a sermon on Exodus 17:1-7
preached to the Presbytery of New York City on Saturday, September 24, 2011
and in a very similar version to the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on Sunday, September 25, 2011
The journey through the wilderness to the promised land had only just begun, and the Israelites were already getting frustrated. Moses had come back to Egypt to lead the people out of slavery and into freedom, but freedom was harder than anyone had imagined.
The journey kept dragging on and on and on, and the inconveniences kept mounting. For a while it was hard to find food, but God finally provided manna and quail. Then the people started to complain that there wasn’t enough variety on the menu – but there’s only so many ways you can mix up two ingredients! And in today’s reading, the people were complaining that there was no water to drink as they camped.
As you might expect, the people directed their anger, frustration, and complaints at Moses. They even questioned his motives for leading them out of Egypt: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” They were so frustrated that they just wanted to go back home to Egypt, back to the land of suffering and slavery that they knew so well, where they knew what to expect. They’d rather face the perils of life under Pharaoh than take a chance on the uncertainty of a wilderness journey.
The Israelites aren’t alone – we too know what it’s like to take a wilderness journey to a promised but unknown land. Our world these days has more than its share of uncertainty: How long will our economy keep slumping? How long will it take for our friends and neighbors to find a job? What sort of world will our children and grandchildren receive from us?
As if our world’s uncertainty wasn’t enough, there’s also our church and our presbytery. Will we ever return to the way of life we once knew, where every church had a pastor, where every pastor had a church, where the sanctuaries were full and the nurseries were bustling? How long will it take us to sort through our problems and find some way to live together? Will there be anything left of us when we get to the promised land – if we ever get there at all?
All along the way, we find things to complain about in the church and the world. We question the motives of our leaders. We doubt that we’ll have enough food or water or money or patience to survive the journey. We even quarrel amongst ourselves about how we should or should not be moving forward. Like the Israelites, we too would usually prefer to turn back to the unhappy and difficult ways we have known rather than risk a little bit of uncertainty on our wilderness journey.
In the midst of all this complaining and quarreling, Moses was nearing his wit’s end, so he turned to God for some advice. “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” God’s instruction to Moses was clear: “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you… I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.”
So God got involved in the Israelites’ troubles yet again, not ignoring their complaints but taking action, setting up a way forward that took care of their present needs in hopes of keeping the people focused on the promised land. God made it clear that Moses was not the only one who could move things forward – he had not been alone in leading the people out of Egypt, so he should not be left alone to face the trials and tribulations of the journey through the wilderness to the promised land, either. So God offered to meet Moses and the elders not where they were but a little closer to where they were going.
When they had gone on a little ways, God met them and gave them water from a rock, keeping them focused on the way ahead and helping them to move beyond the memory of Egypt just a little more. Moses made sure that the Israelites did not forget all that they had put him through, though – he named the place Massah and Meribah, or “test” and “argument,” because there they had wondered if the Lord was with them on their wilderness journey.
Amidst all the complaining and crying of our day and our own wilderness journeys, there are certainly voices that speak up trying to make a difference. Some folks set right out and go looking for the water we need to survive on the journey. Some women and men look for a way to change the system that keeps getting us off track. Some people try their best to take action to address the complaints going on all around. But all too often it seems that the complainers keep on complaining, that the chorus of quarreling and testing goes on and on, the thirst for the water we need unquenched. There are few who step up to lead the people out of the chorus of woe, few who try to lead the people out into what will move us beyond our impasse rather than just maintaining the status quo of complaining.
But even the best leaders can’t fix things on their own – others have to stand up and join in to move ahead of the people’s doubting and quarreling, not just to resolve the immediate complaints but also to help everyone move into something new. In these wilderness days, we need our elders of all sorts – our Presbyterian ruling and teaching elders, for sure, but also the other elders and leaders of our nation and world – to step away from the murmuring and complaining crowds, to join with those who are not afraid to seek God’s guidance for the days ahead, to look at the problems of our church and our world through new eyes and ask new and different kinds of questions, to go on out ahead of the people to meet God a little further out in the wilderness.
When we go together – when we stop looking back to the Egypts of our past and start dreaming of a new and different promised land, when we step out from where we are into something new, when we support one another in our wilderness journey – we might just meet God, stepping in to give us what we need, challenging us to put aside our bickering and complaining and testing, and inviting us to keep our eyes and hearts on the promised land of new life in this world and the next as we go on our wilderness journey.
And so we take our next steps on this way by meeting here at this table, by glimpsing here even a minuscule vision of the things ahead for all creation, by gathering here with saints and sinners of this time and of all time to set aside as much quarreling and testing as we can, by hoping and praying and expecting that we will meet Jesus here and find everything we need for the wilderness journey ahead. Thanks be to God. Amen.