A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

Year A – 23 March 2014

 John Edward Miller, Rector

 All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the LORD, and camped at Reph’idim; but there was no water for the people to drink.

Therefore the people found fault with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you find fault with me? Why do you put the LORD to the proof?”

But the people thirsted there for water, and the people murmured against Moses, and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?”

So Moses cried to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

And the LORD said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand the rod with which you struck the Nile, and go.

Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, that the people may drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.

And he called the name of the place Massah and Mer’ibah, because of the faultfinding of the children of Israel, and because they put the LORD to the proof by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”      

 – Exodus 17:1-7(RSV)


The Collect

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

In the early 70s, the musical Godspell[1] introduced the parables of Jesus to an audience more attuned to Woodstock and the Beatles than to traditional church music. And yet many of the show’s catchy songs were actually hymns set to new tunes and rhythms. One of the most popular hits launched by Godspell is the song, “Day by Day,” which reached the number 13 spot on the Billboard list of pop singles. It’s a lovely and memorable song because of its simplicity and message of spiritual longing. What most people don’t know is that “Day by Day” is in the hymnal of the Episcopal Church. The words are attributed to Richard of Chichester, a medieval bishop who was canonized as a saint in 1262. Our hymn[2] is a one-stanza prayer addressed to God as a petition:

Day by day, dear Lord, of thee three things I pray:
to see thee more clearly, to love thee more dearly,
to follow thee more nearly, day by day.  

“Day by day” is an apt motto for the Christian life. It speaks of the significance of the moment – of being attentive to the “now,” but it also seeks and looks forward to a cumulative good. Seeing God more clearly, loving God more dearly, and following God more nearly are aspirations of a pilgrim on the way. They express the yearning for daily progress, and the knowledge that building character requires discipline as well as desire, fortitude as well as faith. And most important, the prayerful hymn affirms the need for God’s grace to make these improvements in us.    

We might also say that “day by day” is a suitable song for the journey of Lent. In fact the word “journey” is derived from the French words for day (jour) and a day’s work or travel (journee). So a journey is a trip consisting of a sequence of days. Lent’s journey is a forty-day passage from one place of the spirit to another. During this period we have an opportunity for growth and development, even as the days themselves are gradually lengthening. As we move forward to Holy Week and Easter there is time to think about our beliefs, to refresh our understanding of God and the world, and to reorient the compass that points the way to our eternal destiny.

Today’s Lenten text from the Old Testament is a scene from an ancient journey that helped form the people of Israel. It was a journey that led them from bondage to freedom, and toward the land promised to Abraham. Their movement from Egypt to Palestine lasted more than days or weeks. It took years – indeed forty years’ worth of days (14,600 of them!), for Moses to get them there. That was a long time to reflect on their great gift of an unfettered life, to deal with the challenges of their journey, and to voice their grievances when conditions in the Wilderness inevitably got harsh.

From the incident described in Exodus 17, it is clear that Moses had a lot on his plate when he accepted the LORD’s call to spearhead the freeing of his people. The Israelites were a fickle bunch. When God rescued them from slavery, they were giddy with joy and full of praise for the LORD. But it didn’t take long for their gratitude to fade into complaints and murmurs. The people protested their hardships and lack of creature comforts. Many just wanted to go back into Egyptian bondage where they would at least be given enough sustenance to keep them working for their masters. Moses faced a motley mob breathing mutiny and mayhem. But he remained resolutely loyal to the LORD, leading the people day by day on their long trek toward Palestine and the hope of a new life. He would not be deterred.

Today we see grumbling at Moses and the LORD take the shape of an ultimatum. The showdown was over the lack of water. Admittedly, that is a major problem. The Israelites were totally dependent on God for direction and for everything else. As today’s collect puts it, they had “no power in themselves to help themselves.” They had no GPS, no map, no AAA, and no portable supplies of food and water. Without God’s providence they would surely die. They were helpless; they knew that and resented it fiercely. But there was more than indignation in their demand, “Give us water to drink!” They were dying of thirst, and they felt betrayed. Their anger was understandable, but their lack of trust was odious. How soon they forgot the crossing of the sea and the escape from their oppressors!    

Now, the setting for this crisis was known as the wilderness of Sin. This was not a reference to the moral condition of the Israelites but to a geographic region containing Mt. Sinai. The text says that they were moving through Sin by stages. This probably means a group at a time, but it might also mean something like, “day by day.” In any event the journey was a process; it didn’t happen all of a sudden. The wilderness of Sin and the wasteland of their sin (lower-case “s”) is a coincidence in the English translation of the passage. However, it is a terrific springboard for the preacher, because the moral fiber of the people is completely unraveled. The Israelites’ behavior is so me-centered, so ungrateful, so focused on their own hungers and thirsts that the term fits. So be it.

Moses, meanwhile, has a summit meeting with the LORD. He was already fed up with his role as front man for the God who recruited him at the burning bush. Like the stiff-necked Israelites, Moses also complains. He says, “What am I supposed to do with these people? They’re going to kill me before long!” And the long-suffering LORD gives him a plan – one that’ll save Moses’ skin and demonstrate God’s power to provide what we need. The LORD tells him to take some elders with him and proceed to the stone formation at Horeb, the holy mountain. Presumably the elders were needed to attest to God’s action, because the people wouldn’t believe a word Moses said. He was instructed to use the rod with which he struck the Nile and rap on the rock at Horeb. The promise is that water would then spring from the rock, and the people’s thirst would be slaked.

Moses called the place of the rock Massah and Meribah, which are Hebrew words for “proof” and “contention,” respectively. He affixed these names to the water source that God offered, forever etching in stone the gauntlet that the people threw down in the wilderness of Sin. God responded with grace, despite the disloyalty and disrespect of the people. The negative names remain, however, “because of the faultfinding of the Israelites, and because they put the LORD to the proof by saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’”[3] 

Their question was childish and impertinent. It was a demand for evidence that God was among them. Nevertheless, their question is one that we recognize, because it is not just an ancient instance of rudeness. The question, “Is the LORD among us or not?” remains fresh and timely. We ourselves may have uttered it in anguish. The question arises for people of faith in times of suffering and loss, crisis and pain. It was the plaintive question raised in the Nazi death camps. It is the question posed whenever a child suffers. It is the question on the lips of those who feel abandoned by all that they’ve believed in, and sense the absence of God when they’ve counted on him to be there in the clutch – to show up on demand like the cavalry to rescue them from danger. In anger and frustration they ask, “Where is God when we need him?” and, “What good is my faith if it doesn’t provide protection for me and my loved ones?”

It is meet and right to raise these questions – especially during Lent, when we devote time to prepare ourselves for the ordeal of Holy Week and the passion of Christ. Jesus himself asked his own version of the question as he was dying on the cross. He cried, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”).[4] That is, even Jesus agonized over the feelings of abandonment in the throes of pain. He was one of us, and that meant he felt exposed and lonely in the valley of the shadow of death. If he had experienced crucifixion without suffering torment – mental as well as physical, then he would not have been human, and so would not have been intimately connected to our condition. The Christ would have been an alien being, rather than a flesh-and-blood brother to us all. So it is heartening to know that Jesus shares our perspective as we look for a sign of God’s presence among us in good times and in bad.

But, as our Lenten speaker Dr. Thom Blair, said, Jesus was more than just one of us. To know him was to know the mind of God, to follow him was to walk the way of God, and to be loved by him was to be touched by the heart of God. So, while Jesus really experienced abandonment and honestly uttered the cry of dereliction on Good Friday, he was never apart from God, much less left alone to fend for himself. God was with him, and he knew it deep within his being. To paraphrase Paul, we can say that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything in all creation could separate him from the love of God.[5] That love was, and is, in Jesus Christ our Lord. It was God’s presence that empowered him and directed him in this life, and that same presence proved to be stronger than death itself.

The good news is that God is love. This gospel proclaims that in love, God takes our questions seriously – even the ones that we utter in anger and frustration, and seeks to reveal a way forward through the shadow lands of dark doubt and into the morning of his presence. The message that God is love can free us from the bondage of sin, and it can redeem us from all evil thoughts that assault the human soul.

When the contentious and entitled Christians in Corinth demanded a sign that the Lord was among them, they opted for special effects, such as speaking in tongues, as proof of his presence. People who did not have that gift were considered bereft and inferior. The Apostle Paul got wind of their haughtiness, he wrote a letter that contained a special section on love. This is what Paul said:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

The apostle concluded this gemlike description with a powerful claim. He wrote: 13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.[6] He knew that love is the greatest virtue because it is God’s very nature, revealed in Christ Jesus.

In 1885 Leo Tolstoy wrote a little story about Martin the cobbler[7] and his quest for the presence of the Lord in his life. Martin was a widower, and he lived in a basement room that doubled as his workshop. A small window enabled him to glimpse the world outside at street level. His view of the boots and shoes passing by was all he could see. Martin had been depressed for a long time, and thought only about death until a friend suggested that he read the Gospels. Martin followed that advice, and his heavy heart grew lighter by the day. Then one night he heard the voice of the Lord say, “Martin look out on the street tomorrow, for I will visit you.”

The old cobbler was excited and expectant when he rose and began his day. He kept looking up to the window for a sign that his visitor had come. But all that he encountered was a procession of boots, punctuated by three newcomers who needed help. The first was an old soldier shoveling snow. The second was a young, poorly-clad mother carrying her baby. The third was an old apple woman who had caught a boy trying to steal an apple from her cart. In each case Martin provided for their needs, offering tea and warm company, food and clothing, and the counsel to forgive the wayward boy. His day ended in seeming disappointment because the Lord had not come. Martin took the Gospels from his shelf and started to read. Then he heard a voice whisper, “Martin, Martin, don’t you know me?”

‘Who is it?’ muttered Martin.

‘It is I,’ said the voice. And out of the dark corner stepped Stepánitch, who smiled and vanishing like a cloud was seen no more.

‘It is I,’ said the voice again. And out of the darkness stepped the woman with the baby in her arms and the woman smiled and the baby laughed, and they too vanished.

‘It is I,’ said the voice once more. And the old woman and the boy with the apple stepped out and both smiled, and then they too vanished.

And Martin’s soul grew glad. He crossed himself put on his spectacles, and began reading the Gospel just where it had opened; and at the top of the page he read

‘I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in.’

And at the bottom of the page he read

‘In as much as ye did it unto one of these my brethren even these least, ye did it unto me’ (Matt. xxv).

And Martin understood that his dream had come true; and that the Saviour had really come to him that day, and he had welcomed him.

Tolstoy entitled his story, “Where Love is, God is.” That is the answer to the Israelites’ question, Jesus’ question, and our many questions about where God is in difficult times. Indeed, it is the sign of Immanuel, God with us, at all times and in all places.

Day by day, dear Lord, of thee three things I pray:
to see thee more clearly, to love thee more dearly,
to follow thee more nearly, day by day. Amen.    

[1] Godspell is a musical by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak. Its Broadway debut was on May 17, 1971.

[2] Hymn 654, The Hymnal 1982, has words att. to Richard of Chichester (1197-1253) set to the tune Sumner by Arthur Henry Biggs (1906-1954).

[3] Exodus 17:7.

[4] Jesus’ cry of dereliction quotes the opening verse of Psalm 22.

[5] Romans 8:38-39.

[6] I Corinthians 13, New International Version.

[7] http://www.sabbathretreats.org/Where_Love_Is.