I belong to Jesus’ numero uno apostle, Peter himself!” Paul refers to Peter by his Aramaic name, Cephas. But listen to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3:21-23 and prepare to be blown away:
So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
In other words, here these church members are, arguing over which apostle they “belong” to. And Paul says, “You don’t get it. The point is not that you belong to me or Apollos or Peter. The point is, we all belong to you! Because our heavenly Father, in his sovereignty, is enabling us to serve you and your best interests. Always.” In fact, Paul says, this is true of literally everything in the universe! Our Father is ensuring that everything in the universe is custom-tailored for your benefit! You may not be able to see it right now, but everything that happens to you, everything that will happen to you in the future—even your own death—it’s all for your good… it’s all working out perfectly according to God’s plan for you.
Which isn’t to say, by the way, that God’s plan for you won’t involve—at times—a great deal of pain and suffering.
Do you remember the Rich Young Ruler from the gospels? A rich young man wants to be Jesus’ disciple, and Jesus tells him that he needs to sell everything he has, give all the money away to the poor, and then come and follow him. And or course the man wasn’t willing to do that… because as much as he loved and respected Jesus, he loved his money and possessions so much more! And Jesus knew that.
Anyway, I want to leave you with these words from C.S. Lewis, who reflects on the Rich Young Ruler, in his book God in the Dock:
Christ said it was difficult for “the rich” to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, referring, no doubt, to “riches” in the ordinary sense. But I think it really covers riches in every sense—good fortune, health, popularity, and all the things one wants to have. All these things tend… to make you feel independent of God, because if you have them you are happy already and contented in this life. You don’t want to turn away to anything more, and so you try to rest in a shadowy happiness as if it could last for ever. But God wants to give you a real and eternal happiness. Consequently He may have to take all these “riches” away from you: if He doesn’t, you will go on relying on them.
It sounds cruel, doesn’t it?
I am beginning to find out that what people call the cruel doctrines are really the kindest ones in the long run. I used to think it was a “cruel” doctrine to say that troubles and sorrows were “punishments.” But I find in practice that when you are in trouble, the moment you regard it as a “punishment,” it becomes easier to bear. If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.
Not so bad? That’s classic English understatement. If, through the pain and suffering, if through God’s discipline of his children, we get to experience more of Jesus—more of his presence, more of his love, more of his grace, more of his power, then what God is doing for us in this world, including all the hard stuff,… well, it really is the greatest thing that can happen to us!
The question is, will we trust him even through the hard stuff?