click here for audio
What seems ain’t always what is.
I remember a family vacation with our kids to Mount Rushmore. On the way, as we drove across the flat interstate of South Dakota, a thunderstorm the likes of which I never saw before or since overtook us. It was so bad that we had to park a couple of times under an overpass to protect our minivan from the driving rain and occasional hail. The flatness of the terrain meant that, when the rain stopped falling on us for a while, we could literally see the storm move off in one direction or another. In fact, we could look around us for miles and see several distinct storms in different locations. And in between them, and above them, we could see sparking blue skies. That was comforting when we were under the overpass with scared kids – during the worst, with dark clouds seemingly swallowing us up, we could remind them of those blue skies and tell them that the storm would pass, that those blue skies were still up there, that above the storm was peace and calm and a God who is in control, that the storm would pass but the blue skies would stay. What seemed to them, for a moment, to be utter disaster was in fact not at all the state of the world.
Let’s return to the apostles just after the end of last week’s story, the feeding of the five thousand in Matthew 14. The very next time something arises that is not what the apostles expect – this time it is their own storm – they are terrified. This is still in the same chapter; the scripture says it happened “immediately,” so it is likely the same day. They have just seen thousands fed from one lunch, yet they do not or will not count on the provision of God when a new and different threat arises. Short memories. The storm seems like it will overtake them, and they have already forgotten that there are unseen blue skies, that what seems ain’t always what is.Let’s look at our scripture for the day. Exodus 17:1-7:
How can the Israelites, the children of God, fall prey to ordinary concerns like being thirsty? They have seen God’s power displayed in Egypt – boils, frogs, gnats, the angel of death. They have left their bondage and headed to the Promised Land, pursued to a shore where the sea has opened for them to pass and then closed on their enemies. Just two chapters earlier, in Exodus 15, they came to a place, called Marah, where the water was too bitter to drink; there they saw Moses, at God’s direction, throw an ordinary piece of wood into the pool, and the water phenomenally became sweet and potable. They have seen God provide quail and manna for their daily food.
The Hebrews have short memories. They grumbled about their taskmasters in Egypt, and God delivered them. They grumbled when they reached the Red Sea, and God delivered them. They grumbled from thirst in Marah and from hunger in the desert, and they got pure water and miraculous food. All they have needed His hand has provided, yet their past deliverances are not enough to convince them that the current drudgery will not do them in. They have trouble remembering blue skies.
The Israelites’ present struggle, their life as wanderers through wilderness guided by God’s promise, seems overwhelming. I do not mean to suggest that this is a minor concern – historians agree that there may have been more than two million Israelites in the desert, so food and water were a real issue. But, the Hebrews’ experience has been that God is more overwhelming. Yet, they grumble.
Now, they thirst again. The recent events at Marah – the last time they were thirsty – apparently mean nothing to these people. They have come to a campground that does not have a nearby spring, and they once again sink to the lowest common denominator. Their life becomes all about the most mundane: They are thirsty. "Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?" [Exodus 17:3] To them, it seems that life is over, that God has abandoned them, that Providence has moved on. But what seems ain’t always what is.
This time, there is not wood to throw in the bitter pool; instead, there is the staff of Moses to strike an ordinary rock. And the water pours out. An extraordinary God works to solve an ordinary problem.
Last week was Pentecost Sunday. We did not make a big deal of it, other than mentioning it in the Order of Worship. There is a name in the traditional church calendar for the time of year beginning today, the First Sunday after Pentecost. The time between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, and again between Pentecost and Advent, has a particular name in the traditions of the church. Do you know what it is? It is “Ordinary Time.”
Today is the 8th Sunday of Ordinary Time.
You can see why we Protestants don’t use that term much. What could be more boring than Ordinary Time? What could possibly be less important, less sexy, less enthralling then thirty-three weeks of Ordinary Time?
The famous French monk Brother Lawrence embraced his ordinary times. His work The Practice of the Presence of God grew out of years of working in a monastery kitchen until he was finally promoted all the way up to fixing sandals. The ordinary became, for Brother Lawrence, the time and place best to meet God. He wrote:
The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer. In the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Supper. [The Practice of the Presence of God., 230-32.]
I am a baseball fan. In August, when every day at Rangers Ballpark is in triple digits, baseball has its own version of Ordinary Time. In baseball parlance, it is known as The Dog Days. In a 162-game season, the enthusiasm of April wanes as the calendar pages turn. The All-Star game is over. The postseason is still over a month away. The weather is hot and dry. It is hard to stay excited.... Those are the Dog Days.
We all have Dog Days.
We have them in our marriages. It is not that we want out, or that we think we have made a mistake, or even that there is anything particularly wrong. It is just that years of marriage have followed years of marriage, and enthusiasm ebbs.
We have them in our jobs, of course. No matter how called you are and how much you love your job, there are weeks that pass that require commitment simply to get up and go back to that same office or wash another load of clothes and cook another meal.
We have them in our spiritual lives. God is still there, just as God has always been. We are neither tired of God nor wanting to take our turn as the Prodigal Son. We merely lack enthusiasm.
The Dog Days can make it hard to teach or preach. They can make it hard to witness, to work as a Christian, to serve the Lord with gladness. How can I find it in me? The Dog Days seem interminable, and we seem useless to God. But remember, what seems ain’t always what is.
The answer, of course, is that we can't find it in us, for we really have very little to say. The answer, of course, is to turn to the One who has no Dog Days, for what God has to offer never fails. Our faithful God just keeps bringing it. God's mercies - gifts, grace, goodness - are new every morning.
The truth is that my marriage is precisely what I need, that my wife is God's gift to me, that our life together is precious and right. That job you sometimes dread – whether it is at an office or in your own home - is the way you live out God's call on your life, and you are in fact where you know you ought to be. That is the lesson of Brother Lawrence.
Ordinary Time has a different potential problem for us from what the Dog Days bring to baseball players. Beyond exhaustion and tedium, we can experience the silence of God. And that can be scary.
I should not be upset about it. Like the Israelites with their memory of bitter water turned sweet, I remember times of clarity, times of direction and spiritual certainty. I know without doubt that God has spoken to me multiple times.
But it is not always so well-defined. Like the Israelites at Meribah, I can forget my experience with God – even from yesterday. Between the mountaintops of spiritual clarity are weeks and weeks of Ordinary Time.
And that is ok. The will of God has been demonstrated to me vibrantly, at times through study of scripture, through prayer life, through worship, through song, through the voice of a friend or a mentor, through experience.
Other times, though, the voice of God is elusive and even silent, for a while. The temptation is to say, “I am thirsty. Why didn’t you just leave me back in Egypt?”
I go through times, as do you, when God is not talking. At least, I cannot hear Him. I am reading scripture every day. I am active in church. I am praying. I am listening. I don’t hear anything. God is, or seems to be, silent.
But – say it with me now – what seems ain’t always what is.
Eileen Berry has written:
In Your word I find the echoes of the questions in my mind;
Have I fallen from Your favor, is Your ear to me inclined?
When Your silence is unbroken, though my prayer ascends each day,
Father, keep my faith from failing, in the face of long delay.
When the troubled thoughts within me hold me wakeful in the night,
And the shadows that surround me seem to hide me from Your sight,
Father, bring to my remembrance mercies shown in days gone by.
Help me rest upon Your promise: You will not neglect my cry!
While You wait in gracious wisdom and my doubts begin to rise,
I recall Your loving-kindness and lift my hopeful eyes.
While Your hand withholds the answer, I will not withhold my heart;
I will love You in Your silence, I will trust You in the dark. [Molly Ijames and Eileen Berry, “In Your Silence,” 2011]
My good friend Susan Lanford tells the story of driving on the interstate in Nashville, a busy six-lane loop of the city known as I-440. Driving in the middle lane, where she routinely drove, Susan one Monday noticed a new sign that she had never seen before. The sign said, “Center Lane Does Not Exist.” Susan was stunned, and not more than a little bothered. After all, she was driving in the center lane. She could certainly see it. For the rest of that week, every time she drove that way, she saw that same sign: “Center Lane Does Not Exist.” It about drove her crazy until Saturday, when Susan, driving with her then-teenaged daughter Bethany, told her the story of the sign and supposedly non-existent lane. When they got close enough to see it, Bethany rolled her eyes and let out one of those famous teenaged daughter sighs before saying, “Mom, the sign says, ‘Center Lane Does Not Exit.’”
The silence of God felt in our ordinary times can make us feel powerless to control what is happening to us. We feel that life is moving along without us. We wonder if we are driving in a lane that does not exist anymore.
When it seems that God has ceased speaking, Bible study holds little of new interest, and worship itself seems routine. Before long, we can wonder if we ever really heard God speak. Fixing sandals is just not doing it for us.
Perhaps the silence is meant to allow us to take advantage of rest. Perhaps the church fathers knew what they were doing when they built some Ordinary Time into the calendar.
When God is silent, or seems silent, we remember that we walk by faith, not by sight... or by hearing. We know what we know. What seems ain’t always what is. God is still present, even if quiet. Manna still comes. New mercies are still a part of every morning.
God is not playing tricks on us. When I hear Him clearly, I walk, obedient and trusting, with Him. Then, when the voice of God is not distinct to me, I know I am already on the right road; I walk where I know to walk, and I trust that I am where He wants me. A big facet of faith is confidence that I am being led, even when I don't hear the commands. If I follow where God is leading when His voice is clear, then I know I am on the right path when I am not hearing Him so well. Even when I read the signs wrong.
The question then, is how then shall we live during Ordinary Time? If the Dog Days are to be expected … if the silence of God is not a reason to pull the alarm, then how should we live our lives?
Today’s scripture, as we have read, is the story of Meribah, of the place where God made water come from the rock. I cannot think of a better illustration of our struggles with Ordinary Time than a people wandering in wilderness who are thirsty. They grumble. They forget what God has done. These chosen people have had a front row seat for God’s recent history, from plagues to Passover to the parting of the sea; but it all seems to have vanished from their collective memory. All they know is that slavery seems a lot better in glorified retrospect than this current situation appears going forward.
And that brings me back to the question: How should we live our lives in Ordinary Time?
I think my answer will surprise you. I believe the answer is found by turning to the Gospel according to those historic theologians, the Rolling Stones.
Yes, from the same band who gave us “Sympathy for the Devil” comes a word of wisdom. The biggest danger of Ordinary Time, of the silence of God, is feeling empty. It is the determination that we can’t get what we want.
Some of you may claim to be too old or too young to remember the Rolling Stones, or you may turn up your nose and say you are too cultured, or too refined, or too something to know anything about what is generally referred to as the World’s Greatest Rock-n-Roll Band – formed in 1962 by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Ian Stewart, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts – and still going. Other names have come to and gone from the band’s roster over the years, but the signature of the band stays the same. It is Mick Jagger, strutting around the stage with his hands on his hips, singing the catch phrase lyrics that have symbolized much of what the band offers:
I can’t get no satisfaction. Though I try, and I try, and I try, and I try, I can’t get no satisfaction. [Jagger and Richards, “Satisfaction,” 1965]
We can learn a lot from Mick, Keith, and the boys. After all, they are just repeating the thoughts of the hymn writer. In Clara Tear Williams’s great hymn we sang early in the service, “Satisfied,” there is a third stanza not included in those white hymnals that says: “Poor was I and sought for riches, something that would satisfy. But the dust I gathered round me only mocked my soul’s sad cry.” [Clara Tear Williams, “Satisfied,” 1875.]
We seek riches, or fame, or fun, or substance, or substances, or whatever, in a search for something that will satisfy.
Possibly, the Stones know their history: Ponce de Leon and his search for the fountain of youth... The seekers of El Dorado... The Crusaders in quest of the Holy Grail... Marco Polo... Columbus... The Apollo program... Searching for that indefinable… something. Waking up for another one of the Dog Days, hoping that today will be different from yesterday.
Perhaps Jagger and Richards are students of mythology. The myths are full of the search for satisfaction: King Midas, who craves gold, only to destroy his own family... Daedalus, who yearns for his place with the gods, only to see his wax wings melt as his son Icarus, dominated by hubris, flies too close to the sun... Pandora, who aches for answers, only to unleash horrors on the earth... Narcissus, who longs for himself, only to drown in the pursuit of his conceit....
They try, and they try, and they try…
Maybe the Stones are going back even further in getting the inspiration for their song. Remember Ecclesiastes from a few weeks ago? It is, after all, Qoheleth who speaks of one whose soul’s sad cry is mocked by all his possessions, his wives, his money, his subjects, his palaces, and his helpful proverbs - who declares “vanity, vanity, all is vanity… a chasing after the wind.” [Ecclesiastes 1:2, 14] For those of you who are not proficient in Biblical languages, what Solomon is saying is “I can’t get no satisfaction.”
Satisfied comes from the Latin word satis, which means “enough.” Being satisfied does not equate with driving the right car, or smoking the same cigarette as a rock-n-roll idol, or having the wealth of Solomon. Being satisfied comes from having enough.
You see, we hit the Dog Days. We find our lives to be nothing more than ordinary. We know we are poor and thirsty…so we try, and we try, and we try, and we try, and we pant for the fountain we cannot find. What we discover is that we gather dust, and we thirst. Oh, there may be fine things and bottomless wineglasses at our fingertips, but it is not enough. We can’t always get what we want. Our souls crave. Egypt starts looking a lot better.
But there is a fountain. There is One who opened the life gate, who satisfies our longings. There is the One who brings water from the rock.
Providence is less about declaring that God exercises control over every event and more another way of saying that God delivers, God gives, God supports, God feeds, God supplies. The word Providence is akin to its cousin words provide and provision. As Jim Denison says, God always redeems what He allows. Until the end comes, there will be disease and storm. There will be divorce and betrayal. There will be hunger. There will be thirst in the desert. But there will also be God, and thus there will also be Providence. There will be rocks in the desert from which the water flows. The Lord is our Shepherd. We shall not want.
Before we moved to Texas, I was a member of First Baptist Nashville, a mecca for singing great contemporary choir pieces. I remember the first time my choir sang Bob Mulloy's arrangement of "Satisfied," that hymn we sang from the white hymnal. Mr. Mulloy, who taught at Belmont College with my parents and was the father of two of my high school friends and a tremendous composer, director, and teacher, sent his arrangement to our choir before it was even typeset. We tried hard to read our copies of his handwritten manuscript during rehearsal. You see, Mr. Mulloy was dying, and he wanted to hear us sing his song. He had no time for publication schedules.
As we sang today, the old hymn includes these words:
All my life long I had panted for a drink from some cool spring that I hoped would quench the burning of the thirst I felt within. Hallelujah, I have found Him, whom my soul so long had craved. Jesus satisfies my longing. Through His blood I now am saved." [Clara Tear Williams, “Satisfied,” 1875.]
When the time came to sing it in concert, I remember Mr. Mulloy in the front row, left (as I looked out from the choir loft), in the balcony. His tired, sick, drawn body was unable to restrain the Hallelujah erupting from his countenance. His breath was failing, but he was saved. He did not get what he wanted, but he got what he needed. He did not have to try, and try, and try; he had found satisfaction.
I don’t know what you think will satisfy you. I don’t know if it is career. I know something about that, for I have made a couple of significant career moves. Each was the right thing for me and my family, and I made those moves following God’s leadership, but they are not enough. Your work may be in the kitchen or fixing sandals or publishing newspapers or building bridges. You may swell with pride at a newly finished painting or a signed contract, but it is not enough.
I don’t know if it is family for you. I have a great family. My wife and my kids are incredible. You know my parents. We spend time together and we play together and we pray together. God has given me that family, but it is not enough.
Perhaps you search for it in your friends. I have the greatest friends in the world. I can push any of several speed-dials on my cell phone and know without doubt that anything I need on this earth will be lent, or given, to me if I am in trouble. I know that a shoulder and an ear and a heart are reserved for me. There are tears and cheers. Blest be the tie that binds our hearts. But it is not enough.
Even this church, this new venture that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt God has called us to start and has given me the privilege of co-pastoring, is not enough.
You see, Solomon teaches us that we can have career and money and family and friends and be empty. Now that I mention it, we can learn that from David and from Saul and from Napoleon and from Nero and from Marilyn Monroe and from countless other rich, popular, gloomy souls. Come to think of it, we can learn that from the Rolling Stones.
On the other hand, we learn from Job that we can lose career and money and family and friends and yet find that we do indeed have enough. We learn that from Brother Lawrence.
And we learn it from Jesus, who said, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world but lose his own soul?” [Matthew 16:26]
You see, enough comes from only one place. Enough is Jesus, and it does not matter what else you have or don’t have to go with Him. You can be on the mountaintop or in the valley. It can be Christmas Day or Ordinary Time. You can be making a big career move, or you may have been laid off this week. You may be wealthy, or you may be destitute. You may be in perfect health or waiting anxiously for that call from the specialist. There is nothing wrong with jobs and education and money, but they are not enough. There is nothing comforting about unemployment and lack of opportunity and empty pocketbooks and scary doctor reports, but they cannot stop – indeed they cannot even contain – satisfaction. Jesus leads us to Meribah, where He brings water from the rock in a weary land. He fills our cup. It overflows. Brother Lawrence calls it a “torrent of grace.”
That is what Bob Mulloy and Clara Tear Williams wrote about. And it is what I hear when the Stones sing that they try and they try and they try and they try and they can’t get no satisfaction. We don’t earn it or try for it or buy it or smoke it or sleep with it. We don’t get educated enough or rich enough or popular enough.
The hymn says that we thirst and all we find is dust. Jesus says it this way:
Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life. [John 4:13-14]
Believe it or not, it is the Stones themselves who provide the answer in their second-most-famous song: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need.” [Jagger and Richards, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” 1969.]
In my benediction each week, I remind you what Paul tells us, that God can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. [Ephesians 3:20] The presence of Jesus transforms the ordinary to the extraordinary. He is rich enough. He is broad enough. We can throw it all on Him, for He bears our burdens. He is what we need.
We started this three-week series on the Restaurant Miracles with Debra reading to us from the 35th Chapter of Isaiah. Listen again to these words of the prophet:
The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy…. [and] they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, "Be strong, do not fear; your God will come…." Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. [Isaiah 35:1-6]
It is the story of Meribah: water from the rock. What seems ain’t always what is. What was not there before is there now. It does not just trickle, it gushes. The ordinary has become extraordinary. We are transformed.
Baseball players get through the Dog Days. Truth be told, they enjoy the Dog Days, for what could be better than playing baseball for a living?
So too, tomorrow, another day of Ordinary Time, is to be enjoyed, to be savored, for what could be better than walking with God, than finding what God has new for me today?
God tells us to take the staff He has given us and strike the rock. And behold, water comes out. Listen! Can you hear it?
The historical, mythological search is over. We do not have to try and try and try. All we have needed His hand has provided.
He is enough. I am satisfied. I have found Him. I am saved.