For those who want a change from the Gospel
Lent 3 – Exodus 17:1-7
There are many ways in which one might approach this wonderful story from the Wilderness cycle. The people have escaped from Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, and are now in the desert. They have known God’s miraculous provision of manna for them to eat, but now there is an even more pressing problem: they have nothing to drink. On a forced march, through the desert, in a temperature of nearly 50o, it has been estimated that with no water they would be unlikely to last more than seven hours. So the problem is urgent, to say the least. We often read this story as another one of the many ‘grumbling’ narratives to be found in Exodus and Numbers, but to be honest if I were them I might find myself grumbling, at the very least.
I want us to read the story from a different point of view. Moses the leader is one of my favourite OT characters, and over the years I have drawn much inspiration from him. As a leader myself, sometimes of grumbling people, I can’t help but feel for him. Quite apart from his own thirst, he felt keenly the responsibility for the people, as other grumbling stories clearly demonstrate. So what is he to do? Or, for our purposes, what is he to use to do it?
The first thing to note, though, is that there is a common thread which runs throughout the grumbling narratives. It goes like this: the people complain, Moses doesn’t know what to do, so he takes it all to God, then God works a miracle. We see that cycle several times during this period of Israel’s history. That challenges me. When faced with an intractable problem, is my first, immediate and instinctive reaction to pray? More often I confess that I’m likely to try to solve the problem myself, and then to drown in self-pity and single malt. I can’t help but wonder how many times I could have seen a miracle if only I had asked for one.
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer.
But I want to focus not on the people of this story, but the physical objects involved: a stick and a rock. Both of these can tell us deep truths about ourselves and God. When Moses talks to God, he fears that he is about to be stoned. The people have no water: in fact the have very little of anything in the desert. But they do have rocks, plenty of them, and Moses fears that they might begin to put them to use against him. But then he uses a rock to give the people drink.
God tells him to take his staff, and the storyteller is very keen that we know that this is the same staff with which Moses worked miracles in the past. He mentions the turning of the Nile into blood (v.5), the first of the plagues, but of course the same staff was used again and again, and used finally to open the Red Sea.
I think there are two key messages here. The first is that in times of trouble we need to refocus on what God has done in the past in order to build faith for the future. What has ‘God’s staff’ done for you in the past? How have you seen him solving problems, getting you out of scrapes, answering prayers, in the past? How does that encourage confidence in God for what you are going through now, and for what lies ahead?
The rock, though, gives us an even deeper message. The very things which Moses feared would bring him down turned out to be his salvation (and that of the people). We used to sing a worship song years ago which contained the line ‘He turns our weaknesses into his opportunities’. What is there in our vulnerability and fear which God might use ‘so that the glory goes to him’? Sometimes the very things we dread, if confronted, become our salvation. Moses, fearing for his life, nevertheless goes out in front of the people (v.5) and makes himself vulnerable to the expected stoning. This act of courage and obedience allows God to work through another rock and bring salvation to the people.