Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Imagine for a moment that you have no food or water. Here in Texas, we’ve been in a drought for a few years now. There’s been very little rain. We got a little sprinkling yesterday, but none at all last month. Since I moved here almost six years ago, Lake Travis, the place most of us get our drinking water, has dropped over thirty feet in depth. That’s a mind-boggling amount of water, if you consider how wide and how long that river basin is behind the dam. Millions, if not billions, of cubic feet of water are gone—used by people, evaporated by the heat, or allowed to flow downstream to provide water to others along the river’s path.
Even so, I don’t think many of us have had to go thirsty very much, at least not dangerously thirsty. Those who are on water systems connected to Lake Travis have always had water available to them. And even if you get your water from a well or from another water system, not too many of us have run out. There was always something else available to us that we could drink to survive: Juice, or milk, or bottled water, or soda.
Now imagine that you have no food, nothing to drink, and you’re stuck out in the middle of a desert wilderness. No matter how hard you look, there’s nothing available. Things are getting pretty uncomfortable, and soon might get desperate.
To make matters worse, you’re responsible for the lives of a great multitude of people. You’re their leader. Without you, they’re helpless and lost. They’re depending on you for their daily survival, and for getting them to a place of safety and plenty. But they’re constantly frustrated with you, angry with you, complaining about you.
To top it all off, you’re being accused of being wrong about what you were supposed to do, that you hadn’t properly understood what God had said. The argument is bitter and long.
What, did you think I was talking about Moses? He wasn’t the only one who struggled in the wilderness, who suffered from hunger and thirst, who is complained against by the people whose lives are in his hand, and was tempted to do something different from what God wanted.
Today’s lessons are actually about two men being tempted in the wilderness.
One, Moses, was a reluctant leader. He really didn’t want the job. He’d had power once before—power over earthly things; power granted to him by an earthly king, Pharaoh. But Moses had misused it, and had to flee from the presence of the king to keep from being killed. He probably would’ve been quite happy to live out his life herding sheep and goats on the slopes of the mountain. But that’s not what God wanted, nor what God’s people needed of him.
It’s a different story with Jesus. The only-begotten Son of God had willingly set aside His power and His position, seated at the throne with His heavenly Father. He didn’t have to flee, for He had done nothing wrong. But He wasn’t content, for something was drastically amiss in the world. So He voluntarily left the King’s presence. Not to avoid being killed, but rather to suffer and die for the sins of others.
Along the way, He had to endure not only the temptations of the devil, but the constant complaining about how He does things, the disrespect of those whom He has created, the rebellion of our discontent.
Moses and Jesus. The greatest Old Testament prophet, and the perfect Prophet of all time. Each given their tasks: To bring God’s people from bondage and slavery to freedom. From despair to hope. From want and poverty to abundance and richness. From death, to life.
In this year’s Advent midweek messages, we are going to draw comparisons between an imperfect Old Testament prophet, priest, or king and the eternal, perfect Prophet, Priest, and King, Jesus. But it’s not just about contrasting these historical figures and their struggles and failures against the perfection of our Lord and Savior. It’s really about looking at our own struggles and failures, too, and remembering why we need Jesus, every bit as much, if not more than them or anyone else.
After all, if you look objectively at your life from a rational, human perspective, it’s quite likely that you wouldn’t be judged by the world as being more righteous, more faithful, or more devoted than Moses, Eli, or David. You’d probably be judged a lot more harshly by your peers.
If you look at Moses’ actions in today’s first reading, there’s much to admire. When the people come to him and Aaron complaining about the lack of water, he doesn’t lash out at them. We don’t hear him telling them to shut up and leave him alone. He doesn’t pull rank and shout, “I’m in charge here, and if you don’t like it, too bad.” He keeps quiet, hears them out, and then retreats with Aaron to the Tent of Meeting to ask God what to do. He doesn’t even presume, like you and I often do, to suggest to God just what it is He ought to be doing for us.
God is with Moses, and He gives him the solution, in three simple steps. First, take his staff, his walking stick. Second, gather the people together. And third, speak to the rock and tell it to give the people water.
When it becomes time to carry out the plan, though, Moses has a bit of a brain hiccup. Or is it an ego attack? He had taken his staff, just as the Lord commanded. He had gathered the people, just as the Lord commanded. But then, instead of simply speaking to the rock to bring forth water, Moses taunted the people. He almost dares them to doubt another miracle. Moses knew God was with him, but he claims the glory for himself: “Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” he says, meaning him and Aaron. He also didn’t trust that God’s word was sufficient to accomplish what the people needed, and didn’t preach that to them in this instance, either. Instead, he adds the dramatic flourish of striking the rock with his staff.
In spite of this disobedience, God is still faithful to Moses and His chosen ones, even in the midst of Moses’ lack of faith. The Lord still provides water so that His chosen ones might survive and continue to proclaim His glory to the next generation, and to the world.
But the worldly consequences for Moses are devastating: For allowing himself to be tempted to do things his way, and not in accordance with God’s Word, he was not allowed to lead Israel all the way into the Promised Land.
Jesus’ time in the wilderness was not as long as Moses—forty days rather than forty years. But it’s safe to say that he faced just as much adversity, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Satan constantly looked for any opportunity to trip Jesus up and make Him unsuitable to stand in your place as a living and dying sacrifice. The devil appealed to Jesus’ physical needs, tempting Him to provide Himself food. The devil appealed to Jesus’ ego, tempting Him to indulge a sense of self-importance and throw Himself off the temple to dare God to save Him. And, finally, Satan tried to get Jesus to focus His spirit on worshipping something other than the one, true God. Body, mind, and spirit—all tempted, all challenged.
But Jesus did not come into the world as the incarnate Son of God so that He could tend to His own needs, wants, and desires. His purpose was not to call attention to Himself for His own glory, but by the Spirit to point people to the Father, who sought to be reconciled to the world.
That’s the sort of perfect, selfless love God has, even within the blessed, holy Trinity: Each of the persons directs us toward the other two, so that we might know them all and grow in faith.
At every turn, Jesus used God’s Word to thwart the devil’s crafty twisting of the truth, to quench his temptations, to turn aside his accusations. If even the Son of God responds to temptation and lies in this way, what hope can we have but in the Word of God as our only sure defense?
Moses was a great prophet, certainly. But we know that he wasn’t perfect in performing his work in that office. We also need to remember that the word “prophet” doesn’t just mean someone who foresees the future. It really means someone who speaks or writes to others as God’s representative.
If that’s the prophet’s task, then to the extent that it is also our task as God’s witnesses in the world, we certainly ought communicate accurately what our Lord Jesus says, and what God the Father says, and what the Holy Spirit says and gives us to say.
And they say this: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, listen to Him.” And, “All the Law and the prophets testify about me.” And, “the Christ should suffer, and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations.”
Prepare yourself in this Advent season for the coming of the perfect Prophet. In His holy (+) name, Amen.