Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 1, 2023
Exodus 17:1-7 Commentary
Comments, Observations and Questions:
Don’t Forget to Remember
There is a recent song, written by Ellie Holcomb, entitled: “Don’t Forget to Remember.” The chorus goes like this: “Don’t forget to remember you’re never alone. No matter if you are up high or down low. And as sure as the sun keeps rising above. Don’t forget to remember that you’re dearly loved.”
If we could sum up the problem God’s people faced in the wilderness, it wasn’t starvation or thirst but, rather, that they kept forgetting to remember. Just like in last Sunday’s text, they come up against an obstacle and, immediately, they quarreled with Moses, misremembered a sentimental version of their own slavery, and accused God and God’s servant, Moses, of ill-intent. After waking up, collecting their daily provision and with manna-crumbs still in their beards, they set out to tell Moses that neither God nor God’s servant can be trusted to provide for them and that they are going to die of thirst, no thanks to God. Moses’ response is to cry out to God, “What am I going to do with these people?”
And the reason Moses says this is because he is deeply, frustratingly, exhaustingly familiar with God’s people. After only a brief fraction of the time they will spend wandering this wilderness together, Moses is already familiar with their remarkable capacity for forgetfulness. And Moses knows his people well enough to know that if they are forgetful of God in the difficult days when, you might argue, they need God most. They are definitely going to forget God when everything is going well and they are settled in the Promised Land and Moses is not wrong about his people. When things go well in the land, they congratulate one another on their stunning military accomplishments. The whole cycle of the Judges is a Groundhog’s Day-esque tale of God’s people forgetting to remember. And then they look around, forgetting to remember that God is their Judge, their Protector, their Sovereign, they say: wouldn’t it be great to have a king? And the prophets come. Over and over. What is their message in a nutshell? Don’t forget to remember!! But the people do and the exile results.
Thousands of years later, I expect that we can find the story of our own life in this forgetfulness too. In the good times and in the difficult days, personally and corporately. Perhaps your church is experiencing conflict. It takes work to remember — and then to remind God’s people — that God cares more for the church than we ever could. After all it was God’s idea to begin with, and God has guided and kept the church through waters at least as difficult as those we are asked to navigate in this moment. Ellie Holcomb’s song ends with this refrain: “Don’t forget to remember: God won’t forget you.” The Israelites — not to mention their beleaguered early leader — could have used those words.
Your Labor is Not in Vain
Speaking of Moses, October 1 begins “Pastor Appreciation Month”. Some churches celebrate and some don’t but, here in this tiny corner of the pastor resourcing web, I want to say that I see you. And, this week, I see you particularly through the lens of Moses in this story.
I hope, though I have reason to doubt, that pastoral ministry is not a 40 year sojourn in the wilderness. I doubt, though I would like to hope that your future in ministry will be flowing with milk and honey. When people complain about petty matters of preference in the church, we might well echo Moses, “Why do you quarrel with me?” And, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me!” Or, heartbreakingly, when we stand vigil with those who rage against injustice, illness, violence and death, we may feel it is our job to answer for God. Or, perhaps, to add our voices to their lament, speaking to God on their behalf. That feeling of standing between God and God’s people is both privilege and burden. And in this Sunday’s text, God doesn’t just see God’s people and their need. God responds directly to the pinch Moses feels as he tries to lead God’s people in God’s way.
In Numbers 20, when God’s people again threaten to die of thirst, their fear is palpable and their anxiety is contagious. Moses and Aaron again seek God’s answer on behalf of the people. God tells them, “Go to this rock. Tell it to produce water and it will.” But, instead, Moses rebukes the people “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses goes on to do what God commanded him to do last time — to strike the rock — even though this time God clearly commanded Moses to speak to the rock. It is a mystery belonging to the mind of God why, in this similar situation, God commands two different actions. But whether in frustration with God’s people or arrogance in his own leadership (like, “yeah, yeah, I know what to do.”) Moses capitulates to the fear and anxiety of God’s people rather than relying on God’s trustworthiness. Because of this failure on Moses’ part, he is restricted from entering the Promised Land.
Before the Throne of God Above
The theological center of this text, does not lie with God’s forgetful people, or with their exhausted and frustrated leader. The theological center of this text is the need it creates inside each one of us for someone who can represent our needs to God and, unlike Moses, who never tires of doing so. In Exodus, God uses an imperfect mediator in Moses, as well as his brother Aaron and all the priests that come from Aaron’s lineage. But in the New Testament book of Hebrews, the preacher points us to Jesus as one who “was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house.” But Jesus is something more than Moses, a servant in God’s house because “Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house.” (Heb. 3:2-6)
Jesus, too, felt the pinch of trying to lead God’s people in God’s way. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he, like Moses, cried out to God. He felt the vulnerability of human weakness, fear and anxiety. He did not want to do what God was calling him to do. The personal cost — of painful torture, the weight of sin and death — was too high. And yet, unlike Moses, Jesus Christ found the courage to obey, opening the way to the Promised Land for all who trust Him as their guide. So this text turns us toward gratitude and celebration for our “Great High Priest” who sympathizes with our weakness as one who was tempted as we are but without sin. (Heb. 4:16)
Perhaps there is a way to broaden this application to all those in “middle management” in your congregation: teachers, supervisors, nurses, customer service representatives, civil servants, retail and construction workers. You could invite one of these people to give a testimony about the difficulty and satisfaction of their work in the middle.
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