"Crime and Punishment (and Grace)" - Andrew Scott, Pastor (Printable version)
Some good news came out of Grand Rapids, Michigan last week – especially good news for our youth group, who were there only last summer: It is now legal to be annoying.
True story: the city council repealed a 38-year-old law that made it a crime – these are the actual words of the legislation – “willfully [to] annoy another person.” The queen city of Western Michigan is once again safe for people who talk during movies, for shoppers who take 32 items through the 12 items or less line, and for bagpipers.
I loved that story. I’ve been entertained by strange and seemingly irrational laws since I was 17 years old, and got arrested (but not charged) for shooting a live tree. Which, as it turns out, is punishable in Pennsylvania by fine or imprisonment. It could be worse: in Alabama, wrestling a bear is a class B felony that will earn you two years in jail and a $30,000 fine. Importing a live skunk to Tennessee will earn you up to 30 days in the hoosegow. And so on.
Now, there may be – and I’m sure there are – good, or at least comprehensible reasons behind each of those laws, even though I can’t imagine what they would be. But I also think most of us would agree that the punishment seems, well… disproportionate to the crime. Likewise with Moses here. After all he’s been through – thirty-nine years of whining and moaning and idolatry and disobedience and straight-out rebellion at the hands of the “chosen people” – he gets mad, hits a rock with a stick, and somehow that – that – prevents him from entering the promised land.
When it’s put that way it hardly seems fair, does it? Yeah, maybe Moses was a little hasty. But does the punishment fit the crime? Well, yes. It does. But to understand why, we first have to understand what Moses’ sin actually was. And for that you need a little background.
For starters, Moses had been dealing with these people for decades, and they hadn’t really changed. Their first gripe upon leaving Egypt was that they didn’t have enough food and water, and it consequently it would be better for them if they had stayed in Egypt. So God provided for them.
Fast forward thirty-nine years, and what do you see? The people of Israel arguing with Moses, asking why he brought them up from Egypt “to this evil place” where there’s no wine or pomegranates or figs or grain or water to drink. (v.5) It’s like the last four decades had never happened – decades in which God gave them water from the rock (Ex. 17), sent manna and quail on a daily basis, and guided them by a pillar of cloud by day, and of fire by night.
That’s human nature for you. No matter how much God has provided for us in the past, we complain about the present. He watches over us… and we blame him. Now, Moses had had enough, which was understandable, but in this case he took it personally. He started off well enough – he went with Aaron to the Tent of Meeting and prostrated himself before the Lord, where he was told to take his staff, assemble the congregation, and speak to the rock, command it, to yield water. So far, so good.
But when Moses went out from the Tent of Meeting, his anger got the best of him. “Hear now, you rebels!” he shouted. It doesn’t come across very well in English, but trust me when I say that in the original Hebrew, Moses is jacked. And this isn’t the first time, either. You remember why he fled Egypt in the first place? Exodus 2:10-12 says that he saw an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave and was overcome with rage, and killed him. So his rage here in Numbers 20 isn’t out of character. This is a guy who struggled with anger issues his whole life.
The next words out of his mouth were a little mysterious: “Shall we bring water for you out of the rock?” It’s hard to tell whether that’s a rhetorical question aimed at the Israelites – in other words, is that what you really want? Or whether he doubts that he can actually do it, despite the fact that he did it once before, in Exodus 17. One thing is certain though: Moses doesn’t mention the Lord. The “we” of verse 10 is Moses and Aaron, not God. In his anger, Moses, who had so often been the spokesman for the Lord, his representative, his ambassador, forgot who he was, and spoke for himself, and for his brother, as if they – Moses and Aaron – could bring water from a rock outcrop.
And then, swinging his staff with all the force his centenarian hands could muster – Moses was over 100 by this point – he smacked the rock, not once, but twice. That’s an odd detail. It’s like he was just whaling away at it, hoping that something would happen, like it did before. And, of course, it did. A spring of water gushed forth, and the Israelites had plenty for themselves and for their herds.
In a way, Moses’ sin was a personal recapitulation of the sin of Israel in Numbers 14. Thirty-nine years earlier, the people had sent spies into Israel to reconnoiter the promised land. They came back with a mixed report: the land was good, but the people who lived there were strong. So the Israelites rebelled and refused to go in. God replied by declaring that no one over the age of 20 would go in, and that the present generation would perish in the wilderness. The people countered by saying, “whoa, we didn’t mean it” and invading anyway, only to be driven back at high cost. In the same way, Moses first doubted the Lord’s command, and then took it upon himself to sort the whole mess out. His sentence was the same as that of the nation he led: he would be excluded from the promised land.
So what do we get from this, as Christians? I think there are three lessons here, laid out in the sentence imposed by God in verse 12.
First: Disobedience to God stems, ultimately, from disbelief in God. He said as much to Moses: “Because you did not believe in me…” (v.12) That doesn’t mean that Moses was an atheist. It means that God told Moses his plan for dealing with Israel’s rebellion, and Moses clearly didn’t think it was good enough. He substituted his own. The same way we do, when we know God’s will, and choose instead to do our own. We never exactly put it this way – at least, we don’t admit it – but we think we know better.
God shows us his will for dealing with anger: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26) – but we hold grudges, and justify them to ourselves by saying that we’ll forgive as soon as the other person apologizes. God’s Word shows us his will for the poor, commanding us to give as we’re asked. Jesus himself promises us that as we do to the least of these his brothers, we do to him. (Matt. 25:40) And yet we fuss over whether the people we’re called to help have tried adequately to help themselves. God makes very clear his design for marriage and family, and we go and conjure up every excuse we can think of for divorce and adultery and everything else. God’s Word tells us to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us, promising that by doing so we will prove ourselves to be sons and daughters of our Father in heaven – and we like to reserve the right to forgive when and where we want to. That’s not simple disobedience. That’s rank unbelief. And the Word of God won’t allow us to call it anything else.
The second lesson here is that public disobedience does damage to God’s glory. Part of Moses’ indictment is that he had failed to “uphold [the Lord] as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel.” (Num. 20:12) By forgetting God in his anger, Moses inadvertently encouraged others to forget God. By treating God casually and contemptuously – a couple of weeks ago we talked about the sin of presumption, which is at work here – Moses encouraged Israel to treat God casually and contemptuously. In James 3:1, we’re warned that not many should aspire to be teachers, because teachers will be judged more harshly. Guess what? You’re all teachers. Don’t diminish the glory of the Lord by your disobedience.
The third and final lesson is that the assurance of forgiveness doesn’t absolve us from the consequences of our sin. This is where the Gospel comes into play: yes, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And yes, in answer to sin, God didn’t leave us to rot, but sent his only begotten Son, who laid down his life for us, who died in our place, and who rose again, that all who trust in him might be raised with him. If you have trusted in Jesus for your forgiveness, you are forgiven. No ifs, ands, or buts. It doesn’t matter what you’re guilty of. Cheating? Lying? Hatred? All of the above? And yet… And yet, even though you’ve trusted in Jesus, and been assured of eternal life in the world to come, in this world… in this world your sins have consequences.
Don’t for a minute here think that Moses was damned to hell. He wasn’t. We have Jesus’ word on that. Read Deuteronomy and you see his forgiveness. But his sin had consequences, and one of those consequences was that he didn’t get to enter the promised land.
Once again, we have this warning from Numbers, which I think is really important for 21st century Christians: You can be part of the chosen people. You can be set apart by the Lord for the purposes of his glory. But don’t for a minute think that absolves you of the requirement of faith and obedience. It doesn’t. To the contrary, election – being chosen by God – imposes on you the burden of reverence, not just trusting in God, but treating him as God, not using his grace as an excuse for sin, but as an encouragement to holiness. Amen.