Sermons from San Diego

From Grousing to Gratitude: When We Encounter Dark Clouds

October 01, 2023 Mission Hills UCC - United Church of Christ Season 1 Episode 9
From Grousing to Gratitude: When We Encounter Dark Clouds
Sermons from San Diego
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Sermons from San Diego
From Grousing to Gratitude: When We Encounter Dark Clouds
Oct 01, 2023 Season 1 Episode 9
Mission Hills UCC - United Church of Christ

The Israelites have a new complaint, but actually, it's one they already made.  Read Exodus 17:1-7

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Show Notes Transcript

The Israelites have a new complaint, but actually, it's one they already made.  Read Exodus 17:1-7

If this sermon was meaningful to you, learn more about the rest of our church at You are invited to support the ministry of Mission Hills United Church of Christ with a one time or recurring contribution -

Sermons from Mission Hills UCC

San Diego, California


Rev. Dr. David Bahr


October 1, 2023


“Just Enough”

Exodus 17: 1-7 – Common English Bible

The whole Israelite community broke camp and set out from the Sin desert to continue their journey, as the Lord commanded. They set up their camp at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 The people argued with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”

Moses said to them, “Why are you arguing with me? Why are you testing the Lord?”

3 But the people were very thirsty for water there, and they complained to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?”

4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do with this people? They are getting ready to stone me.”

5 The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of Israel’s elders with you. Take in your hand the shepherd’s rod that you used to strike the Nile River, and go. 6 I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.” Moses did so while Israel’s elders watched. 7 He called the place Massah[a] and Meribah,[b] because the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”

Yup.  They’re still griping, groaning, grousing, and grumbling.  Once again, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt?  Do you want to kill us with thirst?”  A complaint they had already made.  

  • And do you remember how they griped, “Oh, how we wish that God had simply put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt.”  
  • Remember how they groaned, “Weren’t there enough graves that we could die in comfort in Egypt?”  
  • And groused, “We could eat all the cucumbers and leeks and onions and watermelons in Egypt we wanted for free, but you’re trying to starve us to death.”  
  • And now they’re back to grumbling about dying from thirst.  


So, Moses did as God instructed and hit a rock to make water gush forth.  He called that place Quarreling and Testing because they were testing and quarrelling with God.  Yes, after everything that’s happened, they still didn’t get it.  


God has come through for them time after time.  Of course, one could say, God should have acted years earlier and shortened their suffering…  And when God sent Moses and Aaron to secure their release from Pharaoh, admittedly, at first it made things even worse.  But God made up for it with boils and blisters and bugs; ten disasters one right after another, some a little too extreme in my humble opinion, but when Pharaoh relented and finally let the people go, God opened the sea for the people to walk through and closed it back up to the Egyptians in hot pursuit.  They got six weeks in Palm Springs, honey nut Cheerios every morning and quail every night, and water whenever they demanded it – even flavored water in Marah.  


In between, however, to be fair, they weren’t just sitting around campfires singing about Michael rowing his boat ashore.  They were defenseless in unprotected wilderness, sitting ducks for bad actors.  And it wasn’t long after water gushed from the rock that the Amalekites attacked.  Who are they?  Remember twin brothers Jacob and Esau?  Esau was the big, red, hairy, older twin of Jacob, grabbed by the heel on the way out of the birth canal and tricked out of his birthright and blessing.  Because of this trickery, Esau and Jacob were estranged for two decades.  The night before their reunion, Jacob wrestled with his conscience and afterward, God renamed him Israel.  All these grousing people in the wilderness – they were Israelites, meaning, descendants of Jacob, who was also the father of Joseph who saved Egypt from starvation.  See how it all circles around.  That’s Jacob.  Amalek was Esau’s grandson.  And now hundreds of years later, their descendants are back to feuding, or rather, one attacking the other.  


The Amalekites attack and while Moses was still picking quail out of his teeth, he jumped up and ordered Joshua to gather defenders.  Moses, Aaron, and Hur ran up the side of a hill to guide them.  The Amalekites were a fierce tribe that roamed southern Palestine and the Sinai Peninsula attacking and plundering.  As the battle raged between the well-armed Amalekites and the unprepared Israelites, whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel would start winning the battle and whenever Moses grew tired of holding his hand up, the Amalekites would begin winning.  Aaron and Hur found a rock so Moses could sit down and then they took turns holding up Moses’ arm.  And in that way, Joshua defeated Amalek.  But from that day forward, the descendants of the previously reconciled Jacob and Esau were forever mortal enemies.  


This was the kind of danger the people faced.  And this was the kind of exhaustion Moses faced.  One day, his wife Zipporah and the kids showed up to visit.  They hadn’t seen each other for years.  Moses was always super busy and couldn’t come home for dinner most nights because, you know, his demanding schedule dealing with all the boils and blisters and bugs and stuff.  So, at some point, Zipporah and the kids went back home to live with her father.  Egypt was no place for children.  And if I were Moses, would I want my children and spouse to watch me get griped at by people who should have been grateful?


Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, came along too and one night after supper, he pulled Moses aside and asked how he was doing.  He could see how exhausted Moses looked and wanted to offer some fatherly advice:  Get help!  You see, in addition to enduring the never-ending complaints against him and fighting off warring tribes, Moses had been working as a mediator between every party in dispute among the people too.  Jethro told Moses to pick some well respected and capable persons to serve as judges, responsible for smaller groups of people.  They can hear cases and anything they can’t handle, bring those to you.  It was pure common sense.  And Moses listened to his father-in-law’s suggestions and did everything he had said.  It was so brilliant, Israel maintained that system of judges for centuries.


So, exactly three months after the Israelites left Egypt, they entered the Sinai desert and set up camp in front of a mountain.  God called to Moses from that mountain.  Tell the people:  “You saw what I did to the Egyptians, and how I lifted you up on eagle’s wings and brought you to me.  So now, if you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant, you will be my most precious possession out of all the peoples of the earth.  You will be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation.”  It’s such a tender, loving moment.  Moses told the people and they all responded with one voice:  “Everything God has said we will do.”


Then God said to Moses, “I’m about to come to you in a thick cloud in order that the people will hear me talking with you so that they will always trust you.”  God instructed Moses that the people should wash their clothes and prepare for a holy event.  When morning dawned on the third day, there was thunder, lightning, and a thick cloud covering the mountain.  They heard the blast of a very loud horn and all the people shook with fear.  God pounded Mount Sinai with lightning until it was covered in smoke.  The horn blasts grew louder and louder.  And then Moses brought the people to the foot of the mountain so they could meet God.  They were warned not to come too close or they will fall dead from pure holiness.  The people stood at a distance while Moses approached the “thick cloud in which God was present” and Moses went up to the top of the mountain.[1]  


He would come back carrying something that would forever shape the identity of the people.  We’ll find out what that is next week, but you can probably already guess without trying too hard.


Moses approached the “thick cloud” where God is present.  Some translations say the “thick darkness,” which I really love.  God is light, but King Solomon also described God as living in a dark cloud.[2]  What an unusual but marvelous and beautiful image.  God in a dark cloud, in thick darkness.  We so often characterize darkness as evil and sinister, but here the Bible describes how God is present in “thick darkness,” not a place of fear but of pure holiness.  Imagine that it is in our darkest moments, when we fear dark clouds, that we encounter the Holy One.  Quite a contrast to “you’re supposed to” messages about being happy and keeping a stiff upper lip – often meaning, don’t feel what you feel.  


But do you know where seeds grow?  In the earthy darkness of soil.  And so do we.  And where does human life begin to grow?  In the warmth and darkness of the womb.  And so do we.  It is often during dark nights of the soul that we most readily engage in what is real, below the surface of “everything is fine!” and wrestle with ultimate meaning and questions of faith.  Not that I’m opposed to being optimistic and staying positive, except when it’s false, fake.  Some translations also interpret thick or dark as “dense.”  As in, God dwells in a “dense cloud.”  Can’t see through clearly.  Some days that feels exactly right, too.


Earlier this week in the daily devotional email from the UCC, Quinn Caldwell talked about how so many of us would like answers to be easier, the direction we should go clearer, the rules to every situation more black and white.  If only there was a search engine called  I tried and there isn’t one just in case anyone wants to claim it.  A few years ago, I led one of my more popular Lenten studies on a book called I’d Say Yes, God, If I Knew What You Wanted.   There is definitely an appeal to certainty and a faith that tells us exactly what to do.  But be careful.


Instead of a faith full of easy answers, clear direction, and everything laid out in black and white, Quinn expresses gratitude that we have “ancient witnesses and guides to follow, modern sages and teachers, companions for the road, a still, small voice inside, a mind that I’m trying hard to keep open, and communities of other confused souls who feast and fight and pray and love so hard that I’m pretty sure any path we’re on must be God’s.”  Of course, there are Ten Commandments, but even they are not all easy answers in black and white.  Bottom line:  We should not fear dark clouds or unknowing because there we find the Holy God.  


So, back to the story, Meg Jenista said, “If we could sum up the problem God’s people faced in the wilderness, it wasn’t starvation or thirst but, rather, that they kept forgetting to remember.  They kept coming up against obstacles and immediately quarreling with Moses.  They misremembered a sentimental version of their own slavery and accused God and Moses of ill intent.  After waking up every day, collecting their daily provision, while still talking with manna crumbs falling out of their mouth, they complained they would die of thirst.”  They had not yet turned their grousing into gratitude, so God enrolled them in a 40-year training program.


Just to be clear:  Gratitude is not sunshine and balloons and having no problems.  It’s knowing and trusting that God provides.  Maybe not in the form of honey wafers and quail anymore, but God does provide.  I asked the members of our Thursday Lunch and Lectionary group how.  


  • One offered a list:  “God provides me with hope, comfort, beauty, life, and faith – faith that it will all work out.”  
  • One participant said, “I take a walk and find an answer.”  
  • Another participant said, “not solutions but questions.  God provides me with questions.  And if I didn’t have faith, I wouldn’t have so many questions, such as Who is my neighbor and How do I love.  I wouldn’t ask those questions, I wouldn’t think about those things if God didn’t provide me with questions to make me reflect and examine my life.”  
  • Another participant agreed, “God provides me with lots of questions, both good and frustrating ones, but also the capacity to hold these in tension, finding answers in them.”  
  • How would you answer that question?  What does God provide for you?


And then how do we express gratitude?  My favorite answer from the group was this:  

  • “We express our gratitude by following through on a promise.”  Love that!  
  • We also express gratitude by paying attention, by helping people, and so much more.  
  • And the advice we have for the grousing complainers:  Ask them, “where is the gift in these troubles?”  Not for the food and water but gratitude for who we are becoming because of this journey of discovery through thick, dense, dark clouds.  


People say all the time, “seeing is believing.”  But really, belief shapes what we see.  They don’t yet believe.  But if you and I believe that God provides, we will see it happening everywhere all around us every day.  What is God providing for you for you to see?

[1] Exodus 19:9
[2] 1st Kings 8: 12