Sermon for Septuagesima, AD 2021

Matthew 20:1-16; Exodus 17:1-7

The people of Israel may have been the most forgetful people ever. Four hundred years of slavery in Egypt, and God sends Moses to deliver them from it. They see the great work of God in the ten plagues, bringing the mightiest empire in the world to its knees while they remain secure in God’s care. Freed from Egypt, God leads them to the Red Sea, where He parts the waters so they can cross and drowns Pharoah’s mighty army. In the wilderness, God makes bitter water sweet. God provides bread from heaven for them to eat. They complain every step of the way.
Here in our Old Testament reading it is no different. The Israelites camp at Rephidim, where there is no water. The people grumble against Moses almost to the point of wanting to kill him. They followed him into the desert, and now will they die of thirst? Will their children die? How will they possibly survive? Of course, God tells Moses to take his staff, the one which turned the Nile river into blood, and strike a rock to bring forth water in that place. Moses does, and the people are saved.
It’s not too hard to understand the fear of the people. This is a very large camp and being in a place with no water is going to create a lot of worry. It’s certainly not selfish for them to want to care for their families. But the fact there was no water was never an argument. Neither God nor Moses disagree with the reality of the situation. No one is going to argue that there is enough water to go around.
Yet consider what just happened to the Israelites before this. They grumbled then that there was no food. That Moses had brought them into the wilderness to starve. God provided manna – bread from heaven. The Lord showed that He was with His people, that He would do everything to provide for them, even by miraculous means. The Israelites immediately forgot this and decided to test God rather than trust.
It seems a tragedy that the Israelites trusted God so little when they saw He had provided for them, but don’t think you are any different. You say you trust in God’s provision and grace, but you trust in your own means. When you face your own waterless wilderness and don’t know where provision will come from, you find unbelief sneaking up on you. In yourself you find an unbelieving Israelite, testing God instead of trusting Him. In your own perspective you see the tragedy in the lack of provision, that you do not have at the time whatever you need or want, or know how it will come. God sees the tragedy as a lack of faith in Him, as the Israelites show us. Repent, and turn from grumbling, for those who were at Massah and Meribah saw great works of God continually and still fell away. Do not think you will not fall if you continue to distrust and test God.
God does not promise that you will always know where your provision will come from, just that it ultimately comes from Him. Like with the Israelites, He does not argue with the fact that the place is waterless, that there is no clear source. Yet He provides. Therefore, when God does not seem to be giving out His provision and grace do not test God, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” When in distress, doubt in God will achieve nothing but punishment. Worry will achieve nothing at all. For the Christian, distress teaches prayer, and prayer drives away distress. Prayer is better than worry or punishment. Our Lord has told us to pray for our daily bread. Do this, and see if you will not be blessed.
The source of this blessing, and of every gift of God, is His own compassion in Jesus Christ for you. How comforting it is that we can trust in His promises. How comforting that He can aid us in every trouble, even when it defies our reason. For His promises are founded in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jesus tells this parable of the workers in the vineyard – those who were idle in the marketplace brought into work at different times throughout the day. The first agreed to their wage, one denarius, and later many more workers were brought in, some only working barely an hour. Yet the workers were paid in reverse, and the ones who barely worked received the same denarius as the first. Those first workers grumble and complain – why should they receive the same as those who barely worked an hour?
They fail to see grace. The kingdom of God comes by grace, the workers are all rewarded for work they did not perform. The workers who worked through the heat of the day demanded justice, they demanded their rights. Yet everyone who comes gets rewarded. The wages of the workers are given at the cost of the owner, not the workers. They are brought in by the owner, given work and wages by him, and all they did before was sit idly in the marketplace.
Too often you may think individually, “my work added value, I deserve a piece.” You think you are brought in by grace only to work things out the best for yourself. You get angry when other Christians don’t seem to be doing their part. Do you care about the church overall, or just the value you get for yourself? Is it your work, or work given to me by God? Whose church is it, yours or God’s?  You say, “Why do less dedicated Christians prosper, and when I you deserve a piece?” And you are asking again, “Is the Lord among us or not?
I tell you today, the Lord is among us. He bought you with His own body and blood. He is the vineyard owner who paid for the vineyard, and brings you into it, pulling you out of idleness when you deserved nothing but punishment. Since He paid for our sins and took the punishment of death, He gives life and every good thing freely. He has the right to build His church. He can be kind on the ungrateful because He has forgiven that as well. All good things flow from Him.
For the rock which Moses struck in the wilderness is Jesus Christ. From Him pours the true water of life. Do not harden your hearts as the Israelites did at Massah and Meribah. Come now to the Lord’s house with thankfulness and praise.

Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
            let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! 
For the Lord is a great God, 
            and a great King above all gods. 
In his hand are the depths of the earth; 
            the heights of the mountains are his also. 
The sea is his, for he made it, 
            and his hands formed the dry land. 
Oh come, let us worship and bow down; 
            let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! 
For he is our God, 
            and we are the people of his pasture, 
            and the sheep of his hand.
(Psalm 95:2-7)
Christ our rock is among you now. Paul relates the rock to Christ – no benefit would have been given the Israelites without faith in Christ. Therefore, do not test Him, but trust Him. In every gospel sermon, in the baptismal font, as you confess your sins, at the Lord’s Supper – imagine yourself standing beside that cleft rock at Massah and Meribah, filling the vessel of your heart with the water of life of Christ Jesus, and you will be glad and righteous. For what is happening is even more true than that image. And because Jesus died and rose, it is a water rich in grace with enough for all – even you who grumble and you who complain.
God’s people can be a forgetful people. Praising one day, despondent the next. Thankful one day, jealous and bitter the next. God’s mercies are new every morning. His grace is sufficient for you, and His power made perfect in your weakness. Amen.

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