Message October 1, 2017 Carillon Beach Community Chapel
“Water from the Rock”
Scripture: Exodus 17:1-7
17 Then all the congregation of the sons of Israel journeyed by stages from the wilderness of Sin, according to the command of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, and there was no water for the people to drink. 2 Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water that we may drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water; and they grumbled against Moses and said, “Why, now, have you brought us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, “What shall I do to this people? A little more and they will stone me.” 5 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pass before the people and take with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand your staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink.” And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 He named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us, or not?”
I invite you to join me in taking a look at two Scriptures that appear to be very similar stories at first glance, but upon closer reading they are very different. The people of Israel were at quite different places in their journey out of bondage and into the Promised Land when each event happened. And God had different plans and expectations for what would occur in the events described in these two Scriptures.
There are 2 places in Scripture associated with this wilderness time of the Hebrews that are referred to by the name Meribah. The first one is the Meribah described here in Exodus 17 near Rephidim, where Moses brings water from a rock. This is early in their journey, in the third year after coming out of Egypt. The memories are still quite fresh in their minds of the rich irrigation and water sources of Egypt. This place in Rephidim is also called Massah here in Exodus 17:7. The name Massah in this verse is the Hebrew word that means test, trial or proving. The name Meribah means contention, strife, or dispute. It certainly seems to be the case that the people are contentious with Moses and Aaron. Moses calls them out and asks, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” Then Moses turns his attention to the Lord and cries out for the Lord’s counsel, in fear of his life. And the Lord is faithful to give him direction.
The second Meribah is located near Kadesh, where Moses’ sister Miriam dies. This event is detailed in Numbers 20:1 — 13. This second event at a place called Meribah is late in their journey, in the 38th year. But things haven’t changed very much, it seems. Both places bear the same name, Meribah- contentious, strife, and dispute – and for the same reason. Let’s hear this second account:
Numbers 20: 8-13
8 “Take the rod; and you and your brother Aaron assemble the congregation and speak to the rock in front of them, so that it will pour out its water. In this way you shall bring water for them out of the rock and let the congregation and their livestock drink [fresh water].”
9 So Moses took the rod from before the Lord, just as He had commanded him; 10 and Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly before the rock. Moses said to them, “Listen now, you rebels; must we bring you water out of this rock?” 11 Then Moses raised his hand [in anger] and with his rod he struck the rock twice [instead of speaking to the rock as the Lord had commanded]. And the water poured out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank [fresh water]. 12 But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, you therefore shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” 13 These are the waters of Meribah (contention, strife), where the sons of Israel contended with the Lord, and He showed Himself holy among them.”
We live in a wanting world, and, wherever we are, we are likely to experience some inconvenience and need. We are also likely to encounter some strife and disputes.
Quite a few years ago I worked in sales and periodically we would have launch meetings for new products in different cities. Several times I was in Arizona or New Mexico and found that the dry environment of the desert Southwest was very different from what I knew in the Deep South. It was not something with which I was very comfortable. I did not care for the rock landscaping instead of green lawns, the scrubby trees and shrubs instead of the lush forests to which I was accustomed. I recall after one such visit flying into Alabama, which is known as the state with the greatest number of diverse trees, and seeing the snaking Alabama River surrounded by a patchwork of green fields and wooded hills. The multihued greens were a delight to me in that moment. There was something so rich and fertile and life-sustaining in this place that I called home. The dry, brown and red stone-edificed landscapes of the desert Southwest seemed too barren and fragile to sustain life as I had come to know it. Thinking about the contrast between those two geographies that I experienced helps me understand how these Egyptian-born Hebrews had become accustomed to the fertile delta of the Nile River and felt the fragileness of life that I, too, had felt in a dry and rock-laden land.
It is a great mercy to have plenty of water. Just a few weeks ago, as Hurricane Irma made her way across the Caribbean toward Florida, news reports were full of people dashing to stores to load up with supplies, in particular cases and cases of bottled water, knowing that if it hit we could be without access to fresh clean drinking water for several days because of our dependence on power to run well pumps and city water systems. Like many plentiful resources we have around here, it is only when they are in short supply, or are at risk of being unavailable, that we truly appreciate their value. So here the Hebrew people are, nearly 4 decades after their liberation from harsh slave masters, and they are still murmuring and threatening to mutiny, taking up arms against Moses and Aaron. They lashed out with the same contentious and whining words their fathers had, who were now dead…Why did you bring us and our livestock here to die? Would God that we had died when our brethren died. Instead of giving God thanks, as they should have done, for sparing them, they not only despised the mercy of their freedom, but acted as if God had done them a great wrong. They quarreled with Moses even though they knew all of this was part of God’s plan. They acted as though God’s great act of favor and salvation was a great injury to them instead. They seemed to prefer slavery to freedom and bondage instead of the land of promise. They simply needed water to drink, but this moment of need brought back all their yearnings and complaints. They were guilty of the same complaining spirit that their fathers had decades earlier in another place called Meribah at Rephidim. They had not humbled their hearts. God’s presence, provision, and goodness had been with them continually, but they acted like petulant children who had forgotten all that had happened over these many years. As Matthew Henry notes in his commentary: Here in this second passage regarding water from the rock in Numbers, Moses’ and Aaron’s sister Miriam had barely been laid to rest and, having lost one of their leaders, this prophetess who led them in worship for many years, one would have thought the people would have been more respectful to those that were left, the two grieving brothers, Moses and Aaron. Instead of consoling Moses and Aaron during this time of grief for the death of their sister, the people added more affliction to their grief with the pressure of their complaints. Moses knew that God heard the murmuring and complaining of the people. And God, gracious and good as he is, did not deny them what they needed, in spite of their complaining spirit. Instead God gave immediate orders for their need to be met. So, for a second time Moses was to command water out of a rock for them in God’s name to show that God is as able as ever to supply his people with good things. . God Almighty’s power can bring water out of a rock, God had done it before. He could do it again. His arm had not shortened, his power was not less, his love and faithfulness had not changed. God directed Moses to take the rod, this famous rod with which Moses had summoned the plagues of Egypt, and divided the sea as God’s surrogate. Just the very sight of the rod in Moses’ hand ought to have reminded them of God’s great and good salvation and provision. And it should have encouraged them to trust in God now. God bids Moses this time to gather the whole assembly, not just the elders only, but all the people, to be witnesses of what is to be done, so that by their own eyes they would see the miracle, be convinced once and for all, and be ashamed of their unbelief. God directs Moses to speak to the rock this second time instead of striking it as before. The rock would do as it was directed, and the people who would not do as directed would be put to shame. The people had been beaten by their hardened slave masters in Egypt to force them to act in obedience. Under God’s guidance through Moses, they had been spoken to many times, but their hearts were harder than this rock, not tender, not yielding, not obedient. God promised that the rock would give water, and it did, abundantly. God not only met their need, but he showed mercy and grace in doing so in spite of the complaining spirit and hard unbelieving hearts of his people. This was a new generation, since most of the older generation had died by this time, but here they were still just as bad as those that went before them; murmuring, complaining, and contentiousness ran in the blood, it seems. And for many of us, it still does today. Even so, divine favor continued to be available to them. Aren’t we grateful that God’s divine patience shines as brightly as his divine power?
Sadly though, Moses and Aaron acted improperly in this matter. Look at Moses’ own attitude- when he says to the people, ““Listen now, you rebels; must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his hand [in anger] and with his rod he struck the rock twice [instead of speaking to the rock as the Lord had commanded]. Oh, my ! Moses is surely demonstrating his own rebellion against the circumstances, against this complaining people, but most especially against God himself! He says, YOU rebels….yet in the same instant Moses himself rebels against God’s command. Must WE bring you water out of this rock? Excuse me, Moses, who is bringing this water out of the rock? Who is Moses’ anger directed against when he strikes the rock not once, but twice, instead of speaking to it as he had been told? Even if he was not going to be obedient in speaking to the rock, could Moses not have had patience enough to simply strike it once and let God work?
In the first instance 35 years earlier, God’s glory had shone on the scene as God himself stood on the rock. In this later re-enactment, we are not told that God’s glory is present on the rock be he is, assuredly, present in their midst. Perhaps Moses doubted that God really was going to do it again this time. It seems he may have given in to doubting, just as the people did. Perhaps Moses, having lost his patience with these complaining people believed that God may well have done the same…
But that was not the case. The water rushed forth from the rock abundantly, in spite of Moses’ disobedience. God did not punish these thirsty, ungrateful people for their sin, nor did he punish them for Moses’ sin of disobedience.. God wasted no time at all in dispensing the water to the people in recognition of their need. He also wasted no time in dispensing discipline to Moses and Aaron, not publicly, but privately. Not shaming them before the people, but convicting and disciplining them in private. God is never angry without cause. Moses disregarded God’s command, took things into his own hand and did so with anger against God’s people. God intended to display a mighty miracle of the power of his Word and Moses set out to make a show of his own authority over this rebellious people.
When we fail to trust the power of the Word of God, we resort to secular human efforts at power to bring about that which is needed or desired. The way Moses and Aaron acted did not give the glory to God for this miracle that was due to his name. What made it even more reprehensible was the fact that this act of angry disobedience by Moses was done before the eyes of all the children of Israel to whom Moses and Aaron should have been examples of faith, hope, and meekness. Moses’ action dishonored God before Israel, failing to give God the glory he deserved for bringing this miracle to be. It put the people’s hope in God at risk.
Moses was a meek and humble man, but in this second instance of water from the rock he sinned in a fit of passion. God knows our thoughts, our intentions, and the words and actions that come from those motivations. Moses received his discipline promptly and was banned from leading God’s people into the promised land. But it is commendable of Moses and shows his sincerity and repentance that he did not blot out this record of his own failing. He did not hide his own sin and its consequences from those who would follow.
Moses learned from his mistake. He accepted the discipline of the Lord without complaint. And God honored Moses in allowing him to gaze upon the land to which God’s people were going and by being present with Moses in his final moments, and, as we are told in Deuteronomy 34, even burying Moses with God’s own hand.
Our Heavenly Father is not a God of punitive punishment or shaming retribution even when we act out of impatience or anger. He is a God that patiently endures our ill-tempered fits and disciplines us appropriately and continues to love us, provide for us, and allow us to serve him.
How will we express our love and gratitude to a God who shows himself so merciful and loving? Will we listen and be obedient? God does not always do things in the same way. Jesus himself shows tremendous variety in the ways he chose to heal people….sometimes with a word, sometimes with a touch, sometimes by the passive presence that someone else reaches out to touch, sometimes by mud and spittle, sometimes by dipping in the river, sometimes in the presence of the one needing healing, sometimes by healing from a distance. When the children of Israel were still fresh off their centuries of bondage, God used a physical act of power to call forth water and demonstrate his provision. Years later, God tested Moses and the people to see if they were ready to be obedient to the power of his Word alone, he gave different directions for how the water was to be brought forth. But Moses took things into his own hands and acted out of impatience and anger. The people were looking to their leader to know how to trust and interact with God and Moses let them down. The people themselves didn’t suffer the loss, but Moses missed a long hoped-for opportunity to lead them into their ultimate destination. It is a lesson to us as leaders and to those of us who look to leaders for how we are to respond. Seek the Lord’s will. Trust first and foremost in God himself, and then trust leaders to the extent that they demonstrate their faithfulness in obedience to God! And pray for them.
Let us pray:
Lord we pray for those whom you have placed in positions of authority…..that they would listen and obey your will that they and those whom they lead might experience provision and bring honor and glory to your name. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Responsive Reading ( Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16)
Leader: Listen, O my people, to my instruction; Incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old,
People: Which we have heard and known, And our fathers have told us. We will not conceal them from their children, But tell to the generation to come the praises of the Lord,
Leader: And His strength and His wondrous works that He has done. He wrought wonders before their Fathers
People: In the land of Egypt. He divided the sea and caused them to pass through, And He made the waters stand up like a wall.
Leader: Then He led them with the cloud by day And all the night with a light of fire.
People: He split the rocks in the wilderness And gave them abundant drink like the ocean depths.
All: He brought forth streams from the rock And caused waters to run down like rivers.