Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 19, 2017
Exodus 17:1-7 Commentary
At first glance, Exodus 17 may seem like just another story of Israelite bellyaching about leaving Egypt. It appears to reveal nothing new about Israel or her journey toward the land of promise’s freedom.
As you might expect of people traveling through a wilderness that has no fast food restaurants or rest areas, our text’s Israelites are thirsty. At Marah’s earlier campsite, they’d at least found water, though God had to miraculously transform it to make it potable. Here, however, at a mysterious place called Rephidim, Israel doesn’t find any water. And so, not surprisingly, she not once, but twice loudly blames Moses for her quandary.
Of course, Israel has already spent much time grumbling against Moses. Trapped between her thirst and Marah’s bitter water, she grumbled against him, asking him what she could drink. In the Desert of Sin all of Israel groused to Moses and Aaron because everyone was hungry.
This time, however, Moses appears to recognize that the Israelites’ whines have become potentially deadly. So he pleads for God’s advice. In almost the same breath, however, Moses also tries to put the angry Israelites’ thirst into some kind of perspective. “Why do you quarrel with me?” he asks them in verse 2. “Why do you put the Lord to the test?”
According to Exodus 15:25, God tested Israel at Marah. The Lord promised that if she obediently listened to the Lord’s voice, the Lord would protect her from the diseases with which the Lord devastated Egypt. Now, however, Israel does put the Lord to the test. At Massah and Meribah the Israelites again don’t listen to God’s voice. What’s more, the Israelites don’t listen to Moses’ voice of reason either. They want to blame the Lord and Moses for dragging them into the wilderness to kill them, their children and their livestock.
By persistently complaining to Moses and the Lord, Israel does not pay attention to God’s commands and keep the Lord’s decrees. By failing this test, Israel again shows that she deserves to have God either let her die of thirst or strike her with the diseases with which he struck Egypt.
God, however, again proves to be patiently gracious. God doesn’t, after all, just refrain from punishing Israel. The Lord gives her enhanced life and, on top of that, spares Moses’ endangered life. The Lord tells Moses to walk with some elders ahead of the rest of the people, taking along his staff.
Of course, this is no ordinary “staff.” It’s the staff about which God had asked Moses, “what’s that in your hand?” when Moses initially resisted God’s call to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses’ staff is also the one God called him to throw to the ground where God turned it into a snake that Moses fled. It’s the staff/serpent God told Moses to pick up again and which, when he did, became a staff again. Moses’ staff is also, however, the one God used to turn the Nile River to blood, killing all of its fish and turning it into a stinking stream of death.
At Massah and Meribah, however, Moses’ staff is an instrument not of death, but of life. God leads Moses to the rock of Horeb, of, more familiarly, Mount Sinai. And when Moses, in the presence of the witnessing elders, strikes that rock, the Lord sends life-giving water gushing out of it.
The name Moses gives this place is a striking reminder of Israelite sinfulness. He, after all, calls it “Massah and Meribah,” because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord there. Yet it’s also the place God graciously provides water for God’s contentious people who doubt God’s presence with them.
In discussing this passage, the biblical scholar Terrence Fretheim points to just one little, perhaps barely noticeable, word in verse 6 of our text: the word “Horeb.” That rock on which the Lord stands and from which live-giving water flows refers to the area at the foot of Mount Sinai. Horeb is also the place where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush. On top of that, it’s also the place to which God also promised Moses he’d return, with the liberated Israelites in tow.
However, Horeb, or Mount Sinai, as we more commonly know it, is also the place from which God will eventually give God’s law. So it’s not just the place from which God repeatedly reveals himself to his people. Horeb is also the place where the amnesic Israelites want to know if the Lord is among them.
So to show them the Lord is among them, even in the deadly wilderness, God again gives them life-giving water at Horeb. In the not too distant future, however, God will again show Israel at Horeb that God’s with her by giving her God’s law. So it’s not just the water that gushes out of Horeb that gives the Israelites life. The law that will “flow from” Horeb will also be, in one sense, a source of life for them.
Yet most North Americans, at least, would say that you can’t get any kind of life by obeying God’s law. Have you, after all, heard anyone recently pray, “O Lord, if you really love me, show me by sending me some more rules to follow”? No, many of us pray, in one form or another, “O Lord, if you really love me, send me a nice family, loyal friends and a good job. And, if you really love me, while you’re at it, send me a fine house, some enjoyable vacations and a hefty retirement income.”
When you and I think of signs of God’s love, of sources of life, we often think of material blessings. We seldom see God’s law as something that really helps us to live. While rules may keep us in line, we assume the true blessings from God are salvation, as well as good things and people. Eventually Israel, at her best, comes to see God’s law as a great gift that shows her how to live in ways that not only honor God, but also bless her.
Of course, sometimes we base our laws on the way people agree things should be. For example, the law that is the speed limit on many highways is 55 or 60 miles per hour. Laws also say that people under the age of 21 may not buy alcohol.
Sometimes, however, the law describes not the way things should be, but the way they are. When physicists talk about the First Law of Thermodynamics, for instance, they’re not talking about the way they’d like things to work, but the way they do work. People don’t get to decide whether or not to approve such a law. If you walk off the edge of a cliff, the law of gravity dictates that you’ll fall, whether you like it or not.
God’s law is something like the law of gravity. It doesn’t describe the way God wants life to work, but the way God knows it works. So God doesn’t give God’s law because God wants to make us miserable or boring. The Lord gives us the Lord’s law because the Lord knows that following that law is best for us, it gives us life.
So, for instance, our culture no longer reserves sexual intimacy for married people. It invites us to get all the sexual pleasure out of life we can, with whomever we can, as long as no one gets hurt.
God, however, calls you and me to be sexually intimate only with the person to whom we’re married. Yet God doesn’t call us to be sexually faithful because God wants to spoil our fun. No, God knows that sexual intimacy creates the kind of strong bond that’s healthy only in the context of marriage. Only faithfulness leads to the kind of life God wants us for us, that’s best for us.
Our culture also tries to convince us that all religions are equally good. It doesn’t matter whom or what we call our god, it insists, as long as we respect each other’s religions. God, however, calls us to worship God alone. Yet the Lord doesn’t call you and me to worship only God because the Lord wants us to be as intolerant as God is. No, God calls you and me to worship God alone because he is the only living God. Only the worship of that living God in Christ will allow us to flourish the way God creates us to flourish. True life, after all, comes not just from material blessings like the water that flowed from Rephidim’s rock, but also from a faithfully obedient relationship with the Lord.
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Maybe this tired analogy will help us to see God’s law as a gift of life. What if you were to buy an expensive new car without ever consulting its owner’s manual? You’d probably quickly “kill” that car. After all, even if you figured out how to insert the key in its ignition, you might turn the key so long you’d destroy the starter. Or you might make an “x” instead of an “h” out of its stick shift, reducing your transmission to smoking rubble.
Without consulting its owner’s manual, you might simply drive the car without adding any gasoline until you ran out of it along the side of the road. Or you might never add any oil, again reducing you car to a smoking heap of worthless metal.
You and I might prefer to operate a car in the way we choose. But we follow the instructions in a car’s owner’s manual because we understand that the people who put the car together know how best to operate it so that it “lives.”
In a similar way, we naturally prefer to live the way we choose. Yet you and I follow God’s law because God created us. So the Lord knows what’s the best way for you and me to live. God’s law reflects what’s best for us, what brings us, our neighbors and, in fact, the whole creation, true life.
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