Sermon texts are Exodus 17:1-7 and John 19:28-30.
Is there anything more basic to all forms of life than water? Life, of course is unsustainable without it. It is a necessity and a craving we cannot ignore.
The scene is the cross. Jesus has been subjected to some of the worst torment that can be inflicted upon a human being. Nearing death and in agony, Jesus cries out, “I’m thirsty.” “I’m thirsty”—it is the gospel of John that records those final words of our Lord from the cross; in those two words sealing Jesus’ identification with humanity in the most fundamental and enduring way.
Yet as starkly as the humanity of Jesus is exposed on the cross, it is his utter trust in God throughout his ordeal that most displays his magnificence. Like us in his essential personhood, yet transcending us in his sinless, utter faithfulness to God, Jesus challenges us as no living being has ever challenged us, to rise up and live as one with God and neighbor.
But we are impatient people, aren’t we. We are unwilling to commit much time or energy to spiritual discipline. It is results we’re after, and we would like to achieve those results without the necessity of striving too hard.
The Hebrews who followed Moses out of Egypt were after results. They were impatient to see results. “Are we there yet?” A mere four words, but no words have assaulted a parent’s nerves with such irritating consequence as those four words. “Are we there yet?” The fingernails scraping on blackboard sensation that those words represent to the parent’s ear produced a similar sensation in Moses. But in this instance it wasn’t his children that provoked him, it was that complaining rabble of Israelites he was leading across the wilderness.
Overwhelmed by the challenges of the wilderness, the Jews angrily confronted their leader. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us with our children and livestock with thirst?” Not a very considerate way to address a guy who was knocking himself out on their behalf. “Fix it, Moses. We’re hungry. We’re thirsty. It’s too hot. We’ve been walking too long. The babies are crying. Our patience has run out. Moses, fix it.”
How many days had it been since they passed the last oasis? How many days was it since their children had bathed, their livestock had been properly cared for? The oldest members of the assembly, those less able to bear the stress of the exodus from Egypt, were dying off, while aside from infants wailing in discomfort, the sound of children at play was not to be heard in the camp. “We thirst”—their deprivation was so extreme that the Jews could think of little else than their bodily needs.
By comparison Egypt was a resort. “We thirst”—in time the trials they suffered pretty much wiped out all the good will Moses had established with them. And what of the God that Moses represented? At that juncture the Israelites’ attitude toward God might well be summarized, “What have you done for me lately?”
In many, many instances the good deed has a very short shelf life. The setbacks and adversity we face inspire the kind of amnesia that wipes away memory of the good times we have enjoyed. A clamor rose from the people, cries that they had been abandoned. Where was God?
We have experienced that sort of abandonment ourselves. God has turned his back. God doesn’t hear us. God can’t comprehend what we are suffering. It’s only human to react that way. But Jesus revealed another way.
“I thirst”—the final words from the cross that the gospel of John reports. In those two words the Savior’s very human need was exposed. Yet subjected to agony that was barely endurable, Jesus’ sealed his identity as God’s own Son by his readiness to unconditionally trust in the Father even as the shadow of death drew ever tighter around his soul. It is in the suffering he endured and the death he died that Jesus’ oneness with the Father was confirmed.
“We thirst”—uttered as an accusation, more than a lament. The people wanted someone to blame for their suffering, yes, but the suffering alone was not the true origin of their complaint, their complaint and their frustration were really rooted in their inability to trust; their inability to trust God, their inability to trust God’s emissary, Moses. In the face of their wilderness deprivation, the Jews dissolved into a faultfinding, whining mob. Israel’s fragile faith imposed a barrier between Israel and her God.
“I thirst”—a confession of human need so profound that those would literally be the last words the Savior uttered. Yet all the agony his trial and crucifixion imposed could not undermine Jesus’ essential trust and confidence in the God whom he unconditionally loved and served.
“We thirst”—a cry of abandonment and dereliction, exposed a people’s failure to trust God in adversity. Anguish and anger swept over Israel, Moses becoming the object of her wrath.
“I thirst”—seals a Savior’s a trust in God. “We thirst”—exposes a people’s disaffection with God. Two very different attitudes are expressed there. So with which of those attitudes do we align? It depends on the circumstances we face, doesn’t it? And, quite obviously, no two of us share identical circumstances. We are all at some different point along the continuum from absolute trust to utter disaffection.
Most of us trust God—if we didn’t we probably wouldn’t be here, but our trust is leavened with enough uncertainty and doubt that we vacillate, never completely in our completely out of relationship with the God who gives us life.
When life presents some challenge and I feel that I have been unfairly singled out to suffer the fall, I can trust God sufficiently to say, “There must be a reason.” But I don’t trust God sufficiently to say, “your will be done.” Can you relate to that?
I trust God sufficiently to pray or thank God everyday, but no sufficiently to trust that God is attentive at every moment to hear my prayers. Can you relate to that?
When I gather with you at this table I do so trusting that God is present. I’ve been taught that, but so have you. Most of you can recite the key words in the sacrament as well as I, “this is my body, broken for you,” this is my blood shed for you.” Yet I struggle to believe that Jesus was willing to surrender everything for me, a person whose failing are so apparent. Can you relate to that?
When you are thirsty the mere promise of water won’t do. You want the real article. Likewise when you need help a mere word of encouragement and a pat on the back won’t do. You WANT help. You might have thought that Moses was smart enough to figure all this out for himself. After all, how did he expect the people to react to their hardship? The people could not live without water.
No, the Jews didn’t show up well in the wilderness. They fell apart, but who could blame them? They were desperate. Sure, they tested Moses’ patience. They tested God’s patience. But couldn’t, shouldn’t, God have done something to make the Israelites’ burden more bearable?
“Look, Israel, I’m going to twist your arm until you yell. I’m going to drive you until you fall weary into a heap. I’m going to withhold food and water until your stomachs are distended and your lips are parched. I’m going to make the desperate cries of your children be the first sounds you hear on rising in the morning, and the last sounds you hear on turning in at night.” “Oh, and Israel, did I tell you that I love you?”
How in the world could God expect that Israel would suffer this trainload of adversity without complaint? Having driven them to the brink emotionally and physically, could God really expect the Jews to trust him unconditionally? Yet throughout the Scripture the expectation that Israel will be faithful is repeatedly stated. Why this expectation? What is its basis? The basis for the expectation is Scripture’s testimony that God is good to God’s word, that God would never desert his chosen.
The people in our lesson didn’t get it. No, they didn’t get it. But we don’t get it either. Do we? Certainly not all the time. We can’t always bring ourselves to believe that God will be good to God’s word. Yet Scripture claims that God himself is the source of the faith that allows us to trust that God is good to God’s word.
Scripture may appear to be hard on Israel but that is because God has given the authors of Scripture a special viewing stand that gives them a special perspective on God’s grace. Scripture is based on the conviction that God is in charge, and that no obstacle, no peril—even forty years of wandering in the wilderness—can undermine or annul God’s love for creation. Scripture has been passed to us that we may claim that reality as our own.
Yet sometimes it would appear that the limits of God’s sovereignty have been exposed. We are left reeling by an event that shakes our confidence in God, that undermines Scripture’s testimony that God’s love for us is person by person explicit. When trust is vacated, what remains? Let’s face it; adversity makes a very strong argument that God cannot be trusted.
As he reflected on Israel’s experience in the wilderness one commentator shared the following “God’s leading [he wrote] does not always move directly toward oases. God’s interests do not always coincide with those of the people.” But the fact of the matter is that faith and trust in God are byproducts of the conviction that God IS leading SOMEWHERE. Absent that conviction, religious faith is unsupportable.
God became angry with Israel because she couldn’t bring herself to believe that God, through Moses, was really leading them anywhere. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” Suddenly life under Egyptian domination didn’t seem too bad after all. In her suffering all of those mighty acts of God on her behalf amounted to little in the eyes of the Jews, a chapter forever closed, with no sequel.
How could the people forget their God so soon after God had won their release from Egypt and Pharaoh? They could forget because they were human. We are human. We are powerless to predict what God will make of this or that event. Yet Scripture and the testimony of the church over generations lead us to declare that God will not abandon us in the wilderness. God is leading us somewhere. Hold on to that belief. It works. You know that as well as I do. Trust what you know.
God has revealed himself as the Lord of history, not merely Lord of those parts we will concede to him. To declare God absent in any passage of life is deny him the Lordship due his name. It is to deny him sovereignty. It is to make our trust in God conditional on God acting in ways that personally make sense to us. God, the unconditional lover, grieves when we make our trust, our love, conditional.
God sent us prophets, apostles, teachers, and in the end, his own son, our Lord Jesus Christ, not to prove his love to our satisfaction, no, but rather to give it its fullest expression. We are recipients of that love, even though the harsh realities we sometime confront may strive ever so doggedly to contradict it.
“We are thirsty. Is the Lord among us or not?” Truth be told, it isn’t always clear that God is with us. In fact, in some instances we are made to feel that God isn’t even in our ZIP code.
We all know what it feels like to be tested, and not know if the test is endurable. That was precisely where the people of Israel were. The uncertainty they experienced unraveled all of their expectations and hopes for the future. We know from personal experience that uncertainty raises the kind of questions that are difficult to dismiss, or set aside.
So how do we cope? We do that by setting our feet on a foundation that will support us. And for us, for Christians, that foundation is God’s word whose truth has been lived out in the circumstances of generations of folks who have preceded us. The truths to which have been introduced have been time tested in some of the most trying circumstances any of us might imagine. We so we cope because God is always finding ways to prove that he is near, the cross and that table two very decisive ways, but so too his presence communicated through persons and experiences that arrived on the scene when our thirst was most acute.
The cross, a living reminder of the price Jesus was willing to pay for our redemption. The table reminds us that wherever we may go, or whatever we may do, we will always have food and drink for our journey. And the angel who appears out of nowhere to hear our story or share our grief is that assuring presence reminding us that we journey not alone.
We thirst. Sometimes our need is so great that we can’t see over or around it. We feel abandoned. That, of course, is precisely what Jesus’ disciples experienced when he informed them that his days with them were numbered. Imagine, here were people who because of their insider’s perspective should have understood the big picture, but they thirsted for reassurance that the future wasn’t as bleak as they imagined it to be. Some of you might remember how Jesus responded, “Remember, I with you always, to the end of the age.” No, not just the next oasis. Always.
Friends, our faith is based on the assurance that those words bear no time stamp, but are as relevant today, for us, as they were when Jesus first spoke them. In Jesus our thirst is never ignored. That is something we can hold on to and believe in. AMEN.
Lord, our Lord, who established the rhythm whereby night gives way to day, winter gives way to spring, cloud to the bright sun, you have created us to live within the rhythms of life. We are creatures dependent as other life forms on the sun, the soil, and water. We are creatures, our physical and mental potential encoded in the millions of genes that through a miracle you oversaw coalesced to from us as we are. We are creatures beholden to the laws of nature you set in place. Yet, O Lord, we are more than mere creatures for into us you breathed your own spirit, and through that spirit you have offered us everlasting life.
Your exceeding goodness, O God, is beyond all human comprehending, but we thy people have assembled here that we may celebrate that which the human senses can apprehend of your eternity and your power. Make vivid and compelling your presence this day that our Spirits may be fed with food for our journey.
God of grace, we acknowledge before you the deeds we have done or the words we have spoken that have brought dishonor to your name. We find fault with our circumstances, our neighbor, and in our dissatisfaction go from one involvement to the next seeking fulfillment. Lord, we have forsaken the freedom you offer, placing ourselves in bondage to appetites and aspirations that will never be satisfied. We are hungry and thirsty, but we seek nourishment in the wrong places in consequence becoming frustrated and alienated from life. O God, in your mercy, break through the barriers we erect that we may rise to the full stature we were created to have.
Sovereign one, father of our Lord Jesus Christ, you sent Christ into the world, that through Christ the world might be brought to thee. For the redemption he offered from the cross, and the church bearing his name that proclaims that redemption we give you thanks, praying that you will strengthen the church as it faces the uncertainties of the present day. Where answers are slow to come, there grant wisdom. Where motivation is slow to build, their inspire enthusiasm. Where opposition threatens and the church’s mission is in peril, there grant courage. Where old habits and protocols stifle your church, there inspire a new attitude. Equip us, Lord Christ, to see reality as you see it, and always act in accordance with your holy will.
O God, we pray for those whose lives and hopes have been upended by recent changes in our nation’s security policies. We pray that those who formulate our public policy will grasp the hardship inflicted as a result of hasty, poorly conceived mandates, and strive to govern in accord with the principles and values upon which our Republic has been established.
O Lord, whose ear is attune to the words we speak, and the words that form in the heart but are unspoken, may this worship be a worthy offering to place at your feet. Consecrate the prayers, songs, and offerings we bring this day that they might be pleasing in your sight.
In Jesus’ name we pray.