Two years ago I was in the mountains of Western Maryland for a week of vacation at my family’s stomping grounds just west of Deep Creek, near Oakland. My mom’s family is all from out that way, and we’ve made annual pilgrimages since I was a kid, but it was my first time back in years. A lot was familiar; the eighty-year-old cabins hadn’t changed much. Some things, however, were different. The biggest difference that I remember was stepping out to take in the mountain landscape and seeing, about 10 miles away, gigantic wind mills cluttering the skyline. New construction for cleaner energy. They were huge, and they were ugly.
Now, I’m a fan of renewable energy, and I’m not going to play the “Not in My Backyard” card. I don’t want those turbines torn down. They’re better than the destruction wrought by the coal industry, which has blown the tops off mountains just to get to hidden deposits of anthracite. Still, I’m saddened that the price of this renewable energy source is damage to the beauty of this special place.
I couldn’t help thinking about that place and those wind turbines when I read the lesson from Exodus 17. At first I couldn’t figure out why—the lesson is about water, not wind. Eventually I realized what it was: in Exodus 17, the Lord says to Moses, “Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” The Israelites are thirsty. They need water. And God tells Moses to strike—not to ask, not to touch, but to strike the rock with his staff. Even this good thing, this necessary thing for God’s own people, comes at the expense of another part of creation. The rock must be struck.
The rock must be struck for water so that they people may drink. The ground must be furrowed to plant food so they can eat. The trees must be cleared so that they can build shelter against the elements. It seems that we human beings can have nothing without attacking some other part of creation. In fact, I heard recently that with every major human migration has come an equally significant event of species extinction—whenever a large group of human beings moves from one place to another, we inevitably destroy a species that had been thriving in our new location. Wherever we go, we strike the rock—or whatever else is at hand—for our own needs.
Friends, this is not how things ought to be. God did not create the world so that human beings could destroy it. In fact, I imagine that if the Israelites had found themselves in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, instead of in the wilderness, Moses could have walked right up to the rock and said, “Excuse me, rock, but could I trouble you for some water?” and the rock would have gladly bubbled forth streams delicious and refreshing. The world of Moses and the Israelites, however, is not the Garden of Eden. Their world is our world, the world after sin has entered. Moses must strike the rock.
The reality of human sin is three dimensional. Sure, our sin messed things up pretty badly between us and God—the first dimension. But it also dramatically altered the way we relate to other human beings—the second dimension—and to the rest of creation (the third dimension). We see all three dimensions even in the seven verses out of Exodus 17 we just read. The Israelites, who can’t seem to go forty-eight hours without finding a reason to doubt the Lord, start complaining that they are just dying of thirst. You’ve heard of doubting Thomas, right? Here we have doubting Judah, doubting Manasseh, doubting Benjamin, doubting Israel. It’s as if they’re saying, “There’s no way God could save us now.” Sin, in the form of stupid doubt, has crept in again, rupturing the relationship between Israel and the Lord. The first dimension of sin.
Israel’s complaining targets Moses, too. Moses, their leader, the one who stood up to Pharaoh, the one by whose arms the sea parted for them and then swallowed up the Egyptians, Moses the great prophet; the Israelites say he’s brought them into the wilderness to die. They’re angry. So angry that Moses tells God he’s afraid the Israelites will stone him to death if something doesn’t change quickly. Relationships among human beings, damaged almost beyond repair. The second dimension of sin.
Then there is the rock Moses strikes. The third dimension of sin.
It’s unfortunate that environmentalism has become such a political football. For Christians, the matter should be pretty straightforward: first, we are called to good stewardship of creation; second, because of our sin, we cannot completely avoid damaging other parts of creation in this life. And when we do harm creation, we shouldn’t celebrate it as if God had made us to be tyrants of his creation. At least the Israelites have the sense to name the rock Massah and Meribah, an enduring reminder of Israel’s sin in the wilderness. Lament is also faithful worship.
There’s one more thing about this story, something that really gets me. Did you notice where the Lord is in this story? Not what God says or does—whereGod is. God doesn’t remain in heaven, distant from all that’s taking place in his creation. The Lord says to Moses, “Go ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb.” God places himself directly in Moses’ path, on the very rock Moses must strike for the people to drink. As he always does, God places himself on the side of his creation, taking on the same burden that fallen creation must bear.
Imagine. Moses is in the middle of the wilderness with a weary people, a people parched and impatient. They have risen up against him, demanding something to drink. Moses doesn’t have a drop more of water than anyone else—they are in a desert, after all. He turns to the Lord, afraid and frustrated. God responds to Moses and to his people’s bitter complaints with a generous offer of water. All Moses has to do is walk over to a rock, accompanied by a few of Israel’s other leaders, and hit the rock with his staff.
So Moses chooses elders, good people who can witness to God’s faithfulness and calm things down. He gathers them together; they walk toward the rock. And there, standing between them and the font they so desperately need, is the Lord. There’s no way around. If Moses wants to save his people, he’ll have to strike the rock. And if he strikes the rock, he’ll have to strike the Lord first. So Moses walks up to the rock, looks his God in the face, raises his staff, and strikes the rock of his salvation. Water—just water this time, though one day it will be water and blood—water gushes forth, streams in the desert run as never before, fountains pour out from the rock for the sake of the people of God. And that rock was Christ.