Exodus 17:1-7 and Matthew 21:23-32
We’ve heard of the Exodus, that great escape fromEgypt, the worst of all places. We’ve heard of the Promised Land overJordan, the best of all places. And we’ve heard of the desert in between. But for our storyteller this morning, this desert chapter inIsrael’s history is more than a forty year interlude between the beginning of the story and its ending. It is one of the most crucial events in the history of those on their way from slavery to freedom, a freedom not like what most people think about when they think of freedom, but a freedom that begins with the words, “Let my people go so they may worship me in the wilderness.”
We wonder why it tookIsraelso long to arrive at the promise, the land flowing with milk and honey. A quick glance at a map of the Sinai wilderness, a peninsula that joinsEgyptto the land, which is now known asIsrael, reveals that the wilderness, which took so long to cross, is not very big. Drawing a straight line from where Israel started and where they ended up measures only about 200 miles, which today is little more than a three or four hour drive. Why then did it take so long? If the point is to leadIsraelout into a harsh, uninhabitable land, what’s the big idea? Why not lead these people, bent over from making bricks out of straw and mud, directly to their destination, to that wonderful place so longed for? Why did it take so long to travel a mere 200 miles, even without a GPS? The obvious answer is thatIsraeldid not travel in a straight line. The first verse of our Exodus passage tells us that the congregation of the people ofIsraelmoved through the wilderness in stages—up and down, across and back, back and forth, over and over again as recorded in Numbers 33:1-49. Forty years is a long time—a full generation.
We can’t help but wonder why? Why so long? Why such a circuitous route. You can almost hear the kids sitting in the back seat with their whinny voices: “How much longer?” “When are we going to get there?” A friend of mine tells the story about a trip down the east coast to visit his family for Thanksgiving. The two kids in the back seat took turns in their peevish, high-pitched, best nasal voice, asking, “How much longer?” what seemed to him like every thirty minutes. Finally, exasperated and tired, my friend pulled into a rest stop, set the two boys on a picnic table, leaned over so as to meet them eye to eye and said, “We are going to sit right here until you both promise not to ask, even one more time, when are we going to get there.” After about five minutes, the boys promised, they loaded into the car and off they went to grandma’s. They drove and drove. Not a word from either boy. And then about an hour later, one of the boys said, “Daddy, how old will I be when we get to grandma’s?”
It must have been something like that for the people ofIsraelin the wilderness because the generation that leftEgyptwas not the generation that arrived on the eastern shore ofJordan Riverforty years later. Why so long? The only answer that comes to me is that, when the people leftEgypt, they were not ready for the promise. They were little more than a mob. We pick up on that almost immediately after the people leaveEgypt. It’s nothing but bellyaching every step of the way. Why this? Why that? Three days into the journey and the people begin murmuring against Moses. When they arrived at Marah, they could not drink the water because it was bitter. “What are we going to drink?” they complained. Never mind that a short distance further and they came to twelve springs of fresh water without a word of thanks or appreciation. It’s always what have you done for me lately?
On the road again, the complaints and foot stompings were no longer occasional, but chronic: “The whole congregation of the Israelites vented their rage against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness…‘If only we had died …in the land of Egypt, [where] we…ate [meat] and our fill of bread, and now you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill us all with hunger’” (Exodus 16:2-3). Never mind that these complaints are completely understandable—that’s just the point. Never mind that at twilight the people would eat the flesh of exhausted quails that flew into camp and could fly no further and could easily be caught by hand and were everywhere. The next morning they were given manna. But all of this was no more than a temporary fix because the people’s hunger and thirst would return and so would the bellyaching and sarcasm—the question always being the same, Why? Why did you take us out of our comfort zone and bring us to this Godforsaken place? “Is God with us or not?” A good question. A very good question. If only we had died inEgypt, we would have been spared this misery. The people’s faith, what little they had was on the line, and they wanted to go home—not to the land flowing with milk and honey, but toEgypt, a land whose misery did not compare to their present misery. Their needs outweighed their reason for being where they were, and the people were not ready. They had not yet learned that “man does not live by bread alone” (Deuteronomy 8:3 and Matthew 4:4).
We do not get to be God’s people just by showing up. We must be schooled. We must experience the full range of human emotions—plenty and want, joy and sorrow, in sickness and health. No one wants the side of a relationship that involves want and sorrow and sickness. When we turn on the faucet, we want water to flow, turn the key and the car to start, flip a switch and there to be light, open the refrigerator and it to be full of all good things. We are impatient people, made that way, not by our suffering, but by our affluence. When we don’t get what we want, we look elsewhere.
You hear people all the time say, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” which translated means, “Let me tell you why I don’t attend church.” Generally people who make this kind of statement have spent their allotted time sitting in pews. They may have even worn out several pews in their journey toward becoming spiritual, starting out as mainliners as children, where going to church on Sunday morning consisted of nothing more than getting a big warm hug. As the hugs wore off, perhaps they moved over to a more conservative branch of the faith where they were comfortable for awhile, until they realized that the church held all sorts of strict moral beliefs that they could not adhere to, where, as I read recently, premarital sex might lead to dancing. As a last resort, these folks who are spiritual but not religious, may find their way into a mega-church with softball teams and gymnasiums and excellent pre-schools where, to get your child in, it helps to be a member of the church, and wonderful sermons about prosperity—of getting what they want rather than what they need, only to discover later that their kids like most other kids are smoking pot, that the bloom is off their marriage, that the only thing the church is interested in is their money, that God simply is more likely to be in nature than in the sanctuary, and so they drop out and become spiritual rather than religious. You’re bound to know a few people like that. It has become the signs of the times with more and more people finding God within themselves and in sunsets and mountain streams and the sounds of waves on some beach.
Not that God is not in sunsets, but God is also present in all of the things we run from. When I go into the hospital room where someone is dying of cancer, God beats me there. Certainly God is present in all the beauty, but what about all the ugly? What do those who are spiritual but not religious have to say about cancer? Cancer is part of nature. How can we see one side of reality and not the other? That is what the wilderness did forIsrael; it brought them out into the sunlight where the people learned, like the Heidelberg Catechism teaches us: “To be patient in adversity; thankful in prosperity; and…[to] place our firm trust in…God.” We do not usually learn that outside the community of faith in some little spiritual kingdom that we have made up and allows us to boast about how spiritual we are with a little prosperity thrown in.
The wilderness teaches that sometimes words are not enough. I was shocked to read that a missionary who drove 300 miles roundtrip to preach two services in a rural church got less than he bargained for. As he was leaving, the treasurer of the church gave him an envelope, which he tucked into his shirt pocket, assuming it was a check to cover his expenses plus a small honorarium. Later that day, as he undressed, he remembered the envelope and opened it, which contained a check. Under his name, which was written in bold letters, were the words, “Thanks a million!” It was signed by the treasurer. Sometimes words are not enough. St. Francis ofAssisiurged us to “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary,” he said, “use words”
Jesus, you remember, replicatedIsrael’s trek through the wilderness. After his baptism, he withdrew into the wilderness, where he too was hungry and thirsty. For forty days Jesus was there “in the wilderness…tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts…” (Mark 1:13), we are told. Why? is the natural question? Why such a dreadful and unsafe place? For the same reason as Israel—to learn to depend on God, to learn obedience, to learn his vocation, to learn that sometimes words may not be enough, that sometimes you may have to spend more time than you want to in unpleasant places before you reach your destination, that sometimes you have to learn obedience, like Jesus, through what you suffer. “Although he was a Son,” we read in the letter to the Hebrews, “he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8-9).
Obedience is a learned trait. Obedience fights against itself, because there is a human yearning to be free, to live for our self, to do our will and not someone else’s. We are obedient, like young children, when we are totally dependent upon someone else. But as we grow to be more independent, like teenagers, obedience is more problematic. We have a yearning to do it our way, to control our own destiny, to prove to the world that we can make it on our own. Being free to worship God takes a lot of practice.
Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees a parable about a man who had two sons. He sent the older son to work in his vineyard, but the son refused to go, then later changed his mind and went. Not knowing this, the father sent his younger son to do the work his older brother refused to do. The younger son agreed to go, but changed his mind—maybe because he thought it was unfair. “Which of the two sons,” asked Jesus, “did the father’s will?” One said he wouldn’t, but did; the other said he would but didn’t. Which one was obedient? The first son, the one who said he wouldn’t but did, of course. Everybody knows that. But what the scribes and Pharisees did not know is that they walked into their own trap. Jesus exposed them for who they were, long on words but short on deeds, hiding behind saying one thing and doing another. It hurts my reformed upbringing to admit that it isn’t so much what we say but what we do that matters. Talk is cheap, cheaper than we think. At some point cheap talk becomes cheap grace.
That’s why our faith has a learning curve. That’s why it tookIsraelforty years to get 200 miles. That’s why a self-made spiritualism is no substitute for true religion. That’s why it’s better to say no and then do what is right than to say yes and then to do what is wrong. That’s why obedience is an acquired trait, because it takes time. That’s why obedience comes hard, because it takes more than words.
And that’s what God desires most. The drumbeat of scriptures, above all else, is a call to obedience. “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the Lord?” asks the prophet Samuel. And he answers his own question: “Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice…” (1 Samuel 15:20).