What a strange and unsettling turn of events in our episode today! At the beginning of this saga, the Lord called Moses from the burning bush, sent him back to Egypt, argued him out of all his excuses, equipped him with miraculous powers, and even revealed His sacred name to him. Now at the end the Lord puts the smack down to Moses. And He comes down hard on this man who has endured so much with the Israelites! What are we to make of this?
As Numbers 20 opens we have skipped over several years. The Israelites are in their 40th year since they had left Egypt. Nearly everyone of that original generation is now dead. As we heard last week, when Israel was first brought to the threshold of the Promised Land, some 37 years earlier, the people rebelled because they were afraid to cross over into Canaan. And God, in His anger, swore that because of their rebellion none of them would enter. And He has been leading Israel around and around in the wilderness, letting death take this one and that.
In fact, Numbers 20 begins and ends with death. In v1, Moses’ big sister, Miriam, dies. She who had watched over her baby brother’s voyage on the Nile when he was put into that reed basket and found by Pharaoh’s daughter, Miriam now dies. At the end of the chapter, Moses’ big brother, will Aaron die.
Moses himself is now 120 years old. He has been leading Israel for the last 40…troublesome Israel, rebellious Israel, grumbling, complaining, whining, grousing Israel. Surrounded by grief, and facing almost-daily grief from the Israelites…well…it is a situation just waiting to explode!
Numbers 20:2, “Now there was no water for the congregation.” This is the new generation of Israel, a generation which has grown up in the wilderness. They were children when they left Egypt, and many of them not even born.
They have grown up in the wilderness. They know the life, the struggles of the wilderness. But this new generation has also learned well from the previous, dying generation the lesson of how you get results from Moses. You make a lot of noise!
“Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and Aaron.” V3, “And the people quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! [Oh yes, their parents have taught them well!] Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place?’”
The only thing these people know about life back in Egypt was what their parents had told them. They were small children when they left Egypt, and the majority were not even born. It’s only a childhood memory, yet they complain like they were the slaves! And you can tell that they’re already thinking about the Promised Land. They complain, “[This] is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink!”
Well, Moses and his soon-to-die brother, Aaron, do as they have done for years. They take the complaint to God. And God says to Moses, v8, “Take the staff [Moses’ staff with which he has carried from the beginning, with which he did those wonders back in Egypt], and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.”
So it’s to be another miracle. Oh…but the Israelites aren’t the only ones with a short fuse. V10, Moses gathers the Israelites in front of the rock. Grieving the death of his sister, standing with his dying brother, Moses says, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?”
Moses is fried. In anger he assails the people. Then, in anger, v11, “Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly…” Yes, Israel got something to drink. Their complaint is answered. Trouble is, God told Moses to speak to the rock. In frustration and anger Moses smacked that rock…twice! So? God says to Moses, v12, “Because you did not believe in Me, to uphold Me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.”
And just like that Moses loses his ticket into the Promised Land! That’s the thanks he gets for leading these annoying people for the last 40 years? When God has pardoned the Israelites more times than Moses can count? When Moses has put his own neck on the line, standing between God’s anger and the Israelites’ rebellion, this is what he gets for all his grief? Showing himself to be human, reacting in a very understandable way after putting up with these bone-headed, complaining, pains-in-the-you-know-what for all these years? One mistake and he’s out? Yes!
What are we to make of this? The text doesn’t give us much of a clue, except those cryptic words in v12, where God says, “Because you did not believe in Me.” Could it really be that Moses actually forgot God? After all these years? We can easily imagine how Moses had become pre-occupied with his troubles. We can imagine how Moses might have gotten tangled up in himself, thinking that this whole Exodus enterprise had been his doing, that he had been the one who has kept Israel together all these years in the wilderness…and not God.
But really? One momentary lapse and Moses is toast? There’s gotta be some loophole! But there is no way for us around this. This episode gives us what Luther called the deus absconditus, the hidden God. A God who can be so inscrutable! He will forgive rebellious Israel but not faithful Moses? It leaves us throwing up our hands and saying, “Well, if God is going to do as He pleases…what hope do we have?”
If Psalm 90, written by Moses at some point in his life, if Psalm 90 is any indication, Moses has learned something about this hidden God. It reads, “You sweep [men] away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers…. Who considers the power of Your anger, and Your wrath according to the fear of You? So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”
Moses has learned that kind of wisdom. And now He has learned the painful wisdom–Luther called these lessons Anfechtungen, the trials of life–by these he learns that he will have to look into the future trusting this same God; trusting that the God who has now taken everything away, will yet make things new.
We have problems with the hidden God! Even in popular expressions of Christianity, God has been stripped of virtually everything which makes Him God. He has been re-imaged, renamed, remodeled, recreated into little more than a patsy.
So we don’t know what to do with a God who would strip a faithful man like Moses of his earthly reward for one slip up! We have gotten so complacent about the Gospel of grace that we forget that the gracious God is the same God who judges and kills.
And you don’t live long in this life without running smack into this God, where one mistake can haunt you the rest of your days…while countless others blissfully flaunt God’s commandments without any consequences at all!
Ah…but the mystery of this God only gets deeper and deeper. For just as Moses, for all his faithfulness standing in the gap between God and Israel, is condemned for one act of disobedience, even more so Jesus, a perfectly faithful servant, dies condemned; perfectly obedient, yet crucified and dead in the wilderness.
The apostle Paul calls Jesus the spiritual Rock from which Israel drank in the wilderness. And as the rock was struck, so Jesus is struck. As one of our hymns sings, “Stricken Rock with streaming side.” St. John writes specifically of the water and the blood which streamed abundantly from that crucified rock, Jesus. The blow is struck in judgment, but the stream is life.
And it is at the cross where we finally see the mystery of the hidden God more clearly. What was condemnation for Moses, is life for Israel: the water of life. A sign that what is condemnation for Jesus is life for the world…eternal life in the water and the blood flowing from Jesus’ side; the water into the pool of Holy Baptism, where we are born anew in the Holy Spirit; the blood into the chalice of the Holy Supper, where we may drink and not die.
So on Christ our solid Rock…when we are struck by God…and the offense may be small in our eyes, or it may be one of those life-altering tragedies…when we are struck by God and our life in body, soul, or spirit feels the force of that blow…yet in Christ such a blow means life for us—it may be the very thing to awaken us to repentance and faith; it may be the very thing to plant the word of forgiveness deep within us because the sin may be one which we or the world find unforgivable; it teaches us the wisdom of bearing in our stricken bodies the death of Christ, that we might also bear the life of Christ, until the day we bear it new in glory.
Because of this one sin, Moses will now not enter the Promised Land. And we, because of some momentary lapse, we may come to live with consequences both long lasting and painful. But…(and with the cross there is always a “but”) …but in the mystery of the hidden God revealed by the cross, one is struck and yet it means life. We may be struck, but in Christ we are not destroyed. We are judged, but in Christ we are not condemned. Eventually we are killed, yet in Christ we live. For one far greater than Moses reaches His influence even here, even now, even into our failures, even into our death. Judged, and behold, we are forgiven; dying, and behold, we live!