I had one of those uncomfortable weeks where I knew the reading from which I needed to preach on Monday. You all know me well enough by now to realize I am a bit distrustful when I figure things out really early. But, come on! Massah and Meribah? Really? Bartimaeus could see that is where we needed to spend our time in the Word of God this week. The real question, of course, was figuring out how I could preach it without being too self-serving and too accusing. There’s a real danger that I could place myself in the role of Moses and you all as the quarrelers and neither of us benefit from the passage as God would have us.
Thankfully, I spent the weekend at St. Mary’s up on the Holy Mountain at Sewanee. We were doing taskforce work up there, getting away to knock out several meetings worth of work. During one of the breaks, I was sitting on a couch looking at and praying over my order of worship. Also at St. Mary’s was an ecumenical gathering of Adult Bible Study leaders. As near as I can figure, there were 40-50 adults worshipping and sharing their experiences and materials leading Bible Studies from Murfreesboro to a town on the other side of the mountain that was not Chattanooga. Imagine a gathering of Larry Douglas and Tom Jurka and others like them in their love of Scripture and their dedication to leading the studies of Scripture. That was the group with us. One of the ladies walked up to me and asked what we were doing and what I was doing. Now, my first answer was not what she wanted to hear, but she sure loved my second answer. Without any prompting, she joined me on the couch.
After some more small talk and discussions about lectionaries, she asked what my problem was this week. Her pastor wrote his sermons no later than Tuesday or Wednesday. I was working on mine on a Saturday, and I did not have a pen or paper. But she wanted to help. She asked why I felt God was calling me to preach on Exodus. In her mind, the Gospel is always better. I told her it spoke to our particular situation at Advent explicitly. We chatted very briefly about budget issues, about visioning issues, about control issues, and about grumbling. She did find it interesting that this lectionary thing which works at random in her mind just happened to have the readings from Exodus as we were experiencing similar emotions and issues as Israel did in our story.
Typical of someone who has spent a large amount of her time studying the Scriptures to teach others, she asked great probing questions. Had this Advent church experienced God’s provision and guidance in the past? Could they understand God’s indignance at their doubt? Were they doing the things necessary to support the pastor and lay council? Did I think I could get run out of town? And what was the fear that was behind all the grumbling?
As we talked back and forth, for only 15-20 minutes, she repented for her attitude toward her pastor. Talking this through with me, she realized again what a daunting task we had trying to shepherd God’s unruly and stiff-necked people. She confessed she was often a grumbler when a pastor’s sermons were . . . less than inspiring. In her focus, she forgot her pastor had to tend the whole flock. She was committing in front of me to pray for her pastor’s preaching. The worse it was, the more she was going to pray! Hearing her wisdom, I asked her advice. And in that wizened voice of someone who has walked the earth north of 70 years, she said she had nothing for me. “All I can tell you is to tell them to keep their focus on God, and remember that the place called Sin has nothing to do with sin!”
As I went back into our task force meetings, I have to confess I was chuckling to myself. Thanks for the help. I got even more advice or help this morning at 8am. As I shared this story with them, our beloved treasurer made sure during the peace that I understood I was no Moses, that I was in no danger of being stoned. It’s ok, laugh. We did. But perhaps your laugh is a nervous laugh. Maybe the story is hitting a bit close to home? Maybe you are part of the grumblers? Maybe you are like the lady I met who never looked at church life from a couple other perspectives? If so, then it may well be providential that we are in Exodus this week.
Our story from Exodus is the fourth time that Israel complains, grumbles, or distrusts Moses and God in a span of about three months. You know the stories, even if you fear I am going to ask you to tell me what the other three are. The first one is a biggie. Standing at the edge of the sea, the people complain bitterly against Moses and God. They accuse them both of bringing them out to die by the sea because there were not enough graves in which to bury them in Egypt. Can you imagine? This people just witnessed the 10 plagues that helped make Charlton Heston even more famous. And they respond by thinking that God, Yahweh, went through all that effort just to have them die in the wilderness. We forget the cosmological perspective of those plagues, but the people in our story sure did not. Clearly, God has “battled” the Egyptian gods in their strongholds and won! Now, He is incapable of leading them to safety? That’s rather odd to think in light of circumstances, is it not? Yet, how does God respond? Does He abandon them to their fate? Does He chide them for their lack of faith? No, He tells Moses to lift the staff. So long as Moses’ arm is uplifted, the wind blows and divides the water. When Moses gets fatigued, others have to hold his arm up for him. You know the rest of the story, right? Israel is delivered from Egypt, and Egypt’s chariots are destroyed. Not a single Israelite lifts his or her hand in battle! Not a single Israelite is lost to the superpower of the day!
What happens next? Just a few days later, Israel comes upon a pool of water that was too bitter to drink. Again, they grumble and complain against God and Moses. Does God smite them with a thunderbolt? I won’t ask for a show of hands, but how many of us would be ok with delivering a people in an impressive Cecil B. Demille fashion, only to have them a couple days later doubt us? How does God respond? Water is a need for us, right? They are in the wilderness, a place where there is no provision. He does not nuke them for their grumbling. Graciously, He instructs Moses to throw a branch into the water. The bitter water is made sweet, and Israel (and their flocks and herds) are watered.
What happens next? A few weeks later, Israel is complaining about the good old days of slavery. As one involved in the fight against modern slavery, I find this argument ironic and telling. There is a real fear of the unknown. Every slave to whom I ever extended my hand in an offer of freedom rejected it. For whatever reasons, not a one could accept, could believe that someone wanted them to be free, not even in the name of the Lord. Better the devil you know, right? That’s where Israel is psychologically. Oh for the good old days. Oh for those days we used to sit around our fires eating our fill of bread and stew. Did it not note so tragic a condition of their psyches, it would be amusing. Meat was a luxury in the ANE. The last people to get meat in any society are going to be the slaves. Yet, here they are, barely a couple months removed from slavery, and the people of Israel are treating their enslavement like it was the golden age.
Given that God has been beyond merciful a couple times already, we would not be surprised that He now blows up at them. Thankfully, His ways are not our ways. How does He respond? Like water, food is challenging in the wilderness. The people really are hungry; they really wonder from where their next meal will come. He provides manna and quail. He provides so much quail, we are told, that the flesh is coming out their nose! This people, which is just a couple months removed from slavery, is given the meat sweats in a time and a place where meat was a luxury! Again, no one goes hungry. In fact, all are fed more than they need. For the third time in just a couple months, God has demonstrated His power and His compassion. That brings us to today’s encounter.
Remember, God has delivered them from Egypt and saved them from the armed forces of their slavers, God has watered them abundantly in the wilderness, and God has fed them abundantly in the wilderness. Surely His patience is stretched, right? Look at our story. Again, the people of Israel complain bitterly against Moses and God. You brought us into the wilderness to cause all our animals and us to die of thirst. That complaint makes sense, right? I mean, it’s not as if He did not turn the bitter water into sweet water a few weeks earlier. Ooops. He did! If we had not already read the story, we might well expect smiting to take place now. Now would be the good time for a well-placed lightning bolt or massive earthquake to hit Israel. What does God do? He tells Moses to take some elders and lead the people. He will be ahead of them and show them where to stop. When they reach the rock, Moses strikes it. God provides abundantly, yet again!, from a place where no one in Israel should have expected Him to be able to provide. Who can squeeze water out of a rock? Only God.
We are told that Moses names the place Meribah and Massah. The former word means to quarrel or struggle. The later name has a courtroom connotation of putting one on trial. In essence, Moses says that Israel was accusing God of being insufficient to their needs. Ever wonder what God’s accusation against Israel might be? Every wonder what it might be against Advent? Ever wonder what it might be against me and you?
In many ways you and I are worse that the people of Israel. Scripture reveals four times in the span of just three months or so where Israel doubts God. Remember, however, where they are in salvation history. What do they know of God? He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Those who have preserved the oral tradition of the patriarchs may know a bit about God, but few seem to have preserved that knowledge. Tradition holds that God gave Moses the history at Sinai. Heck, when Moses asks for a name to give Israel for the One who calls them to worship Him at Sinai, God simply gives the great I AM in answer to Moses’ question. In many ways, Israel has no history, no relationship, upon which they can draw to remind themselves that God is with them, that God loves them, and that God will provide for them. Make no mistake, once God gives the torah, His graciousness is not nearly as abundant as it is at this early stage of their relationship. Eventually, this generation of Israel will grumble and quarrel and doubt their way out of the Promised Land. They will not enter into the rest which He intended. That goes for Moses and the elders, too.
You and I, of course, have the benefit of the fullness of revelation. You and I know that God has acted once and for all to save each of us. If He did nothing else for us, still our debt to Him would be immeasurable. Yet we also have the stories of our spiritual matriarchs and patriarchs upon which to draw. We know that He is our heavenly Father and wants to tend us, to gather us, to nurture us. And we know that we cannot trust ourselves, or at least we should. Yet time and time again we wonder if He cares for us, if He knows us, if He is aware of our struggles, if He is really with us. And all during those struggles, the Cross and the Empty Tomb stand before us like sentinels, like heralds, reminding each of us of God’s unbounding grace and power and love.
And we not only do this individually, but corporately. When individuals who doubt God or His character or His power or His willingness come together, it does not take much stress for a body to become grumblers and accusers. We are living testimony to the truth of our story from Exodus. Each of us gathered here today believes that Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead, thereby affording us the opportunity to share in both His death and His Resurrection. But when faced with stress, when faced with the trials of the world, how quickly do we begin to resemble our forebears in the wilderness? How quickly do we grumble, question, or accuse?
I get that many of us are uncomfortable. When I asked the Vestry if they wanted to plod along in December/January or “rip the bandage off” I wasn’t given the gift of prophesy. Bartimaeus could see this was going to happen. I am asking a Vestry, elders to use our language from Exodus today, to help discern God’s will for Advent in this time and this place. It is a new old thing I am asking them to do. They have not done this, at least as a body, for some time now. What is it God is calling us to do? Where in the surrounding wildernesses of our ground and our lives is God calling us to be oases pointing people to Him? It would be great if God used neon arrows and a thundering voice to instruct us. But that same God who gently guided Israel so long ago is wooing me and wooing you. He can speak from thunder and accomplish might works of power, but He seems to get great pleasure, dare I say fatherly pleasure, out of His children attuning themselves to His wisdom, His vision, and His voice. Sometimes, in our efforts to succeed in the world, we mistakenly think those same drives, those same thoughts, and those same visions will translate into our church lives. In reality, far more often than not, God is speaking to us in a whisper, gently nudging us, that we might take our lives, more closely attuned to Him, into the world around us. Put in other language, we bear crosses to His glory, confident that He will redeem all things.
And the Vestry is not alone. If they are doing their job, they should be asking each of you who feels called to this place we call Advent what you think God is asking us to do. That’s right. This call to discern is not only on Holly and me and the Vestry; it’s on each and every one of you as well. Such may be uncomfortable, but that uncomfortableness is not because it is not true. We are the nation of priests at Advent. We are the ones whom God has called together at this time and in this place to serve others to His glory. We are the recipients of that Great Commission and the Great Commandments. Yes, we have a history upon which to draw. Yes, there is a golden age or a few golden ages that exist in our history. Because of them, just like Israel’s experiences these first three months of freedom, we know that God desires and can be glorified here, in this place. Through ordinary men, women, and children like ourselves.
Better still, we know, we absolutely know that God will provide for those who respond faithfully. In modern theological language we say that money follows ministry. In practical terms, we live this at Advent. In the conversations I have had about the budget, one glaring strength has stood out to me. We, the people of Advent, the grumblers and the worriers, we are on pace to give away nearly $26,000 to support other ministries in our midst. It’s a good number, a big improvement over recent years. You know what really excites me as a pastor, though? In all my conversations about the budget, no one is saying “You know, we should tell people to give that money to the operating budget. That would make up a chunk of the shortfall.” Why is that? Those ministries that Oliver and the committee have invited in are doing God’s work in the world around us. We recognize it. We see it. We hear it. And we are moved by God to support that work. I don’t beat you up to give to them. To my knowledge, none of them is beating any of you up. They are simply sharing their work and their vision of what God is calling them to do in the wilderness of Nashville, and God is working on all our hearts.
What if we were attuned to God’s vision? Whom would He draw into the embrace here at Advent to help support us in the work of glorifying Christ in Him? Homeschools? Other faithful Christians? Maybe those who have fallen away or never knew Him? We live in a world that loves cause and effect. We live in a world that loves to know that if we do “A”, “B”, and “C”, then “D” will surely happen. And we so want that to work in the Church. But you and I serve a God who is not bound by cause and effect. We serve a God, as we are reminded this morning, who brings water out of rock, who provides abundantly out of scarcity, and delivers in the face of enemies. All He asks for is for us to enter into relationship with Him, to seek His face, to seek His will, to desire His heart, to see with His eyes. He takes care of the rest. As a parish, we know this. As individuals, we have experienced this.
Brothers and sisters, I am here to remind you, in the midst of this worry, in the midst of these struggles, in the midst of these blind gropings, we are not alone. No doubt like our forebears in Israel, we wonder if God is with us in the midst of our wilderness experiences. His answer is the same. He is in the midst of us; He still has plans for you, for me, and for Advent. Those plans may be what none of us has in mind today. Or maybe we have the plans right, but not the path of getting to that destination. God only knows. But that same God who sent His Son and called you, me, and all humanity into relationship with Him is the One who seeks to guide us, to enliven us, and to glorify Himself through us. Through us, He demonstrates to the world His loving care for all humanity. God deals graciously with Israel in our story today, and I have no doubt He will continue to deal graciously with each of us who seek His will today. Neither should you. We are nowhere near dead yet, and we already know how He handles death! Why not join the Vestry and the clergy, help the Vestry and the clergy, in seeking that life to which He calls us? In the end, Israel’s story is our own. We know how He has provided in the past, and that provision, and the trust that comes from it, teaches us that He will no doubt provide for us in the present and in the future.
In Christ’s Peace,