Brothers and Sisters,
It was hot…and Moses was tired. Not just bodily tired, but soul weary. He had been leading Israel, Yahweh’s people, for nearly forty years, and the burden felt especially heavy at the moment. Miriam, his beloved sister was dead. Aaron was aging before his very eyes, and Moses himself felt old; too old to deal yet again with whiners. But whiners he had. Not that they weren’t justified, in a way, to whine. Everyone needs water, particularly in a desert, and water there was none. “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the LORD! 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? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates and there is no water to drink.” So went the accusations…over…and over…and over again! What was he to do? Who could possibly find water for these hundreds of thousands living as a nomadic desert nation?
So, he went to the Lord, he and Aaron together. Yahweh appeared in his glory and said to him, “Take the staff, 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.”
Once again, Moses prepared to obey, just as he had countless times prior while leading his nation. This wasn’t the first time God promised to bring water from a rock. He had worked this way in the past, decades earlier, right after the Israelites came out of Egypt and before they arrived at Sinai. That time Moses struck the rock, according to God’s command, and, sure enough, the water flowed. Yahweh willing, it would be the same this time. And so, Moses gathered the people.
To his dying day Moses couldn’t explain why he did it. Wasn’t he a believer in the God of Israel? Hadn’t he seen his glory? Hadn’t he fallen on his face in the divine presence while the bush burned? Hadn’t he heard Yahweh’s voice and even written words prompted by Yahweh’s Spirit? All that was true, but in the moment something else came rushing up. As he gazed on the ungrateful children of the ungrateful generation that left Egypt, anger took hold. “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” He lifted his staff and struck hard at the impassive, unmoving, lifeless lump of stone in the middle of an empty wilderness. He didn’t speak to the rock, he struck it. Nothing happened. Had Yahweh finally failed him? Would these people perish after all? The frustration pressed hard; panic began to set in. Moses felt the cold hand of despair slowly taking hold. He struck again, harder, and this time it worked. This time the water came, abundant, clear, even cool. The people drank, the livestock drank, Moses even drank himself. Things were good once again…that is, until Yahweh spoke.
As he wiped his mouth and turned from the crowd with Aaron by his side, they both heard the voice: “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.” The words struck hard, they rang true, and they were devastating. His sin exposed, his unbelief laid bare, Moses gazed hard at an ugliness he mourned to see.
There is so much to digest from Moses’ story in Numbers 20:1-13 (supplemented with Exodus 17:1-7), so much that is worthy of discussion and meditation. For today, let’s just note the way in which difficulty tends to lay open our hearts and expose our unbelief, even (perhaps especially) in we who believe! Yes, we’ve seen God work, we’ve tasted his goodness, we’ve experienced his faithfulness. But that was yesterday, this is today, and today is really serious!…or so goes our rationale. If Moses struggled with unbelief, then no doubt I do as well, and no doubt you join me. Crisis uncovers just how deep our unbelief runs. It’s rather frightening, don’t you think?
What happens when COVID-19 becomes a scalpel in the hand of God to cut through tissue and expose the tumor of our unbelief? What happens in that painful moment? I know of one medicine that’s a sure cure, and it’s found only in the presence of Jesus: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Words like that spoken to the one who believed perfectly are words of life in the face of death. When unbelief raises its ugly head, I cling to the alien righteousness of the perfect believer that is mine by grace, and grace alone.