Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost and celebration of Holy Communion

Service Date: 1 October, 2017
Worship was led by The Revd. Dr. David Stec who preached on the theme of challenging God. Just as the Israelites in the widerness queried whether God was in their midst so can we challenge God and in the process grow in faith and understanding.

Rejoice and Sing 476 Jesus, where’re thy people meet

Rejoice and Sing 365 Rock of ages, cleft for me

Rejoice and Sing 449 I hunger and I thirst

Rejoice and Sing 261 At the name of Jesus


Exodus chapter 17 verses 1 – 7

Psalm 78 verses 1 – 4 and 12 – 16

Philippians chapter 2 verses 1 – 13

Matthew chapter 21 verses 23 – 32

Exod. 17:7
And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the faultfinding of the children of Israel, and because they put the LORD to the proof by saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’

Is the LORD among us or not?
It was not entirely unreasonable of the Israelites to ask this question.

They had been brought out of Egypt under the leadership of Moses, and were on their way to a promised land, a land supposedly flowing with milk and honey.

But their journey was a long and hard one for a people made up of several thousands of persons of all ages, and doubtless with varying degrees of health and strength.

It took them through desert regions where finding water for such a large number was always likely to be a challenge.

We are told at the beginning of Exodus 17 that “All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the LORD, and camped at Rephidim; but there was no water for the people to drink.”

If they were moving through the wilderness “according to the commandment of the LORD”, it was reasonable for them to expect that the Lord would provide for their needs, especially their need for water.

And since this commandment of the Lord came through Moses, it was understandable that they should find fault with Moses.

It was he who was leading them through this wilderness; did he not have a duty of care for them?

So at Rephidim in the region of Sinai, when they found that there was no water for them to drink, they confronted Moses with the words, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?”

In desperation, Moses cries out to God in prayer, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

In response, God tells Moses to pass on ahead with some of the elders, and to stand on the rock at Horeb and to strike the rock with the rod with which he had struck the Nile when he turned it into blood.

When he does this, water will come out of the rock so that the people may drink.

Moses does this, and we may assume that from the rock the Israelites had all the water that they needed.

In this passage, the demand of the people, “Give us water to drink,” is taken both as finding fault with Moses, and as putting God to the test.

Thus this place is given the two names Massah and Meribah.

Massah means a “test”, “proof”, “trial”; and Meribah means “strife”, “contention”, “finding fault”.

In this passage it seems that material from two sources has been put together, and a tradition about the people contending with Moses has been intertwined with a tradition about them putting God to the test with their demand for water.

Actually, there are accounts of similar events elsewhere in the Pentateuch.

In Exodus 15, Just three days after crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites came to a place in the wilderness where the water was undrinkable, because it was bitter.

The people murmured against Moses, and Moses cried out to God and was shown a stick, which he threw into the water, and the water became sweet.

That place was given the name Marah, meaning “bitter” or “bitterness”.

And in Numbers 20, at Kadesh much later in their journey there is an alternative account of the Israelites being in a place where there was no water, and of them contending with Moses (and this time Aaron too).

Following God’s instruction, Moses struck the rock, and water gushed out of it, so that the Israelites and their cattle could drink of it.

As in Exodus 17, this place was given the name Meribah, “contention”, because the people had contended with God there (Num 20:13).

Some scholars think that all three passages are different accounts of the same event; others suppose that on a long journey through the wilderness there must have been several times when lack of water was a problem for the Israelites, and so these passages could refer to different events.

When one reads the whole of the account of the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness to the promised land, one easily gets the impression that they were an awkward, stiff-necked people, who frequently complained and found fault.

There may be some justification in this impression, but we need to remember too that the whole of the forty-year journey through the wilderness to the promised land was a learning experience for the Israelites.

For them it was a spiritual journey as well as a physical journey.

When they set out on the Exodus, they had no real experience of being the people of God, and no understanding of what that entailed.

In Egypt they had grown from being the seventy members of Jacob’s family who went to sojourn there, into a people of several thousand, but there was little that bound them together apart from a common ancestry, and a sense of sharing a common oppression as foreigners in Egypt.

They became the people of God only when God made his covenant with them on Mount Sinai and gave them the ten commandments, but this was only the beginning of their relationship with God.

It was the whole experience of the Exodus which moulded them into being God’s people.

Throughout this journey, they found fault with Moses – yes.

They put God to the proof – yes.

But it was through their questioning, “Is the Lord among us or not?” that they grew as a people.

For they experienced his power and readiness to provide for their needs and bring them to the land he had promised them.

As each of us go forward on our spiritual journey through life in the Christian faith, there are times when we too arrive at the place Meribah and Massah.

There are times when God seems to be remote, not listening to our prayers, not providing the help that we need in a moment of crisis, but allowing bad things to happen, for reasons we cannot understand.

At such times, it is only natural that we should want to contend with God, and put God to the proof, questioning whether he is really with us.

As people of faith, there are times in life when we put God to the proof, weighing up what a particular event or situation has to say to us about what we believe about God.

Such a questioning and critical attitude to our faith can be positively upbuilding.

For as we move further along our spiritual journey and in time look back upon our experience, we see that we have learned from it and our faith has matured.

Our lesson from St Matthew’s Gospel has its setting in the last week of the life of Jesus, as he was teaching in the courts of the temple.

He was approached and asked several questions by groups variously described as chief priests and elders, Pharisees and Sadducees.

They asked him by what authority he did “these things”, by which they presumably meant his teaching and healing ministry.

They also asked him whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, they asked him a question about the resurrection of the dead, and a question about which is the greatest of the commandments.

For the most part these questions were intended to trick him into giving an unwise answer and thus to entrap him, though the one about the greatest of the commandments might have been a genuine enquiry.

Jesus not only responded to their questions, but also used this as an occasion to give further teaching through parables: the parable of the two sons (which we heard read in our Gospel lesson), the parable of tenants of the vineyard, and the parable of the marriage feast.

Although this questioning of Jesus had an overwhelmingly negative purpose, its result might have been beneficial to those who posed the questions, if only they had heeded his teaching and reflected upon his parables, even though he was saying things that they would not wish to hear.

Certainly St Matthew and the other writers of the Synoptic Gospels must have thought that this teaching of Jesus was edifying for the early Christians for whom they wrote.

In a sense, one might say that the Christian life is all about putting Christ to the test, since it is a matter of trying out, putting into practice the way of life which he taught and showed.

It is a matter of gaining experience on our Christian journey, and growing in Christ.

St Paul in his letter to the Philippians sets out before us an account of why Jesus is worthy of our homage and devotion.

He urges the Philippians to do nothing out of selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than themselves, and to look not only to their own interests, but also to the interests of others.

He then makes use of what is believed to be an earlier Christian hymn, which paints a picture of the utter humiliation of Christ, who:

though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
The hymn then draws out the consequence of this humiliation:

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Through his utter humiliation on our behalf, Christ has proved himself to be supremely worthy of our homage and devotion as his disciples.

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