Scripture: Exodus 17:1-7
You may recall that in chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Revelation, Jesus himself sends letters to seven churches—one is the church at Ephesus. He first commends the church for its faithfulness before saying, in chapter 2, verse 4, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first”—or literally, your “first love,” by which he means, “your love for Jesus Christ.”
What I want for us in this sermon, what I want for us in this season of Lent, indeed, what I want for us all the time… is that we could return to or renew or deepen our love for Christ. This sermon talks about four ways we can do that. First, by remembering God’s grace toward us in the past. Second, by remembering God’s power in the present. Third, by remembering God’s promise in the future. And fourth, by remembering the cross of God’s Son Jesus.
I told you in my newsletter article a few weeks ago that one of the most important people in my life died recently: Bill Bullard. He was my youth pastor at the Briarcliff Baptist Church in northeast Atlanta when I was growing up.
If you’ve been around me very long, you’ve heard about Bill—at least indirectly. For example, when I’ve shared with you my testimony of first becoming a Christian—of being saved—this happened on a youth group retreat in Black Mountain, North Carolina, in February of 1984, which Bill organized and led.
When I’ve told you that I, as a teenager, encountered the Spirit of Christ in a profound way right here in Toccoa, Georgia, this happened at the old Baptist Conference Center, during a summer youth camp that Bill organized and led.
Even a couple of months ago, before I knew Bill was dying, I mentioned Bill in a sermon—how he loved and supported me through a turbulent teenage trial that I endured with my parents—who were worried that their son’s newfound interest in Jesus and church could only mean that I had “gone off the deep end.”
I told you that my parents met with Bill secretly sometime in 1985. They wanted to voice their concerns that their son was becoming a “fanatic.” “He’s talking about Jesus all the time; always inviting friends at school to come to church; always reading the Bible. What are you teaching him in that youth group?” they wanted to know.
I didn’t find out about this meeting until Bill called me aside on a Wednesday night and told me about it. I thought I was in trouble. Instead, he put his arm around me and said, “Don’t change a thing.” Don’t change a thing.
Those are four of the most encouraging words that anyone has ever spoken to me!
To say the least, Bill was the most important and formative influence on my young Christian life. It’s very possible I wouldn’t even be a Christian today apart from Bill, much less a pastor, much less your pastor.
So Lisa and I went to a memorial service for Bill at what used to be Briarcliff Baptist—it’s become a different church now, but the service was held in the old sanctuary. Lisa and I were two of a few hundred people there—and there were at least dozens of old friends and fellow youth group alumni. I wasn’t invited to speak, but if I were, I would have been happy to share some of what I just told you about Bill.
And I would have said this, as well… speaking specifically to my fellow youth group alumni… Because I know for sure that some of them have dropped out of church entirely. Some are lapsed Christians, if they’re Christians at all. And at least one of them—a dear old friend whom I love—is a professing atheist.
But if I could, I would have reminded my fellow youth group alumni of events from 40 years ago. But not mostly what Bill did for us 40 years ago… And of course he did much for which I’m eternally grateful—and I’ll tell him so again when I see him in heaven! But in the meantime, I would have wanted to remind my fellow youth group alumni of what God did for us 40 years ago. Because it wasn’t about Bill back then… Bill made sure it wasn’t about Bill back then… all those times we shared tearful testimonies around campfires, or gathered in small groups for prayer, or sang and worshiped to songs like, “I’ve Got a River of Life Flowing Out of Me,” or “Victory in Jesus,” or “Pass It On,” or “Bind Us Together, Lord.”
It wasn’t about Bill; it was about Jesus… how amazing Jesus is… what Jesus has done and is doing for us! To him be glory forever, amen!
What we experienced of Jesus back then was real. God is real.It happened. I was there. I remember! Everything Bill taught about Jesus, and everything Bill showed us about Jesus was one-hundred percent true…
And I just wanted to say that… “I don’t know who needs to hear this”—as people often say on social media—“I don’t know who needs to hear this, but oh how desperately I wanted to say it.”
So many old friends were talking, “Bill this, and Bill that,” and that’s fine, but I wanted to say, “The reason why these are among the best and sweetest memories of our lives is not because of Bill Bullard; it’s because of Jesus Christ! Remember him? He was there! He is real! He did powerful things in our midst!”
So I desperately wanted my fellow youth group alumni to remember what the Lord did for them back then. “What happened to the love you had at first? Do you think the Lord isn’t with you today? If Jesus was alive and active and doing powerful things in your life back then, why do you think he’s any less real, or any less powerful, or any less a part of your life today?”
And I suppose Moses could ask the Israelites the same questions—when they arrive at this dry, barren place without water, and they’re thirsty, and they grumble against Moses, and say, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” And, in verse 7, to ask “Is the Lord among us or not?”
I’m not making light of Israel’s crisis: They were thirsty. And human beings, especially in that arid climate, can only survive two or three days without water… So Israel was facing a scary crisis, no doubt!
It’s just that… if you read the previous two chapters in Exodus, you’ll see that “grumbling against Moses” in the face of a crisis is a recurring theme. In chapter 15, just 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. So they grumbled against Moses. Moses prayed. God intervened and, voila! Fresh water.
In chapter 16, the people were facing another crisis: they were hungry. So they grumbled against Moses. Moses prayed. God intervened and, voila! God first sent an abundant supply of quail for them to eat in the evening, and in the morning he began sending them 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 every day and be satisfied.
Every day for the next 40 years, as Israel wandered in the wilderness, God gave them a daily, visible, supernatural reminder of his love and provision by feeding them with this manna.
With all this in mind, given Israel’s own recent history, 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? Where is their faith?
I remember as a five- or six-year-old child learning to swim. I was never confident in the pool when I was young, for some reason. 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 beckoned me to swim out 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 Dad 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 care for you and want to protect you and 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? Your very survival has depended on me. And 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? What makes you think I don’t love you anymore. 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 pillar of smoke and fire, miraculously lead them through the Red Sea on dry ground, and—while the water welled up on each side of Pharoah and his army—miraculously release the water and drown them, 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 let them die of thirst.
Like I said, it’s crazy… even foolish… to think that way. And yet, here we are.
And that’s Point Number One. If we want to love the Lord more now—in the present—let’s remember what he has done for us in the past.
And this brings us to Point Number Two: we need to remember that God is working for us in powerful ways right now, in the present… even if we can’t see or comprehend how.
The Israelites were in Rephidim, thirsty and wondering, “Where is God? We see no evidence of God doing anything right now. God is nowhere to be found! Which is precisely why we’re afraid we’re going to die of thirst out here in this barren wilderness!”
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…?”
But Moses, instead of taking the blame himself, points the Israelites to the One who is ultimately responsible for the situation they’re in. He does this in verse 2, when he asks, “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. Your problem is 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 for this; God is the One who has brought you here!”
Because look at verse 1: “All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin…” By the way, the word capital-S “Sin” there doesn’t mean the English word “sin”; “Sin” is just the proper name of the place in Hebrew… Anyway, the Bible says Israel moved on “by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.”
So notice those key words: according to the commandment of the Lord.
They are in this dry, barren wilderness, without any water, for one reason only: because their sovereign God led them there. He wanted them to be there!
And when you read the Bible, you see that God is always doing things like this… He is often leading his people, and his children, into trouble.
There’s a profoundly good song by singer-songwriter Laura Story about this very topic. It’s called “Blessings,” which she wrote when her husband was battling a life-threatening illness. It includes these poignant words:
We pray for blessings
We pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering
All the while, You hear each spoken need
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things
She goes on:
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?
I haven’t known a thousand sleepless nights, but I’ve known more than a few in my life. I bet you have, too. Is it possible that that situation or person or event in your life, that trial, that storm that barren wilderness in your life, which caused or is causing these sleepless nights is precisely what you need to “know that God is near” and draw you closer to him, and trust in him more, and depend on him more, and, yes, to love him more? And if the end result of that trial you’re going through is that you finally learn this lesson—and your faith in Jesus is strengthened—and your love for Jesus grows stronger—wouldn’t it all have been worth it?
Of course it would!
I confess I’m not good at remembering this. Often, at the first sign of trouble, my first instinct is to become angry and afraid. And to lash out at people. Even last week, someone I love shared a prayer request with me: She was having a difficult time at work—her manager isn’t treating her fairly, and she’s being misjudged. And as I was praying for this person, I was feeling indignant on her behalf… and afraid for her… Like, ugh, what’s going to happen to her if worst comes to worst.
And then I thought, “Hold on! This person I’m praying for is a Spirit-filled, Jesus-loving, daughter of Almighty God! She enjoys God’s favor at every moment! God is working out everything, even difficult trials in her life, for her ultimate good!” She’s going to be okay. God is doing something good for her!
And so he will for all of us who are in Christ!
You know someone who’s good at remembering the grace God has shown him in the past—and remembering that God is working powerfully in the present? Trace Embry, the guy who runs Shepherd’s Hill Academy. When he’s in trouble and needs God to do something for him—but God hasn’t done it yet, he says, “I’m in the middle of a miracle… It’s not that God isn’t doing something powerful… I know from previous experience and past history that God is going to come through in some way… And soon, I’m going to see exactly what he’s up to! Soon, what God is doing will be clear. Until then, I’m somewhere in the middle of a miracle.”
I can learn something from that kind of attitude! How about you?
[Can we talk… Two biggest challenges…youth pastor, children’s pastor, and music director…]
And that’s Point Number Two: One thing that makes us love Jesus more right now is knowing that our Lord is working powerfully in the present… even when it’s hard and painful and we can’t understand the reasons. We may just be in the middle of a miracle!
Point Number Three… the future… We remember God’s promise about the future.
I want us to consider a verse I have never preached on: 1 Peter 1:7. Peter is talking about the necessity of enduring trials, and how God uses them for our good. I’ll read it in the New Living Translation:
These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world.
Notice that last part: “it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world.”
He’s talking about something that will happen to us in the future, after Christ returns and after Final Judgment and after we’re living in God’s kingdom in a renewed heaven and earth.
Peter says that we Christians who have endured difficult trials will receive praise, glory, and honor… from our Lord… even as the Lord let’s us share in his own praise, glory, and honor!
In other words, Peter is saying, our ability to endure and overcome difficult trials in the here and now will result in a reward for us in eternity. And that reward is greater glory for us.
And maybe you say, “That reward of greater glory doesn’t sound so great!”
Are you kidding? Glory is the best thing we can experience!
I need some of you Georgia fans remember about how you felt when your team won not one but two national championships… Or Clemson fans a few years before that… or Braves fans two years ago.
Think of how that made you feel? If you could bottle that experience of glory and pour some out or spritz some on you whenever you were feeling depressed… How much money would that be worth? How much money would people be willing to pay you? You’d be wealthier than Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates put together!
I love sports glory as much as the next guy… but I’m a Georgia Tech fan, so I don’t experience it often. But I enjoy other kinds of glory. Music, for instance, can be glorious. For instance, sometimes when I’m listening to great music—the end of Side 2 of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, for instance, I experience glory. The glory of the Beatles, of course. But even more: glory for the God who created them and gave them their talent and gave us their music as a gift!
My point is, we already know from personal experience that glory is the greatest thing we can ever possess!
And I’m only talking about a worldly kind of glory… think how much better will be the glory that we experience in eternity…
And the Bible says that when we endure and overcome the tests that God sends our way, we will enjoy even more of the best thing ever…on the other side of death and resurrection.
“Yes, please! I want that.” I want you to want that!
And that’s Point Number Three: We remember that in the future… on the other side of the Second Coming… on the other side of the resurrection of the dead and Final Judgment… God gives us glory… and we know that that’s the greatest reward for living a faithful life!
Point Number Four: We love Jesus more in the here and now by remembering how Jesus Christ—God in the flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity—died on the cross… for us!
Today’s scripture, along with all the scriptures in this current sermon series, points to Christ’s death on the cross: First let’s 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… so that we would have eternal life rather than eternal death… so that we would be saved from death and hell!
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
This is the gospel of Jesus Christ, right here in the Old Testament. Amen.