Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sticks and Stones

Sticks and Stones
from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

I've heard it said that though it took the ten plagues to get the Israelites out of Egypt, it took the ten commandments to get Egypt out of the Israelites. Seems like God doesn't mind a little delay between when a promise is made and when the results are tangible. Living in that tension, that in-between, is really uncomfortable.

The law that the Israelites are about to receive will set them apart as God's covenant people, through whom God's promises will be enacted for all the world. The ten commandments are only a few short chapters away, promising to shape that identity. But we haven't established that covenant yet.

So far, we’ve made it out of Egypt.

But on this third Sunday in Lent, we’re still in the wilderness. For the Israelites, the promised land is barely creeping onto the horizon, a wispy image that is not yet strong enough to replace the memory of being slaves in Egypt.

And eighteen days after Ash Wednesday commissioned us on our Lenten journey, we have come to a place called Rephidim: an in-between place. Rephidim is a place in-between slavery and promise, in-between exile and home, in-between ashes and resurrection. We are still waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises.

But we’re a post-resurrection people, we know how this ends. We've seen our ancestor's promises kept. We know that the Israelites eventually make it to the promised land. We know that eventually the people of Judah return from their exile in Babylon. We know that eventually the women will find the empty tomb. We know that the early church grows and spreads.

But where are our promises? As memberships and giving continue to decline across mainline protestant churches, as pews are emptied at the end of each worship service and are a little less full the next week, as we are confronted with a culture where the church is less dominant than we remember it being, we are held to a wispy image of the promised land, not yet strong enough to replace the memory of when we were a powerhouse in American culture. It's a promise that church will speak the language of our faith through both action and testimony, and lay claim to our identity as the body of Christ.

The sticks and stones of our own decline stand in the way of the growth that God is already working in us. We have heard the promise of a new beginning for the church, where we will take our decline and launch into our communities with renewed vigor, living differently because we know we are a post-resurrection people and we know how to enact that narrative.

But for now, there is no water to drink, and our throats are parched. So we turn to Moses and say “Give us water to drink.” Because the people Israel cannot quite make out the land of milk and honey, just as we cannot quite make out our wispy image.

They are thirsty, and there was no water for the people to drink.

To Moses: “Give us water to drink.”

Moses decides this is a good time for a theology lesson, a mistake many young pastors are bound to make. “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you try the LORD?” Remember who your God is! says Moses. Remember the wonders you saw in Egypt, plagues that broke the power of the greatest empire on this earth, miracles carried out by the one whose name is I AM! Great Theology Moses!

But the people thirsted there for water. They were perhaps less thirsty for a lecture on providence. And they grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” Yes, we are no longer in Egypt, where the Nile would flood predictably, safely, and slowly, and would recede leaving good black soil where we could comfortably grow crops for ourselves and our children and our livestock. You say our God’s name is I am, but where is God when we are thirsty and there is no water?

Yes, we are no longer in Egypt, where we had to slave for our Egyptian rulers, but we had water there. You have told us of milk and honey but in this wilderness there are neither wells not springs, only dust and sticks…and stones.

So Moses, why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?

Moses is quite understandably thrown off by the people's grumbling, to his credit, instead of fighting with them, he turns to God. "What shall I do with these people?"

Because all of God's people, including Moses, need a lesson about who God is. So God is going to show them in this in-between place. Because, so far we've made it out of Egypt, and God is moving us toward the promise, but we're still living like we belong to the place we came from, instead of the place we're going. "The whole Israelite community continued by stages as the LORD would command." The LORD issues commands that, perhaps, a travel guide might caution us against.

Such as encamping at Rephidim, where there is no water for the people to drink. Moses has a better idea than most of where they're going, he knows that God is one who maintains promises. After all, so far we've made it out of Egypt.

But in-between liberation from Egypt and consecration at Sinai, Moses doesn't have any water to give them. "What shall I do with these people? Before long they will be stoning me!" God responds to Moses playfully, turning his anxiety on its head. You're afraid of these people? "Pass before the people; take with you some of the elders." You're worried they're going to throw rocks at you? Cool. Let's go find ourselves a rock.

Isn't that just like God, to take our greatest fears and anxieties and use them to reveal something about who God is. God takes Moses's fear of being stoned to death and re-forms it into a testimony that the LORD can bring nourishing water from a lifeless stone.

The people who were would have been stoning Moses before long were afraid that they had left their predictable, consistent, safe, lives in Egypt to follow a God who was not actually with them in this wilderness. They were afraid that their lives would dry up in a wasteland without experiencing the promise of God. So God takes them to a wilderness where nothing is consistent except God’s unfailing presence in their midst.

I wonder what we're afraid of?

Maybe it's that we don't have what it takes to proclaim the gospel in a culture that is more secular and less enmeshed with our brand of Christianity. Maybe it's that our identity will die with us, and the world will just ignore where we used to be. Maybe we're afraid that we bought into the wrong promise, and have wasted our time and energy pursuing something that will never be. The promise is still there, but it's hard to see through the fear.

Maybe we're afraid of an unexpected bill. For one living on a fixed income, something as simple as car repair can be a huge burden to have to carry. These burdens are made heavier by the fact that often, those on the tightest budgets need the most expensive medical care. The promise is still there, but it's hard to see through our anxiety.

Maybe we're afraid that we'll lose our source of income. When so much of our identity is tied up in our employment, it can be traumatic to lose one's job. With the decline of industry over the last decades, the possibility of a mill or factory closing is a real concern. Not even the jobs we were told were safe are wholly reliable, as tech industries find cheaper ways to provide their goods and services, often at their workers’ expense. The promise is still there, but it's hard to see through our worry.

Maybe we're afraid that we mortgaged our future with student loans, reaching for a promise of a good job and a comfortable life. After all, my generation was told, a college graduate earns, on average, a million dollars more than a high school graduate over the course of their careers. But instead of seeing budding opportunity, we see inexhaustible debt and a job market where McDonalds receives a hundred applications for every one opening. The promise is still there, but it's hard to see how we'll ever reach it.

Maybe we're afraid that we've wandered out into the wilderness and there's no water for the people to drink. Maybe we're afraid that we should have stayed where we were, a place where we lived comfortably, even if we were still bound to other masters. It certainly would have been less worrisome to pick our own path, finding the most convenient route, regardless of where it took us. But that's not who we are, that’s not how we continue by stages as the LORD would command, and that's not how God is present among us.

God doesn't just bounce us from oasis to oasis, places where it is easy to rest, acting solely as a guide. Sometimes God leads us out into the wilderness where we will be surrounded only by sticks and stones, with none of the comforts of the home we have left behind in order to follow our God. In those places, God provides out of nothing, because sometimes we need to be reminded that God is in the barren places too.

So God sends Moses, afraid of being stoned by a thirsty people, in search of a rock. God sends the church, attached to our memories of how-it-used-to-be, into a place where our old solutions cannot answer new questions. God sends each of us, with our anxiety over the future, into a world that is beyond our ability to control. God sends us into the barren places to show us how the water to which we are accustomed is nothing next to our thirst to be in relationship with God.

Because when the water from a rock is not sufficient for our thirst, God sends a lamb, who gives us living water.

We're an in-between people, and we spend a great deal of energy each Lent to remind ourselves of that. We are already redeemed, but are not yet living in the fullness of the kingdom of God. As we wander through our own wilderness we are going to find places where there is no water for the people to drink, and we are going to ask "Is the LORD present among us or not?"

Is the LORD present in the wilderness of unpaid bills, dead end jobs, and withered relationships? Is the LORD present in a declining church with aging memberships, reduced giving, and facilities falling into disrepair? Is the LORD present in the barren places where we feel disconnected from each other and from God?

In a place like Rephidim, surrounded only by the sticks and stones which will not quench your thirst, I think it's an understandable question. But the answer is always going to be yes.

Sometimes the assurance that God is present among us sighs with relief as Moses strikes the rock and water issues from it. Sometimes the assurance that God is present among us shouts for joy at the empty tomb, where God showed us that not even death on a cross could stop God from being present among us. Sometimes the assurance that God is present among us echoes in the once-full sanctuary that is rediscovering faithfulness as a smaller, missional congregation. The LORD is present among us.

So as we pass through the barren places where the promise is only a wispy image set against the sticks and stones of our reality, barren places where God’s sense of humor plays tricks on our fears and frees us to be faithful, we know that the LORD is present among us in the barren places too.


  1. I will accept your underlying assumptions that there is a God; that he is the God of Moses and of Jesus and those who follow him; that he is capable of acting powerfully in the world today as he was in the day of Moses. I assume that he did give the people water by an act of divine intervention and that his actions are not just a metaphor.

    Your question "Is the LORD present in the wilderness of unpaid bills, dead end jobs, and withered relationships? Is the LORD present in a declining church with aging memberships, reduced giving, and facilities falling into disrepair? Is the LORD present in the barren places where we feel disconnected from each other and from God?" must be answered with an unequivocal no based on the analogy you have made.

    God's action at Rephidim was to intervene in the world and provide water for the thirsty. In the present, God does not pay unpaid bills, create good jobs or revive withered relationships. He does not intervene. He may be present, but he is not acting. He leads us into the wilderness and fails to quench our thirst. If his presence today is just to make us feel as though we have a companion, then this is a different God than the one who took the people out of slavery, quenched their thirst in the dessert and led them to the promised land.

    1. Doug,

      Thanks so much for your comment! You've got some really good points here that come out of an obviously very close reading of the text and my sermon! I'll try and answer them as best I can.

      This story takes place before the giving of the law, which begins in Exodus 19 and continues for the next few books. The parallel for this story is in Numbers 20, and Moses acts basically the same way, and gets in trouble for it.

      I read that as a statement that the miraculous water-from-a-rock was a revelation of God's presence among the people, and a foundation of Israel's national identity as they are moving away from the internalized oppression of slavery into establishing their own empire over the next few hundred years.

      In other words, the actions between Exodus 17 and Numbers 20 are similar, so the context must have shifted. What was called for in the first passage was very inappropriate in the second.

      I also have an underlying Christological claim, which I reference in the 7th paragraph from the end. The only action in human history that was once-and-for-all-time is the crucifixion-resurrection event. The person and work of Jesus Christ re-established relationship with God, which I state is what we are truly thirsty for.

      The ancient Israelites, fresh from Egyptian slavery, need to have their hands held a bit more as they grow into the covenant people into whom God is re-forming them. The primary question is, "Is the LORD present among us or not?" rather than "where will we find water." The need for relationship with God takes precedence, and the physiological needs are a mechanism for demonstrating God's relationship. By means of the crucifixion-resurrection, the relationship is radically shifted and God's intervention often looks different than water-from-a-rock-style miracles.

      Because you're right, God does not always pay our bills, give us jobs, or revive withered relationships. But I disagree with your premise that presence is inactive. God's Presence is more than just divine surveillance, it means active participation in our lives, in both joy and suffering.

      Again, a great comment, and thank you for paying such close attention in your reading! You made me see some theological assumptions where I should have been more explicit, instead of just assuming they were self-evident. I also think that just because we disagree in a few places doesn't mean your views are valid, they just don't fit my experience of God and the world.

  2. Very insightful..I want you to know that I enjoy your blog.

    1. Thanks Dr. Watkins! I consider that high praise coming from you.