Sermon on Exodus 17:1–7 (by Martin Damašek)

Dear brothers and sisters,

nihil novum sub solum, the Romans used to say: Nothing new under the sun. In our arrogance and self-righteousness, we love to think there is progress and if only, if only everybody is absolutely free, if only everybody is absolutely equal and if only everybody is rightly educated to unroll his/her inner self, if only everybody is creative enough, etc.,  we would develop into the just and perfect beings and the world would become perfect. All these naïve fairy tales and self-righteous lies ended up in bloodbaths, misery, alienation, loneliness and despair. They all have been proven wrong and they all have been the “opium of mankind”. Yet, these dangerous and destroying lies are what we really are. It is a no-brainer to see ourselves in the grumbling and quarreling Israelites. Every mother and father knows the grumbling and quarreling of his/her child, every man or woman knows the grumbling and quarreling of his/her loved one, every boss and employee knows grumbling and quarreling of his/her worker or manager and every councilor or Member of the Parliament knows the quarreling of his/her fellow councilors or MPs and the grumbling of the people. Nothing has really changed from the time of Moses, every child, every spouse, every employee and every citizen sometime says the same words as the discontent Israelites: “Give us…”.

It is the same grumbling and quarreling we find in Genesis. Eve did not have to speak to reveal her aesthetic discontent despite being provided with paradise, the Scripture testifies of her inner grumbling against the loving and providing God: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate…” (Genesis 3:6). The man does no better when being found by God and asked a direct question. Adam argues with God instead of confessing and repenting his sin: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:12). Do you see the parallel with the Exodus liberation and quarreling?  The Israelites argue: “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt…” (Exodus 17:3)? God was so loving and generous that he had given man a helper fit for him (Genesis 2:18), but instead of being grateful for such a wonderful helper, Adam seems to argue with God in a way of almost turning the blame to Him: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she…”.

No matter whether Adam or the Israelites or us, when man grumbles and quarrels, he breaks the Law, falls far from love and casts himself away from God´s favor, thus, according to the Law, deserves a damnation for himself if unrepentant. The Lord had just rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and had given them manna to eat, but they broke the first commandment by grumbling and quarreling with Moses, because they experienced God´s love and saving mercy; still, they did not rest their trust and content solely upon Him. And they broke the fifth commandment too, since they were angry with Moses (cf. Matthew 5:21 – 26) and they were ready to stone him (Exodus 17:4). Actually, the Israelites broke the entire Law because Jesus clearly tells that the whole Law is summed in these two commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God…You shall love your neighbor…On these two commandments depend all the Law…” (Matthew 22: 17 – 40). The Israelites did blow it completely! And so do we!  Indicted by the Law and condemned by the Law, by the sweat of our face we eat our bread and we are pilgrims through this stinky pit till we return to dust.

That is the conditio humana, that is our destiny. No matter how high we strive and no matter how much beauty we produce or no matter how rich or puffed up we may be (Luther used to say, put a bell over your neck, go to the market place and make noise so people may laud how skillful and worthy you may be), we all must go there – to dust. The same with the Israelites in the desert – angry, grumbling and quarreling, they were at the rim of dying and returning to the desert dust.

“The Lord answered to Moses…” (Exodus 17:5). Like in Eden, after Adam and Eve blew it up, God did not remain silent and distant, content in His own holiness. As Christ taught us to pray, the perfect and holy God into whose shining face we cannot even look, lest we would be consumed by His holiness, this God is “our Father”.  Out of pity and love, He came to Adam and Eve to search for them, came to rescue the Israelites and finally, two thousand years ago, humbled Himself and came in flesh to be born to a lowly maiden and laid in straw. And finally, out of His love that surpasses our understanding, “our Father” and the King of kings and the Lord of lords, laid on His bloody cross to show the ultimate grace for you and for me.

The Lord listened to the cry of Moses and had pity on the grumbling Israelites. “Go out in front of the people” (Exodus 17:5), Moses is commanded by God. He is led to the rock and when he strikes it, water comes out of it and the people drink and are saved. What a wonderful example! Moses is the shepherd of his people, like Peter when Jesus charged him: “Feed my sheep!” and “Follow me!” (John 21:17, 19). Where is this shepherd of people leading the fellow human beings? To the rock. Do not get confused or mistaken. The rock does not represent Peter or the church. Moses is commanded to lead the people and provide them with water, like Peter, who is commanded to feed them. Moses was to follow the rock and Peter was to follow Christ to take up his cross and follow Him – all the way to the rock of the Hill of Calvary. For Moses, the rock gave life-giving water and at Calvary, the pierced side of Christ gave the life-giving water and blood. There, at Horeb, the rock is Christ Himself saving the Israelites with the life-saving spring of water. There, at Calvary, the same Christ shattered our sin with His cross and His broken body as well as had His side pierced so we may, today again, drink. We drink His blood by which He ransomed us from sin and gave us a new life with the same water of baptism.

You and I, we are grumbling and unfaithful bags of dust who are struggling and paining in this confused world. But no matter how corrupted we are, not matter how lost we are, no matter how paining we are, no matter how betrayed or lonely we are, we can always run to the rock out of which springs the water of life. The world may change into craziness, our jobs may change into misery, our family and friends may change into strangers and our loved ones may change even into enemies, but there always is the never changing rock of Calvary to which we may flee and meet the meek and merciful Lamb upon the cross who gently assures us: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

Did you know that during the Nuremberg Trial after the WWII, the Nazi war criminals were spiritually cared for by an LCMS clergyman? Can you imagine a worse moral and human desert than this? Still, the rock of Calvary was there unshaken and its spring of grace gave the blood of the Lamb to Ribbentrop or Keitel. At the rock of Horeb and Calvary, there we meet love and mercy that surpasses our understanding. Next time you and I mess up, next time you and I are left alone or troubled, let us remember the grumbling and thirsty Israelites and the dry desert of the Nuremberg prison and let us run to the baptism water and let us run to the cross to cry for the blood of the Lamb slain for us. If the Israelites quenched their thirst at the rock, and if Ribbentrop and Keitel found peace at the Calvary rock, surely, there is sufficient grace for you and me too. (2 Corinthians 12:9).