This is a sermon I preached at Emmanuel Reformed Church in Springfield, SD on Sunday, May 14, 2017. Though I preached this on Mother’s Day, this is not a sermon specifically for mothers; that being said, I pray mothers will find “good news” in this passage of Scripture, and this sermon.
This morning’s reading:
When Christ our Lord was raised from death, and walked out of His tomb in glory, a new kind of life was revealed on this earth: a life that was dazzling in its purity, and impervious to death and fatigue. And, grace upon grace!, this newness of life that we see in the Risen Christ has been shared with us, made accessible to us, as we live in Christ. It’s the simplest prayer we pray when we begin our life-long journey in Christ, that we ask the Risen Lord Jesus into our hearts. And through His Holy Spirit, Christ answers, and His impossible Life takes up residence within us.
At that moment that Christ began to abide in you through His Holy Spirit, God began to accomplish His mission in your life – to redeem, restore, and reconcile you (and all things) to Himself. At that moment, you also began to abide in Christ, as He led you out of our own personal Egypts, your slavery to the stain of sin, the tyranny of the devil, and the patterns of this world.
And it may be, then, that, like the Israelites, who had experienced that same kind of deliverance from evil and slavery at the hands of our faithful and powerful God, we find newness of life to be mostly difficult. The Israelites were literally starting over: they had only what they could carry with them as they journeyed through a barren and challenging wilderness, following daily the real presence of God on earth, a pillar of fire and cloud, with whom they could communicate through their God-appointed intermediary, Moses. If you examine your experience of this new life in Christ, it maybe hasn’t felt like perfect peace and rest; maybe you’ve found that new life in Christ has felt more like dry, weary wandering in harsh landscapes of God’s distant silence. Many Christians today might say as much. For that reason, I think it’s true what G. K. Chesterton wrote:
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
But if you have tried, if you have truly set out on this journey toward the goal – the complete salvation that awaits us in the Risen Christ when He returns, and we shall finally and fully be made like Him: fully human, perfectly reflecting God’s glory, completely reconciled to God and to each other – then hear Israel’s story at the Rock, where God poured Himself out to His people in extravagant, self-giving love, as your peace and your encouragement this morning.
God leads us to dry, desolate places to bring us to Himself.
God leads His chosen, beloved people to a place where there is no water, once again placing them in an impossible situation — beyond what they can bear — in order to see whether or not they will look to Him, for whom all things are possible. We see that they do not. Rather than learn from their past experiences in the wilderness and come to God in faith, they do what they always do when they get anxious: they complain. They blame Moses of poor leadership. And this time, they go so far as to threaten to stone Moses if he does not make water appear in the desert.
Of course, when we find ourselves in impossible circumstances, we also tend to react in predictable patterns, and those patterns are rarely patient, reasonable, or constructive. The experiences of Israel are recorded here for us as a negative example: see what these people did, and do differently! Instead of reacting anxiously and angrily and violently to impossible circumstances, choose to respond differently. We can read this story and shake our heads, because we can see that the Israelites obviously should have prayed. God’s presence was plainly visible to them in the cloud; why did they not simply ask God for what they needed? He had already provided for them in the wilderness; why would they not have the faith to trust Him to provide for them again? But if we rebuke the Israelites for their little faith, then we must also rebuke ourselves. As we journey together on this difficult, dry journey into new life in Christ, how often do we find ourselves in our own impossible circumstances, and react in the same faithless patterns? Do we not also do everything we can in our own power first, complaining and blaming all the while, and only think to pray as a last resort?
The test of faith we find here in this story is to structure our lives, now that they have been renewed in the resurrection of Christ Jesus, to anticipate the obstacles ahead of us on this new life journey – the temptations and difficulties and burdens that we know we will face – and to endure those dry places with prayerful perseverance.
Prayer is our first and greatest resource in our new life.
God answers the needs of the Israelites dramatically. Where Moses is afraid of the people’s violent anger against him, God calls Moses to make himself vulnerable, and expose himself to their anger by walking calmly before the people, showing them what radical faith looks like. And God does the same! He tells Moses that He will stand on the Rock, so that when Moses strikes it with his staff, it will be God Himself who is struck, and He will pour Himself out to provide for the needs of His people. This is a shocking picture of prayer. God invites us to come to Him, making ourselves vulnerable, exposing our need and our insufficiency and our fear; and God promises to meet us in prayer with that same vulnerability, making Himself open to all of who we are: our anger, our doubt, our fear, our accusations. God is not threatened or afraid of your emotions; He stands ready to meet with you in your need. And He will answer your every need out of His own infinite riches.
The journey into Christ-likeness is not guaranteed to be easy. Quite the opposite. You are being invited to live an impossibly good life in a world that is committed to destroying itself. If you agree, and you set out on this journey anew each morning, you will experience dry places of want surrounded by people who are satisfying themselves on the things of this world; you will experience lonely places surrounded by people who seem to experiencing connection and belonging in the broken systems of this world; you will experience vulnerable places of exposure surrounded by people making themselves seem strong and successful and impervious to danger. And in those dry, lonely, vulnerable places, God is with you, abiding in you through His Holy Spirit, and He invites you to abide in Him, and He will satisfy your soul.
If it is true of you that “The Christian ideal” – the Risen Christ Himself – “has not been tried,” because “It has been found difficult;” then I can only say that it is the difficult things in this life that are most worth doing. I offer you, as encouragement and exhortation, the testimony of the Apostle Paul:
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith — that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers [and sisters], I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Brothers and sisters, “press on toward the goal” – the promised land of resurrection from the dead in the coming kingdom of the Risen Christ Jesus. Press on, drawing your life from the Rock, who is Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4). As you do – abiding in Christ as Christ abides in you, the dry and desperate world will see and know that the Risen and reigning Lord is truly among us.