Years ago, a student suggested that suffering can cause a person, specifically a follower of Jesus Christ, to walk away from or even turn against God. I told her that perhaps this was true but that I thought it more likely that suffering reveals how much—or little—faith we have in God to begin with; that suffering can disclose to us how we view God in the first place. Therefore,
If, deep down, we wonder whether God really loves us, then suffering may confirm our worst suspicions about him and indeed result in our turning away from him;
But if, deep down, we know that he loves us and that he will never let us go, then suffering may cause us to cling to him all the more, knowing that whatever suffering we encounter is due to the Fall and Satan, that ancient serpent, who ever seeks to destroy us; and that because of Christ’s death and resurrection on behalf of those who believe and receive him, therefore even in this suffering, we can rest confident in the knowledge of God’s love for us.
I think where we sometimes go astray is in assuming that because God is a Person who loves us, he should always give us what we want—and no one wants to suffer. Therefore, when we do suffer, we may wrongly blame God and thereby turn away from him. Yet this perspective is just the opposite from that which God has disclosed to us in his Holy Word. For what the Scriptures teach about God—and the only way we can properly know God is by his Word and Spirit—is that God wants to bless us. He wants to make his presence and love known to us. But seeing his blessing requires a commitment on our part to be intentional in our relationship with him even as we’re intentional in spending time with family and friends we love. For Scripture teaches that if we draw near to God, he will draw near to us. And what greater blessing can there be than knowing he is ever near to those who know, love, and serve him—even in, and perhaps especially in—times of suffering? If we want to know how to receive God’s blessing, the passages we’ll be exploring this morning can set us on our path.
Last week we saw how, having been delivered by God from the bloodthirsty Egyptians who sought to re-enslave them, the Israelites sang a song of praise to the LORD who parted the Red Sea before them, brought them safely to the other side, and then “un-parted” the Red Sea whose walls of water on the right and left came crashing down on the Egyptians who sought to harm them. If such a breathtaking and astonishing deliverance didn’t lead them to sing God’s praises, then what would? And so Moses and the Israelites sang to the LORD who hurled both horse and driver into the sea; and the prophet Miriam, Moses’ older sister, then led the women with timbrel in hand and sang the same song as they danced joyously before the LORD who hurled both horse and driver into the sea! After this awe-inspiring deliverance, never again did the Israelites question whether God was with them, whether he was on their side; never again did they doubt him; never again did they grumble against him. At least that’s what should have been the case. But it wasn’t.
In fact, as we read on in Exodus 15, soon after we see that all it took for the people to grumble against Moses—which was the same as grumbling against the LORD since God was leading the Israelites by Moses—was their desire for water. As stated beginning with verse 22, “22 Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. 23 When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.)”—“Marah” means “bitter”—“24 So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What are we to drink?’” Now I confess that a part of me is sympathetic to the Israelites’ dilemma. Whether I’m at home, in the car, or preaching at this pulpit, I always have a glass of water nearby. So to go three days without finding water—while traveling in the desert—and then finally coming across water only to discover that it’s undrinkable, well, that would be tough. After all, tired and sweaty people traveling through a desert need water in order to survive. And the number of people and animals needing water was enormous. As stated earlier in the book of Exodus, “There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. 38 Many other people went up with them, and also large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds.” That’s a lot of lives, both human and animal, that were at risk.
But grumbling, complaining in a bad-tempered way against Moses wasn’t the right response. Why not talk with him? Or brainstorm together? Or pray with him and ask the LORD to please help them? Any of these alternatives would have been better than turning against Moses and God. Now if in hearing about this grumbling you’re having a sense of déjà vu, it may be because the last time the Israelites found themselves in dire straits—which was when Egypt was in pursuit of them as they encamped by the Red Sea—they also grumbled at Moses, accusing him of bringing them to the desert to die and stating that they would have been far better off had they remained in Egypt as slaves to the Egyptians. How short their memories were for, again, they had just experienced the LORD’s miraculous deliverance in the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea and the destruction of those same Egyptian enemies who had been in pursuit.
As stated in verse 25, upon hearing the peoples’ complaint, “Then Moses cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became fit to drink.” Problem solved! With but a piece of wood, God made the formerly bitter and undrinkable waters of Marah drinkable! But God wanted more for his people than to simply provide for their immediate physical need. As the second half of verse 25 goes on to state, “There the Lord issued a ruling and instruction for them and put them to the test.” God wanted the people of Israel, this nation he had created for himself from one man, their ancestor Abraham, to learn to trust him at all times, in all circumstances. He wanted them to learn that he knew what was best for them and for them to act accordingly.
Therefore, as stated in verse 26, he had Moses tell the Israelites, “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.” The LORD, their God—not just any God—called his people to take heed. To listen carefully—in a way that deliberately avoided errors. But God called the Israelites not only to listen but also to act. For the point wasn’t simply to understand what God was saying but to follow through with whatever instruction he gave. They were to “do what is right” in God’s eyes, not their own. And, if they did, they would receive God’s blessing. If they paid attention to his commands and kept all his decrees, not just the ones they wanted to keep, then God would not bring upon them any of the diseases that he had brought upon the Egyptians. Just the opposite. “For I am the LORD, who heals you.” God is a Healer. He seeks to heal. He seeks to save. Both physically and spiritually, he wants to restore us from our sinful state.
But in order to receive God’s blessings, in order to experience them, the Israelites needed to do what he revealed to them by his Word as he gave this Word to Moses. As the LORD had just given the Israelites water in the midst of their desperate thirst in the desert, he promised that he would continue to watch over—and care for—and even heal his people if they listened carefully to him and kept his decrees. For the commands and decrees of God are ever for the good of those who keep them for the One who gives them is Goodness itself. And to bring this point home, God who abundantly provides for those who are his from his riches and grace brought the Israelites to Elim, verse 27, “where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water.” Isn’t that just like God? Rather than merely turn Marah’s bitter waters into fresh waters, he then led his grumbling people, his complaining and bad-tempered people, to twelve springs! And seventy palm trees that they might have relief and shade from the desert sun. God’s grace knows no bounds! His mercy, his compassion, extends even to those who grumble against him and are undeserving. Is it any wonder that Scripture teaches that his kindness is intended to lead us to repentance?
Well, as the LORD issued a ruling and instruction for the Israelites to listen carefully to him and do what is right in his eyes in order that they might know his healing, so did James, our Lord Jesus’ brother, similarly teach. Beginning with verse 22 of James chapter 1, he, too, emphasizes the crucial connection between listening and doing: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” Ron and I occasionally laugh about an old Seinfeld episode (am I dating myself?!) in which Jerry had made a car reservation. But when he went to pick up the car he’d reserved, it wasn’t available. Jerry then accuses the clerk of not taking down his reservation. She tells him he’s wrong, that their computer indicated that they did indeed take down his reservation. Jerry responded by saying something to the effect of, “I don’t think you did. Anyone can take a reservation; but the important part is keeping it!” Indeed! And so it is with God’s Word. Anyone can read and understand what it says. But that’s not enough. Reading and understanding God’s Word is just the beginning. The important part is keeping what the Scriptures teach. Otherwise, James says, we’re deceiving ourselves. We’re not really believing that what they say is true. For even if we were to read Scripture daily; even if we were to memorize it, this would mean nothing if we ignored what it said and chose, instead, to live as we desired regardless of whether or not this was in keeping with what the Bible instructs.
James goes on to illustrate his point beginning with verse 23: “23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.” If we only listen to God’s Word—by reading it, or hearing it in church, or on TV, or the internet—but don’t do what it says, it’s the same as if we had never heard God’s Word in the first place. To develop James’ example, it’s like looking in a mirror and noticing a smudge on our face—or a piece of spinach in our tooth—or unruly hair and not doing anything about what we’ve seen but simply walking away and continuing as we were. But our precious Jesus wants more for us than what we want for ourselves. Therefore, he calls us not to stay as we are but to become what he died and rose from death to make us. For ultimately, he wants us to become like him. To take but a few examples from Jesus’ teaching, he calls his followers:
To be merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful;
to love others as Jesus has loved us;
to serve others as Jesus served;
to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.
We get the idea. For, as Jesus also taught, if we love him, we will keep his commandments. And his commandments are contained in God’s Word. Therefore, for example, we may know that the Scriptures teach that we’re to have no gods before or other than him as is stated in the first commandment that God gave to Moses. Knowing this, if we profess to be a follower of Jesus yet go to worship at a Hindu temple—or a Muslim mosque—or seek the counsel of a spiritist—or don’t regularly gather to worship him with a family of believers, then we aren’t doing what God’s Word teaches but instead are choosing to leave our faces dirty. We do what is right in our own eyes rather than doing what is right in the eyes of God.
James then contrasts this dirty-faced person with those who act upon what they hear in verse 25: “But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” Therefore, dear sisters and brothers, if we want to receive God’s blessing, we need to:
First, not simply read God’s Word, his perfect law, but look into it intently, with earnest and eager attention. Reading Scripture shouldn’t be like skimming through a magazine or a newspaper or reading a good book or a blog; no, reading Scripture, the Old and New Testaments that God has disclosed and preserved for us, should be like reading a manual explaining who God is, who we are, and how God desires us to live. For freedom, as defined by those Scriptures, is freedom to live as God intended: freedom to live without sin; freedom to live a holy life that is pleasing to him. And the opposite of freedom, as our Lord Jesus taught, is to be slaves to sin;
Second, in order to receive God’s blessing, we shouldn’t only “look intently into the perfect law” of God but we must also continue in it. We must do as it teaches, “not forgetting” what it states “but doing it.” If we do this, James promises, the LORD promises, we “will be blessed in what [we] do.” Now to be blessed in what we do doesn’t mean that we will always get what we want. It may be that, but it isn’t primarily that. No, to be blessed in what we do means that no matter what happens to us, we’re able to seek and find God in the midst of it. For, again, our kind and gracious Lord wants to make his presence known to us and this is the greatest blessing we can ever experience.
I want to close this morning with three personal examples that occurred this past week. Knowing how much our Father in heaven loves those who believe and receive his Son and how he, subsequently, sends his Holy Spirit to seal and indwell those who are his, I want to share three instances from Ron and my life that I count to be examples of his blessing despite the suffering they caused:
First, last Sunday—on my birthday!—as I walked Rango on newly-fallen snow before leaving for church, I slipped on ice that was beneath the snow and bumped the back of my head on the ground. Although I didn’t thank God for this frightening fall, I did—and do!—thank him that a small bump and neck pain that went away after a few days was the worst result. In my heart of hearts, I believe our dear Jesus delivered me from evil and gave me his blessing, showed me his presence, even in the midst of a frightening fall;
Second, last Monday during dinner Ron let me know that he had fallen on his side while at a job, also losing his footing on ice, and landing on his arm and hip. Although, again, I didn’t thank God for Ron’s frightening fall, I did—and do!—thank him that a few cuts on his arm and some tenderness were the worst result. Again, in my heart of hearts, I believe our dear Jesus delivered Ron from evil and gave him his blessing, showing his presence, even in the midst of his frightening fall;
Last, on Wednesday afternoon as I was again walking Rango—who turns four today!—he grabbed a chicken leg someone had carelessly tossed on the side of the road. Knowing the choking hazard, I was able to grab a small piece of the leg sticking out of his mouth and prayed—and prayed—and prayed for at least 10 minutes that Rango, who though a Goldendoodle has the grip of a Pit Bull, would please let go. He didn’t. Instead, he barked at a couple of dogs that were also being walked and began to choke as I had feared, yelping helplessly and running to me, looking to me to for help. But I couldn’t. I just cried and screamed and prayed for help. I thought our sweet pup was going to die in my arms as he suffered, unable to breathe. But then, somehow, he swallowed the chicken leg a little more when he tried to run after one of the other dogs. Then he regurgitated the entire chicken leg which I was able to grab and throw away in a nearby garbage. Although I didn’t thank God that Rango choked, I did—and do—thank him for his mercy in allowing Ron and me to continue to love and enjoy him. In my heart of hearts, I believe that he who knows—as Ron reminded me—even the sparrow that falls, delivered our precious pup from evil. In this, our kind Lord Jesus gave me his blessing, and showed me his presence.
Like the waters at Marah, God was able to make sweet these bitter experiences as he provided his deliverance from Satan who seeks to destroy God’s good creation. Now I realize that all of these instances could have turned out much differently: I could have had a worse injury or even died; Ron could have had a worse injury or even died; Rango could have died. And had any of these worse possibilities occurred, I’m certain that our Good Shepherd would have been right there in the midst of them. But these worse possibilities didn’t occur. Not this time. Instead, our kind Lord allowed me to experinece his goodness even in the midst of suffering. His kindness opened my eyes to his love. What is more, I know that these temporary deliverances from evil are but a foretaste of his ultimate deliverance from evil, death, and suffering that our loving Father, Son, and Holy Spirit provides in and through Christ Jesus and him alone to those who believe and receive him.
Dear ones, I pray that as we hear God’s Word, we wouldn’t simply hear it but would listen to it carefully and do what is right in God’s eyes, paying attention to his commands and keeping all his decrees;
I pray that as we hear God’s Word, we wouldn’t simply listen to it and deceive ourselves by ignoring it but would ask the Holy Spirit for the desire and strength to do what it says; that we would look into his Word intently, and experience the freedom of living a life that is free from sin;
For it is by reading and obeying his Word that we’re enabled by his Holy Spirit to know him; it is by reading and obeying his Word that he makes his presence and love known to us; it is by reading and obeying his Word that we’re enabled to know and receive God’s blessing, knowing that his commands and decrees are ever for the good of those who heed them.
Let us pray.
Benediction: Hebrews 13:20–21 20 Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, 21 equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
 Revelation 12:9: The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
 James 4:8.
 Exodus 15:9: The enemy boasted, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake them. I will divide the spoils; I will gorge myself on them. I will draw my sword and my hand will destroy them.’
 Exodus 15:1: Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord: “I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.
 Exodus 15:20–21: 20 Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing. 21 Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.”
 Exodus 12:37–38: 37 The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Sukkoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. 38 Many other people went up with them, and also large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds.
 Exodus 14:10–12: 10 As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. 11 They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”
 Others translate as a “log” or “a tree.”
 Later, after giving Israel the law, the LORD similarly stated the two sides of this: Positively, Deuteronomy 7:12–16: 12 If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your ancestors. 13 He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers. He will bless the fruit of your womb, the crops of your land—your grain, new wine and olive oil—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you. 14 You will be blessed more than any other people; none of your men or women will be childless, nor will any of your livestock be without young. 15 The Lord will keep you free from every disease. He will not inflict on you the horrible diseases you knew in Egypt, but he will inflict them on all who hate you. 16 You must destroy all the peoples the Lord your God gives over to you. Do not look on them with pity and do not serve their gods, for that will be a snare to you. And, negatively, Deuteronomy 28:58–63: 58 If you do not carefully follow all the words of this law, which are written in this book, and do not revere this glorious and awesome name—the Lord your God— 59 the Lord will send fearful plagues on you and your descendants, harsh and prolonged disasters, and severe and lingering illnesses. 60 He will bring on you all the diseases of Egypt that you dreaded, and they will cling to you. 61 The Lord will also bring on you every kind of sickness and disaster not recorded in this Book of the Law, until you are destroyed. 62 You who were as numerous as the stars in the sky will be left but few in number, because you did not obey the Lord your God. 63 Just as it pleased the Lord to make you prosper and increase in number, so it will please him to ruin and destroy you. You will be uprooted from the land you are entering to possess.
 The book of Judges notes time and again how the people chose to do what was evil in God’s eyes. See Judges 2:11: Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals.; Judges 3:7, 12: 7 The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord; they forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asherahs…. 7 The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord; they forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asherahs.; Judges 4:1: Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, now that Ehud was dead.; Judges 6:1: The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites.; Judges 10:6: Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord. They served the Baals and the Ashtoreths, and the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites and the gods of the Philistines. And because the Israelites forsook the Lord and no longer served him,….; Judges 13:1: Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord. They served the Baals and the Ashtoreths, and the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites and the gods of the Philistines. And because the Israelites forsook the Lord and no longer served him,….
 As Jesus also taught about himself—Luke 18:18–19: 18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.; Mark 10:17–18: 17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.
 Romans 2:4: Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?
 Luke 6:36: Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
 John 13:34:A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
 John 13:14–15: 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.
 Matthew 5:48: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
 John 14:15:If you love me, keep my commands.
 Exodus 20:3, Deuteronomy 5:7.
 Hebrews 10:24–25: 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
 See, for example, Galatians 5:13–15: 13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. [The quotation is from Leviticus 19:18: Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
 See John 8:34: Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” Jesus’s remedy to being thus enslaved is to be set free from our sin through him and him alone: John 8:35–36: “35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” The Apostle Paul taught the same. See Romans 6:6, 16–18, 20, 22: 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—….16 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness…. 20 When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness…. 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
 Matthew 10:28–31: 28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.; Luke 12:4–7: 4 “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. 7 Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.