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Getting Closer To God

When Bitter Waters Are Made Sweet

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | October 10, 2004

Selected highlights from this sermon

Most of us have experienced bitterness in our lives. It’s God’s intention that the disappointments in life not make us bitter, but make us better. Through all of our circumstances, God leads us, God directs us, God guides us, and in the end, we come out being especially blessed and better.

Let’s pray together.

Our Father, we ask in the name of Jesus that You will give us hearts that are ready to do Your will, to be open to Your truth, whatever the cost. Our desire is that we might be willing to do whatever it takes to draw close to You. But to say it is one thing. To do it is another, so come change our hearts, Lord. May they be turned to You in Your direction that we might be changed forever because we’ve heard this message. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

I think it’s true to say, isn’t it, that the word disappointment is a word that is in all of our vocabularies. In fact, the greater our dreams, the greater our visions, the greater the possibility of deep and unrelenting bitterness and disappointment. Sometimes it’s disappointment because of people. We expected better. When we married for better or for worse we thought that there was going to be much better than there was worse. So disappointment comes in those relationships.

Sometimes there’s also disappointment in circumstances. I like to tell the story that is familiar to me because when I was a teacher at Moody Bible Institute many years ago there was a young secretary. Her name was Debbie. She was 21 years old, a bright girl, a bright young woman, and very helpful and cheerful. But she had cancer, and we were praying that the cancer would disappear. And she went into some very special treatments that were experimental at the time, and she recovered, and she came back to work, and we were just rejoicing. We were so happy. We were celebrating because Debbie was back. And yet a few months later the cancer returned and she died at the age of 22.

And I often thought to myself why all that expectation? Why were we thinking to ourselves that this young woman would be healed? Why did God allow us to think that maybe this cancer would disappear because all that those expectations did, and her return to work, all that they did was to heighten our hopes, and make the disappointment even deeper.

And then sometimes we’re disappointed with God. I know a man whose wife gave birth to a stillborn child, and he was so angry, he said, “God is worth no more than a plugged nickel to me.” He was angry with God. The bitterness of disappointment!

The children of Israel experienced bitterness and heartache and disappointment. They were going across the wilderness. The had crossed the Red Sea. God had done a miracle. They sang a wonderful song of redemption, of hope and help and anticipation, and their faith in God was high. But how long does it take you to lose your faith in God? Well, they were wandering in the desert, and the Bible says they were very thirsty, and they were three days without water. I’ll tell you, that’s a long time to be without water in a desert. As a matter of fact, if they hadn’t had some water with them, most assuredly, they wouldn’t have lived for three days. So we can imagine the pressure.

We can imagine how angry they were and how frustrated they were. And then they come to an oasis. This is in the 15th chapter of the book of Exodus. If you have your Bibles with you turn with me because we are going to take three snapshots of Israel in the desert, three quick pictures of what they experienced in their bitter disappointment.

First of all, we do discuss their bitter disappointment. Chapter 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. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore, it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’”

You can imagine the mothers and father saying to their thirsty children, “Just a little while, just a little further!” They didn’t have the mile measurement in those days, but we would say, “Just two more miles, and we’re there and we’ll be able to drink.” And they get to the water and it is so bitter. You say, “Oh, but no matter how bitter it is, you’re so thirsty you’ll drink it.” No, you can’t drink it. In fact, the very place where they came to is still known today. You can read about it in archeological books and they will tell you that even there at that particular place the water is so brackish. It is so bitter that you can’t drink it.

And so the children of Israel began to grumble at Moses, and they began to complain. “Why is it that you led us here? We might as well have stayed in Egypt.” And they begin to think to themselves, “Is God with us or isn’t He?”

Now, let me ask you. Why does God lead them to the place of bitterness? The word marah in Hebrew means bitter. That’s why it was called Marah because of the bitterness. Why does God lead them there? Why all this anticipation and this deep disappointment? You’ll notice that the text says in verse 25 that there the Lord tested them.

It says in the last part of verse 25: “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, for I am the Lord, your healer.’” God says, “I am testing you to see what is in your heart.”

There is nothing that reveals our heart more clearly than a bitter experience, a deep disappointment. And so the children of Israel were concluding that God had abandoned them. And their temptation was to pin all of their hopes on water, to pin all of their hopes on the fulfillment of their thirst. And they just thought about it, and of course, they needed it if they were going to live. And they got there and the disappointment was very keen and very deep because they could not drink the water. And God says, “I’m finding out what’s in your heart.”

So what is in your heart? What is in my heart when we go through a bitter experience? How do we handle disappointment? Do we see God, or do we not? Interestingly, what the Lord would say to us is that God and your relationship to Him is even more important than water. God says, “Your relationship to Me is more important than the immediate need that is so pressing that if you don’t have water, you’ll die, but I am even more important to you than that.” “At the right hand of God there are blessings forevermore.” So the children of Israel experienced their deep, deep bitterness at Marah.

There’s a second snapshot that we should take of them, and that is the unexpected surprise. You’ll notice that the Lord does not leave them. Moses cries up to the Lord, verse 25. You’ll notice that expression that occurs so often in the Old Testament particularly. In fact, there’s a book that has been written that shows that crying unto the Lord is even different than praying. When we pray, we are so formal. We ask God for certain requests. We say certain things about God. We give Him glory, and that is certainly proper and right. But when you cry unto the Lord then you are desperate. You are saying, “God, if You don’t intervene here we are in trouble.”

I mean, you think of Moses. Two million people who were thirsty, all of them blaming him for the heat of the desert. And so Moses cries up to God. Earlier we noticed that when he crossed the Red Sea he cried up to the Lord and God intervened. It’s a sign of desperation, and God loves desperate people.

You see, only desperate people pray. One of the reasons that we find that so few people attend a prayer meeting is because they aren’t desperate, or maybe they think to themselves, “Even if I prayed, prayer wouldn’t change anything,” so it’s either lack of desperation or unbelief. But Moses cries to the Lord in faith, and the Lord shows him something. The Lord opened his eyes and showed him a log, or a piece of wood. Some translations say a tree. And he threw it into the water and the bitter water became sweet.

Now, after he threw the log into the water, he probably invited Israel to drink, and you can imagine all the skeptics saying, “It’s just as bitter as it ever was. How can a log, being thrown into the water, change anything?”

So those of you who have a scientific bent, I need to ask you: What is the connection between throwing that log into the water, and the bitter water turning sweet? The answer is there’s no scientific connection. Sometimes people have thought, “Well, you know, this log has certain properties, and it neutralized the poison. We can’t even begin to go there because there is no way that you could take this particular oasis that is so bitter and make it sweet. One log couldn’t do it even if it had these nutrients. God did a miracle, and God says, “Moses, you obey Me and you trust Me and the circumstances of life will become more favorable and I will meet your needs.” So there, God met the needs of the people, and everyone had water to drink.

You can imagine what this did to the large crowd. The spirits of everyone were revived. They began to believe in Moses again. They began to trust in God again. They began to remember the faithfulness of God in the past, and they realized that God is a big God. He’s a God of miracles. He can take the bitter experiences of life, and He can make them sweet. And sometimes what He does is He changes the circumstances. And sometimes He changes our hearts in such a way to accept those circumstances so that even if the circumstances don’t change, our hearts change and we realize that there is blessing in the place of bitterness. It happens often, particularly to those who trust Him and cry up to Him.

One day there was a teenage girl, unmarried, who bore a child. A bitter experience! A bitter experience for her, a bitter experience for the family! You go through all that is involved in having a child under those circumstances. And God enabled her to take care of the child and nurture him. And eventually he became part of a family. And today he is a spiritual leader. I happen to know who I’m talking about, who is well known, who is preaching the Gospel and sharing the Good News to multitudes. Isn’t that good of God? I mean, He can take the bitter experiences of life and from that bitterness He can indeed bring blessing. God does that.

You may be here today with a different kind of a bitter experience. It may be a marriage gone bad. It’s sometimes difficult to see sweetness in that, though I’ve noticed that to those who are faithful and those who cry to God, and those who receive it as a test from His hand, even the marah of a bad or even failed marriage is not fatal because God is there taking the bitterness and mixing it with sweetness and blessing. Don’t ever underestimate God’s ability to take the bitter experiences and make them a blessing. God is in the business of doing that all the time. He’s taking people like all the rest of us, with all of our sins and failures, and He’s using us and He’s blessing us in spite of ourselves. That’s the grace of God.

There’s a third experience that the Israelites had, and that was, of course, the lessons, the unforgettable lessons that God intended. And I’ve already hinted at the major lesson. It is God’s intention that these experiences not make us bitter, but make us better. Through it all, God leads us. God directs us. God guides us, and in the end we come out being especially blessed and better.

One day a man by the name of Job had a terrible, terrible experience. Some news came from different parts of the land, and all of the news was bad. He lost his cattle. He lost ten children in a wind storm. And his wife, God bless Mrs. Job… Let’s not be critical of her, but she did say to her husband, “Curse God and die.” Maybe she said that to him because she couldn’t endure his bitterness. Just imagine ten fresh graves on a hillside, all in one day.

And so he’s going through this and he’s crying up to God, and he’s wrestling with it. But Job didn’t turn out bitter. It was a bitter experience, but he turned out better. And he said, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

And you read the rest of the book of Job with all of those speeches that are going on, and all of the trouble that Job was experiencing, and his friends who didn’t encourage him but condemned him. But you read the end of the book and Job was blessed. Don’t ever accept bitterness just as bitterness.

I didn’t intend to tell this story so I’m going to do it from memory and see if it comes out right. Alright? That’s the agreement. If it comes out wrong, you’ll know I shouldn’t have started to tell it, but it’s coming to mind. You know, the neurons don’t fire quite as quickly as they used to.

There was a Chinese man who owned a horse and a son. And one day the boy was riding the horse, and the horse threw the boy off. And the boy broke his leg. So all of the man’s friends gathered together, and they said, “We want to comfort you regarding the evil that has befallen you.” And the man said, “How do you know that this is evil?”

And then later on some soldiers came through the countryside, and they were looking for young men to go to war. And they looked at his son and realized that he wasn’t fit for battle, and so they allowed him to stay at home. And all of the men’s friends gathered, and they said, “We want to comfort you regarding the good that has happened to you.” And he said, “How do you know that this is good?”

Well, the story goes on and on like that. The point is this: We as Christians don’t evaluate things simply on the basis of the immediate because we believe in a God who works all things together for good to those who love Him. Even the bitter experiences can be used for blessing and to make us better. Job learned that and we have to learn it as well. God always remains sweet. “In Thy presence there is fullness of joy. At thy right hand there are pleasures forevermore.” And Jesus invites us to the living water that sustains us as we go through the difficult experiences of life.

There’s a second lesson, and that is that God uses trees. (chuckles) God uses trees. I know that this was a miracle. As I’ve already mentioned, there was no specific connection between the log and the miracle of the water. But there are two very important trees in the Bible. And from these two trees you have two different results, and you and I are caught in the middle of the impact of those two trees.

The first is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that Adam and Eve were not to eat from, but you’ll recall that they did eat of the fruit of that tree, and as a result, bitterness and contamination and sin permeated the whole human race. And all of us have been infected by the disease of sin that came from eating that tree.

On Friday evening my wife and I were out with some friends and they were talking about some relatives who were decidedly difficult to get along with. Do you have any of those or was this just an anomaly? Do you know any relatives that might not always be as pleasant and as loving as you’d like relatives to be?

And I said to this man, “Isn’t it interesting that when man fell as a result of Adam’s sin, some people appear to have fallen further than others?” If you have someone in your radar who has fallen further than you wish he had, I’ll tell you, this Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil has permeated all of society. It has permeated culture, because our own hearts now have within them the seeds of evil. That’s why Solzhenitsyn says that the human race cannot be divided between good people and bad people. If so, we’d put all the good people on one side and the bad people on the other, and then we could survive if we were in the good camp. But he says, “The line goes right through every individual human heart.” The impact of that tree!

But then there’s another tree, and that is the tree of the cross. When Jesus Christ died on that cross, you have two logs that were nailed together to form the cross, and when Jesus was dying there, and when he got to Golgotha, He was invited, you remember, to drink some myrrh. The word myrrh comes from marah—some wine mingled with myrrh.

He was given two opportunities to do that. The second time was some cheap wine that never had any value. But the first time, when He arrived at the cross they gave Him this because they wanted to make sure that He had a sedative. It was actually a drink that was given to Him in mercy and in compassion. But He refused it. The Bible says He took it to His lips and He would not drink. Why? It’s because He wanted to bear the full weight of our sin. He wanted to bear in His own body the impact that was created as a result of the disobedience of Adam and Eve and all of our disobedience throughout the centuries as nations and as individuals.

And so Jesus becomes sin for us. The Bible says that Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us. “For it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hung upon a tree.’” And Jesus was crucified there and was cursed so that you and I could be blessed. And from that cross now forgiveness comes. Our past is reconciled. Our relationship with God is rectified. All that is wrong with us in terms of our past is forgiven. The consequences may still continue, of course, but our relationship with God is restored. Fellowship now becomes a possibility and a blessed reality because of the work of the cross of Jesus Christ.

And then what He begins to do is He begins to heal our souls. The Scripture says in the Old Testament that the Lord counts the number of the stars, and He heals our souls. He puts those two things together. Isn’t it wonderful to think that the same Lord who created the whole universe is the Lord who comes, not just with a band aid for a hurting soul? But thanks to Jesus, He comes to live within our hearts and to connect us to the Father so that there might be a healing that actually takes place within us so that the bitter experiences of life can be made sweet.

But there are some of you here who will not experience that sweetness for two separate reasons. First of all, it’s because you’ve never trusted Christ as your Savior to have your sins forgiven and to have the blessed Holy Spirit of God to indwell you. That’s one category.

There’s another category though. You know Christ as Savior and you have retained the bitterness in your soul. It is staying in your soul like Velcro. What you must be willing to do is to just take it and look at it one more time, and then, like a pitcher of water, pour it out at the foot of the cross. Receive God’s forgiveness, receive His cleansing and there be broken, and say, “Oh God, whatever it is that You have put me through, whatever my marra, oh God, I give it to You.” And out of that experience God will begin to produce sweetness, and disappointment will be His appointment to change you, to bless you, and to begin all over again in your soul. The bitter waters today—the bitter waters—can be sweet.

I want you to notice what happens afterwards. The text says in verse 27: “Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees (actually date palm trees where you could eat dates), and they encamped there by the water.”

When you are at Marah (you look at a map) you cannot see Elim. Elim is too far away. When you are going through the bitter stage, the Marah stage, you can’t see around the corners. You can’t see that God may have special blessing for you. All that you can see at that moment is the bitterness, and this bitterness overwhelms you. And you forget that if you keep following God, and with obedience comes blessing, that the Elim is just on up ahead.

When I first came to Chicago many years ago, 34 or 35 years ago, I read a book that had just been published by a young Christian woman who came to Chicago to work. And she was working with various Christian organizations here, and she was raped. And she’d been raped perhaps two or three years before this book was written, but now she was telling the story of the healing, and the grace of God, and the fears and the anxieties and the bitterness and the anger and the resentment, all of which she experienced in the most horrid way imaginable.

I forget the details, but I do remember something she said at the end of the book. She said, “When I was going through those dark nights when I couldn’t sleep, when I was going through the deep bitterness of fear and anger and hatred, why didn’t somebody tell me that someday the sun would shine again? Why didn’t somebody tell me that there would come a day when I could continue to hope and to believe and to trust? Why didn’t somebody tell me that someday I would be healed?” What she was saying is, “When I was at Marah, why didn’t somebody tell me that Elim was up ahead?”

God delights to take the bitter waters and make them sweet, and then what He does is He throws in Elim which, for some of you, may be just around the corner.

Let’s pray.

Our Father, we thank You today for this experience that Israel had. Thank You, Father, that they proved again Your faithfulness, that bitterness need not overwhelm us. For those, Father, struggling today with bitterness against others, or even against You, may they indeed spill it out at the foot of the cross. May they leave it where Jesus Christ died, and say, “I give You my bitterness. I release it, Father, to You,” so that in the vacuum You can pour in blessing, and that You can fill hearts with sweetness where there’s been bitterness.

And for those who have never trusted Christ as Savior, we pray that today they may look to Jesus, that they may look to the second cross, the second tree, look to Jesus to be forgiven, to be cleansed, and to receive His mercy and grace, and drink from the living water that He has made sweet.

Now, if God has talked to you, I want you to talk to God right now because He knows your thoughts. He knows your heart. At this moment you tell God whatever you need to. If you’ve never received Christ as Savior say, “Jesus, today I receive You as mine to forgive me, to cleanse me, to heal me.” And to those of you who know Him, give your marah to Him so that He can make it sweet.

Lord, whatever it takes, we pray that we may be drawn close to You. We are willing to exchange sunshine for rain, comfort for pain. Help us to not love bitterness. Help us to release it to You that You might pour blessing into our hearts, we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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