Sermon at St Mary Hadlow – Jesus the source of Spiritual Life – 28th September 2014
Exodus 17 verses 1 – 7: Water from the Rock
Matthew 21 verses 23 – 32 Jesus’ authority. Parable of the two sons in the vineyard
- Introduction. The Israelites in the wilderness 3½ thousand years ago were desperately short of water. It was a great act of faith to leave Egypt, where despite the hardship of forced labour they fed and drank well. We tend to take our water supply for granted, except for the occasional hosepipe ban. I am sure though there must be some of the older ones here in our midst who like me have lived in places with no piped water, but rather a well, or an underground tank taking rainwater of the house roof. In many parts of the world people, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, have desperately poor water supplies. The United Nations Development Programme in a report in 2006 stated, “At the start of the 21st century unclean water is the world’s biggest killer of children. ‘Not having access’ to water and sanitation is a polite euphemism for a form of deprivation that threatens life, destroys opportunity and undermines human dignity.” Often water is available but it is a matter of managing it; of conserving rainwater, of keeping wells and other supplies clean and so on. It is a great challenge in the poorer countries to provide the necessary infrastructure, the pumps, the pipes etc, and maintain them. Many UK charities such as Water Aid and Practical Action place a lot of emphasis on good clean water. But a charity can only be a model, hopefully to be adopted by the national and local government; it cannot run a country’s water supply. One of the UN Millennium development goals was to halve by 2015 the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. I don’t know whether this goal is nearing its challenging target, especially bearing in mind the growing world population. Water is sometimes found in unlikely places. Who would have thought that breaking off a chunk of rock in a dry wilderness would have suddenly released sufficient good water for the 1000s of Israelites and their livestock? Yes, underneath the sand and rock of the Middle East there is not only oil but also water. Julia and I lived in Bahrein for 2 years in the 1960s, not so very long after the time when at the right time of year the pearling dhows would go out to the oyster beds for perhaps 6 weeks at a time. A food supply ship would bring them food. Surprisingly though their water supply was obtained from the sea bed, where fresh water springs bubbled. The divers would go down to the bed of the shallow Gulf Sea with water skins that they opened inverted over a spring until the skin was full of fresh water, tie the neck and bring the water to the surface and into the boat. Let us have a look in more detail at that incident of the Israelites in the wilderness, see what lessons the people learned and, interpreted in the light of the New Testament, see what we can learn.
- The wilderness experience. I guess that probably only one or two of us here have experienced severe thirst. Imagine Paul saying to us, “Next Saturday I have arranged a Church walk on the marshes of the Hoo Peninsula. Don’t bring a packed lunch. Don’t even take a water bottle. Everything will be provided. You trust the Lord so trust me. Then by 4 o’clock in the afternoon of that walk, having had nothing to eat or drink since breakfast, some of you would be grumbling and complaining. I think that it is not surprising that some of the Israelites started complaining about and to Moses when they were desperately short of water. What is the significance of this incident?
You may like to turn up the incident in Exodus 17 page 68 of the Church Bibles. In the second half of v 2 you will find Moses saying to the people, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” The people knew all about Moses and Aaron’s confrontation with Pharaoh and the associated plagues. They had experienced the Lord’s miraculous deliverance at the Red Sea. They were already experiencing God’s provision of food in the daily manna, recorded in the previous chapter. Why wouldn’t they trust the Lord and Moses as the Lord’s servant? Moses saw that they were putting the Lord to the test whereas the Lord was testing them. You may say why was God so severe in testing them, taking them to the very limit of their endurance? Presumably because of the necessity of bonding them together as a nation. Making a new nation out of a huge slaved labour force, making a disciplined army out of a rabble. People who had endured hard labour in an oppressive regime were going to see problems not opportunities. This was one of the supreme testing moments in their wilderness experience. As we read in the next few verses, God provided them with an abundant supply of water but they had failed the test. The place thereafter was known by two names, as we read in v 7, Massah, meaning ‘test’ and Meribah, meaning ‘trouble’. Those of you who can remember Prayer Book Morning Prayer or Matins will recall that the opening canticle is Psalm 95 known as the Venite, which after the opening call to worship concludes with these verses, “O that today you would listen to his voice! Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your ancestors tested me and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. For forty years I loathed that generation and said, ‘they are a people whose hearts go astray, and they do not have regard to my ways.’ Therefore in my anger I swore, ‘They shall never enter into my rest’.” God graciously and abundantly provided them with the most fundamental physical requirement for life – water but they had failed the test and were not permitted to enter the promised land.
- The New Testament experience. The Old Testament is a foretype, a physical model of our salvation. The Exodus is God’s great saving act that Jews of old and now, look back to and, associated with that, God’s provision, in the formative experience in the wilderness. The New Testament builds on that. On the last day of the Festival of Booths, a sort of camping holiday to remind the Jews of the wilderness experience, Jesus, standing in the temple at Jerusalem, cries out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the Scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” (Is 58 v 11). The Apostle John goes on in his Gospel to explain, “Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not yet been given because Jesus was not yet glorified” (Jn 7 vv 37 – 39). What a marvellous invitation and promise which began to find its fulfilment on the day of Pentecost at the birth of the Church and has continued ever since to be available to the members of Jesus’ Church.
But, not surprisingly, there is a down side to this great promise and invitation, just as there was to God’s provision in the wilderness. Paul writes in his epistle to the Corinthian Church, “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors … all ate the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless God was not pleased with them and they were struck down in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did.
- Application. There are so many references in both Old and New Testaments to the spiritual significance of water but other than in my concluding words I shall not look further but rather just think for a moment or two about the application to ourselves of the incident of Moses striking the rock, the words of Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles and Paul’s warning to the Corinthian Church. Paul’s warning is that we should not treat spiritual things lightly, but rather have a high regard for our worship and especially the sacraments of the Eucharist and of Baptism, with physical elements of bread, wine and water. Canon Law for example requires that the communion table and the font should not be used for other purposes than the sacraments. For example a font should not be used for flower arrangements. Just in the last few days the Chancellor of a Diocese has made a ruling to refuse a faculty application for a communion table because the application envisaged occasion use for more secular purposes. Whilst these aspects are important, that is not the main thrust of Paul’s warning. He warns against idolatrous and immoral behaviour. Our lives on Monday to Saturday should complement our worship on Sunday. We shouldn’t think because we have been baptised and we receive communion regularly that our eternal salvation is secure. We all sin in one way or another. The assurance of God’s forgiveness is an important aspect of our Sunday worship but if we persist in flagrant sin then we place our salvation in jeopardy.
Let’s though finish on a positive note. All the Israelites were able to drink of the water that flowed out of the rock. Jesus uses this background to speak to us, to men and women of all races of the universal availability of the Holy Spirit the third person of the Triune God, who brings the very presence of God into our being. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit may not be an ecstatic experience, although let us not rule that out. For all of us it should be a quiet confident awareness that our whole lives are lived in and empowered by the Spirit of God. There is a verse in Paul’s first letter to Timothy of which I am very fond, “God has not given a spirit of fear but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” Sound mind may also be translated, ‘self discipline’. We can’t just say, “It was my genes that made me do it.” Such an attitude is in danger of taking away the moral structure of life. We are as Christians not meant to be immoral nor fearful but live positively because God is empowering us. Let us have a prayerful concern for those people who have no proper water supply. I conclude then with a verse from the last chapter of the last book of the Bible, Revelation 22 v 17, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Let everyone who is thirsty come. Let everyone who wishes, take the water of life as a gift.’”