It is a great joy for me to teach the children and youth of St. Alban’s. Whether it’s over a cup of coffee, on a beach in southern Mississippi, or just briefly after church, I am constantly amazed at how smart all our children are. Now I have to brag especially about Stephanie Stringer. A few weeks ago, she impressed me by saying that she was reading her way through the Old Testament. As a priest, that’s about the best thing anybody can ever say to me.
Just recently though, Stephanie sent me a message. She said, “Jimmy, I’ve been reading the Bible, but I’m a little confused about Noah and the great flood. How did Noah keep the woodpeckers on the ark?” “Aha!” I thought to myself. We have a young theologian in our midst! So I typed out a lengthy response, diving into the subtleties of Noah’s character, describing the cosmic elements of the story, emphasizing how God saves us when the waters rise up. When I pressed “Send” on that grand email, I was so proud of myself for all of my theological and biblical knowledge.
But just the other day, Stephanie’s mother approached me. She said, “Jimmy, thanks so much for responding to Stephanie’s email. But I don’t think you got it. Her question about woodpeckers was a joke. The right answer is ‘bird cages.’ Because, you know, the ark was made of wood.” Ohhhhhhh. I totally missed the humor. As it turns out, I’m not a theological genius, I’m just a doofus. Sorry Stephanie.
Now, I can safely say, that I’m not the only one in this church who has ever missed the joke. At some point in our lives, or maybe even on a daily basis, somebody’s humor just flies right past us, and we are left with a confused look on our faces saying, “huh?”And, if we’re not careful, sometimes we even miss the Bible’s own humor. For instance, did you know that there is a talking donkey in the book of Numbers? That story was around way before the movie “Shrek” come out.
But sometimes, if we read it too fast, we miss the Bible’s humor. Especially some of the more subtle ironies. Our passage from Exodus describes the Israelites’ thirst in the wilderness. They are wandering through the desert, complaining and crying out to Moses, “Give us water to drink!” They quarrel with Moses, and test God because there is no water. What’s ironic, is that just three chapters earlier, the Israelites are quarreling with Moses and testing God because there is too much water! They have just escaped from Pharoah and have made their way out of Egypt. They are standing on the shores of the Red Sea, with the Egyptian army chasing them down. And the Israelites quarrel with Moses and complain against God because the water is in their way, and the Egyptians are going to kill them. Either way, if is too little water or too much water, the Israelites complain. They quarrel. They test God.
It’s kind of funny, isn’t it? God can part the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to pass through on dry land. God sends bread and birds from heaven for them to eat. And still, still, the Israelites complain, they live in fear. Whether there was too much or too little, they were afraid, even though God provided for their every need.
And here’s the really funny thing. After forty long years in the wilderness, the Israelites finally make it into the promised land, and everything, quite literally, goes to hell. You see, when the Israelites enter the land that was promised to them, they find it full of enemies. They find that they have to work and toil and sweat for their food. They have to dig wells for water. And what’s worst of all, they forget God. They forget the very God who had given them that land in the first place. The instant the Israelites have what they want, they forget who gave it to them. They run after other gods, they worship false idols, they become complacent.
The most dangerous place for the Israelites was not the wilderness. The most dangerous place for the Israelites is the promised land.
And yes, we are the Israelites.
The real danger for the Israelites and for us is not fear. The real danger is complacency. There is a great temptation to take what God gives us, and then forget why it was even entrusted to us in the first place. Living in complacency ruins our spiritual lives, it destroys our knowledge of God, because, at least when we are afraid, we cry out to God. But when we are content, when we are so happy with ourselves, then God ceases to matter for us. The promised land, though it flows with milk and honey, is a dangerous land. Because we are tempted to live without crying out to God.
Now look around. God has given us so much. He has given us wealth. God has given us a beautiful Church. God has given us grace and love that only comes from Jesus Christ. God has given us the lovely people of St. Alban’s.
So we, as Israelites, need to ask ourselves: are we in the wilderness or are we in the land of promise? I know it sounds upside down, but in the land of promise we are surrounded by enemies – greed, envy, isolation. We act as if there is not enough for tomorrow, so we clutch tightly to what we have. In the land of promise, we don’t listen for God’s voice, we don’t carry out God’s mission. We don’t take any risks because we’re complacent, we’re idle. We are completely satisfied with who we are, what we have, and what we give. So, at the end of the day, we worship the idol of complacency.
Or we can live in the wilderness. I know, it sounds backwards, but in the wilderness we cry out to God when we are in need. We listen for God’s voice, and we live for God’s mission of love to the world. We trust that God will provide us with what we need to carry out the work of Christ. Sure, the wilderness may be scary. At first, it may be scary to depend on God, it may be frightening to trust that God will show us the way. It may be scary to support the work of Jesus Christ by filling out a pledge card. It may be scary to minister to people who aren’t like us. It may be scary to live in the wilderness. And really, sometimes, it is absolutely terrifying to follow Jesus Christ, because Jesus demands our whole lives.
You know, it’s kind of funny, that complacency leads to death. Our churches die, our faith dies, we die when we are complacent. And it’s kind of funny, that when we step out into the wilderness, and we do the very thing that we are afraid to do, we find that God is faithful to us. Our faith is never constant, it constantly moves from complacency to fear to trust and back again. But God’s faith to us is as constant as the rising and the setting of the sun. As you work your back into the wilderness, strike the rock of your doubt, and let the waters of God’s faith drown your fear.