When life gets tough

Exodus 17:1-7

The wilderness is a place of barrenness. It is the place abandonment, loneliness, hunger and thirst. It is a scary place because it is about coming face to face with forces that are far bigger than us, which threaten to overwhelm us.  Few voluntarily go into the wilderness.

But the wilderness has also been, in Christian thought and experience, the place of meeting with God.

Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry went into the wilderness for 40 days, in order to meet with God and to face the demons and devil.

And the people of Israel had been a slave people in Egypt. They had cried out to God and God had rescued them. And through the leadership of Moses he brought them out of slavery and promised them a new land. But to get from Egypt to the promised land they had to go through the wilderness.

And in our story, we meet them in the wilderness. They have no water, and they are thirsty. It was serious. And they begin to grumble. They say to Moses, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die of thirst in the desert? It is better to be a living Egyptian slave than a dead refugee’.

It is very understandable.

When things get tough we start to grumble.

I was talking to a fellow vicar who was saying that he wondered at times whether some particular sins get a grip on particular communities. They are sins that are not challenged and that then spread like a virus. He was saying that he felt that in his particular community that sin is the sin of grumbling.

Grumblers are people whose glasses are always half empty.
Even if the most wonderful thing happened, they would still find something negative in it.
And grumblers can never be satisfied – because even if they get what they want they would still grumble.

There are two problems with grumbling:

1. When we grumble we are blind to the goodness of God.

The New Testament writers urge us in all our prayers, in all situations, to pray with thanksgiving: it is when we start to say thank you to God that we begin to see the blessings that he has given us.  

And what makes the grumbling here surprising is yes, the people of Israel are thirsty, it is serious, but they have seen  God do astonishing stuff: the plagues, the crossing of the red sea, the provision of quail and manna. And rather than give thanks to God for what God he has done – and no doubt, for what he could do - they grumbled.

The writer of Psalm 95 picks this up. He writes,

‘Today, if you hear his voice,
 do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness,
where your fathers tested and tried me,
though they had seen what I did’.

2. When we grumble we begin to play the blame game.

The people grumble and they then blame Moses, even though Moses had been obeying God. [v1 says, ‘They travelled from place to place as the Lord commanded’].

It is always good to find someone who you can blame. It might be the vicar, the diocese, the local authority, the hospital, social workers or bankers, the government. It is the easy option. It saves us from looking too hard at ourselves.

It is too easy to blame politicians: to say that they are all the same, they’re corrupt and they’re in it for themselves. Somebody has to do the job. Somebody has to decide how limited resources are to be spent. Somebody has to make some very tough decisions. And because we live in a democracy there is an alternative to grumbling about the present bunch – you. Get involved! You probably could do a better job, but we’ll never know until you are prepared to put your head above the parapet and do something – rather than just sit in the comfort of your armchair and blame the people who are actually doing something.

But this story is also about Moses.

He too finds himself in a very tough place. He’s taken the people to the place God asked him to take them to. There is no water, and the people want to stone him.

He could, I guess, play the grumbling and blame game.
He could grumble about the people – they leave it all up to me; I’m the only competent one. The reason we are in this mess is because the people simply don’t deserve me.
He could grumble about God.

I like the quote: “I started wondering if God really existed. The world seemed too empty and lonely for there to be a God in it. But I figured he must exist because I kept blaming everything on him.” [The HippieSnowflake Obsidian: Memoir of a Cutter]

But he doesn’t.

1. He takes the situation to God:

Moses remembers
·         how God has spoken in the past;
·         what God has already done;
·         the promise God has given this people. He wants their good.  

So he has a confidence to bring the situation to God.

[There was a King of Israel, who lived many years after Moses, a man called Hezekiah. His enemy had conquered the neighbouring countries. They were big and powerful. And now they surrounded Jerusalem. And they send him a letter telling him that they are going to do to Jerusalem what they have done to every other capital city. And Hezekiah is helpless. So he takes the letter, kneels down by his bed, and places it before God.

Or take Jesus himself. He knew that he was about to be arrested, falsely accused, tried in a kangaroo court, mocked and shamed and then put to death in one of the most painful ways imagineable. So he goes to a garden and he falls down and he prays. He prays that God will have mercy on him. He prays that God will provide some other way, but that if not, he will still do it. And we are told that God did not provide some other way, but that ‘an angel came and strengthened him’.

And Moses here brings the situation to God.]

He prays: ‘What am I to do with this people? They want to stone me’.

2. He doesn’t give up.

God says to him, ‘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’.

That is probably the last thing that Moses wanted to hear. ‘God, please let me retire. I am 80 years old. Surely some of the younger people can do this.’

But God says, ‘No. I called you to do this. And you are to carry on’.
And Moses obeys.

He goes ahead with elders. He comes to the rock. He takes up his staff. This was the same staff that God had used to do astonishing wonders in Egypt.
On one occasion Moses had struck the river Nile with his staff and it had become undrinkable. Now he strikes the rock with his staff, and water pours from the rock. And the people drink.

God calls Moses to keep on doing what he was doing – especially now that it was getting hard.

But I also note that God did not call Moses to do this on his own. He told him to take elders with him.

There will be times when God leads you into the wilderness.

For all of us there is an Egypt back there, a place of slavery. And there is a promised land up there. But between that place and that place there are times of wilderness.

It may be that you have lost the sense of intimacy with God that you once had. It may be debt, sickness, redundancy, disappointment, rejection, shame or the hatred of others or death.
There are many Godly people in the bible who know that experience.

Psalm 23 speaks of walking through the valley of the shadow of death

Psalm 66:12 states, ‘You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and water ..’

[Psalm 44:17ff: “All this happened to us, though we had not forgotten you or been false to your covenant. Our hearts had not turned back; our feet had not strayed from your path. But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals and covered us over with deep darkness”.]

But when you go through it, could I urge you

1. Don’t grumble or look to find someone to blame, like the people of Israel.

CS Lewis writes, Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others . . . but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God 'sending us' to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud.

2. Turn to God, to seek him, like Moses.

Do pray. Bring the burden to God.

 And pray with thanksgiving. Even if you find yourself in a deep hole, still thank God for what he has done, for what he has given, and for what he has promised.

One of the prayers that we pray at the wedding service begins like this: ‘Blessed are you, O Lord our God, for you have created joy and gladness, pleasure and delight, love, peace and friendship’.

Or one of the most beloved prayers of the Anglican tradition states, ‘We bless thee for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory’.

3. Keep on keeping on.
Be obedient to the call God has given you. Use the gifts, the staff that God has granted you.

Several years ago, before I came here, I went on a conference for church leaders. And we were all asked to look at this passage, and to reflect what it taught about leadership. The thing that struck me was the reference to the staff. When God tells Moses to strike the rock with his staff, he was not asking him to exercise blind faith. Moses had seen God work through the staff. God had done astonishing things through it. 

Now I suspect that we don’t have many people here with literal staffs that do the sort of stuff that Moses’ staff did. But for me it was a reminder that the metaphorical staff that God had given to me was the gift of teaching Jesus through teaching the bible. It is when I have done that that I have seen God work most powerfully and when lives have most been changed. And for me this passage was the call to continue to teach Jesus through teaching the bible.

So what is your staff? What is the gift that you have seen God use in the past – both to speak to you and to bring good to others? Maybe it is the fact that you are able to listen, you have practical skills, you are an administrator, or maybe it is when you offer hospitality, or your commitment for the socially dispossessed, an ability to teach, or skill with IT. Maybe God has given you the gift of speaking in tongues, or of a prophetic ministry. Maybe you are someone who finds that when you pray for people things happen.

It is very easy to forget our staff, especially when things get difficult. But God says to Moses, ‘Take up your staff and go’.

But again I note that this is not something that you should do on your own. Moses went with the elders. We need to find a few people who can help us in our Christian life – forgive me for going on about this, but this really is why small groups are so important. They are the place par-excellence where we can discover, grow and use our gifts

4. But there is a fourth thing, which is not obvious from our passage, but which one of the first followers of Jesus makes clear when he is thinking of this story.

Remember that God is in the wilderness

Paul writes [1 Cor 10:4], ‘The rock which Moses struck, the rock from which life giving water flowed, was Jesus.’

In other words, when you go through it,
·         remember that Jesus has gone through it. He spent 40 days in the physical wilderness – but that was only to begin to prepare him for the wilderness experience of crucifixion and abandonment by God.
·         remember that because Jesus was struck, we can now know and drink of his life giving presence.
·         Most of all, remember that he was there in the wilderness – he was there in what seemed to be a solid lump of rock. And that was where Moses and the people of Israel met with him.

So often it is when we go into the wilderness – when we are stripped of everything in which we would usually put our trust - that we most powerfully experience the voice, the power and the presence of God.


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