The Israelites had no shade, no shelter and no water. They were exhausted and desperate. All reasonable hope of survival must have gone. Then, at God’s command, Moses struck the rock … whoosh! Life and hope and joy bubbled up effortlessly with the water, and it changed everything. What a vivid picture of God’s care.
But there’s one question this story raises: why did God leave it so late?
This is the God who made everything that was made. This is the God who parted the waters from the dry land at the start of time, yet when his chosen people are dying of thirst, he waits … and waits … and waits … before giving them water. Why did God leave it so late?
Earlier in the saga of the rescued slaves in the wilderness it’s already been rough. They’ve traipsed and trudged to a place where there was water, but it was too bitter to drink, and everyone complained. Then, God acting through Moses, made the water sweet. They struggled on to a place where there was no food, and everyone complained. And again God, acting through Moses, offered a steady supply of food – a special offer of quails the first night with manna in the morning, with the promise that the manna would continue daily.
So they wound their weary way on out into the desert, and now they’re desperately thirsty and there’s no water at all, and everyone complained even more. This wasn’t just a tired tour party tumbling off the coach and ganging up on the courier because they’ve found there’s no water in the en suite showers. These were desperate people truly at the end of their tether. They’d committed everything to this journey. Left all they’ve ever known before. They didn’t do it just so they could leave their scattered bones whitening in the wilderness. So, someone has to do something, and fast!
What were the attitudes and actions of these Israelites as they try to cope with each successive crisis?
They start with a deep, outraged sense of grievance, with a bitter undertone of betrayal. They’ve done all that was asked of them. They’ve devoted their life to this crowd, given all they have to give. Then their selective memories kick in, remembering that they had water when they were slaves in Egypt. The Nile was right there. It never dried up. Any time you needed some you just took your water pot. But they forgot some of the horrors of being slaves. Now they’re on a roll, and they begin to consider some spurious speculations about what might have been. Perhaps they could have risen through the ranks and become a slave leader, with a little business going on the side. The business of complaining all sounds so much more convincing when you have supporting crowds to agree with you and add weight to your every word. Finally, and most cleverly, there are safer targets. It’s altogether too risky to look like they might be blaming God, they might have to seriously re-examine their own position, so they look for a more manageable target for their supposedly righteous wrath:
I blame the elders.
It’s the young people. They’re just not interested.
OK, Moses, who do you think you are, then? Charlton Heston?
And in the face of all that challenges our church and all churches today, and all the pressures that brings, it’s easy for us to echo these sentiments today:
– to nurse a similar sense of grievance at how things have turned out for us
– to reconstruct selective memories of how wonderful things used to be in `the old days’
– to speculate how much better life might have been if we hadn’t got so involved in ‘church’
– to blame “the URC”, or the apathy of young people, or that wretched Minister.
But what is the root of grumbling and quarrelling? I think the answer might be at the end in the one big question that seems to lie behind all the Israelite’s smaller questions: “is the Lord with us or not?”
This question, and the clutch of assumptions that give rise to it, seem to be the very heart of the matter. All these ugly arguments with Moses that made him fear for his life, all the half-plausible strategies of grievance and complaint really come down to the attitude that underlies this question: “is the Lord with us or not?”
It’s a question to which many of us can relate, but I would argue that it’s the wrong question, built on a dangerously wrong way of seeing. To find out just how absurd a question it is, let’s consider some questions the Israelites could have considered?
Who began this whole enterprise? God
Who chose and supplied the Leaders? God
Who sent plague upon plague to effect the people’s release from slavery? God
Who led them safely through the sea and drowned the following army? God
Who supplied daily manna in the wilderness? God
So, to be quite clear, the initiator, enabler, underwriter, supplier, insurer, funder and leader of the whole expedition was God. Yet the question in the minds of the people was “is the Lord with us, or not?”
Deep, deep down, beneath all the bluster and grievance and complaint, the Israelites have never ceded final authority to God. Despite all the mighty acts of God that have got them out of the Land of Egypt, out of slavery, these people have never accepted that God is God and they are called to be God’s people. They have never acknowledged that the question should be “are WE with the LORD?” not, “is the LORD with US?”
So, what is God to do? Endless dependable faithfulness on God’s part would just have made things worse. If there were never any hiccups, the constantly flowing fountains of goodness would surely have confirmed the people’s tragic misconception that God is just a sort of delivery system and, ultimately, that they are now in charge.
Only by this delay, this testing of trust, this exposure of anger and expectations, this pain, only in this way is God able to peel back the layers of half-plausible grievance and expose the way the people are patronising their God. Only in this way can God show up our behaviour as that of selfishly-irate consumers queuing to complain at the customer services desk of a retail outlet, missing by miles the awesome possibility of becoming friends of God.
So, Why did God leave it so late? Because God wants something far more wonderful for these people. God doesn’t think it’s enough for them or us simply to survive, God doesn’t think it’s enough for them or us to be well-supplied consumers. God wants them and us to grow into a caring relationship of mutual trust and friendship with our God and with each other.
God isn’t bidding for a basic utilities supply contract, or funding a Private Finance Initiative scheme to significantly improve facilities for those in transit in the Wilderness Transit Trust Area. God is seeking to develop a covenant of mutual care between God and people – a risky, demanding, growing, exciting relationship of love and understanding. This is what he showed us in Jesus.