Toorak Uniting Church

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Is the Lord among us or not?

Exodus 17: 1 – 7   Matthew 21: 23 – 27   Philippians 2: 1 – 13
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
28 September 2008

With our readings from Exodus today we started at the point where we left of last week: The Israelites being fed by Manna that was falling outside their tents 6 out of 7 days of the week, with a double portion coming down every 6th day.

A provision, as I said last week, not dissimilar to the moneys we receive as a congregation from the Warren Clark Bequest: It is a gift that requires and act of faith from the side of the receiver every new day because it is something that has been kept completely beyond our control. And as I also said last week: for humans that in general is not an easy place to be. We like to be in control, we like security, especially where finance and our livelihoods are concerned. Learning to live of something that may or may not be there outside your tent in the morning is not what most of us would propagate as a responsible way of living.

And yet: This exactly is one of the very first things the Israelites are given to master once they have entered the wilderness and embarked upon their journey of faith. To trust that God will provide, not once, but day after day.

Now, after their spectacular liberation from Egypt that should not be too hard, don’t you think? It is raining meat at regular intervals and there is bread outside the tent every morning. What more do you need?

Would your faith have been secure for ever after? Do you think?

I am sure it would not have been. Because you see, the stupid thing with miracles and with Gods providing is that somehow next time we are needing something, doubt and negative thinking creeps up on us: Surely there must be an end to God’s generosity some time? Naturally the reality of life has to catch up with us?
Freedom, food, and the fiery pillar notwithstanding this wilderness we find ourselves in is a pretty daunting place and remains a pretty daunting place all the same.
Everything this congregation has been blessed with in the 130 years of its existence not withstanding, the Church is in crisis, and we don’t know if we will have enough to see us through the next 10 years, either financially or in the sense of resources. Sure God has come up with generous gifts in our midst and worked miracles as well, there is even manna outside our tent, but the wilderness is a pretty daunting place and we may not make it to the promised land. Perhaps the past was not such a bad place to be! At least you knew what the next day would bring, and even what would be on the menu in three weeks time. No manna needed!

But there is no way back. They find themselves in the wilderness those Israelites, as we find ourselves facing our own crisis.

For a couple of weeks they are alright. Provided with meat and bread they travel from watering place to watering place until they come to Rephidim and find no water in the wells.

So they quarrel with Moses and say: "Give us water to drink."
And Moses answers: "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?" But the people are thirsty and keep grumbling and complaining and finally they exclaim, as they have done before: "Why did you bring us out of Egypt? To make us die of thirst?"

Then Moses cried to the Lord.

I have to say I don’t find it difficult to identify with Moses at this point. After nearly twenty years in the ministry I think I know how he must have felt. Miracle after miracle happens, but the big B of but and "what if" keeps people captive no matter how generous God has been in his giving to them. In my first congregation we raised 160.000 guilders in 3 years to build a new community centre. Something everybody with any healthy understanding of finance believed to be impossible. And not only that: the planned giving doubled and then tripled. What did some say? "Oh, that was easy, they were at rock bottom, the only way they could go was up. Next time it will be far more difficult!" And sure enough, next time money was needed there was panic again.....

People, you, me, are like that and it takes us a life time or longer to grow enough faith to let go of that mind frame. Faith does not come natural to any of us!

And time and time again in scripture we see how God responds to this attitude: Not with anger but with generosity.

This time Moses is getting a good therapeutical workout into the bargain: He is to strike a rock and God promises water will flow from it.

Now the difference between Moses and the people is that he has developed enough trust and faith to not panic when there is need and no clarity about how this need is going to be met. And that, in all the clamouring going on around him he keeps listening for the voice of God. And hears it.
That can’t have been easy. (And again I am speaking from experience). If you are fed up and irritated by the grumblings of the people, if you feel God is not appreciated for what God is, if people keep nagging night and day, the ability to listen and hear God will decrease. There is no doubt about that, and it is an indication of the maturity of Moses’ faith and the persistence of God with his people that they keep the communication lines open.

So God stands on the rock and Moses hits it with all his might. As I said: Pure therapy! We have recently bought a Wii for the kids. One of those new computer game things allowing you to play tennis with all the movements for real in your living room and work out any time of the day you feel like it. I can recommend it to you! And again, I identify with Moses: Whak! And the water gushes from the rock. See. See! Do you get it now!

What shall we call the place Moses? What is it Moses we will call this miracle? What about Massah and Meribah, which means testing and quarrelling because this is where you tested God saying "Are you among us or not?"
And fair enough: God tested them with the Manna, so why shouldn’t they get a chance to do some testing as well? See if he’d do another miracle, and another one, and another......see if there is an end to God’s patience. Massah and Meribah. It is what we do. All the time. Testing and quarrelling. Asking: Is God among us or not?

It is what the chief priests and elders do to Jesus in the New Testament. Test and quarrel, asking: "Is God among us, or not?"
And God, we believe, is of course, is more among them then they realise. "How can we be sure? What authority are you acting on?"

In their exchange with Jesus it becomes clear they do not hear the voice of God nor do they have it in high esteem. When they try to decide what they will answer to Jesus question " Where did John’s baptism come from", they are only interested in saving their own skin and God doesn’t even get a look in.

We do that as people. We get so entangled in what we think is important, we become so captivated by our position, our authority, our perceived superiority, by what we might lose if we go one way or another that we forget to listen while God is standing right in front of us urging us that if we do listen water will flow from dead rock in the middle of the wilderness to give us life.

So what is God saying? What is there for us to hear? I believe this morning it is something about attitude:

An attitude of faith. Of being in the wilderness and trusting God that he will provide for the journey. No "but’s" or "what if’s".
An attitude of remembering and celebrating of the past nurturing our faith in the future, instead of an attitude of testing and quarrelling in the present leading to anxiety, division and insecurity.
An attitude of openness inviting God to inform every thought and every deliberation and not depend on what whisperings our hearts may come up with, if and when they are informed by fear.

An attitude, to quote Paul’s letter to the Philippians in a translation by Nathan Nettleton:

If you have indeed experienced the encouragement of being united to Christ, and the support that genuine love offers, and the deep bonds of a shared life formed in the Spirit...... get your heads tuned to the one wavelength so that you will share a common love, a common dedication to the one cause, and a common mindset. ........Model your attitude on the attitude of the Messiah, Jesus.
Although Jesus was the same as God in every way,
     .  he did not think of his God-like privileges
     .  as something to milked for all they were worth.

Instead, he laid it all aside
     .  and, with no more privileges than a slave,
     .  was born as a human being.

Having become a human being,
     .  he was the model of humility.
He didn’t demand his own way
     .  but let God set the agenda;
even when it included his own death,
     .  and a gruesome public death at that.

Because of all this,
     .  God has raised him to the status of number one
and honoured him more highly
     .  than anyone else in the universe.

So now, just the mention of the name ‘Jesus’
        should bring everyone to their knees;
        everyone who has ever lived or ever will.

Everyone, everywhere will honour God
     .  by openly acknowledging
     .  that Jesus the Messiah is Lord of all!.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2008

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