Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 12, 2023
Exodus 17:1-7 Commentary
It’s the kind of thing that could become a family inside joke. Perhaps years before, the family had taken a Spring Break trip somewhere. Except that on this particular trip the weather was disastrously bad the whole week. No outdoor activities were possible. Instead the family got stuck inside a hotel room where arguments over what to watch on TV erupted often and the room seemed to get smaller by the day. Then half the family came down with miserable colds and when the vacation was finally over, the car blew out a tire on the highway on the way home. In the pouring rain.
And so in future years when the family started to plan another trip, sooner or later someone would point to that vacation’s location on the map and would say, “Hey, who wants to try another trip to Misery Corners!?” That wasn’t the real name of the city where the failed vacay took place, of course, but that was this family’s name for it forever after.
In the Old Testament we read with semi-regularity that certain places were given a name. Most of the time it was a nice name. Jacob has a dream and named the place “Bethel” or “God’s House.” Or a monument of stacked rocks would commemorate a place where God helped his people and they called it “Ebenezer,” the “Stone of Help.” God comes through in the nick of time to prevent the sacrifice of Isaac on Mt. Moriah and so Abraham names it “Yahweh Yirah” or “The Lord Provides.” These are nice names that evoke happy memories that celebrate God’s goodness.
And then we get Exodus 17 and we’re right back to some equivalent of Misery Corners. God does perform a powerful miracle in this story: water from a rock! Pretty neat trick! But when it comes time to name the place Moses does not opt for “Ebenmayim” or “Rock Water” (I made that up so don’t try to look it up in a Hebrew dictionary!). No, with what we can only imagine was a bit of a sneer on his lips Moses named the place “Massah and Meribah” or “Quarreling and Testing.”
Yup, Misery Corners for sure. Moses does not commemorate the miracle but the rotten attitude of the people that was prologue to the miracle. For the second time in as many chapters the Israelites kvetch and moan and complain to Moses for this miserable wilderness to which he had led them. Almost as though they had completely forgotten the gift of manna and quail that had come in Exodus 16, now they need something to wash that all down with and since water in deserts is usually on the scarce side, they begin to panic and then to complain to Moses for his utter failure as a leader.
None of this looked remotely like the “Promised Land” travel brochure Moses and Aaron had shown the people back in Egypt. So the grumbling and the moaning and the quarreling began. It seemed like there was not a single tent in the whole wide camp that Moses could walk past without hearing his name being taken in vain by somebody.
As he had done in the previous chapter, Moses basically tells them their argument was not with him but with God. Why were they pestering Moses with this? Of course, the reason is obvious enough: because Moses was there and God was not, at least not physically. God did not keep office hours. Moses did. I suppose it’s not completely clear what, if any, theology of prayer the Israelites even possessed at this time. So since Moses was clearly God’s mouthpiece and earpiece, the complaints went to him.
Also for the second chapter in a row, however, God is far calmer than Moses. No words of rebuke are spoken here or in Exodus 16. Instead there are crisp instructions given to Moses to then convey to the people in order to fill them in on how their need (their, apparently in God’s eyes, justifiable need) was going to get met. In this case just hit the rock with that special staff Moses had and, voila, water would gush forth. And it did.
Of course the last part of Exodus 17:7 should have caught your eye when you read this text. Because suddenly words were put onto the lips of the people that we had not been told they actually said. “Is the LORD among us or not?” It does not appear anyone actually pronounced those words. They just asked for water. They just wondered why Moses had led them to a place of death in order, apparently, to let them and their children and their livestock die of dehydration. Why go dragging God into this?
Because, perhaps unwittingly, they had already done so. The truth was they had every reason to know God was with them. They had already seen far more wondrous signs in the last six months than most people see in a whole lifetime. They had been given divine promises and assurances. Yet it seemed all of that evaporated the moment they confronted another need. Suddenly it was as though all bets were off whether God would care for them or not.
Probably all of us can sympathize if we think about it for a moment or two. We have all hit bottom, gotten to the end of the proverbial rope, suffered one setback after the next. And we wonder where God is. We cry out in anguish, maybe even anger. And whatever it is we might be asking for—and however much we might doubt whether or not we’ll get what we ask for—at the end of the day we, too, are wondering “Is the Lord among us or not?” Does God see me? Do I matter to God?
Hopefully on those occasions when God comes through for us, we can remember the blessing more than the doubting or complaining that came first. We’d rather name a place “Ebenezer” than “Quarreling and Testing” or “Misery Corners.” But life is a test sometimes. Our vision can grow cloudy at times. It happens. And in this Season of Lent our failures of faith and hope at such times may be among the things we now and then have to confess. When we do, God hears us, forgives us, provides for us (even if not always right away or exactly how we wished).
Perhaps looking back we can say, “That was a tough season back then” but then perhaps we might be able in memory to give that time and that season and that place a better sort of name than the one Moses gave in Exodus 17!
[Note: We have a special page dedicated to further sermon ideas and resources for the 2023 Year A Season of Lent and on into Easter. Visit this page here.]
Nobody likes to receive another person’s complaints and for most of us, complaining is not a pleasant activity. Some of us would rather put up with certain things than gather up the courage to complain. Other people whom we encounter, however, seem to have a hair trigger complaint mechanism. Some of us, for instance, could not imagine sending a plate of food back to the kitchen at a restaurant. In a classic episode of The Bob Newhart Show Bob receives a steak at a restaurant that is more than a little on the cold side. His wife says “Send it back” but Bob insists it’s fine. When the waiter asks how everything is, Bob says “Oh, just fine” even though moments later he can be seen holding his plate over the candle on the table!
Others have no hesitation and can be rather vocal about it, often leading to discomfort for that person’s dining companions. Recently a story about a certain late night comedian and his wife went viral when an egg white omelet was delivered to the table with a speck—and apparently a really small speck—of egg yolk in it. The vitriol involved in the subsequent complaint to the waiter and kitchen seemed to most people way out of proportion to the culinary goof at hand.
Maybe our discomfiture with complaints is why we joke about it. “The food at this restaurant is terrible” a woman says to her friend over lunch. “Yes it is” her friend replies, “and such small portions too!”
In the Bible Lament, especially in the Psalms, is a form of complaint. And when the lament is clearly justified and understandable, God receives it without judgment. But not every single thing we might think to lament is justified. Sometimes a complaint merely conveys a lack of faith or some other underlying bad attitude or sense of entitlement. Although in Exodus 16 & 17 God does not chide the people for their complaints, we know that in coming times, that will most decidedly not always be the case.
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