Sunday, March 19, 2017

Putting God to the Test

Exodus 17:1-7
Lent 3
March 19, 2017
William G. Carter

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 

The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

"You shall not put the Lord your God to the test." That's what Jesus said to the devil when he tempted him in the wilderness. According to the Bible, he was referring to a text from Deuteronomy which was referring to the story we have just heard. The people of Israel were journeying by stages, somewhere between slavery and the Promised Land. They camped in a place with no water - and then they demanded water.

The problem, it seems, is not merely that they are thirsty. The problem is that their thirst becomes a big "quarrel." That’s how the storyteller describes it. He uses the biblical word for a grumble fest. The people were upset. They aimed their anger at Moses. Moses said, "Why are you upset with me?" It’s a good question.

I’m sure he knows the answer. Moses is the leader of a religious community that serves an invisible God. That makes him an easy target. They can throw rotten tomatoes at Moses, because they can't see God in order to throw any tomatoes at him. All they can see is God's point person, the on-the-ground representative. So Moses has to untangle their resentment when their real complaint is against God.

And it's a real complaint. There's no water. They are thirsty. Some of them say. “What's the point of being delivered from slavery, only to wither from thirst?” Why should God go to all that effort, to send the ten plagues, to bend Pharoah's hard heart, to carry out the Passover, to split open the sea? Why should God do all that if the end result is a heap of dried-up bones? "Come on, Moses, we're thirsty down here. Give us water to drink!"

It’s not the first time religious people complain when they really ought to make it a matter of prayer. It’s not the last time either. Matter of fact, this is actually the fourth major complaint in the desert. It’s getting to be a habit. In the unfolding history of the people of God, it will be a hard habit to break.

They want something – we want something – when it doesn’t appear on demand, they grumble and say, “Is God among us or not?” And the Bible calls this “putting God to the test.” To put it simply, it’s expecting that God will come out of the faucet, on demand.

Centuries later, in another wilderness, the Tempter will take Jesus to the tippy-top of the Temple and say, “Why don’t you jump down? God will catch you. There are Bible verses that say God will catch you. If you are the Son of God, surely God will catch you.” And Jesus expels the Tempter by saying, “You shall not put God to the test.”

It still happens. I recall hearing somewhere that professional clergy make up one of the worst risk pools for auto insurance. They drive too fast, they don’t wear their seatbelts, and they are very distractible. Why is that? Perhaps they just figure that God’s going to catch them. It’s called putting God to the test.

Today we hear of the people of Israel camping in a place with no water. So they say, “Give us some water.” Um, you’re camping in a place with no water. Didn’t you bring any water? Didn’t you plan ahead? And with a single voice they say, “That doesn’t matter. We want water, and we want it now.”

Kind of reminds me of the little country church where I was sent as a peacemaker. Actually it wasn’t so little, and it wasn’t in the country. They were pouncing on their minister because there weren’t any new members. The town was growing, but nobody new was going to that church. So the same old people had to do the same old things. There was no fresh meat. They figured it was the minister’s fault, because he wasn’t from that town, so they had a “big grumble.”

The minister called and said, “What am I going to do with this people? They are about ready to stone me.” So I got sent over there, listened for a while, murmured affirmatively as if I understood where they were coming from. A couple of evenings of that, had to miss NCIS on a couple of Tuesday nights, but hey, it’s the Lord’s work. Nothing was resolved. I couldn’t fix it. They knew their minister couldn’t fix it. So it now had to be my fault, and their minister’s fault. I mean, I love the Lord’s work.

So to wind everything up, I made a suggestion. Maybe it’s not my fault their church was stuck. Maybe it’s not their minister’s fault, since he was a newcomer. Maybe it was somebody else’s fault... and I paused and smiled. One lady said, “What are you insinuating here?” I said, “Maybe it is God’s fault.”

They all said, “What do you mean?” I said, “You want new people with fresh ideas who will do what you’ve been doing, and people like that are a gift from God. And they’re not here. They’re not coming. So maybe … the problem’s with God. What do you think?” And to a person, they looked horrified and said, “Go back to Clarks Summit.”

It is a fundamental conviction of scripture that God provides. That the air we breathe, the food we consume, the water we drink – that all of it is a gift from God. We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and there’s bread. Now that’s a prayer, as opposed to a complaint. And on the days when there is no bread, to say nothing of cake, it should be a matter of prayer. We name our needs and put them before God.

But the distortion comes when we expect the bread, when we declare ourselves entitled to the water, when we drive too fast or jump too far and say, “Lord, we expect you to catch us.” Then, you see, it’s no longer a matter of trust. It’s ordering God to come and serve us. It’s like saying, “Lord, would you please put down that planet and give me a good parking space?” And that’s when things get out of whack.

It reminds me of one of my all-time favorite religious jokes. (If you’ve heard me tell it before, it’s joke number 46. You can just laugh now.) It goes like this: a man is considering the vastness of the universe and says, “Lord, what is a million years to you?" God said, "My child, a million years to me is but only a second." "Hmm," says the man. Then he asked again, "Lord, what is a million dollars worth to you?" God replies, "A million dollars to me is like a penny."

The man lifts his eyebrows and asks a final question. "Lord, can I have a penny?" And God says, "Sure! Just a second."

When we put ourselves in the center of the universe, a prayer of trust will be twisted into a demand. We expect this, we want that, and when we don’t get all our wishes met, we sulk like little children. Or we blame somebody convenient. In other words, it becomes all about us. And if it’s all about us, we feel no need to pray. We simply order God to give us what we want, probably because we’re already getting what we want. Or at least most of it … or some of it. Or we might even convince ourselves that we can live without God. That’s when the temptation of arrogance will almost get us into trouble.

Let me say it. The reason we pray is because our lives are not complete. The reason we turn to God is because we don’t have everything we need. The reason we come into a room like this for worship is because God is greater and wiser than we are. We are not in the center of all things. We are tempted to think we are. And the better off our situation, the more tempted we are to believe that the universe revolves around us.

The story is told of a governor of Massachusetts who was running for re-election. His busy schedule required a non-stop whirlwind of activity, going from town to town, making speeches, shaking hands and kissing babies. On one busy day of campaigning, when he’d had no time for lunch, he ended up at a community barbeque. It was just in time. As he went through the line, he asked the lady serving the chicken if he could have two pieces of chicken. The woman responded, “No, I can’t give you two pieces. My instructions are to give everybody just one piece.”

With his stomach growling and his threshold for complaining lowered, he decided to throw his weight around. He said, “Ma’am, do you know who I am? I am the governor of this state.” The woman stared at him for a moment, and then said, “Sir, do you know who I am? I’m the lady in charge of the chicken. You get one piece.”

Notice he still gets the chicken, but he cannot call the shots. Similarly. Israel would be watered in the wilderness, but only because God was in a better mood than the people were.

The lesson is that there’s a connection between the temptation to our self importance and our desire to tempt God. “God, we’ve wandered into the wilderness where there is no water, and we are thirsty. Give us water.” As if demanding will make it so. How different that is from saying, “Lord of life, you provide for the needs of all the lives you create. Our souls thirst for you, and we need water to drink.” It’s a subtle difference, but it makes all the difference in the world.

In fact, the writers of the psalms knew the difference. Today we read together Psalm 95, which begins so pleasantly. “O come, let us sing to the Lord… O come, let us worship and bow down…” But when God answers, he still remembers Massah and Meribah. God still remembers how the ancient Jews tested him and put him to the test, even though there was plenty of evidence of God’s continuing work all around them.

Those who prayed Psalm 95 thought they were going to worship, but as they did, they received a warning, “Do not harden your hearts.”  Do not forget that every good gift comes from the Lord, our Maker. Don’t come to worship and hear the ancient desert stories, thinking you are smug and so much smarter than those ancient people.” No, oh no; come with your hearts broken open, your spirits thirsting for relief, your deepest needs ready to be expressed in your prayers.

Like the people of Israel, we live somewhere on the road between slavery and the Promised Land. We have been liberated from Pharoah’s brick yard and aimed toward the New Jerusalem. But the journey is going to go on for a while. As we make our own way through the wilderness, we have to learn how to pray for our needs without grumbling.

God will provide what we need, not because we insist, but because our generous God is always in a better mood than we are. Our lives depend on God, but the Lord is not disposed to accommodate our entitlement. It’s hard to keep that untangled, but that’s why we are still in the wilderness. This is our training ground. Here and now we have to work out what it means to trust in a God who is beyond our scrutiny.  

The Lord is indeed among us. Pray for the heart to see what the eyes cannot.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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