Pentecost 18, September 26, 2021
Numbers 11:4–6, 10–16, 24–29
A man decided to join a monastery where you were only allowed to say two words every 10 years. After 10 years in the monastery the head monk summons’ him and says ‘You’ve been with us for 10 years. What two words would you like to say.’ The monk replies ‘I’m hungry’, so the head monk arranges for an extra ration be given to him each day. After 20 years the head monk calls him in again and asks, ‘What two words would you like to say?’ The monk replies with ‘Too cold’, so the head monk arranges for him to get another blanket. After 30 years the head monk calls him in and says, ‘What two words would you like to say’. The monk replies with ‘Wanna leave’. The head monk says ‘I’m not surprised. You’ve done nothing but complain since you got here.’
Well, that is a goofy joke, but we know that people do seem to complain a lot. We know that folks, young and old, find it easy to complain, grumble, gripe. Well, in today’s Old Testament lesson, we find another example where the Israelites, after their rescue from Egypt, grumble and whine and complain to God.
Today, we have a reminder from our Good Lord to “Stop Griping.”
We begin this morning by noting that where we are, here in the Old Testament narrative, is that Moses and the Israelites have been in the wilderness for a year and half or so, and they are getting ready to check out the Promised Land. At the beginning of our text, some Israelites were making a big deal saying that they were richer, that they were better off, back as slaves in Egypt. Huh? Right? Israel remembered how they’d lived—and eaten—in Egypt (vv 4–6). Of course, and here’s the funny thing, they’d forgotten the slavery part. But with their selective memory, they grumbled that their diet was not as rich as it was in Egypt. “4 Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. 6 But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (I will get to manna in a second.) I have news for you…when they were in slavery, they did not eat all this stuff. Their owners did, but not the Hebrews. They ate the bare minimum to keep them alive enough to keep working. That is it.
Selective memory. We know how that works. People will tell teenagers “High school is the best years of your lives. Enjoy it!” But they are forgetting that most of high school was really a pain! I do not know too many people who think high school was the best time of their lives, unless they were the QB of the football team. Folks just remember the good parts, like not paying bills and not having mortgages and not having credit card debt. It is not uncommon to remember only the good and forget the bad.
Something else to remind you…remember, when they first got into the desert they complained about no food, and God gave them a kind of bread, manna, every day they were there. The word “manna” means, “what is it?” because the first day it showed up on the ground, everybody asked, “What is it?” At this point, the Israelites had eaten the What Is It for a year and a half. (They ended up eating the What is It every day for forty years.) I am assuming they had to get creative when it came to fixing it. And I am assuming that there were some cookbooks floating around to help. You know, recipes for Baked Manna, Fried Manna, Poached Manna, Manna Casserole, Manna Stew, Manna Soup, Manna Parmesan, Manna Alfredo, Barbecued Manna, Taco Manna, Banana Manna. Now they were griping that the food God was giving to them every day wasn’t good enough.
It is very clear here that the Israelites were not content God was taking care of them EVERY DAY. (Bread from Heaven!) They wanted something else! They were bored. They were selfish. And this created division and dissension within the Israelites.
We also grumble, we get bored with the standard of living God provides for us. We all have nice stuff. We are blessed. But we all want nicer stuff. Don’t go anywhere near an Apple Store when the new iPhone comes out. When I wrote this a month ago, I didn’t realize there was a new iPhone coming out. (It came out Friday.) But I’ll bet on Friday the lines were long to get one. They always have been in the past. I read the screen on the new one is the same size as the old one, and the processor is 10 percent faster than the old one. The truth is we are all guilty of looking at the stuff we have, seeing the next thing, and going, “Ooh…that’s better!” At any rate, I think we can all agree the Israelites should not have been whining.
Meanwhile, Moses was getting fed up with his God-given duties, which were much heavier than the life he was used to. (vv 10–15). This is the second part of the text. Let’s talk about Moses for a minute. He’d spent forty years off by himself, just tending sheep, when God suddenly put him in charge of a nation of millions. It is truly a miracle that Moses’ head did not explode when he was leading these people. Now they’re grumbling again (this happens 14 times in the books of Moses), and Moses complains of the Israelites complaining, of carrying the burdens of all those people. All the griping, and Moses says, “Lord, I did not ask for this!”
We also complain, fatigued from carrying our burdens. Right? We all come home from work or school and say how much that co-worker bugs us, or that client is nuts, or that teacher is too hard. Well, I don’t do this. I come home every night and tell Erica I had a perfect day because nothing ever goes wrong with me.
Next in the third part of the text, God did something to help Moses and Joshua complained about that! Joshua was a good Lutheran, and he didn’t do well with change (vv 16, 24–28). Joshua was accustomed to the God-ordained order of his “boss,” Moses, being the unchallenged Big Cheese. Then God sends the Holy Spirit and seventy people start to prophecy. So Joshua tried to stop Eldad and Medad (and Youdad and Wedad) from prophesying, thinking it was a challenge to Moses. He thought he was helping Moses out, but he was wrong.
We do the same thing. We work hard to protect our turf, jealous of others and their gifts. There might be someone who really helps out at work, but you fear they are more promotable than you are. There might be someone on your school team or band or club that is a great addition, but you think they are cramping your style. And this can happen here at church, too.
The moral to all this today is that God shows His people that He gives us every blessing that we need. But what we think will make our lives better and what HE thinks will make it better are often two different things. In the text, He doesn’t give better food (like the Israelites griped about), a vacation from duties (like Moses griped about), or confirmation of leadership (which Joshua griped about). God’s answer is to give greater life in the Spirit, like when He did it by putting His Spirit on seventy elders. God’s answer is to give us more of Himself.
Everyone in this text is griping because they think they know better than God. God disagrees. He tells the Israelites, “No better food!” The manna to which they were accustomed was already quite tasty (vv 7–8). (He did give them quail, but He gave them so much it made them sick.) He told Moses No Time Off! But then He gave Moses Spirit-filled men to help him. He told Joshua No Need to Turf-Protect! The Spirit works in manners well beyond what we are used to (v 29).
And God shows us that what He gives us is better than what we ask for. Life is more than food, having it easy at work, affirmations that “You’re the man!” It’s more than getting the latest iPhone or Samsung Galaxy. It’s more than protecting your turf.
God gives more than “stuff.” He gives LIFE. Life is given by the Spirit, “the Lord and giver of life” (Nicene Creed). That life is the life earned for all people when the One who gives the Spirit, the eternal Son of God, lay down His life on the cross, died and rose again. No one is accustomed to gaining life by losing it, but that’s exactly what Jesus did—He got Life for Israel, for Moses, for Joshua, for us who through the Holy Spirit believe in Him.
So why do we spend so much time griping? Right? Let’s just pause our lives here for one moment, and be reminded by the Good Lord, that we are Blessed. That we are Loved. That we are Forgiven. That we are Saved. All given to us by our heavenly Father who loved us enough to also give us His Son to die and rise for us. So, no more griping. Let’s switch to praising and thanking!
In the Name of Jesus.