Readings: Psalm 1, Dueteronomy 30:11-20, John 3:11-15, James 3:2-10
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, March 6th, 2016
The Israelite's camp at the mountain for about a year. During that time they have God's presence revealed to them like nobody ever had before. They are given guidelines to live by. They have a special place, the Tabernacle, which overflows with God's glory and is somewhere they can go to put things right when things get messed up.
You would think they would be the happiest, most content, most faithful people on the planet. You would think that, as they set off on their journey to the promised land, with Moses as their fearless leader and the promises of God always in their reach, they would be bold, strong and courageous.
They turn out however to be a bunch of grumblers, mumblers and fearful followers who so infuriate Moses that he loses his patience with them and they cause him to go against God's word. Even as they draw near to their land of promise, and God says 'Go for it', they shrink back and a whole generation (including Moses and Aaron) die in the wilderness. One word best describes the whole desert experience. Wandering.
Wandering, geographically. Wandering away from God. Wandering into situations that blighted their lives rather than blessed them. Did anybody else find chapter six of 'The Story' a little hard going? Am I the only one who thought 'Will these people ever get it together?'
Maybe my frustration with the Israelite s in the wilderness is that it is all a little to close for comfort. I know my life is greatly blessed. I understand that God's promises are always in reach. Yet too often I am the one who is moaning and groaning rather than acting boldly and faithfully!
As we 'Lower Story' people wander through our lives, the 'Upper Story' component in these stories is God's faithfulness. I found it quite hard to pick out consistent themes from chapter six, yet as I kept reading it, three seeped through... 'The Rabble', 'The Battle' and 'The Rallying Cry'! So let me talk about each of those.
The rabble, or as the original Hebrew word can be translated, the 'collected multitude of moaners' never seem to be satisfied.
They have only started back into the desert for a short while and are complaining 'Oh, it's so hard'. Really? Harder than it was being slaves in Egypt? God shoots them a bolt from the blue that singes the fringes of the camp. And for a moment they conclude, 'Oh, yeah. Could be worse!'
They complain about the miracle food, the manna, that God had provided. It was more than you'd normally get in the desert! But the rabble start saying, 'What about some meat? In fact what about some meat, cucumbers, melons, leeks and garlic... like we had back in Egypt?'
This time God says, 'You want meat? I'll give you meat' Quail meat. And it's as though they have 'Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam and Spam' for every meal. I make no apology for the Pythonesque reference. God has a sense of humor. God has been guiding them with a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day and giving them everything they needed to survive and thrive in the midst of a hostile environment. Still they moan.
The discontent spreads to Moses closest family. 'Who made Moses commander-in-chief? Why can't we make the decisions around here?' say Aaron and Miriam. Then Miriam comes down with a an incredibly nasty skin complaint and it's 'Oh Moses, help us, help us'. Which he does.
They are getting near to the promised land. Some of them check it out. 'Dudes! It's awesome!' The key word here is that this is the 'promised' land. They are to inherit the promise only by the strength and grace and 'Upper Story' purpose of God.
They go straight into 'Lower Story' mode. 'Never going to happen. There are giants in the land. You can't bypass giants. We've come all this way to die in the desert'. God doesn't flinch from telling them like it is. 'You are right. There is a whole generation of you, because of your disbelief, are never going to see it. Your children will, but as you say, so it will be'.
It's hot. They are thirsty. 'We need more to drink. Give us water, Moses.' God tells Moses, 'Got it covered. There's a big rock over there. Speak to it. It will gush.' Moses at this point is through with God and with the people. He picks up his staff... the special staff that had been used to confound the Pharaoh and part the waters of the Red Sea... and he slams it angrily into the rock. The water comes, but his anger costs him. Even Moses had to stay faithful, and when he didn't there were consequences.
The 'collected multitude of moaners' never give up. It's venom. It's poison. It's killing their relationship with God and with each other. Constant complaining does that. Ruins churches. Ruins families. Ruins relationships. They are not getting it. As though to illustrate what they were doing to each other, God allows a load of snakes to infest the camp. They start biting the people, who as always, plead with Moses, 'Do something'.
Moses does something strange. He makes a bronze snake. Holds it up on a pole and tells them 'Look up and live'. 'The snake on a stick became a symbol for healing and features as an emblem of many medical ventures today. In the 'Upper Story' it held a particular significance. In the New Testament gospel of John, we find these words 'Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him." (John 3:14-15 NIV)
Let's leave the rabble and think about The Battle
Our lives can be as though we are wandering in a wilderness. It is hard to connect the 'Upper Story' of God's love with our 'Lower Story' of everyday striving. It's a battle. And two major battles we face are not that dissimilar to those of the Israelites.
Firstly, we battle the nay-sayers. We battle those who say, 'You cannot inherit the promises of God. They are not for you.' For the Israelites these were physical kings and local tribal chiefs. But for us, it is often the expectations and voices of the rabble around us who tell us we are on an impossible journey. That we are foolish to believe in God's purposes. That we are wasting our time because it's all to much, all to ridiculous, all to unbelievable. God can work in your life? God can bless you? Who do you think you are? God gives us the answer. 'You are mine. I choose you!'
Our second battle is with allegiance. There are many attractive options to follow in life other than worshiping and serving God. The scriptural term for these options is 'idolatry'. Anything we pursue other than God's will for our life is a form of idolatary.
For the Israelites the temptation to idolatory came with the attractive packaging of Moabite ladies. Temptations often come in pretty packages that proimse fullfillment but lead us down dead end roads that turn out to be more of a wilderness than we had sought to escape from. Even as the Lord was delivering them from their enemies, they were embracing Moabite religion and making ritual prostituion a part of their worship. This was not the nation God was building.
As they draw near the end of their desert wanderings it's time for a change. A change in direction. A change in leadership. A change of heart. The time for wandering had gone. It was time to take a stand. The farewell spech of Moses is 'The Rallying Cry.'
For a guy with a stammer who hated speaking in public, Moses has come a long way. The people had reached a 'Now or Never' moment. He wasn't going to be with them much longer. He does not mince his words. He offers two alternatives. Be people who are going with God and know God's blessings, or go your own way, back to a wandering, desolate, godless, meaningless, purposeless life of futiliy and striving.
God had a plan. An 'Upper Story' plan. To bless. To guide. To lead. But they had to choose to go with it. It is no different for us. We all wander through our personal wildernesses. We all face challenges. Family. Work. Loss of work. Relationships. Illness. Finance. Death. These things are common to all humanity.
But in every instance, in every challenge, we get to choose how we handle it. Do we allow God to guide us? Do we seek God's way through the deserts of our lives? Do we pay more attention to the 'multitude of moaners' or find ourselves centered in God's Word and service and worship? Do we seek our satisfaction through living the way God desires or are we seeking satisfaction elsewhere through enthroning lesser gods in our hearts?
We have seen already in 'The Story' how God had brought the people to this moment in their journey. Through Noah, through Abraham, through Isaac, through Jacob, through Joseph, through the wilderness to the borders of the promised land. God has brought us to this place, this day. Through God's grace. Through God's love.
Hear then the rallying cry of Moses towards all those who would be faithful.
“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to His voice, and hold fast to Him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Deuternomy 30:19-20 NIV)
Through Jesus Christ we are chosen to be the inheritors of God's promises. Through the action of God's Holy Spirit, bringing conviction, understanding, and strength we are invited to go forward in faith.
We can carry on wandering with the rabble. Carry on complaining. Stay in the desert. Or we can recognize that we all have a battle on our hands, we all make wrong choices, we all fail to be all that we can be. Today then we can determine how are going to respond to the rallying cry of Moses. Today is a day to hear afresh his words.
Choose life, so that you and your children may live
and that you may love the LORD your God,
listen to His voice,
and hold fast to Him.
For the LORD is your life