Exodus 17:1-7, Numbers 20:1-13; Matthew 17:1-8
Preached at Tigard Community Friends Church
Oct. 6, 2019
I mentioned last week that we have dug 80+ holes for trees, shrubs and plants, and some of those holes were into rocks. We did have enough sense to wait until rain softened the top 4 inches of soil, but nothing softened the rocks.
I really enjoyed the work, to be honest. I watched my spouse use the 26-pound prybar to evict sizable rocks and break up the hard clay, and I used it myself (though I thought I might lose my balance on the sloping surface, fall on prybar and break out my front teeth). One day, I felt a decided burning in my tricep and thought, “Well, that’s enough for the day.” So I waited a day or two before using that prybar again. And I congratulated myself on paying attention to my body.
A couple of weeks into heavy digging, I noticed my hands were really sore in the morning. They got better as I used them during the day, and when I really got going, endorphins took all the pain away. Then my middle fingers on both sides started catching in the phenomenon known as trigger finger. Now I get them caught in the shape of claws and they stick there for a bit until I can pry them open. They wake me up in the night to complain. So I warm them up, massage them with various liniments, and continue digging.
The amount of work I did made me proud of myself, and I wanted to impress my spouse when he got home each day. Also, I just love planting things. So I pressed on, until a little voice whispered, “You might want to get those hands looked at.” I made an appointment and got referred to physical therapy. Where my therapist “congratulated” me on doing so much hard work as a happy way to transition into telling me I’d better take it easy if I want my hands to improve. This is annoying. I could, of course, ignore her warning and persist with my shoveling and raking and digging. But I’m going to try to listen and obey.
The significance of my story is that all the work I was doing was positive, and I enjoyed doing it despite all the aches and pains that ensued from it. But I didn’t quickly listen to when to ease up, and now I owe my body some rest. I pressed on when I should have put my feet up. Maybe some of you can relate.
On a day off from work at the yearly meeting (denominational) office, I thought about what things I should get done, and I asked God, “What do you want me to do today?” And, to my surprise, God said, in my inner self, “It’s a nice sunny day; get outside and enjoy it.” So I went and sat in my swing. Another time, after the career disappointment I mentioned, I said, probably angrily, to God, “Now what? What am I supposed to do now?” And God said, “You don’t have to achieve another thing in your whole remaining life. I’m fine with that.” Notice God didn’t say, “I forbid you to achieve” or “you better not try another job.” Just that God didn’t require me to continue to be ambitious and aspirational, God isn’t pushing me to fulfill my potential, God is just happy for me to be.
I’ll add, right up front, that my whole spiritual life took a turn for the better when, as a young adult, I heard Bill Vaswig at Newberg Friends Church say, “Jesus promised that the Spirit would guide us into truth, so why not ask what the Spirit of truth would have you do, take some time and space to listen, and then do what you hear.” St. Augustine said, “Love God and do what you will, acting always out of love.” (No law but the law of love: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.) This sounds enormously free and a little scary if we aren’t accustomed to working without a net of rules and guidelines, without expectations we are trying to meet.
(Just a word about what I “hear” when I say I hear God. Some of what I hear are mental impressions, metaphors, ideas about things I’m turning over in my mind. George MacDonald said that God sits in the darkness where the light of our consciousness goes out and sends us up beautiful things. Sometimes also, when I’m working on a course of action, I receive in my mind a simply factual statement about what I need to do next, such as “take the day off,” or “take the next step in forgiveness,” or, in the middle of an argument with my spouse, “you know you’re going to have to get over this, so watch what you say.” God’s word doesn’t come clad in shaming, guilt-producing, manipulative language. I’ve never had God thunder at me, despite my various wayward tendencies.)
And look at the arrangement in the garden, before humans took their fate into their own hands. Every evening, after the humans doing anything they wanted to (except that one thing of eating the fruit of the Tree of Death), God showed up to walk and talk with them. This sounds like a golden age to me, and we do keep trying, on our own steam, to get back to the garden.
Last week I mentioned the problem of running ahead of God. God wants humans to live in ongoing conversation and responsiveness to God’s leading. The temptation in the garden speaks to us of human beings running ahead of where God leads, putting our own ideas of how we want things to be in the place of listening to God, pushing forward because that’s what we know how to do.
So today, I want us to look at the story of Moses, who led the Hebrews out of Egyptian slavery to the edge of the promised land. I am going to simplify the story, leaving out huge portions to focus on three incidents in Moses’s life.
To recap, for those who are unfamiliar. Moses was born a Hebrew in Egypt at a time when all Hebrew boy babies were supposed to be killed at birth. His midwives disobeyed this law, and his mother nursed him up until she felt he could survive, then put him into a little boat on the river, where he was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter. She brought him up as a prince in Egypt, and she employed his mother to be his nanny.
One day Moses saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, and he flew into a rage and killed the Egyptian. (This is Moses acting on his own, by the way.) He fled the country and went to work as a shepherd at the back of beyond. After decades, God got in touch with Moses via a miraculous burning bush, and God told Moses to use what was in his hand, which was his shepherd’s rod. This rod became imbued with powers that looked magical: it could turn into a snake and then back, for instance. God sent Moses back to Egypt, saying, “I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say.” So Moses went.
After a lengthy negotiation period between Moses, Pharaoh and God, Pharaoh let the Hebrews go into the wilderness to worship God. When Pharaoh saw that they had escaped, he and his army pursued them, thinking them trapped by the Red Sea. But God told Moses to lift up his shepherd’s rod over the water, and it parted so that the Hebrews could escape.
Now I’m going to take you to three times when the Hebrews murmured against God and complained to Moses about having no water. The first time was not long after their escape across the bed of the Red Sea. Three days into the wilderness they ran out of water. The only water was a stream called “Bitter” (Hebrew: Marah) because of its nasty taste. They couldn’t drink the water. And God said to Moses, “Take the tree I’m pointing out and throw it into the stream.” Moses did exactly that, and the water became sweet and drinkable. Moses took the opportunity to point out to the Hebrews how important it was to listen to God and do what God says.
Some time later, the people arrived in another place in the wilderness where there was no water. Keep in mind that they had livestock as well as families along, so there was a lot at stake in having an adequate source of water. Moses asked God for help, saying “Help! They are about to stone me to death!” and God replied, “Take the elders of the people with you, and bring your shepherd’s rod that struck the sea. I will go with you to the rock, and you will smite the rock with your shepherd’s rod, and water will come out of it.” So Moses obeyed God’s word, and indeed, water flowed out of the rock.
Much later, after the Hebrews have reached the promised land and denied themselves entrance by their cowardice and then disobedience, they arrive again at the place in the wilderness where there is no water. They complain against Moses and God, saying, “Why have you brought us up into the wilderness to die of thirst? Why have you taken us out of Egypt, a place of figs and pomegranates, to this evil place?”
So Moses went to seek God’s face and will. And the Lord spoke to Moses, and said, “Take your shepherd’s rod, bring your brother Aaron along, and gather the people together. Then speak to the rock, and water will gush out of it right before their eyes.” Moses got Aaron, picked up his shepherd’s rod, and gathered the people together.
And he said to them, “Listen up, you rebels! Must we fetch you water out of this rock?” Then he smote the rock with his shepherd’s rod. Nothing happened. So he struck it again. Uh-oh.
Moses does not follow God’s leading. Moses takes the rod into his own hands and does what worked in the past, rather than trusting that this time, it will be enough to be simply obedient and speak to the rock. Now, God is kind and the people are thirsty, and God still provides water gushing from the rock. But there will be consequences for Moses.
Some here may have a hard time believing the miraculous parts of this story, thinking of wizard’s wands, and magic spells, and so on. And certainly, in Egypt Pharaoh’s sorcerers were able to match Moses miracle for miracle up to a point (which, somewhat amusingly, was the plague of lice. They could make frogs but not lice. Perhaps once you’ve hidden a louse up your sleeve, it sticks around.) And I don’t want to worry about defending whether these things did or did not happen exactly as written in the Bible. What is written is for our correction, encouragement and instruction in right living, so that’s how we’ll use it.
What I want us to focus on is that the Bible faithfully recounts both Moses’s obedience and Moses’s disobedience. The Bible tells that this man, who talked “mouth to mouth” with God, chose, after decades of obedience, to take matters into his own hands and do what worked in the past. And God took note of this break in relationship. Moses did not live to enter the promised land after all his wandering through the wilderness with the wayward Hebrews. Instead, God took Moses up on a mountain to see the promised land, and said, “Because you rebelled (the Hebrew word is Marah, like the bitter stream) against my commandment in the strife of the congregation and did not honor my name and word as holy at the water before the congregation, you may not enter the promised land.”
This is instructive to us. The life of the Christian is a life lived in obedience to the living Word, God’s Holy Spirit, a daily and ordinary obedience. We are always likely to let the clatter and conflict around us rattle us so that we can’t trust what God is saying to us. We are likely instead to do what worked before. When we disobey, our actions have consequences. Otherwise, our actions do not have any meaning. But God is not harsh with us. I notice that God allowed Moses to draw water from the rock because God is kind and gracious. And as an important side note, God promises Moses that he will be gathered unto his people, which seems positive, perhaps even more positive than entering the physical promised land. So though Moses didn’t get to fulfill his hope of entering the promised land, he moved on into a dimension of unbroken and unbreakable conversation and relationship with God.
Jesus showed us what it looks like to be a human being in living, continual, responsive conversation with God. He said that he did nothing but what his Father told him to do, and that we could see God by looking at Jesus. If you have questions about why Jesus did one thing with a particular person and something else with another, perhaps here is your answer. He was and is responding to the guidance of his Father in his responses to individual human beings.
One day toward the end of the three years Jesus ministered publicly, he took Peter, James and John up a mountain (reminding us of all those mountains Moses climbed to be with God). On that mountain, Jesus was transfigured: he lit up from within and his clothing glowed with light (reminding us of how Moses’s face glowed with light). He looked for once like the Son of God might be expected to look. And importantly, Jesus had visitors on the mount where he was transfigured. Here is Moses, along with the prophet Elijah, signifying that Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets.
And because humans want to memorialize big events like this one, Peter says, “Let us build three tabernacles here for you, Moses, and Elijah.” You see, if there are tabernacles there, people can make pilgrimages, people can hope to capture some of that experience again. People like to have a place of worship that holds still so they can find it whenever they want.
But God says in response to Peter’s suggestion: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” And isn’t that the way of following Jesus? We tend to pray at Jesus, telling Jesus what should happen next. Like Peter, we find it challenging to be quiet so we can hear Jesus, so we know what our next act of worshipful obedience will be. God doesn’t give us a nice shrine we can revisit every year or every week. We get an ongoing, intimate, personal, instructive, loving relationship with the Son of God.
Jesus promised us a relationship to God like his Father/Son relationship. Like Moses, like Jesus, we too can have an intimate (if usually invisible) mouth to mouth conversation with God, and our part in life is to enjoy that relationship and do what God tells us.