The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
March 12, 2023
Sometimes our life journey feels like a long trek through a desert whose dryness threatens us with death by dehydration. Our desperation may prompt us to ask the same question that the Israelites, just freed from slavery but confused by their slow progress to the promised land, asked: “Is the Lord among us or not?”
In their confusion and doubts, the Israelites had trouble distinguishing between Moses and God. Thus, since Moses was at hand while God was beyond reach, since they’d only seen Moses execute miracles, and since they may have been influenced by the Egyptians who viewed leaders as human deities, it was Moses with whom the Israelites “quarreled” and “tested”, accusing him of bringing them into the desert just to kill them. Of course, like many people when they’re upset, they were perhaps saying a lot of mean things which they didn’t actually mean.
At any rate, Moses to his credit did not at first take any of this personally. He instead tried to refocus folks on God, the One they ultimately had a quarrel with and were testing. So Moses posed to them two questions: 1) Why do you quarrel with me – as if I were your hope for deliverance? and 2) Why do you test the Lord – as if God had not already shown His faithfulness and power at Passover and the parting of the Red Sea?
Moses made his points but failed to persuade anyone. The people’s anger continued to roil into a fierce boil until Moses had reason to fear for his life. So God instructed Moses to take some elders with him to go on ahead of the people until Moses found God “standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb”. Then Moses was to take the same rod which God had given him to strike the Nile River so as to turn its water into blood, and with that very same rod strike the rock on which God stood so as to turn it into a spring of life-giving water.
That miracle of hydration was meant to bring home three truths the people had forgotten to bear in mind: 1) that God can make any common thing (even a walking stick) into an instrument for achieving His purposes, and thus they should look more to God than to any instrument of His (even if it be a man like Moses); 2) that God can use any instrument of His any way He likes, and thus they should not second-guess God (even if He tells Moses to lead them into a dangerous desert); and 3) that God is ever gracious and generous in taking care of His people and thus they should trust Him to be ever faithful (even if they can’t be trusted to be faithful to Him).
God wanted the location of this miraculous hydration to be called Massah (Hebrew for “test”) and Meribah (Hebrew for “quarrel”) so that His people would recall how God gives them better than they deserve. For, though they had unfairly put the Lord to the massah (i.e., the test), He still showed them unearned kindness; and though they had meribah-ed Him (i.e., quarreled with Him) about holding up His end of the bargain, He still proved there His steadfast love for them.
This miracle of hydration came to be commemorated in one of the five chief holy days of the Jewish year: the Feast of Tabernacles. In Jesus’ day, it culminated in a worship extravaganza that began at the foot of Mt. Zion and ended up at its top where the temple stood. It started with the people gathering around the valley waters of Gihon and Siloam and watching the priest dip a golden pitcher into them. The priest then carried the pitcher up the hill, followed by a frenzied procession of folks singing and waving palm fronds and fruit branches. After the priest had marched around the Temple seven times with the pitcher, he finally poured out the water.
Once, when Jesus attended this ceremony, He “cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” In recording this event in his Gospel, John noted that Jesus was talking about the Holy Spirit.
So, today, is the Lord among us or not? The Bible tells us that through the Spirit of Jesus, God blesses us with a holy hydration that saves us and brings us fully alive. In the Spirit, the Lord is not only among us but within us. He is there to be our life force for the work of witness, justice and compassion. He is there to fill our hearts with joy, peace, power and love. And all we need to do is come to Jesus and drink in the grace of Him!
So, even when we find ourselves in desolate places with throats parched with desperate thirst, we may believe that we walk in God’s company and that He will come through for us right on time with abundant mercy and generosity. We may not have a physical miracle like the H20 pouring forth from a rock, and we may not have a change in our situation; but we will always have Him with us – and hence strengthening refreshment to keep moving forward toward the promised land for us and everyone else.
Though we repeatedly test the Lord, He repeatedly gives us the grace of His presence, and that’s enough to put any quarrel with the Lord to rest.