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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Numbers 20
January 13, 2013 - Baptism of Our Lord

         “I’m full for that,” said the little boy, looking at meat and vegetables left on his plate. Someone on the radio was talking about a child who had learned the device of claiming he had no more room for the healthier food before him, but was still able to choke down some cookies or pudding or other sweets.

         When we encounter the people of Israel here in Numbers 20, they are well-fed. God had rained down bread, manna, from heaven every day for quite awhile. But they are “full for that,” bored with their miracle food.

         It’s not the first time they complained about the monotony of their diet. Turn back to Numbers 11 and you find them wanting fish and cucumbers and melons and leeks, onions and garlic. Here in verse 5, it’s a different list of what they used to have in Egypt: grain, figs, grapes, pomegranates. But it’s the same story. They are filled up with what God is supplying and want something different.

         The fact that this scene has happened more than once, that Moses has had to listen to this sort of thing for years, partly explains the rest of what happens here. But framing the whole list of foods is a more basic need which, on the face of it, is genuine. They have no water. They are thirsty. The lack of grain and fruits is an indicator that their environment is so dry that orchards and even watering of livestock are not possible.

         If you read the intervening chapters you will see that this is a constant theme in the overall narrative of the Exodus. Moses led hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in a wilderness that was frequently dry and barren of provision. Manna kept them from starving, but they still needed water.

         Way back at the beginning of it all, in Exodus 15, three days after they crossed the Red Sea, the Israelites were thirsty for the first time. God showed Moses how to turn a spring of bitter, poisonous water into fresh clean water. Two chapters later in Exodus 17, they’ve traveled on and we find a situation much like this one. Back then, God specifically commanded Moses to strike a rock with his staff. Water sprang from that rock. Thirsty people and their livestock drank their fill.

         Numbers 20 comes much later in their journeys. A lot of water has gone under the bridge, if you will. They’ve been in the desert nearly forty years, the punishment God ordained for their cowardice in chapter 14. The first generation of Israelites who left Egypt is dying out and the chapter begins by telling us that Miriam, Moses’ sister, died there in Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, in the northeast part of the Sinai Peninsula.

         Amazing as it seems, that older generation still hasn’t learned much. Once again in verse 2 they find themselves without water and they come complaining to their leaders, “quarreling,” verse 3 says, with Moses. Their complaint is the same old, “We’d be better off dead or slaves back in Egypt” that Moses and Aaron have heard so often before.

         Moses and Aaron initially responded well. Verse 7 tells us they got away from the grumbling crowd and went to seek the presence of God at the outskirts of the Tabernacle. They fell down prostrate before God and He appeared and spoke to them.

         God directed Moses to take “the staff,” says verse 8, assemble the congregation before him and his brother, and then speak to a rock, command it to bring forth water. God promised that water would come out of the rock and both the people and their animals would be able to drink.

         Maybe they were old and tired and didn’t listen carefully. Maybe they were still depressed with grief about the death of their sister. Maybe they were just fed up with forty years of serving and leading people who did nothing but complain. But Moses and Aaron only followed God’s instructions halfway.

         Moses went and got “the staff,” that is, Aaron’s rod that had miraculously sprouted buds in chapter 17 to prove he was God’s chosen high priest. It had been put away in the Tabernacle as a constant reminder to them all of Aaron’s position. He got the rod, but then in verses 10 and 11 he did not do as God directed.

         Maybe Moses was lost in the past, remembering the time years before when God told him to strike a rock and bring forth water. But this time God had told him just to speak to the rock. Instead in verse 10, he spoke to the people, spoke in anger and frustration. He called them “rebels,” and asked them the sarcastic question, “shall we bring water for you out of this rock?”

         Then he did what God did not tell him to do and took that holy staff and hit the rock, not once, but twice. Verse 11 says that water came out and everyone and the livestock got to drink. It seemed to end well. But God was not happy with Moses and Aaron.

         Both Jewish and Christian Bible readers have read this text and wondered, “What exactly did Moses do wrong?” Why was God upset enough in verse 12 to say, “you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites”? And then the Lord gave Moses and Aaron the same punishment that fell on the rest of that first generation of the Exodus. They would not live to lead Israel into the promised land. Why?

         It’s totally clear that Moses directly disobeyed God’s directions. He struck the rock, rather than speaking to it. It’s also obvious that he acted out of anger rather than out of faithfulness to God and care for his people. Yet it’s not disobedience or anger for which God rebuked both Moses and Aaron. What He said was, “you did not trust in me, to show my holiness…”

         Moses and Aaron had become enormously competent leaders. They had to be. For years they had guided a half million people through the wilderness, kept them together, and resolved their disputes. Any CEO or politician could take lessons from these two. But their very strength and competence led to their failure here at what they came to call the waters of Meribah, the “waters of quarreling.”

         Myself, I like to think I’m pretty competent at some things, that when problems arise I can take care of them. Last week our dryer quit working. I didn’t pray about it. Instead I went on-line, found what the problem might be, took the back off the dryer and tested the thermal fuse and a thermostat and found them defective. I ordered new parts. They came and I put it all back together yesterday. It worked fine. No problem. I can handle that sort of thing.

         The problem arises when we think that we can handle spiritual life and spiritual matters like appliance repair. When I as a pastor or any of us as Christians start thinking that we are competent by ourselves to handle whatever life throws at us, that’s when God starts to get unhappy. We are failing to trust Him, failing to show His holiness both to ourselves and to the people around us.

         That was Moses’ problem. Note what he said to the people, “shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” He and Aaron were going to show them, were going to fix the problem for that bunch of griping rebels. He completely failed to remind the people that God helped them in the past and that God would help them again. Moses trusted in himself and his past performance rather than relying on God and teaching others to rely on God.

         There is nothing wrong with personal competence. I’d love to see more young men and women who feel confident to fix a dryer or bake a cake or bandage up a serious wound. In church it’s fantastic to have folks who can teach Sunday School or patch the roof or play the piano or change a diaper in the nursery. But when we find ourselves face down before God with the biggest problems in our lives, trusting in our own competence will only lead us in the wrong direction.

         Watch how it works out in the rest of Numbers 20. Right after Meribah, Moses and the people would like to take a direct way farther north up along the east side of the Dead Sea. They want to pass through the land of Edom, Israel’s ancient kin and rivals descended from Esau. They ask for nothing but a safe conduct through Edom’s land. But the king of Edom and the Edomites refuse and they have to turn and go the long way round.

         Then the chapter ends with the first part of God’s punishment of the two brothers. Aaron dies there in the wilderness, on top of a mountain, and his priesthood, his spiritual leadership, is passed to his son. In verse 24 God specifically says, “Let Aaron be gathered to his people. For he shall not enter the land that I have given the Israelites, because you rebelled against my command at the waters of Meribah.”

         We’re not going to end up where God wants us to be, where we ourselves truly want to be, if we fail to trust in and honor God rather than relying only on ourselves. God wanted Moses and Aaron to show the people His holiness, to show them the presence of the Lord. Instead, they showed the people themselves, their own anger and power.

         God wanted His people there at Meribah to see that they weren’t hungry for grapes and pomegranates. They weren’t even, ultimately, thirsty for water. What they really needed and thirsted for was God Himself. They needed Moses and Aaron to show them the Lord and His faithfulness and love.

         You and I need to remember that same spiritual thirst in ourselves and in the people around us. Other thirsts, other needs may mask or distract us from what we really desire most: to be in the presence of the Lord and receive His grace and love and help. We may get so caught up in our own competence to deal with those other problems, whether it’s a physical need or an emotional struggle, that we forget to seek God to quench our deepest and most basic thirst.

         That’s what Jesus tried to teach us with His own example by being baptized. Our text from Luke 3:21 says that Jesus came and was baptized by John when all the other people were baptized. By letting Himself be plunged into that flow of water in the Jordan River, Jesus demonstrated that He was going to depend on God His Father. And then the Holy Spirit came down like a dove displaying that caring and loving presence of God for which we all thirst.

         Our other text from Acts 8 teaches the same thing. That strange little story about some Samaritans who believed but hadn’t yet received the Holy Spirit tells us again that the important thing about our faith is God Himself. It’s not just the doctrine, the Word. That’s key, that’s vital, but God speaks to us because He wants to give us Himself. He wants to live with us, to live in us, to have us constantly, always trusting in Him and relying on Him for all we need.

         That’s why we’re here. We are thirsty for God. We come here to drink in His Holy Spirit who is the living water that quenches our thirst for eternity. When we house guests here in our sanctuary and give them a sandwich and a cup of coffee, we also want them to feel the living presence of One who satisfies a deeper thirst. When we donate to provide microscopes and school supplies for kids in India we pray for them also to be supplied with the love of Christ and filled with His Spirit.

         We need to remember it for ourselves. We come here for many reasons. You have friends here. You enjoy singing. You want to learn the Scriptures. You want your children to have good role models and moral instruction. That’s all good. You listen to me preach and maybe enjoy a story. I hope so. I’m going to tell you another story in a moment. But in all those different reasons, in all those things we hope to find here, let’s not forget that it is God we are truly thirty for.

         Many of you know I was a Boy Scout. By junior high the Scouts had given me a love for the mountains, the wilderness. Nothing sounded better to me than another backpack trip in California’s high Sierras. Then one of my teachers in junior high proposed a backpack trip to me and some of my friends. We had listened to him tell stories in class of his trips to the mountains and when he suggested we join him for an expedition right after school was out for the summer, I was ready.

         My mother wasn’t so ready. This wasn’t a Scout trip. She didn’t really know this teacher and she had misgivings. I’m not sure if she had the kinds of worries that may be in many of your minds right now. People didn’t know about or understand those sorts of dangers so well back then. But I know she had doubts about my teacher’s skills in the woods, about sending her son off with someone not vetted by an organization like the Scouts. So I didn’t get to go and envied my friends who did. But my mom was right.

         I didn’t see my friends right after the trip, but a few weeks later I ran into the sister of one them at the library. I asked her if Jeff had a good time. She said, “They ran out of water and wandered around trying to find some for more than a day. Jeffrey came back all shriveled up like a prune!” Then I was glad my mom didn’t let me go.

         You could say that water was the issue on my friend’s ill-fated backpack trip, that they just needed liquid to quench their thirst. But the real issue was who they were with, who was guiding them. They trusted the wrong person and he led them into trouble. They were thirsty for someone worthy of their trust.

         That’s why Moses should have called the congregation of Israel to trust in God, rather than in himself and Aaron. That’s why I hope you will put your trust not finally in me or in a local church or in a president or a congress, nor in yourself. I hope that by believing in Jesus Christ you will trust in God. That’s what you are thirsting for. That’s who you are thirsting for.

         May God make our human leaders more trustworthy. Moses mostly was. He is revered and honored as God’s man who led God’s people out of slavery into their own country. But as this text shows, we human leaders will only be as good as our own trust in God, our own willingness to exalt not our own competence, but to exalt and demonstrate the honor and holiness and faithfulness of our Lord.

         Trust in God. Believe in Jesus Christ and through Him trust God to forgive your sins, to change your heart, to quench all that spiritual thirst you feel. You can trust Him. Drink in His Holy Spirit, and you will be filled and satisfied forever. Trust Him and drink deep.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated January 1, 2012