Scripture Readings: Exodus 17:1-7 | Psalm 78:1–4, 12–16 | Philippians 2:1–13 | Matthew 21:23–32
“But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, 'Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?'”
Today’s reading from Exodus reminds me of the old saying: ‘those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it’.
Just last week we heard about how the Israelites, taking their first steps on the road to freedom and the Promised Land, had quickly turned to despair when they ran out of food. Seeing no hope ahead, they complained against Moses and the LORD, only to be given an incredible gift: divine bread, enough to sustain the entire community. Offered, not just once, but faithfully from that day forward. The Living God miraculously provided for His people, inviting them to trust and rely on His merciful love.
Not long before this episode with the hunger and the heavenly bread, Israel had already faced trouble finding water. In Exodus chapter 15, only a few days after God had rescued them from the Egyptian army by parting the sea before them and leading them to safety, God led them into a region where the only water was unfit to drink. In response to the people’s complaints, God makes the bitter waters sweet; another gift meant to meet their needs, and show to them his love.
So far, at every step of the way, the LORD has been utterly faithful. Though He is leading Israel into uncharted and dangerous territory, He is continually present with them, and lovingly provides everything that they need to follow Him. But instead of Israel growing more confident and trusting in God, we find another dangerous trend beginning to develop… a pattern of doubt and disbelief that was quickly escalating.
“Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”” How often have we seen this pattern at work in the world: faced with troubles, we give in to fear, then we look for someone to blame… and then we start to look for things to throw at them. Anger and violence flow freely from fear and desperation… from believing there is no help coming, no hope on the horizon. For Israel, the stakes were raised, and so was their sense of panic… again they forgot the One who had been with them all along, who had rescued them in the past… and the One who would rescue them again.
Their fear led them to doubt the LORD, and to resist His lead.
We can see something similar going on in our Gospel reading this morning, in the confrontation unfolding between Jesus and the Temple leadership… the chief priests and scribes charged with leading what was left of Israel to be faithful to the LORD and to walk in His ways. Centuries after the people quarreled with Moses in the wilderness, panicking on their way towards the Promised Land, Jesus arrives in triumph to holy city, Jerusalem, the capitol of the Promised Land… and He starts disrupting everything. He boldly upsets the political, spiritual, and social status quo, calling out the hypocrisy and hard-heartedness of those claiming to be in charge. Matthew’s picture of Christ is of someone who comes, not simply to comfort and console, but to lead His people into the true Kingdom of God. To lead them away from self-righteousness, and the love of power and status. To lead them into the humble and holy ways of the Living God.
No wonder Jesus was seen as a threat to those on top. To those who wanted to be the ones calling all the shots… the ones who wanted to take the lead all for themselves. Christ was threatening their authority… challenging their right to rule… and endangering their high standing with all the people. And so their fear leads them to doubt… to reject Christ’s powerful words and deeds… and then it leads them to anger… to quarreling against this dangerous upstart. “By what authority are you doing these things,” they demand of Him, “who gave you this authority?” They were not looking for Christ’s answer here; they were looking for a fight.
The response of Jesus is startling… upsetting many of our assumptions about what God wants from us. To the religious leaders, scholars, priests, and teachers of his day, Jesus says “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” Despite all of their status, and credentials, and power… despite all of their religious background and practices… outcasts and outright sinners were closer to God’s kingdom then they were, because the sinners believed and turned back to God, while they doubted and dug in their heels.
In the ministry of John, and ultimately in the person and work of Jesus, the Living God was again leading His people into the way of freedom and life. But because of their fear and doubt, the chief priests and scribes were fighting against the LORD… unable to see God’s unexpected lifegiving Gift before them.
How often do these two stories from the pages of Scripture remind us of our own pasts? Of our own times of doubt? Do we remember the times when it seemed as though we didn’t have enough? When we could see no way forward, and we could feel our panic starting to rise? Do we remember when we felt that things were great, but then suddenly we were confronted by an uncomfortable truth that threatened to disrupt the things we held to be most dear? Do we ever remember being called out for being on the wrong path? Do we remember repeating the same mistakes, again and again?
If so, then both of these passages of the Bible have good news for us: The Living God, who led Israel through the arid wilderness… who humbly took on the form of a servant, in the Lord Jesus Christ… to rescue His people, and lead them into the Promised Kingdom of God… this same God is with us today, and He remains utterly faithful… even despite our ungratefulness, our fears, and unbelief.
God graciously poured out water for the Israelites when the rock was struck, even though they had done absolutely nothing to deserve it. And when the guilty ones… the sinners and reprobates believed and turned their hearts to God, Christ welcomed them wholeheartedly into the Promised Kingdom. From beginning to end, God’s story is about His ongoing rescue mission… bringing hope to the hopeless, and help to the lost… salvation for slaves and sinners.
Though we continue to struggle with fears and doubts, God has shown us again and again that He has not given up on any of us. He longs to break the patterns of disbelief in our lives, to draw us back to Himself through faith in His redeeming love.
Yes, we do well to learn from the poor examples of unbelief we have both heard and experienced first hand, and with fear and trembling work to follow Jesus into the way of salvation. But always our hope is that God Himself is still at work within us, transforming us through His Spirit to live wholeheartedly for the LORD.
In Christ we see God providing new life for any who will receive it: allowing Himself to be struck, to be killed upon the cross, all to free us sinners trapped by our fears, and doubts, and stubbornness… and to raise us up with Him to share in the holy life of God.
In Christ we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of our past… we need not keep falling back into the self-destructive patterns in our lives. God has poured out His grace through Jesus His Son to sustain and to save, not only those of us gathered here, but our whole frightened, doubting world.
So even in the face of our own fears and doubts, may the LORD pour out His grace, and keep us faithful to Jesus. Following His lead. Forgiven and freed. And empowered to help those around us find eternal life in Him. Amen.