As I sat in my office on Thursday, March 12, the news was coming fast and furious. I could visit traditional news sites, but I didn’t have to. Scrolling through Facebook, nearly every post was related to the coronavirus. Link after link to various news sources, videos of our leaders laying out plans, and abundant toilet paper memes—presumably to break the tension. Closing the social media windows didn’t help. My phone was blowing up with texts, every one of them about the virus. It was without a doubt the biggest news day of my life, after 9/11. And the crazy part is, that was just the beginning.
Through all this, I was trying to write a sermon. And I found the situation in the Old Testament text shockingly familiar. In Exodus 17, the Israelites are in the midst of their wilderness wandering. God has brought them out of Egypt with a mighty hand, but they have not yet entered the Promised Land. They are in the process of learning to follow God, learning to trust him with their future. This learning takes place through times of trial and testing.
The test in this particular chapter is a lack of water. That, obviously, is a serious need. How will they respond? Faith? Humble prayers for God’s provision? Hardly. This is now the third time they’ve been tested within three chapters. And their reaction is like a skipping record. In chapter 15 the only water they can find is bitter. So they immediately begin grumbling to Moses. Moses takes their complaint to God, who immediately supplies sweet water for them to drink. Lesson learned, or so you would hope.
But then in chapter 16, their food runs out and they turn to grumbling again. But they go even further this time, accusing Moses of leading them out of Egypt just to starve them. This is really a complaint against God himself, since their Exodus from Egypt was God’s plan from the beginning. Attacking Moses is akin to “shooting the messenger.” But despite their faithlessness, God once again miraculously supplies for their need by raining manna and providing quail from heaven. He does this day after day, teaching them to depend on him daily, specifically instructing them not to horde up food in a selfish attempt at self-reliance. But again, they’re slow to learn.
So we come to chapter 17. Again, a shortage of water. And their response, again, is perfectly predictable. Rather than trusting God or asking him to supply their need, they fly completely off the handle. They repeat again their accusation that Moses must’ve brought them out of Egypt simply to kill them. And it goes beyond grumbling this time. They “quarreled with Moses.” It quickly escalates to the point where Moses cries out to God in fear for his life (17:4), saying, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
The Israelites’ fear and subsequent hysteria is easy to criticize. But if we stop to reflect on our current situation, we’ll find that we haven’t done much better. It’s true that the coronavirus represents a real threat to our health, safety, and financial security. In that sense, our fears are not unwarranted. But certainly our situation is no worse than wandering in the desert without water, right? So if panicking and rising up against their leaders with threats of violence was the wrong response for them, then certainly the same can be said of us. But if we examine ourselves these days, I bet we’ll find a fair amount of grumbling in our mouths, perhaps even some quarreling with our leaders too. Because this is what fear does to us. We jump to the worst possible conclusions in our minds, so that we become very critical of one another, and think only of ourselves.
So what is God’s response to all this? Does he get fed up with the faithless Israelites and abandon them to their delusions of self-sufficiency? Absolutely not. If their grumbling before God was predictable, his response to it was even more so. God responds in grace, a third time. As the hymnist once wrote, “He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.” Despite their terrible manner of requesting it, God gave them water from the rock and met their need, just as he had done countless times before.
These instances of God giving food and water were hardly the beginning of God’s care for them. Prior to all this, God had come to them while they were slaves in Egypt. He used ten plagues to break the will of Pharaoh, and they were set free, and they went out. But Pharaoh quickly changed his mind and pursued them with his armies. The Israelites were trapped at the Red Sea with nowhere to go, seemingly no hope whatever. But God rescued them again, parting the waters so they could pass through safely, then bringing the sea crashing down on the Egyptians.
God has proven that everything necessary for life is provided by him. Even their daily food and drink. He’s the Lord of Egypt. He’s the Lord of the Red Sea. And he’s the Lord also of the desert.
As we consider all that God has done for them—all his gracious saving works—their fears and faithlessness seem ridiculous. And they are. But then so are ours. Because as we look back on our lives, we see that God has faithfully provided for us all along the way, as well.
While we might not have come out of Egypt or passed through the waters, we have something even greater. We have the fullness of God’s grace revealed to us in the One who was sent: our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus is God’s clearest revelation of himself, and his work at the cross is the epitome of God’s grace.
So we find ourselves asking along with St. Paul in Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” The cross of Christ assures us that we have a God who will never leave us or forsake us. As Jesus rises to life on the third day, we recognize him as Lord over the grave. Lord over death. Jesus Christ is Lord over all our fears and faithlessness. He’s Lord over the coronavirus, too.
REV. ADAM KROG is Pastor at Elim Lutheran Brethren Church in Clearbrook, Minnesota.