This series is called, “Where Are We Going?” If you’ve been in worship over the last few weeks you know where we’re going. Where are we going? Jerusalem. In the gospel stories that describe the life of Jesus, this is one of several trips to Jerusalem that Jesus has made with his followers, and it happens to be the last one (but we don’t know that yet). In that photo, you see the general area where the events of Holy Week took place. That’s our destination.
Here’s a little trivia: how old was Jesus when he was crucified? Most will say 33, but the gospels never say that. There is one verse in the Gospel of Luke (3:23) that says Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. Then there seem to be three different times that Jesus went to Jerusalem for Passover, which happens once a year. Thirty-three. Could he have gone more than three times? Yes. Could he have been older? Sure. By the way, at that time, thirty-three was around late middle-age! So, he wasn’t necessarily the young person we like to picture sometimes.
Jesus has been repeatedly telling us what will happen when we get to Jerusalem for this Passover. There is a reason he is called the “Lamb of God.” (John 1:29) What happens to a lamb at Passover? The lamb is sacrificed for the sin of the people. When we get to Jerusalem, there will be a confrontation, a betrayal, a trial and a horrific execution… and he will rise from the dead; he’s been saying it all along. But we don’t get it; we only hear what we want to hear, see what we want to see, and honestly, he confuses us sometimes.
There’s a reason he goes to Jerusalem to go through this suffering for us: our natural rebellion toward God, our separation from God, is the sin that will die with him when he dies. In the New Testament, Jesus is compared to Moses leading the Hebrew people out of slavery (Hebrews 3). Jesus is leading us out of captivity to our sinful selves, toward the freedom we find in the new life God gives us when we believe in the living Jesus. It’s worth taking a look at the trip those first people of God took toward the Promised Land.
This leg of the journey is called, “Are We There Yet?” That might give you a little hint about how that trip went, and we will look at how we walk with God on our own journey.
Exodus 17:1-7. From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.2The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3But 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?” 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
One of the themes of Lent is of taking a trip from one place to another spiritually – a spiritual journey. The readings are about the things that happen to the Hebrew people on their way out of slavery, walking toward the Promised Land. The gospel readings tend to be stories about things that happen to Jesus as he is walking to Jerusalem, walking toward the cross. He has told his people what will happen there. Through Christ, the people of God escape the slavery of sin and move on to new life through their faith in him and his resurrection. We trust God to give us what we need spiritually. We believe in Christ so that we can embrace new life and face the future with confidence. New life in Christ is our Promised Land.
God has what we need. On your journey, you should be able to see progress. Can you tell that you are in a different place from a year ago? Five years ago? The trip isn’t easy, and it’s tempting to complain.
Everybody who has ever taken a trip with kids knows about complaining. There used to be a TV commercial for a car that has families in 3 or 4 different countries each in that car, going on a trip, probably a vacation. In different languages, the kids all complain, “Are we there yet?” or “I need a bathroom!” Complaining is a universal language. As the kids get older, it becomes a joke, a tradition, and a reflex action. They’ve done it since they were little. I think I’ve heard it every time I’ve taken a group of high school kids somewhere. Somebody has to say it as soon as you hit the road or it wouldn’t seem like the trip is starting out right. It’s a joke with roots in a basic truth. We just got in the car and we’re driving. Are we there yet? Say it with me: Are we there yet?
Hopefully, as we grow older, we move away from the tendency to complain. This is one of the hidden agendas of the trips we take with teenagers. On a mission trip, we hope the kids will see some things that will get them thinking about how “miserable” their lives are back home. It’s not really about making them more thankful for their stuff. It’s more about learning how poor people can be so happy.
But this isn’t just a teenage behavioral issue. Complaining has been a spiritual problem for God’s people for thousands of years. For the Hebrew people, it seems God was never good enough, that God never did enough. The pillar of fire, the column of cloud, the defeat of the entire army of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the salvation of the people — not enough. And they complained.
“Moses, why did you lead us out here? We’ll die out here! We’re thirsty. It’s dry. It’s hot. My feet hurt. I need a bath. I’ve got a blister. My sandals are too tight. Egypt was better. Egypt had water. Egypt had beds. Egypt had security. Our children need water. Even our cows are thirsty. It’s not like home!” (you’re allowed to think of your own complaints here.
It took the people of Israel 40 years to get to the Promised Land because of their complaining (see Numbers 14:26), not because they were lost and not because it was so far away. As they wandered, God simply waited for the complainers to die off. The amazing thing about this story is that in spite of the complaining, God gave them food and water anyway. The complaining just made the trip to the Promised Land longer.
Every people of God, including the church and each person in it, is going from Point A to Point B. We need all hands on deck. God has given us a mission, and we need everybody’s help to get us there. God said, “Go” and every week we say, “Yes, Lord, we will.” We sing “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.” We sing, “Fill My Cup, Lord.” God gives us faith and fills our cups, (they are not half empty; they are way more than half-full) and God gives us a mission to reach the people who are thirsty. God would have us reach out to all those driving by on Main Street who have no idea what happens here, and are thirsty for something more. Thirsty for the Living Water we talk about each week. Thirsty for Jesus.
All of us could find something to complain about on this trip, and there’s nothing wrong with differences of opinion. The problem with the Hebrew people’s complaining was their lack of trust in God. Their immediate problem was thirst. God had just brought them through the Red Sea (it was just back there). God had already given them water once. God had just started to give them manna every day – this bread-like substance that kept them nourished. They are thirsty again and complaining bitterly. What should they have done instead? Ask God. Together. This is what Moses keeps showing them how to do.
It was a faith issue, an opportunity for faith. Could God supply their need? Yes. God is waiting to be asked. For the people of God, this is always the problem. Something we need? God is waiting to be asked. Amongst each other, the solution could be as simple as offering a compliment for every complaint.
It was also a collective reaction. You can imagine contagious emotion running through the crowd. It had turned into a lynch mob. This has happened repeatedly with the people of God. It’s why scripture is always cautioning to hold issues as privately as possible for the sake of the health of the body. In the gospel story, when do you see lynch mobs? The woman caught in adultery and… Jesus before he is crucified.
Our culture would rather have us blast away at each other for the sake of pride, for the sake of revenge, or being right, or winning. When we offer healing and wholeness and love to the community in the name of Christ, unnecessary complaining creates problems you may not even know about. And gets in the way.
Just after Kathy and I graduated from college we joined a church where we met a couple named Dick and Ann. They were old enough to be our parents; Dick was a deacon in the church and Ann led the women’s bible studies; we really looked up to them. Once a year, together, they did the sermon when the pastor was gone and everybody agreed that these were some of the most moving worship services they had ever been a part of.
Dick would talk about some issue of Christian life from a man’s point of view, then Ann would talk about it from a woman’s perspective. It was very effective. Dick and Ann even preached in other churches sometimes.
Dick once told us a story about a side of his personality that few people ever saw, and how he had been forced to deal with it.
One spring Saturday morning, Dick went to Sears and bought a lawnmower. You know how it feels when you buy a new lawnmower, when it’s all shiny and new, before it gets gunked up with grass and dirt? He was in a great mood when he lifted it out of the back of the car and walked it to the edge of the driveway. He adjusted the push-bar and read the little directions by the throttle to make sure he knew exactly how to start it. Throttle on start; pull out the choke. Pull on the rope. Nothing happened.
Pull on the rope. Nothing. Pull. Nothing. Pull. Nothing. Pull. Nothing. Not even a sputter.
Push in the choke, adjust the throttle. Pull. Nothing. Pull. Nothing. He did this for 15 minutes. Ann poked her head out the garage door. “Wow! Great new mower! How’s it work?”
“Fine! I’m busy, okay?”
Ann had a good sense for Dick’s style of communicating and body language. She decided not to offer to help and went back inside.
Meanwhile, Dick’s face was bright red from bending over and the veins in his neck were starting to stick out. He had had it. He opened the back of the car, dropped the mower in – just hard enough to vent anger but not hard enough to break it – and drove back to Sears. With the radio off. He pushed the mower inside the store, went straight to the lawn-care department, and found a clerk.
Speaking through clenched teeth, he said, “I just spent the last hour and a half of my day off dealing with this mower, which I bought here this morning. Not only is this mower supposed to be the most durable mower I’ve ever owned, it is supposed to be easy to start. Well, I can’t get it started.”
The clerk stepped from behind the counter and began looking over the mower. He played with the controls and gave the rope a pull. Nothing happened.
Dick kept going. “This was the perfect day, too. I can’t mow tomorrow and I’ll be out of town all week. I really needed to use this mower. That’s what I get for coming in here during a sale.” Now some of the other customers were starting to stare.
The clerk said, “You really needed to put gas in it.” He was holding the gas cap with a very patient expression on his face as if to say, ‘This happens about three times a day.'”
Dick was speechless. He had never felt so stupid in his whole life. All he could say was, “Oh.” He started to push the mower toward the parking lot exit and the clerk walked next to him. As the clerk opened the door for Dick he said, “Oh, by the way, I enjoyed that sermon last week.”
Dick told us that at that moment, he made a vow that he would never publicly criticize anyone, or openly complain about anything, ever again. He went home and mowed his lawn.
O God, you are so loving and patient with us, but we aren’t very patient or loving with you. We expect life to be perfect and complain that it’s not. As we walk along in our faith together, maybe we think a little too much about the safety of the good old days instead of the challenges of the future. Sometimes we want to go back to Egypt. Forgive us for our lack of trust in you and our resistance to following where you lead. Now, Lord, feed us so that we can feed others. Through your Spirit, show us what we can do to make a difference in your world. Help us find real ways to accomplish the mission you’ve sent us on to bring Christ to our families, to Manheim, and beyond. Amen.