Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost - 10/01/2017

Today I want to start with the Psalm. I fear that it often kind of gets lost in the shuffle of the four readings on any given Sunday, maybe there are those who don’t even really understand why a psalm is included. Allow me to tell you: the Psalm is intended as a response to the first reading. The first reading usually comes from the Old Testament so there’s always an intended connection between the two. To be honest, that connection is not always real clear, however as we have been hearing parts of the Exodus story in our first readings in the past weeks, the psalm connection has been more obvious as many psalms include memories of the events recounted in Exodus, events which are defining events in the faith history of ancient Israel.

Psalm 78, appointed for today, is one such psalm and what it is largely about is memory. It’s a long psalm, 72 verses of which we only get 9 today but in total it’s a long poetic narration of ancient Israel’s historical tradition, including today’s story of water from a rock. The intent of psalms like this, and there are several of them, is to help members of the community to remember, to know and learn from the lessons of their history and to pass what they’ve learned on to future generations. It’s learning that is future oriented, information about the past that includes a vision of hope for the future.

The opening verses of the psalm announce this educational intent: “Hear my teaching, O my people,” and then the future orientation, “We will recount to generations to come the praiseworthy deeds and the power of the Lord, and the wonderful works God has done.” Remembering stories from the past is important, but even more important is learning the lessons from those stories and passing it on.

For any group of people that’s the reason for studying and knowing about their history. History is never just about memorizing names and places and dates, at least it shouldn’t be; it’s understanding the significance of those names and places and dates. Sometimes the history sets up an ideal to strive for, particularly as we admire great figures from the past, sometimes it’s a caution concerning mistakes made and there always are such mistakes. If nothing is learned though, none of it means much.

If you watched any of the Ken Burns Vietnam documentary over the past two weeks, you got a sense of what I’m talking about. It was a bit long for my taste so I didn’t watch all of it although what I saw was very well done, but in watching it one couldn’t help but ask how much we learned from the Vietnam experience. Ken Burns laid out the history very well including the mistakes of which, especially in hindsight, there were many. But…even knowing all that, we still seem to continue to make mistakes similar to those made in Vietnam. It does make you wonder how much we learned.

Psalm 78 offers an account of a different kind of history. It’s about salvation history and the relationship of the people of Israel with their God, the Lord. As the opening verses say, it tells of the wonderful works God had done such as parting the waters and allowing the people to pass through, such as providing for thirsty people with water from a rock. That’s what we hear about in today’s verses. As a whole though, Psalm 78 is an up and down account of God’s wonderful works followed by the people’s disobedience as they continued to sin, followed by God’s anger, followed by varying degrees of repentance, followed by the Lord giving them another chance, followed by more reminders of God’s wonderful works followed by the people’s disobedience…and the cycle goes on for 72 verses.

In all this, the recurring mistakes of the people are, #1, not trusting in God to provide for them and, #2, idolatry, worshiping other gods. Both mistakes have to do with rejecting their God and the covenant relationship that had been established, that rejection the result of the loss of memory, forgetting about the mighty deeds and the relationship they represent. Yet…despite their repeated failure to be who the Lord would have them be, despite their failure to remember, despite the justified anger of the Lord, this God repeatedly forgives and responds to the need of the people; forgiveness and another chance are always part of the cycle. That is the lesson of Psalm 78, but it only has meaning if the people remember the stories on which the forgiveness and response are based, the stories that tell them who this God is and who they are as God’s people.

The water from the rock story is one of those the people are to remember. The story itself is pretty straightforward, miraculous, but straightforward. Previously the people had complained to Moses about a lack of food; that was last week’s reading. The Lord heard their complaint and provided manna from heaven another event recalled in Psalm 78. Today the story continues with the complaint about a lack of water as they say to Moses, “Give us water to drink.” At this point Moses is frustrated as well, no doubt feeling like he’s always stuck in the middle of this ongoing quarrel between the people and the Lord. Moses, after all, is just doing what he’s told. Again though, the Lord comes through commanding Moses to strike the rock at Horeb with his staff, promising that water will come out of it so that the people can drink. That’s what Moses does and that’s what happens, as water is provided for the people so they and we are left with this compelling and memorable image.

That’s the history as it were, but the last verse of this text moves us toward what it means, towards what we can learn from it with the question of the people, “Is the Lord among us or not?” The answer of course, is yet another resounding “Yes!” Yes, the Lord is among us. The Lord hears the cries of the people, he hears the frustration of Moses and provides the water of life.

A story like this is much more than history, if in fact it’s history at all at least as we think of history. At first it might seem far removed from us; we’re not wandering around in the desert with no water. What the story does though, is to take us to our own dry wilderness places, those places where we wonder about and question God’s presence, where we ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

If we remember the stories though, we realize that the dry places are part of the journey, part of the experience of what it is to be human and a person of faith, part of what it is to be in relationship with God. The Bible doesn’t sugar coat life; it doesn’t avoid the dry places. The trouble is, our memory gets pretty selective. We avoid the stories about dryness and God’s absence, we avoid the psalms of lament and despair in part because it’s been engrained in us that if we really had faith we wouldn’t experience such times and places.

What we hear in today’s story is that the Lord is among the people even as they sense absence. The Lord hears their complaint and answers with a decisive “Yes” that brings them to a new place and a new understanding. As the psalm tells us though, for the people, the Lord’s “Yes” didn’t take long to become for them “What have you done for me lately?” Their memories were short but another “Yes” would be waiting for them when they again needed it because that’s the nature of the God we worship. It’s a God with us at all points of the journey, maybe especially in the dry places.

It’s often out of times of dryness and questioning that new life and hope emerge. If Martin Luther hadn’t experienced his time of questioning God, even hating God, he wouldn’t have come to the insights he did about God’s grace and forgiveness. Even more than that though, for us as Christians the central story that we remember, the central story of our faith is the new life of Easter morning. But…it doesn’t come without the death and brokenness of Friday, Jesus’ moment of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me;” that needs to be remembered too. As we notice every year though, fewer and fewer people want to remember that part of the story. For many people it gets skipped over and because of that, the “Yes” of Easter isn’t quite the same.

Easter is, through Jesus, God’s ultimate “Yes” to us. It’s a “Yes” that’s so important to remember that every Sunday is intended as a celebration of the good news of Easter morning, the good news of new life and hope. We get a special reminder of this on a day that we celebrate a baptism as we do today. Our understanding of baptism is that through baptism we are joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus; we’re joined to and made part of God’s ultimate “Yes.”

Today we celebrate that “Yes” with Addison and her family and with that, each of us can remember that we too are part of that “Yes.” It’s easy to forget, especially as we experience life’s dry places; we’re not all that different from the people of Israel who so quickly forgot. That’s why we keep telling the stories.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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