February 2, 2014 - Numbers 11:16-23

February 3, 2014

"Holy Whining" - Andrew Scott, Pastor

(For a printable version of this sermon, click here.)

I’m getting old.

I know this because I find myself doing old person things: for example, becoming incredulous when someone tall enough to look me in the eye tells me that she doesn’t remember the turn of the millennium, because she wasn’t born yet. I find myself stammering with disbelief when I hear college students reminiscing about how much simpler and safer and old-fashioned the world was when they were children. I want to grab them by the collar and shout, “that was five years ago!” So, by way of penance, allow me to apologize for every remark I ever made about how long ago Kennedy was assassinated, or how much better the world was in the early 1980s.

The truth is that the good old days, as we think of them, weren’t the good old days because they were good. They were the good old days because we were young. The reason everything seemed innocent was because we were innocent. That’s true whether we’re 87 or 17. Our memories are selective, and one of the great gifts of God is that for most of us, we tend to remember the good stuff.

The same was true for the Israelites in the desert. They had selective memories of their time in Egypt, and their memories tended to get fonder the farther away they got. By the time a year had passed – just one year, mind you – they were grumbling about food. Oh, they said, back in Egypt we had bread! All the bread we could eat! Which, of course, wasn’t strictly true – they hadn’t really had much to eat at all in Egypt. They were slaves. They got what they got. But they remembered bread, and that was enough, and they complained to Moses, and to the Lord. In response, they got what they wanted. They whined about bread, and the Lord sent Manna.

I’d love to tell you what Manna was, but I don’t know. Neither did the Hebrews. The word, in Hebrew, means – quite literally – “what is it?” It tasted, as it says in verse 7, something like coriander seed, and it shined like a semi-precious jewel, and whatever it was, it appeared on the ground every morning in large quantities for the Israelites to eat. They made cakes out of it; they boiled it in pots; in general, they seem to have liked it. It came six days a week, and for six days they were commanded to collect only as much as they could eat that day. The seventh day was the Sabbath, and they were allowed to store Manna on the Sabbath. Now, living on Manna seems to have been a little like living on those protein shakes that they sell on television. You can do it. They have all they nutrition you need. But somehow they just aren’t… food.

So the Israelites complained. Some more. And their complaints took the form of reminiscences: “Oh that we had meat to eat!” they said. “We remember the fish that we had in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, and the garlic…” (v.5) At this point you might have expected Moses to grab them by the scruff of their necks and say, “you had free fish in Egypt on rare occasions! And it was only free because you were slaves!” But he didn’t. He went to the Lord, and explained the situation before him.

The Lord’s reply? First, he instructed Moses to gather seventy elders of the people who would share the burden of leadership. And second, he promised them meat: “The Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat… not just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you…” (vv. 19-20)

The mechanics were pretty simple, really: each day, not only did Manna appear on the ground, but quails flew into the camp, where they could be captured and cooked and eaten. So Israel had what it wanted: meat, for free. And yet, according to verse 33, the anger of the Lord grew against the Israelites until the outlying portions of the camp were consumed by a great plague, “while the meat was yet between their teeth.”

So what do we get out of this? Again, 2 Timothy 3 says that all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. But what are we supposed to get out of a weird story like this?

Well, for starters, there’s always the basic lesson that what the Lord doesn’t give you, you never really needed in the first place. Now, this is not a promise for everyone, indiscriminately. It’s a promise for those who have trusted in him, through Christ. And in that case, it holds true: what the Lord doesn’t give you, you never really needed. Did the Israelites need meat? Of course not. Not really. They didn’t need bread, either. The Lord had already provided for them a rich, but maybe bland, diet of Manna. Meat was just a bonus. But that’s what they wanted. Mind you, the Lord did, in the end, give them meat. But it was a gift of his grace, not a necessity.

When I read this I think of us – pretty much all of us – and the conditions we lay down on the Lord. Give me a bonus check, Lord, and I’ll be in church. Give me a few days off, and I’ll volunteer at the breakfasts, or the clothes closet, or I’ll spend more time with my family, or with my friends, and tell them about Jesus. Of course, it’s not like we lack anything we really, truly need right now. We have life and breath and hands and feet and the ability, right now, to serve God and our fellow human beings. But somehow we’re convinced that if we only had X, or Y – sometimes we’re not even sure what those things are – we’d be really useful to the Kingdom.

Well, if that’s you, let me break it to you now: Jesus Christ is not waiting on your considered opinion. He intends to use you now, just as you are, to carry the Gospel into the world. You’re free to say, “Lord, why me? Why now?” But the answer is going to be plain and simple: he has redeemed you from slavery to sin and death; he has promised you eternal life in his Kingdom; he has given you every gift of his Spirit and his Word – why aren’t out there? Why aren’t you telling people about the Gospel? What are you waiting for? The Lord has given you everything you really need to do his work.

The second thing I think of here is the warning about the basic nature of sin. What is it that the Israelites were guilty of? In a word, not trusting God. Not trusting that he would feed them, not trusting that he would guide them, not trusting that he would work all things together – as he has promised – for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. Do we do the same? Of course. But it’s dangerous. You remember that the first sin came by way of doubt and uncertainty. Of lack of trust. Satan, speaking through the serpent, asked “did God really say…” And with that the seed was sown. It is hard to trust God. It is, in a word, unnatural. But that’s the good news of the Gospel: that what’s unnatural for us, in our sin, is natural for God, and that where Satan sows distrust in the Word of God, the Holy Spirit sows understanding and conviction.

It may be that you right now you feel like the Israelites in the wilderness: you believe in God, you want to follow him, but you find it hard to trust him. It may be that you’re wavering – maybe you’ve been wavering your whole life – between trust and doubt, between faith and skepticism. If so, I’d point your attention to Israel there in the wilderness: there is no midway ground. You either trust him, to be good, and faithful, and supply your need, or you don’t. Pray for faith. And in the meantime, know that while the Lord’s methods may be hard to fathom sometimes, they are good altogether. And while you may not see it, he is working all things together for good – even bad things – for those who are called according to his glorious purpose. Have faith. The Lord is at work. Amen.

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