Facing the Hardships of Life

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Several years back, when our youngest daughter Naomi was still a toddler, we were on holiday. And Tess took the children into a shop to get an ice-cream. And Naomi emerged, delight all over her face. And she came running towards me to show me. And she tripped. And she fell. And the ice-cream went splat. And her face went smack on the pavement. And I'm ashamed to say my first thought was, 'Well, thanks for that, Lord. You could have stopped that.'

Isn't that awful? And yet isn't that typical of us, when circumstances are not what we want? I wonder what's made you think your hardest thoughts against God? What's made you think he's failed you?

My reaction that day – and to much bigger hardships – shows that what I really want is for God to protect me and those I love from all hardship. It shows I want to live in a bubble of ease, where there are no accidents, no failures, no setbacks, no health-problems, no disappointments – nothing that would be hard for my faith.

And that's where we and God differ. Because God knows that if he did let us live in that bubble, our faith in him wouldn't grow, and quite possibly we'd be kidding ourselves that we were trusting in him at all. Which is why he allows us to face hardship, to test and strengthen our faith in him.

And that's the big theme of our Bible passage tonight, as we re-start a series in the Old Testament book of Exodus. This time last year, we did Exodus 1 to 15 – which we called, 'The Great Rescue', because those chapters tell how the LORD rescued his people Israel from slavery in Egypt, through the ten plagues, the Passover, and the Red Sea crossing. And we re-join the story – by which I mean true story, what really happened – from Exodus 15 onwards. And we've called this new series, 'Being God's People', because now he's rescued them, the next thing the LORD has to do is to teach them what it means to be his people, living in relationship with him.

And that's why straightaway he lets them face hardship, to test and strengthen their faith in him. And we're going to look tonight at three testing times the LORD engineered for them. They're in chapters 15 to 17 – which is a long passage. But often in the Bible – especially in the Old Testament – you have to read a longer piece to get the point – like here, where three testing times add up to one lesson.

The other passages in this series are on the programme card and the website. And, especially where they're longer, it would help you to read over them before you come – because some of us speaking are going to have to skip bits for time's sake.

So, let's re-join the story at the end of chapter 15 – which you could call:

1. Test Number One: No Water (15.22-27)

So look down to Exodus 15, verse 22:

"Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water."

Which was far worse than anything most of us have ever faced – it was life or death – for them, their children, their animals. Verse 23:

"When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah [which means bitter]."

Which was even more awful, because if there's one thing worse than finding no water, it's finding water only to discover it's undrinkable. That's like finding you're finally pregnant only to have a miscarriage. Or like finally getting the new job only for your new company to go bust. Verse 24:

"And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, 'What shall we drink?'"

Which is the first sign they're going to fail this test. Because the test is asking, 'Will you trust me to look after you, now you've seen me rescue you?' But there's no sign of a God-ward response is there? Only a response towards Moses: 'Come on, Moses, you got us into this, you get us out of it.' Nothing God-ward – except from Moses, verse 25:

"And [Moses] cried to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet."

But the point here is more than just water. Because read on, verse 26:

"There the LORD made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them, saying, 'If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians [that is, I'll do the opposite – I'll bless you with good things], for I am the LORD, your healer.'"

In other words, 'What you most need is to learn to trust me and therefore obey me. – even if I say, 'You're to head into this desert, to meet me at Mount Sinai.' To which they might have replied, 'But haven't you checked the map, Lord? There aren't any services that way – in fact, there aren't any motorways.' In which cast the LORD might have said, 'No, but will you trust me and therefore obey me, now you've seen me rescue you?'

Our problem is that we easily make our obedience conditional on whether we think the LORD is 'delivering' for us. So back then, he got his people out of slavery in Egypt, and they thought, 'Great – we'll trust and obey.' But then he made them face this water crisis, and they thought, 'Maybe he's not worth trusting and obeying after all. Not if he allows this. This wasn't in our script.'

And we can be the same today. Life may be going according to our script and so we think, 'Great – we'll trust and obey him.' But then results go wrong or uni goes wrong or relationships go wrong or career goes wrong or children go wrong or health goes wrong or whatever goes wrong, and we think, 'Maybe he's not worth trusting and obeying after all.'

And that's the test: am I trusting and obeying primarily because I hope God will bless me in return? Or am I trusting and obeying primarily because that's the right way to treat the LORD?

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying he doesn't bless us with good things. But that's not the primary reason for trusting and obeying him. And we need to trust and obey him through the times where we can't see that he's being good to us. And those times will come – perhaps often.

And if you're just looking into the Christian faith, it's important to get this, because otherwise you might get the idea that coming to faith in Jesus will remove all your problems, and give you immunity from hardship. But it won't. Having Jesus as Rescuer and Lord isn't easier. But it is, ultimately, better.

And the Israelites could very soon see again that the LORD was being good to them. Look at verse 27:

"Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water."

Which was more water and shade than they could have dreamed of. It was Tebay services plus plus plus. Which was the LORD's way of saying, 'You can trust me. I can provide. Because I know what's up ahead in a way that you don't.'

That's test number one: no water. So, onto:

2. Test Number Two: No Food (16.1-36)

Look down to chapter 16, verse 1:

"They set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, 'Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.'"

So how would you mark them on that one? 'Pass', 'Fail', or 'Didn't even turn up'?

What it shows is how hardship can make us lose our grip on reality, let alone on God. I mean, just listen to verse 3 again: "Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full…" It makes the past in Egypt sound idyllic, doesn't it? Like it had been five star, all-inclusive at Sharmel Sheik – rather than desperate slavery. But one area of hardship in the present makes them lose their grip on reality, and think they were better off before being rescued to be God's people.

And maybe you can relate to that. Maybe you've hit a hardship you didn't think the Lord Jesus would let come your way. Maybe even a hardship because you've come to faith in him – like family disapproval, or breaking up with a non-Christian partner, or whatever. And that one area of hardship in the present makes you think maybe you were better off before being rescued by Jesus to be one of his people.

What's the LORD's response? Look at verse 4: "Then the LORD said to Moses, 'Right, that's it. I'm fed up of these people not trusting me.' Thank God that's not what he's like. Look how gracious he is in verse 4:

"Then the LORD said to Moses, 'Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not.'"

Then skip to verse 11:

"And the LORD said to Moses, 'I have heard the grumbling of the people of Israel. Say to them, "At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread. Then you shall know that I am the LORD your God."'"

So they've just said, 'Do you remember how Egypt gave us that fantastic beef faatah and flatbread?' And the LORD is about to show them that it wasn't Egypt that gave them meat and bread – but him, the LORD, who feeds everyone everywhere, whether they acknowledge him or not. And he's about to show them he can still do it in the desert, without any help from Egyptian agriculture.

In other words, he's about to show them that their welfare ultimately depends on him, not on the secondary things that we easily put our trust in. For example, when we trust in our firm or the NHS or whatever to guarantee our jobs. Or when we trust in our children's schools (maybe carefully chosen by us, even paid for by us) to guarantee how they turn out. Or when we trust in our surgeon or our treatment for how long we're going to live. When we ought to be trusting our jobs and our children and our health and everything else to the Lord – and to nothing and no-one less.

So, look at verse 13:

"In the evening quail came up and covered the camp, [so there's the meat – a migrating flock blown in by the Lord on the wind] and in the morning dew lay around the camp. And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground. When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another, 'What is it?' For they did not know what it was. [And in Hebrew, which they spoke, 'What is it?' sounds a bit like 'manna'. And that's why they called it 'manna', rather than 'Frosties' – which from verse 14 would have been equally appropriate, but probably lost on them in translation.] And Moses said to them, 'It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.'"

And again, the point here is more than just bread. The point is that what they most need is to learn to trust in the LORD and therefore obey him, now they've seen him rescue them. And so the LORD makes gathering this manna another test of faith. Just look back to verse 4 again, to see that:

"Then the LORD said to Moses, 'Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not.'"

Now for time's sake, we need to skip through the rest of chapter 16.

So, first, the LORD told them just to gather enough manna for the day, and to store none of it for the next day. But unbelieving, common-sense Joe Israelite said to himself, 'You want to get as much as you can while you can – it might not be here tomorrow.' So look at verse 19:

"And Moses said to them, 'Let no one leave any of it over till the morning.' But they did not listen to Moses. Some left part of it till the morning, and it bred worms and stank. And Moses was angry with them."

So what's the test for faith there? It's whether they'll trust the LORD to give again tomorrow – and the day after, and every day after – so that they don't need to save it up. Which isn't saying the Lord is against prudent saving for the future – he's for prudent saving. But there is a kind of unbelieving saving that says, 'I'm going to hold onto as much as I can – because the Lord might not give again, might not be generous again.' Which is a recipe for selfish saving and failing to give and failing to be generous.

But then, secondly, the LORD told them only to gather on six days, and on day six to gather for two days, so they could have a Sabbath – a rest from regular work. So look on to verse 22:

"On the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers each. And when all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, he said to them, 'This is what the LORD has commanded: "Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay aside to be kept till the morning."' So they laid it aside till the morning, as Moses commanded them, and it did not stink, and there were no worms in it. Moses said, 'Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. For six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none.'"

But unbelieving, common-sense Joe Israelite said to himself, 'You don't want a miss a day – you want to get as much as you can while you can.' So, verse 27:

"On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, but [surprise, surprise] they found none. And the LORD said to Moses, 'How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws? See! The LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.' So the people rested on the seventh day."

So what's the test for faith there? It's to trust that one day off from regular work is not a problem or a risk or a lost opportunity to get more – but a gift. Look at verse 29 again – he says:

"The LORD has given you the Sabbath."

So it's a gift – a gift which reminds you that you're not just a worker – not just an 'economic unit' like Marxism says you are – and that life is not just about having enough to live on – or even having more than enough to live on in luxury. No, we're made in God's image and so life for us is to live in relationship with him. And anything less is just existing – which is what most people around us are doing. Maybe it's what you're doing right now – and the emptiness of it is saying to you, 'There's got to be more to life than this.' And there is.

So that's test number 2: no food. And finally, onto:

3. Test Number Three: No Water (17.1-7)

Which sounds familiar, doesn't it? Look down to chapter 17, verse 1:

"All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the LORD, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink."

And in case we're sitting on our spiritual high horses, let's just ask ourselves, 'Have we ever failed the same spiritual test twice? Ever reacted faithlessly again to the same hardship?' OK, so let's dismount our high horses and listen humbly. Verse 2:

"Therefore the people quarrelled with Moses and said, 'Give us water to drink.' And Moses said to them, 'Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?' But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, 'Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?' So Moses cried to the LORD, 'What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.' And the LORD said to Moses, 'Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.' And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the name of the place Massah [which means 'testing'] and Meribah [which means 'quarreling'], because of the quarrelling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, 'Is the LORD among us or not?'"

So the big theme of these chapters is that the LORD allowed them to face hardship, to test their faith. But that wasn't for his sake. He wasn't scratching his head and wondering whether any of them trusted in him yet. He knew that already. He can read our hearts. He knows the answer for every one of us right now. The testing was for their sake – to show them whether they'd begun to trust in him yet, and, if they had, to strengthen their faith as they saw him first put them in need and then provide for them.

And he tests us, in the same way, for our sake. But the new thing in chapter 17 is that Moses says to them, 'You need to realise that by the way you're responding, you're actually testing God.' You're saying to God, 'We're not going to trust in you unless you pass the test we set you. And the test is that you don't let hardship like this happen to us, that you don't allow circumstances we don't want. And if you do, we'll ask (end of verse 7), 'Is the LORD among us or not?' – and come to the conclusion that you're not. That you're not with us. Not real. Not worth trusting and obeying. That you've failed our test.'

And that's the attitude we're being warned against, here – because, as we saw in our other readings, the warning is picked up in Psalm 95, which is then quoted in Hebrews 3 and applied to us:

"Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts… [as they did, back then]" (Hebrews 3.7-8)

And we harden our hearts and test God whenever we say, 'I won't keep trusting and obeying you unless…' Unless you give me these results or open these doors. Unless you give me this relationship or fulfil that dream.

And God may have failed some of the tests you and I have set him. But that doesn't mean he's actually failed us, does it? Because in his wisdom, he may not have given us things we've wanted – at least, not yet, or not how we expected them. But the whole sweep of the Bible says that having rescued his people, he will give them everything they really need and that is really good for them. Which includes hardship to test and strengthen their faith.

And the New Testament version of that lesson is Romans 8.32, which says this:

"He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?"

Not all things we might want or dream of. But all things we need between here and heaven. And the Lord says to us, 'Will you trust me to do that, now that you've seen me rescue you at the cross?'

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