They forgot. Again. And again, it is all Moses’ fault. Moses the murderer is rather persistent, wouldn’t you say? He wasn’t able to kill them all with hunger because God got in the way, and intervened, but maybe, just maybe, he can kill them all with thirst. Dying of thirst is quicker and easier than dying of hunger. Moses ought to be able to get the deed done in two or three days; a week at the most. But, as it turns out, Moses is not going to be able to pull off the dastardly deed. God will intervene once again.
Standing at arm’s length from these crazy, faithless people, it is very easy to judge them. Where is their faith? How have they ignored or forgotten the glory of the Lord that has been bursting out all around them like the world’s best fireworks display? From our point of view, they are a people who have been blessed beyond all measure; they ought to be continuously praising the Lord for his goodness and mercy. They’ve been freed from the horrors of slavery and oppression, they watched as the pursuing Egyptian army was swallowed up in the dark blackness of the Red Sea. And, in spite of the hostility of the desert environment, they have always had plenty to eat and plenty to drink. God has been good. Why are they not more faithful; don’t they get it? Are they completely blind? Why do they not have a profound and deep sense of gratitude in their hearts for what God has done, what God is doing, and what God is about to do next?
Interestingly, as we are prone to judge them, the rest of the Scriptures also judge this people quite harshly, too. They are frequently described as a sinful, bitter, ungrateful, and stubborn people, and are often set apart by example to us as a warning that we who have also tasted the goodness and mercy of God ought not to behave as abhorrently as they behaved. There is little respect in the rest of the Scriptures for the people of God who wandered for those 40 years in the wilderness.
And try as I might, I’m not able to drum up much respect for them either. They really are a bitter and faithless people. In spite of being bathed continually in the presence and power and wonder and mercy and glory of God Almighty, they seem determined to believe that God is not in fact with them and that God has abandoned them there in the wilderness.
In our passage this morning, the people are threatening to murder the murderer. They want to stone Moses to death. And we’ve got to know, if they’re planning to do that, then there’s got to be some alternative leadership that’s developing behind the scenes. Somewhere, somehow, the people have found another leader who is sympathetic to their plight. There’s secret stuff going on behind Moses’ back, and the plan is to do away with Moses, and get him out of the way. Sadly, this often happens to bearers of the good news. Throughout history God’s messengers and prophets have suffered greatly at the hands of God’s people. The Scriptures are replete with these stories, culminating in the crucifixion and death of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who was God’s ultimate messenger and God’s ultimate bearer of the good news.
And what good will it do them to kill Moses? Will they turn around in the desert, and head back to Egypt, to once again leisurely enjoy the flesh pots, the savory stews and the fresh-baked bread that so prominently figures in their memories? Do they imagine that the Egyptians would welcome them with open arms? A more difficult question, I think, and one that bears more directly on our own experiences, is this: are they willing to abandon the promise of a new land, a broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey in exchange for what they have already known, however horrific that may have been? One of the more damning sayings in all of the history of humanity is “Better the devil you know, than the one you don’t.”
And here’s where I can develop a modicum of sympathy for the Israelite wanderers. They have received a promise. It is a grand promise. But it is also a promise that seems a bit vague. It is somewhere out there, off in the unknown of the future. Moses has not told them when they will attain that promise, because he does not know himself. That should sound a tad bit familiar to us. We too, have received a promise. And for some of us, that promise can also seem a bit vague. It is somewhere out there, off in the unknown future. Jesus has not told us when we will attain that promise, because he does not know himself. He made that plain to us. But both situations should lead to hope and faithfulness and godly anticipation of what it is that God will do next in our lives. But unfortunately, that is not always the case. The Israelites did not know that an entire generation would come and go before anyone set foot in the Promised Land. And so faith and hope and anticipation did not grow, and so they’ve come now to the place where fear and disbelief is rampant in the camp. They want to kill Moses and return to the devil that is known to them. And because of this, every difficulty that they face becomes a crisis rather than an opportunity to experience the grace and mercy and wonder and glory of God.
This time there seems to be no water available in the camp, and it becomes a major crisis. And again it is all Moses’ fault. Remarkably, this is actually the second time that they have run out of water. And surprisingly, memory does not support belief that God miraculously provided water the first time, and that God just might do the same thing again. In spite of all that they have witnessed in fulfillment of the promise, the promise has once again dropped dead in their hearts. I fear that God’s promise is dropping dead in the hearts of too many of God’s people today. When difficulty comes, do we see any opportunity for yet another fulfillment of the promise, or do we see a crisis? Is there faith to believe that God is accomplishing his sacred and sovereign purposes in this world even now?
Throughout the entire 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, God consistently provided food and drink for his people, and despite their faithlessness, they still attained the promise. That’s mercy and grace, but never to be presumed upon. Remember, these people have served throughout biblical history as negative examples for us.
Food and drink are essential to life, and they ought to lead to deep and abiding faith. Sadly, for God’s people, the sacred food and drink that sustained them in the desert did not lead to much faith at all.
On the night that Jesus was betrayed, he shared sacred food and drink with his disciples. The last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples was a commemoration of Passover, that great and glorious commencement of God’s promise to rescue his people from slavery and oppression in Egypt and to bring them to a good land, a broad land, and a land flowing with milk and honey. As Jesus handled the sacred food and drink that night he revealed a new covenant to them that would surpass all others. In that sacred food and drink was a promise of a new land, one that far surpassed that broad land flowing with milk and honey.
This morning, as we handle this sacred food and drink, we are reminded of lessons that God’s people were slow and stubborn to learn in the wilderness. Namely, that God has always been present in all of history, and that God’s glory has always been evident for those who have been willing to see it. This glory and presence was manifested in our lives when Jesus came to this earth as a human being and lived among us. This is our memory. It is what we call to mind as this sacred food and drink is passed among us. It is a memory that lives within us.
Secondly, as we share in this sacred food and drink, we see the current glory of God, and we celebrate his power and presence in our lives, even in this moment. This is something that God’s people witnessed in the wilderness, but apparently held in no account. If this is our trouble, let us now repent of it, and open our eyes to what God is doing, now, at this moment.
And finally, as we handle this food and drink that is so sacred to us, let us eagerly anticipate, with hope and joy, what it is that God is about to do next. For the sacred food and drink in our hands is also a promise that we will one day celebrate the fullness of God’s glory and presence for all of eternity.
This passage closes with a powerful question: Is the Lord among us or not? How will we answer that question for ourselves?