Brixton Hill, 13 February 2000


Readings: Numbers 20.2-13, Philippians 3.7-21

1. Introduction

I don't want to preach for too long this evening, but I was very struck by the contrasts in our readings. In the first reading we have Moses being so thoroughly fed up with everything and everyone that he loses his temper, and tragedy ensues. And in the second reading, Paul is bubbling over with love for his Lord, and even from a prison cell his joy is infectious.

2. Tragedy for Moses

Moses, of course, was thoroughly fed up. His people have been wandering in the desert for what seems like forever, and now once again they've arrived in an area where there's no water. And once again - for this isn't the first time it's happened, by any manner of means - they start grumbling and grousing and "Why did we ever leave Egypt?"-ing. And they remember all the delicious things they'd had to eat when they were in Egypt, and forget that even though they'd mostly had full bellies, what they hadn't been was free.

And Moses, thoroughly fed up, goes to talk to the Lord about it all. And the Lord tells him to go and speak to a nearby rock, and water will come gushing out.

What happens next is a bit odd. Moses, instead of speaking to the rock, hits it with his staff, and says, rather crossly, to his people "I suppose we've got to get water for you again!" And God is simply furious with Moses and says that just for that, he won't be allowed to enter the Promised Land. Which seems to me to be remarkably petty. Surely God isn't like that?

The thing is, of course, that those who chronicled the story of God's people Israel do like to find a crime to fit a perceived punishment: Moses didn't make it to the Promised Land, but died within spitting distance - he must have done something wrong. There was a plague of serpents - was God punishing his people again? Saul went crazy towards the end of his life; he must have fallen out of favour with God. David's wife Michal was barren; there must have been a reason for it. The Kingdom was divided after Solomon's death - and so on and so forth. They do seem to feel the need to uphold the principle that Sin is Always Punished, and that Punishment - or perceived punishment - is inevitably the result of sin.

Be that as it may, to those of us who are not under law, but under grace, as St Paul puts it, it does seem extremely petty of God to punish Moses in this way for what may even have been a genuine mistake. After all, the last time the people needed water, God had told Moses to hit the rock with his stick, so what was different this time?

I suppose it must be Moses' attitude. It's not just that he bashes the rock instead of speaking to it; it's that he seems to take it upon himself to do so, rather than giving glory to God. It is he, Moses, who has to get the water for the people! Their fault - for Aaron is blamed as well as Moses - is not having trusted in God, having missed an opportunity to show God's holiness.

And, you'll note, the punishment, if such it is, is merely temporal. There is no suggestion that Moses and Aaron will miss out on any eternal life going. Not that the chroniclers really believed in eternal life, which is partly why punishment in those days was so dreadful. If this life is all there is, then you need to make the most of it. But we know, from the Transfiguration, that Moses did achieve eternal life, the real Promised Land. Even if it must have been miserable for him to miss out on the temporal one.

3. Triumph For Paul

For St Paul, however, things were very different. Quite the opposite, really. There he was, in prison, facing execution, and yet he can write in such ecstatic terms to the believers in Philippi. He doesn't really care about anything much now, just so as nothing can disturb his relationship with Jesus. And he believes that nothing can disturb it, not even death itself. He says he is pressing on towards the goal of union with Christ, and urges others to do the same. For Paul, earthly punishment couldn't matter less, as long as it doesn't come between him and Jesus, and he's not about to let it do that!

And Paul - he wouldn't be boasting, by any remote chance, would he? - contrasts himself with others who are more focussed on their own appetites, rather like the ancient Israelites were so busy remembering the delicious food they had had in Egypt that they forgot they hadn't been free. Paul says that these people are living as enemies of Jesus. I'm not too sure whether he means people who had started out as Christians and got side-tracked, or whether they had never discovered Jesus at all. Either way, they are now living for themselves and ignoring God and heading themselves straight for destruction.

4. Wholeheartedness

For Paul, and I think for Moses, too, it's about wholeheartedness. About being totally focussed on God. Moses lost concentration, and felt the burden of leadership that normally he wore quite lightly. "Why do we have to get water for you lot?" he groused, and paid the price. Paul remained totally focussed, so far as we know, and won the prize. You remember how some of our best athletes talk of the importance of being focussed when it comes to the big race. I know that at skating competitions, some folk deal with their nerves by talking to anyone and everyone, and others shut themselves inside themselves, hating to be spoken to or having to speak.

Paul says, quite rightly, that we need to be focussed on Jesus. The trouble is, it's all very well for him; he was in prison and didn't have anything else to do! We find it all too easy to be distracted. And not only by our lives - our work, our families, our hobbies, and so on. Sometimes we confuse wholeheartedness with busyness. We rush about from one church activity to the next, from service to sub-committee to service again, that we really have no time for God, and, almost worse, we simply never meet people who aren't Christians so we don't have any opportunities to be salt and light to them!

We need to be wholehearted in our commitment to Jesus, of course we do! But we also need to learn how that commitment plays out in every day life. Paul says somewhere that we are to be "in the world, but not of it". All too often we interpret that to mean we mustn't be in the world at all, and withdraw into our cosy little Christian sub-culture - and not only Christian sub-culture, but the sub-culture of Christians who express spirituality the same way that we do!

But God isn't just interested in what we do when we are on His premises, as it were. God's there with us whatever we are doing, whether we are on our knees in Church, or engrossed in wrestling with a problem in one of the multitude of sub-committees we seem to need, or whether we are at home with our family, or having fun somewhere, taking exercise, or busy at the office. We can be wholeheartedly God's people and only ever appear at Church once a week!

But you know all that, of course. I don't need to remind you. Thank God that he is involved in all of our lives, though. And thank God that we can be, as Paul was, and as Moses mostly was, wholeheartedly His. Amen.

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