Testing God in the Wilderness

Exhibit in Museo Diocesano, Via Tommaso Reggio, 20 r, Genoa, Italy (Public Domain).

Testing God in the Wilderness
Lent 4 2017
Rev. Doug Floyd
St. Brendan’s Church

At first sight, the wilderness looks desolate, empty of all life. Dried creek beds, lonely wind howling across the waste places. A desert owl screeches in the distances. Abandoned. Forsaken.

A closer look reveals stories. Ancient stories. Civilizations come and gone. Tiny remnants of life still remain. Wild animals roam the plains. Snakes, lizards, coyotes.

Lent leads us through the desert places, the wasteland, the valley of the shadow of death. We started with the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. Turning from the gracious gift of God, they take what is not given and walk into the wilderness, into the thorns and thistles. They return to the dust. Last week, we followed Abraham as he followed the call of God into the wilderness, in the desolate places. He follows God’s call and His promise to bring the world back from the valley of the shadow of death. This week we follow Moses as he leads the children of Israel through the middle of the wild places, through lands void of food and water, and we see a glimpse of God’s promise to reorder his people even as they pass through the disordered, abandoned lands.

Even as we follow the stories of Adam and Abraham and now Moses, we’ve also heard the Good News echoing across the pages of Romans.

The Good News of God is the great story of His presence and rule in this world. Though we turned away from the Creator, He has not turned away from us. In Jesus Christ, he enters the story of the world as the Suffering Servant and as the Conquering King. By His grace, the desert will bloom. Rivers will flow on barren heights. The poor and needy will rejoice. A highway will be built in the middle of the barren lands, leading God’s people to the fullness of His love and kingdom.

As we’ve read the passages of Romans, we’ve heard the promise of Jesus overcoming sin and death with His righteousness and life. We heard the story of Abraham’s faith and God’s faithfulness. And today we hear the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes. We hear the Good News of God who rescues his people who turned away from the Creator and became twisted in their thinking and acting.

The Apostle Paul opens his grand proclamation of grace in the letter to the Romans by focusing on the power of God that raised Jesus from the dead and made a way for Jew and Gentile to receive that power and be raised from death to life.

He frames our own unrighteousness as idolatry, as turning away from the Creator and toward the creation. This is what we see in the Garden of Eden, and we see it repeated across history and even our own lives. Instead of trusting the goodness of God and giving Him thanks, we so often trust in the world, our creativity, our personal spirituality, our jobs, our abilities, the culture around us, the stock market, and many other aspects of creation.

Paul explains that this act of idolatry ultimately enslaves us to sinful thoughts and actions.

21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Ro 1:21–32).

It appears that this opening section is describing the Gentile culture, possibly all across Rome. Because in chapter 2, Paul turns toward the Jews, toward the people of the law and the covenant, toward the people who know truth and he says,

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. (Romans 2:1)

And he reiterates his key point again in chapter 3,

9 What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
11        no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12        All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”  (Romans 3:9–12)

Our New Testament reading brings a judgment. We have been judged and found wanting.

Now as we go back and rehearse the story of Moses in the wilderness, we might read this Old Testament text against the backdrop of Romans 1, of humans turned away from God, enslaved by their own idolatry.

The Lord has dramatically rescued the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from captivity in Egypt. He promises to lead them to a land where they are free to worship Him as the children of Israel, the people He has chosen for His own to reveal His glory and prepare the way for the coming of His blessing into the world.

Prior to today’s story, the people have witnessed the hand of God bringing judgment on the Egyptians and even crushing Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea.

Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” Ex 15:21.

In today’s story, the people quarrel with Moses due to lack of water. The people are on the verge of rioting and possibly even stoning Moses. They cry out, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3). While directed at Moses, the people are really questioning the Lord. In Psalm 95, the Lord proclaims that the people put him to the test in this tense moment. Now before we think about what it means to put God to the test, I want to back up a moment and think about this group coming out of Egypt.

According to the Exodus and Numbers, over 600,000 men of fighting age plus women and children left Egypt (Number 1:46-47). These were not all descendants of Jacob. Exodus 12:38 calls them mixed multitude. If we read through other parts of the Pentateuch, it is clear that there were mixed marriages between Egyptians and Israelites. Basically, we have the descendants of Jacob with Egyptians and possibly other races traveling in this group of rescued slaves. Later the Torah will provide rules for incorporating all these people into the family of Israel, but right now they are all basically rescued slaves.

The Hebrews appear to know very little of their heritage. Just think, they’ve been in Egypt for over 400 years. They’ve been living in Pharaoh’s land (or house), according to Pharaoh’s laws, and under Pharaoh’s thumb. They think and live and act in the ways of their surrounding culture. In other words, they are Egyptian slaves with an Egyptian mindset and Egyptian patterns of living.

The Lord dramatically rescues them from this state of slavery and leads them directly into the wilderness. While slavery had its hardship and struggles, they had learned how to survive. But now out in the wilderness, they feel helpless, utterly dependent on the Lord. What is the first thing they do? They want to go back to Egypt and back to Pharaoh. They are willing to return to slavery to avoid the risk of faith.

In spite of their lack of faith, the Lord does eventually lead them to the Promised Land, but they still cling to their idols. Many years later when they are living in the land, and Joshua is on his deathbed, he will exhort them to abandon their foreign gods (Joshua 24:23). All those years later, they continue to cling to idols, to a failsafe in case the Lord doesn’t come through.

In today’s story, they clamor and cry that God has abandoned them. They tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Moses will rename this place, Massah and Meribah, which mean testing and murmuring or in Victor Hamilton’s words, Testingville and Complainingburg[1]. Why is testing God so serious? After all, God says in Deuteronomy 8 and Psalm 81, that he was testing them. Deuteronomy 8:2 reads, “And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.”

What is the difference between man testing God and God testing man? It might help us to remember Romans 1. The judgment on humanity is rooted in idolatry: turning away from the Creator toward created things, which corrupts our lives, our society, and even our planet. It is heart pollution that covers the earth. While it may not seem like it, it is ultimately the disordering of the world, the chaos that leads to the undoing of ourselves and all things.

First, testing God is rooted in an idolatrous heart. Even as the Lord has rescued the Israelites and other races from Egyptian slavery, they are still carrying their foreign gods in their hands and their hearts. They are still falling into the corrupting influence of idolatry to that blinds the eyes, makes deaf the ears and twists the mind and heart. From this place of corruption, they seek to stand in judgment of the Creator of all things. They are blind and deaf and assume they see rightly to judge the Creator.

Next, testing God also involves treating God like an idol. They think that they can reduce god to some foreign idol and make demands. An idol must be summoned, but the Lord cannot be summoned because He is present, He was present, He is present, He will be present.

Third, testing God involves treating God like our servant His Lord. To put Him to the test is to lay out expectations or demands that He must meet to demonstrate or prove His presence. It is to put us in the place of judgment on God. Instead of simply crying out to God to meet their needs, they ask “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Ex 17:7). While God expects His people to call upon His name, seek His face, and ask Him to meet their needs, He is not our subject, our servant.

In today’s story, He was never absent. He led them to this place to reveal His glory, to ultimately reveal the water flowing out from the rock. He is and has been present not just in the wilderness but all through their sojourn in Egypt. He is not subject to false gods and false powers. He has never forsaken His people but has promised to lead them to fullness even as He has promised to reveal his blessing for all nations through them.

In that, He has allowed his chosen people, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to enter into the dark slavery of Egypt. Why? Part of their calling to bless all nations involves revealing God to the world and revealing man to the world. Through Israel, He will reveal the enslaved heart of all people. He will also reveal the hope of redemption and ultimately the “power of salvation for to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Ro 1:16).

Even as they test God in today’s story, He is revealing their hearts and our hearts. It can become almost natural to make demands upon God while failing to thank Him for air and feet and eyes and hearts and love. It can be easy for us to complain about our job, our home, our bodies, our lot in life, and begin to covet the life of others.

We need the testing of God just as they needed the testing of God. We need Him to reveal our hearts, our idols, those places where we are trusting in the creation rather than the Creator. We need His testing and exposing so that we also might know the depths of His healing love, His unshakable grace, so that we might be freed from the grave clothes of death and walk from faith to faith or glory to glory into the light of His love.

As we walk through life, we will walk through the wilderness, through the wasteland. This is not simply a Lenten exercise, it is part of our journey on this earth. There are seasons of struggle and challenge and difficulty, but the Lord is not absent. He is always present. We may not always understand the place we walk through, but we call upon Him to have mercy. We learn to be thankful and grateful for each little thing, each gift of breath, of peace, of health.

It is in these places Scriptures often comforts and strengthens in deeper, richer ways. I think this may be why Psalm 23 is so dear to so many people. It is a reminder God is present, He is faithful, we can trust in His goodness.

1          The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2          He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3          He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
4          Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5          You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6          Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
forever. (Ps 23:1–6).

[1]  Victor P. Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 264.

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