Exodus 17 v 1-7
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I 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.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
I love the stories of Moses and the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. It’s definitely a case of 2 steps forward, 3 steps back.
Every time they seem to be getting somewhere, something else goes wrong, The people forget all about the times that God, through Moses their leader has rescued them, seen them through. They lose faith and so end up going backwards again.
Here, we find them complaining to Moses that they have no water.
It feels so bad to them that they long to be back in Egypt.
Back in Egypt where, although they were slaves, they had water to drink.
Back in Egypt where, although they were abominably treated, at least they were never short of water.
Moses rescued them from slavery in Egypt.
Moses led them across the Red Sea,
But the people seem to have very short memories.
Because now, that there’s no water, they just want to be back in Egypt, back in the oppression that they knew there.
Why did you bring us out here to die, they ask Moses?
And then we get a sense of Moses’ frustration as he turns his eyes heavenward and asks God – “What am I to do with these people?”
Alls well that ends well – until the next time.
God provides water from a rock and the people are satisfied.
That story of Moses the leader and the people grumbling against him is a story we see repeated in so many guises in Scripture.
No matter how much God is revealed, memories are always short.
And it seems that a leader is only as good as the last miracle.
It’s a story that we see repeated time again today –
In business, in education, in politics.
Leaders are constantly being expected to improve on their previous performance – no matter how wonderful that performance – and folk are not satisfied but are always upping the stakes.
And it’s a picture we see even in the church.
Still eyes are raised heavenward as leaders ask: God, what am I to do with these people?
It’s called scapegoating.
As long as folk have someone to blame for all that is wrong, they are absolved of responsibility.
And if we can place all that seems wrong on the shoulders of leaders, then we ourselves don’t have to do anything to change.
It’s much easier just to stay in the wilderness and grumble than step up to the mark and try to make things different.
Stepping up might mean putting ourselves in the firing line.
It’s very tiring sitting in groups listening to folk complain that the church, as an institution has got it all wrong when there is no real will to work to make things different.
Grumbling may well do wonders for stress levels.
Grumbling helps to get things off our chest.
But, unless the grumbling is accompanied by action that ensures change, it’s a waste of everyone’s time.
Grumbling really wears you down, doesn’t it?
Think of the folk you know who always have something to grumble about.
Even when things are good.
You know, if it’s a lovely spring day – like the days we’ve had this past week – the sun shows up the dirty windows.
(They do in my house anyway)
Or, if there’s a bit of warmth in the air, the grumblers will bemoan the fact that it’s too early to start shedding clothes, or start putting in new plants – because there’s bound to be another cold snap to spoil everything.
We all know people like that – perhaps we even recognize ourselves – looking for something to grumble about.
So what did the children of Israel have to grumble about?
Well, quite a lot it seems.
They’d been rescued from slavery.
Seems a good thing.
But they missed that slavery that had become a way of life for them.
Moses dragged them out of Egypt and took them on a journey to a land that God had promised.
The journey shouldn’t have taken the 40 years that it did.
But, perhaps the reason that it took so long is that God wanted to teach the people a thing or two before they entered that promised land.
One of my favourite T shirts – one that I wore last month when I met up with my American friends says:
You can take the girl out of Scotland but you can’t take Scotland out of the girl.
IT seems that, though God had enabled Moses to take the Israelites out of Egypt, it would take a lot longer to take Egypt out of the people.
They kept harking back to their old ways.
They wanted to hold on to the ways – the foreign ways they had adopted in Egypt.
Because those were the ways they knew.
The customs that had begun to feel safe.
And so, in spite of everything. in spite of the slavery and oppression they had endured in Egypt, when they left Egypt, they yearned for it.
Human nature is just perverse at times.
It seems we’re never happy unless we have something to grumble about.
We, who are God’s people today are no different from the Israeiites.
Called by God into discipleship, instead of going forward, led by God, we keep looking back.
Instead of looking forward to the wonderful opportunities that God has in store for us, we complain that nothing ever stays the same.
Instead of opening ourselves up to new experiences and new horizons that God sets before us, we close ourselves down, we want to play safe.
The plight - or blight of the Israelites is our blight too.
We cannot let go of the past and look forward to the future that God has planned for us.
But – there is hope.
There is hope for us.
Because God persevered with the Israelites.
God stuck with them.
Though often it seemed as though they just didn’t get it.
Though they often rebelled against the leaders that God placed before them.
They were God’s chosen people.
These people who argued.
These people who constantly complained.
These people who seemed to be very slow learners.
Were the people that God chose.
Surely, then there is hope for us.
Let me share with you two reflections of the fickleness of folk:
lovely clean water
dripping down our beards
cooling off our dusty, weary feet
purifying us before we worship.
The very stuff of life.
But now it’s just the stuff of dreams
in this place that reeks of death.
Day after day
we long for what we knew
even though it wasn’t perfect
at least it was life
not this slow slide into death
Reduced to remembering what was
we cannot see what will be
our senses are dulled
by want and longing.
We followed the leader
But we backed the wrong camel
and now we’re paying the price.
Better the devil you know
than a promised land you’ve only heard about.
I knew it
I knew Moses (and God) wouldn’t let us down
They didn’t drag us all the way here
to let us collapse in a heap in the wilderness
I knew that, together, they’d have something up their sleeve
But water – from a rock?
I didn’t see that one coming
I suppose that’s why they left it
to the last gasp
I suppose it would have been
just another miracle
if we hadn’t been so desperate
but now we have a special place
that will always feature in the lives
of our people
the place where God produced water
from a rock
Just in the nick of time.
People are fickle – even – and maybe especially – in the church.
and leaders are easy targets.
If things are not going as we’d like – or as we’d expect, we blame the leader.
But what if, instead of grumbling at our leaders, we spent some time working out how to change things, how to get involved and make things different.
Rather than wait on someone else fixing things, what if We were to lend a hand and make a difference.
That’s the hard part.
It’s so much easier to complain about others than to pitch in ourselves.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time recently working with a number of different congregations, helping them to formulate a vision for the future.
It has been the trend over the years, for churches to undertake envisioning, spending considerable time and energy in the exercise.
But then, once plans are formulated, folk often take a back seat and leave things to just a few people – and then grumble when plans do not come to fruition.
What I’ve been encouraging folk to do is not just come up with plans for the future but also to work out how those plans come to be.
As a friend put it recently: imagine the future, not as a sketch or even a plan but as a video – moving along to completion.
In the story we read from Exodus today, God produced water from a rock – flowing water – that made all the difference.
As God’s people today, where are we?
Are we still roaming in the wilderness, thirsty and grumbling at our leaders on whom we blame our predicament?
Or are we seeing a video rolling – a movie in which we can play a part?
God calls us out of Egypt, out of our standing on the sidelines, out of our propensity to grumble – out of our thirst and offers us flowing water.
May we be prepared to act and change and move forward beyond all that is comfortable and familiar.
May we drink of that water of life and be drenched in life giving spirit.
For the glory of God.