God has promised to give everyone what is appropriate, what they need to sustain this body and life. Christ Himself reminded us God takes care of the birds, the flowers, the grasses, and everything else. If He knows the plight of something as seemingly insignificant as grass, which grows wherever and however it wants, how much more will He take care of us?
Despite that humbling promise, we covet. To covet is to have a consuming desire to have something that belongs to someone else. We can’t stand that our neighbor has something we don’t, and we want it. Thinking about wanting it takes over our every thought. And so often, coveting takes on a longing for role reversal. We don’t just want what the other person has, we want theirs so they have nothing. Coveting goes well beyond things. We think that another person’s talents are wasted on them and would be much better if we had them. We covet health, pain free bodies, and all kinds of other things. If we remain unrepentant about the sin of covetousness, it can quickly consume our whole life, leaving us nothing but bitterness toward our neighbor.
That covetousness is the common denominator in all three readings this morning. The people of Israel are in the wilderness, without the most basic of needs: water. The Old Testament reading is from Exodus 17. In Exodus 15, just a mere two chapters prior, all of Israel is rejoicing, making music and dancing, exclaiming, “I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously! The horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea!” (Ex. 15:1) They had just received their long-awaited, long-prayed-for deliverance from slavery. Now that giving God is forgotten. They are angry. They aren’t praying for water, asking God to remember His mercy. The translation we heard makes the people sound too polite. It says they were contending with Moses, but the Hebrew word is much sharper. They’re yelling at Moses, stirring one another up to a seething anger, ready to bring a legal charge against him for, as they see it, bringing them to the wilderness to die. They covet the Egyptians. This line of thinking is one they’ll vocalize later. They think the Egyptians have it too good. They have water, they have meat, they have delicious spices, they have grand structures they didn’t labor to build. The Israelites completely ignore God and His gracious providence and go right for a consuming desire to have what the Egyptians have so they can be the ones perishing in the wilderness, starving, thirsty, and exhausted. God tells Moses to strike the rock to give water to the people. Moses complies, but he gives the place a double name: Massah and Meribah, which mean “tempted” and “contention,” because there the covetousness of the Israelites despised what God had given them and tempted Him to anger, asking if He was even among His people.
As St. Paul explained in his Epistle to the Corinthians, the people of Israel didn’t grumble about any ordinary water. Though the rock Moses struck was an ordinary rock, it represented Someone extraordinary. The Rock that followed them, the Rock that gave them spiritual water was Christ. God Himself dwelt among His people, whether they realized it or not. But because of their covetous hearts they despised what great Gifts were given to them. For that sin, God was not well pleased, and most of them perished and their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. This wilderness is not just literal, meaning that they were buried between Egypt and the Promised Land. Spiritually, the wilderness is anyplace where God is not, which is hell. For their selfish desires, for their longing for everything but what God gave them, they have received their just rewards.
This covetousness extends to the Gospel reading as well. Those hired first covet the lavish gift given to those hired at the eleventh hour. Instead of marveling at the graciousness of the employer, their evil eyes see unfair treatment, not divine goodness. Just like the wicked Israelites scattered in the physical and spiritual wilderness, those grumbling day-long workers are cast out of the house of the employer. He tells them “take what is yours,” that is, what you deserve, “and go your way.”
Though indignation may seem the real sin in today’s Gospel, it is really coveting. Those first hired covet the superabundant grace given to those who worked for one hour. They forget the grace that was shown to them in the first place! The landowner in the parable didn’t hire prime workers! Those who stood around waiting to be hired are the people who couldn’t hold down a job. They didn’t deserve a fair day’s pay and were lucky to get any kind of employment.
We’re just as guilty of coveting. We covet those who live openly unrepentant lifestyles but experience deathbed conversions, coming to faith in Jesus Christ and receive the same full forgiveness that we do, who sacrifice our Sunday mornings for churchgoing and our limited income for offerings. But just like those first hired, that’s to rely on our own merits and not to rely on the grace of God. Though the sins of the eleventh hour repenters may be more public, we have received just as much grace as they.
Hear again the seemingly simple phrase from the Epistle: “That spiritual Rock that followed them…was Christ.” The Rock followed the Israelites. Christ went with them all the way. He didn’t abandon them when they held their violent uprising in Exodus 17 or at any point in the Old Testament. Christ graciously followed Israel, providing for all their needs, even when they grumbled against Him. He never forsook them, as He rightly could have.
Neither will God forsake you. He cannot forsake you because He has already forsaken Christ in your place. He visited all His righteous wrath upon Christ on the cross as He bore all your sin. The damnation that you deserved, the wilderness you should have received was given to Christ. Because all of your sin has been paid for, there is only grace for you. And that grace was poured upon you when the Baptismal waters ran over your head. There the grace of God was given to you, grace far more than you deserved or could ever ask for or desire.
This grace transforms your coveting from a sinful covetousness of the things of your neighbor to a righteous coveting, coveting the grace of God. Now, by the Holy Spirit dwelling in you, you crave with the deepest longing the things that deliver Christ to you, that make the grace of God yours. That coveting of grace has drawn you here this day to receive Christ as He speaks His living Word to you, to receive Christ as He comes to you in His Body and Blood.
This grace of God will sustain you through all your days. As you just sang, “For though I know my heart’s condition, I also know my Savior’s voice.” You know your Savior’s voice that speaks in sweetest measures of grace upon grace. He has spoken to you: “I forgive you all your sins” and one day will speak again to you: “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord” (Mt. 25:21).
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.