Those with good memories will remember that last time I was here we looked at Moses and the Burning Bush. Today we’re back with Moses. He’s done with the bush and pharaoh has let the people go. We’re now in the desert – and the Israelites are complaining, again. Poor old Moses is getting the brunt of it. The people are asking him: “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Out of the frying pan
They don’t appear to particularly know Moses, who, after all, had appeared out of nowhere after being gone 40 years. And they don’t appear to particularly trust him either. There can’t have been many Israelites left who would have even remembered him; Israelites who would have survived 40 years hard labour in Egypt. And I imagine that those who did considered him neither fully Israelite nor fully Egyptian. There was a question of trust.
And here they are, miles from anywhere. In the searing heat of the desert. There are no motorway services. No thought seemingly given for how they would survive the journey. Was this stranger Moses trying to kill them through hunger and thirst? Whilst they had been in slavery in Egypt there was a certain security about it. Certain things you could rely on. You know small things, like where the next meal was coming from and having enough to drink…
So, rather than thanking God for delivering them they were blaming Moses for getting them out of the Egyptian frying pan and into the desert fire.
In the previous chapter of Exodus, they quite understandably complain about lack of food. God duly sorts it for them by promising quail and manna. He gave them each day their daily bread. There would always be enough. But they were to trust God and not hoard it.
And here, in this chapter, they’ve come to a place with no water. You won’t survive long in a desert without water. And, quite reasonably, they let Moses know in no-uncertain terms that they needed water, and they needed it now.
Moses seems to get into a bit of a flap. Remember he didn’t want this job in the first place. I came across a great quote recently from Jean de la Fontaine: “People often meet their destiny on the road they took to avoid it”. Moses met his on a path beyond the wilderness. He argued hard and long with God when they met at the burning bush that he wasn’t up to it. Now it seemed that getting the children of Israel out of Egypt was the easy bit. He had to think about their ongoing survival, how he was going to manage their day-to-day existence.
In the next chapter, Jethro (his father-in-law) turns up and like a good management consultant he diagnoses a leadership problem. Moses is over-stretching himself and Jethro advises bringing in some layers of management so that Moses can concentrate on strategy and play to his strengths.
But for now, Moses alone has to deal with this urgent problem and once again he sensibly goes to God for advice. And it’s instructive to see God’s solution.
A well-aimed rock
Moses has to put himself at the mercy of the people. Moses is afraid that they’re going to stone him – and God tells him to pass before those very same people. He’d be a sitting duck for anyone with a strong arm and a well-aimed rock. But sometimes leaders just have to put themselves in a place of vulnerability.
He’s to take some of the Elders with him. People of standing that would be recognised. Individuals with more shared history with the Israelites than Moses had with them. And they are there as witnesses, to testify of what God will do. It wasn’t just down to one man, Moses, to tell of God’s power – then, as now, others would have a role to play too.
He’s also to take his shepherd’s staff with him. The same one that he held over the Red Sea and the waters parted. The same one that he struck the Nile with and it turned to blood. And the same one that he had with him when he first encountered God at the burning bush. It was a symbol of God’s power – to both the Israelites and to Moses. But for Moses it was also a very personal reminder of his calling and the life that he had before. Symbols can be important.
Back to the beginning
He’s to go to the rock at Horeb – and Horeb is where he encountered God at the burning bush. He’s to go back to where it all started, to that fireside chat. Only this time there would be others with him.
And God would be before him on the rock. In the wilderness, far from any sign of water. One rock amongst many. Amidst the desolation, in the most unpromising of places, God would be there before him.
Moses was to hit the rock with his shepherd’s staff and water would flow from it. Down from Horeb as a stream to Rephidim where the people would drink.
Cue some of our greatest hymns: See the streams of living water, springing from celestial love or Open now the crystal fountain, where the healing stream doth flow…
And maybe it can be explained away as a limestone rock with water in it, water that was released by the blow. Or maybe it was God saying that he could provide in the most unlikely of environments. Maybe it was both.
[In Jewish legend the rock is called the Well of Miriam. It’s a mystical well that ever-after travelled with the Israelites in the wilderness, giving water when needed. The legend has it that each of those tribal elders drew a line in the sand from the well towards their tribe, the water flowing to each and providing water for everyone.]
Testing and Quarrelling
Moses named the place where he got grief from the Israelites: ‘Massah’ and ‘Meribah’ meaning ‘The Place of Testing and Quarrelling’. Moses didn’t beat around the bush, so to speak… He told it exactly like it was. I wonder what you would call this church if you could give it a descriptive name? Maybe you would call this a Place of Testing and Quarelling! Or Trial and Tribulation? Or is it a Place of Fellowship? A Place of Welcome? Perhaps see me later!
And we’re told that Moses called it that because the Israelites said: “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Is the Lord among us?
Maybe we should ask ourselves the same question: “Is the Lord among us or not?” We know that the answer should be yes but sometimes it just doesn’t feel like it. Like the Israelites, here is we’re where we’ve been led to be – but we’re hungry and we’re thirsty. And at first sight it can look forbidding out there, all rocks and wilderness.
I wonder though, if we’re honest, whether we occasionally prefer being pilgrims in a barren land; whether we don’t really want to land safe on Canaan’s side? We’d rather tough it out than admit we need God’s help or God’s gifts. Rather continue on our way, in the way that we think God wants us to go, but regardless of whether God is actually with us or not.
Perhaps, like the Children of Israel, God just wants us to be more vocal in our needs. To voice it out loud that we’re hungry and thirsty. Particularly now, it may look like a wilderness out there – but be assured that God is there before us in the middle of it all, prepared to give each and every one of us food and drink. But just waiting to be asked. Amen
Let’s close with prayer:
God of yes,
You continually show yourself faithful.
In the face of scarcity, in the barrenness of our wilderness places,
You know our needs, and you meet them..
All along our path, open our minds and hearts to trust you fully.
“Is the Lord among us or not” was delivered by Ian Banks at Christ Church Walmersley and St John with St Mark Bury, on Sunday 27th September 2020. It was also on St Zoom’s. It’s based on Exodus 17:1-7.
- For the last part see ‘With or Without You’, Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, Fortress Press, 2003, p46.
- The prayer is from Brueggemann’s ‘A way other than our own’, Sixth Saturday of Lent, WJK, 2017.