You have to have a certain amount of sympathy for the Hebrew people. Expecting the unexpected was not their forte. In their journey, they should have realized that the God of Moses their leader – their God – excelled in surprises.
Though the stories of the exodus are familiar to us, nothing really was commonplace about the people’s liberation or about their journey. The people’s release was catalyzed by the strange plagues of frogs, gnats and flies, great darkness and a great slaughter.
Emerging from Egypt, they passed through the waters – shimmering liquid walls that moments later engulfed their pursuers. They were guided by a pillar of fire through darkness and a pillar of cloud by daylight – a phenomenon that would startle and absorb the attention of any contemporary meteorologist. And when all the food ran out, God provided manna - God’s brand of bread – and quail, an odd diet - unexpected provisions in adequate supply. How could one ever get used to all these mysterious evidences of God’s care? You just had to have sympathy for the people. They simply could not predict the manner of God’s care for them.
The thirst crept up on them as thirst does during hot weather. The infants noticed first – growing cranky, then silent. Then animals noticed next, moaning softly as they scarcely stirred. By the time the adults were fully aware of the dehydration, it was a serious situation. They realized that they had set up camp in a campground with no water supplies. It was not a concern for Moses. He had learned long ago routinely to expect the unexpected from God. Learned it, perhaps, in infancy, when his basked cradle was set adrift in the Nile, and, when he drifted to shore, he found himself anchored in life as a prince growing up in a palace.
Moses, we know, did not have a lot of self-confidence, but he did have a lot of confidence in God, took God’s care as a given. So it was of no big concern to Moses that the people had pounded their tent stakes in a parched field – God will provide. If the people had given the matter a second thought, reached into their memory of some days before, they might not have launched the attack on Moses and God.
The unrelenting sun beat down upon Moses as he knelt in the sand, his clear but sad eyes imploring heaven, “What shall I do with this people? They’re ready to stone me!” He prayed in frustration – not frustrated with God but with the smallness of the faith of God’s people. Moses prayed and God answered immediately as God always had. “Take some of the elders…I will stand before you at the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock. Water shall come that the people may drink,” and Moses did so. The water gushed out of the rock, not in a minor trickle but in a full stream. The people, astonished, came close to drink in twos and threes. They drank their fill.
We are – and, deep down, we know it – as dependent upon the provisions of God as the Hebrews trailing after the pillar of fire in the desert night.
All the previous miracles and wonders and mysterious provisions could not have taught them to have this kind of expectation. Every day on their journey, they dipped into a deep stream and knew God’s ceaseless care. Every day, that care came as unexpected grace, gift. Yet, they were still stuck in the wilderness. They were still on an endless journey to a land of promise. Night came in the wilderness. Yet they could see. Day covered the land, yet they knew their way. They took no food with them, yet they were satisfied. They carried no jugs of water, yet their thirst was quenched. They were free of the home of oppression, not yet at the home of promise; yet, they were looked after and at home on their journey. The people drank, letting the water spill down their cheeks.
Imagine this. With a broad grin, a man held his thick hat under the stream, pooling the water, then ran straight towards Moses, drenching him with a shower of the water of grace. “You stinker, Moses,” he cried, “you knew all along. You knew all along that God would provide for us.” Don’t label me greedy, but I want one thing more: faith that remembers longer than my belly, trust that outlasts the desert night. Where does one find that spring of faith? That’s the gift I need. We, who come so many centuries after this event, feel fortunate. Food, when we are hungry, is as near as the grocery store or refrigerator – for most of us. Water flows clean and fresh from the kitchen faucet. Our daily bread and drink are spread before us lavishly through no miracle, but commonplace routine.
Yet, our lives show signs of the uncontrollable – the wilderness factor – where longing for what is past or yearning for what lies in the future suddenly mushroom into matters of life and death, fueling anxiety and controversy. Though we do not pitch tents in nameless fields, we still dwell in uncertainty. Though our suitcases are not always in our hands, yet we journey toward unknown destinations. We are – and, deep down, we know it – as dependent upon the provisions of God as the Hebrews trailing after the pillar of fire in the desert night. We, too, require faith that remembers longer than the belly, trust to outlast the desert night.
Moses, you may notice, cannot dispense this trust to his followers as easily as manna and water. It is not a commodity we can purchase at any cost, even at church. It is a gift slowly acquired, it seems, often on a journey through wilderness. It is a gift we slowly come to recognize. A large measure of grace has always been present in our lives – inscrutable grace riches hidden in the depths of our lives. We will find this trust in the same place that Moses found it: in our long, seemingly random journey through wilderness territory. Water streamed from the rock. Manna fell from heaven. Miraculously, the Spirit of God feeds us provisions for our daily journey. Miraculous - but certain.