Sunday, February 05, 2023

Quarreling with Moses

 Exodus 17:1-7

Then all the congregation of the sons of Israel journeyed by stages from the wilderness of Sin, according to the command of the LORD, and camped at Rephidim,  and there was no water for the people to drink.  Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, "Give us water that we may drink."   And Moses said to them, "Why do you quarrel with me?  Why do you test the LORD?"  But the people thirsted there for water; and they grumbled against Moses and said, "Why, now, have you brought us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?"  So Moses cried out to the LORD, saying, "What shall I do to this people?  A little more and they will stone me."  Then the LORD said to Moses, "Pass before the people and take with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand your staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.  Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink."  And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.  And he named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the LORD, saying, ""Is the LORD among us, or not?""

Sermon for Septuagesima Sunday                                              2/05/23

Quarreling with Moses

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

I would like to begin this morning with a fairly obvious point.  Jesus was not an American.  Of course, you say.  He lived long before there was an America.  It follows quite logically, then, that Christianity is not American.  Christianity and the political and social philosophies of the United States are not identical.  They are not all that similar, even.  Therein lies the lesson for this morning – more or less.

The American ideal is independence and individuality.  Freedom is our shibboleth, our password.  Nine out of ten Americans do not understand the word or the concept of freedom in the way that those who died to win it did, but it still is the password.  It means to many that anyone can do anything that they desire, and no one else has the right to interfere, regulate or stop them from doing it.  That is a fiction, when understood like that, but that is the general sense of the concept in modern America.

Christianity, on the other hand – I mean orthodox, faithful, Biblical Christianity – is not in philosophical agreement with our culture.  America is individualistic, and the Church is a group thing, the communion of saints, the body.  America is all about independence, and Christianity is all about dependence, interdependence, and being the slaves of God.  America is about freedom, usually misunderstood to exist without concomitant responsibility.  The Church and the faith are about liberty in the context of responsibility.  We are never free agents in the Church, but slaves of God, having been set free from sin and death and hell.

As those who are owned by God, and as those who have been made a part of the body of Christ which is the Church, we are under the authority of God, which He exercises through His Word.  All of this sets you up for the text about Moses and His situation in relation to the children of Israel.  He is set by God in the place of leader, but clearly the leader under the direct authority of God.  Nevertheless, every time the people have a problem, they grumble against Moses and they quarrel with Moses.  Our text is the Old Testament lesson, and our theme is "Quarreling with Moses."

Never has there been another people like Israel.  God dealt with them in a unique way.  He chose one man, and made his family into a nation of people in accord with a promise and a covenant spoken to that one man.  God took personal action with these people.  He spoke to them directly through their leaders.  He did not hide a thing from them.  Even the years of slavery, and the subsequent rescue that we know as Passover and the Exodus were prophesied – promised in advance that it would happen, and they were given a precise time table for the events.  All they really needed to do was check the time table, trust God to do what He had promised, and wait.

Israel had trouble doing that.  They did not trust God, so they forgot the promises, and they were extremely impatient.  I can't blame them, life became difficult, and freedom became slavery, and prosperity swiftly became poverty, a series of changes that seems awfully familiar today.  It did not look like God could do what He had promised, or that He would do it.  Then along came Moses.

Moses was the man chosen by God to lead them.  God called Him and sent Him, and worked the ten plagues and brought them out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm!  That is how God liked Moses to refer to it.  It reminded the people that God could do what He promised, and that He did accomplish all that He has promised to do – the very things that they had not trusted in Him to do.

Now they are out in the wilderness.  This desert, not just some rural area.  They have limited water supplies with them, and they cannot see where they are going to get more, out here in the desert.  They still have not learned.  They still do not trust God.  They cannot imagine that God can do what they need Him to do, and they are so far from trusting God that they blame the guy – the miracle worker, the one who got them sprung from Egypt.  The messenger of God is their whipping boy.  Let's blame Moses!

We know how it ends.  God tells Moses to strike a rock in the presence of the leaders of the people -- called the elders -- and He makes water fountain out of the rock.  There was absolutely no way that God could give them all water in the wilderness, so God made a way.  If they had only trusted God, once again.  If they had expected that the God who loved them enough to rescue them from bondage would have a plan, and have the power to provide for them in whatever circumstances into which He led them.  But they did not.

They took to quarreling with Moses.  Their problem was with God, but their target was the messenger.  Moses pointed out what they were doing.  He said, "Why do you quarrel with me?  Why do you test the Lord?"

I imagine that you know where I am going with this.  Now and again, we have demonstrated a tendency not to trust the Lord.  We don't know what is happening, and we don't like the way things are going, and we don't pause to exercise our faith in God.  Instead we grumble.  We quarrel with God.  And, when you quarrel with God, it seems that you frequently quarrel with Moses, that is, you quarrel with the messenger whom God has called and sent to speak His Word to you.  But really, you are quarreling with God.

Jesus once said, Luke 10:16, "The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me."  He spoke those words to His disciples, but they apply to every messenger that He calls and sends to speak His Word.  When you quarrel with me, your pastor, over the Word of God, our doctrine, or our practice based on the Word of God, your argument is not with me, but God.  When you attack me, you are attacking God first.  When you conspire against me or politic against me, you are working against God.

Now, if we are talking about what color to paint the restrooms, your opinion is as good as mine.  The Word of God has nothing to say about the color of restroom walls.  But if we are dealing with doctrine, or those practices which flow out of our doctrine, your recourse is to the Word of God.  If I am not faithful to the Word, you not only can disagree with me, you must, to my face.  But if what I teach and what I do is from the Word, or faithful to it, your argument is not with me, but with God.  Too often, our discussions are about personal feelings and opinions which have nothing to do with the Word, while the topic at hand does have to do with the Word.  All such quarreling is like quarreling with Moses.

And the cause of it is often the same as it was among ancient Israel.  Too often we respond from how things seem, how they feel, how they look to us, rather than responding from our knowledge of God and our trust in Him.  I said earlier that there was never another people like Israel.  I was exaggerating.  Israel enjoyed God's presence in a unique way – the pillar of cloud and fire and the Tabernacle and Moses, who spoke with God as a man speaks to His friend, face to face.  But when it comes to blessings, and when it comes to human weakness, we are every bit like Israel.

God dealt with Israel in a unique way.  He deals with us in a unique way as well.  For them He chose one man to make His offspring a nation.  For us, God has chosen one man, His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ.  He made Jesus carry our sins and die in our place on the cross, that He might call us all together out of many nations to be one people, the holy Christian Church.  He has knit us together into a family, and made us a people – God's holy people.  Then He called our names in Baptism, and He has gathered us together here at Immanuel.  We are a family!  We are the body of Christ in this place!

With Israel of old, God spoke directly to His people through the men He called to speak His Word.  He is still speaking to His people in the same way.  Back then, they called them "prophets."  Today, His messengers are called "pastors".  But through those men He calls, He still speaks His Word, and makes wonderful promises to us.  He promises forgiveness.  He promises resurrection from our graves.  He promises us everlasting life in glory with Him.

Just like back then, there are troubles and tests and pains and such that the people of God will face.  God told us about them even as He did the descendants of Abraham.  Jesus predicted the animosity of the world and the hatred of unbelievers.  He predicted that the devil would attempt to sow discord among the people of God.  And He promised to keep us, to bless us and to sustain us.  When these troubles arise, we really need to do nothing more than check what God warned us would happen, and trust God to do for us what he has promised to do.

Just as on the Exodus, God is dealing with us personally.  He is present in His Word, and His body and blood, given and shed for us.  It is like Manna of old, a miraculous food, given by God, and only by God.  Unlike Manna, it doesn't just appear with the morning dew – but it does things that Manna could not; cleanses us from our sins, unites us into the one body as we all partake of the one bread.  It prepares us, body and soul, for death and resurrection.  It comforts us and strengthens us and prepares us to worship our Lord with holy lives lived out in the world to be seen by evil and wicked men!

Israel had trouble trusting God when confronted by the harsh and tangible realities of life – they couldn't see how God could do what He had promised He would do.  We often struggle with the same thing.  Life is real and urgent and oh-so-right there in front of us demanding something and trying to tell us that there is no God and there is no help and there is no salvation awaiting.  It can be quite challenging to take God at His Word and trust Him, that He has it all accounted for.

We are called to believe.  We are called by God to trust Him.  We are called by God to take Him at His Word, and follow Him where He leads, whether it is where we think we should go or not.  He calls us to place His order and His fellowship and His ways above and before the ways and ideas of our culture.  We are called by God to be Christians – aliens in a hostile environment – rather than Americans.

It is a challenge.  Not everyone is willing to do it.  People have made the church over into the American image – decision theology making them free and powerful in their own minds, rather than slaves, bought and paid for.  They have made their religion a personal thing between God and them, while God has made it a family affair, between us and the Church and God, all at work together.  Sometimes it is mighty easy and inviting to listen to culture and try to go by how it seems rather than how God says we should, or how God says that He will.  But every time we do, we end up joining the children of Israel in quarreling with Moses.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

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