Grumbling, grace and gratitude

St Barnabas 26th July 2015

Reading – Exodus 16:1-18

Grumbling – it’s a national pastime. We grumble about the weather, we grumble about our football team, we grumble about the council. When the weather’s too cold, we wish it were hotter. When the weather’s too hot, we wish it were cooler – as if there was an ideal temperature where we could all be satisfied. We complain when Argyle lose yet again; we complain when they grind out a lucky, hard-fought 1-0 win. In fact in almost every situation there will be someone somewhere who isn’t happy with something. But then we all grumble from time to time. It’s just what we English tend to do.

So what it is so wrong with grumbling? Well, let’s turn to our reading from Exodus this morning, chapter 16. If you were here last week, you will know that the Lord has just miraculously intervened to save the Israelites from the pursuing Egyptians. He has parted the Red Sea to let the Israelites cross over in safety, and then brought the waters back again to bring His judgement on Pharaoh and His army. But this wonderful deliverance does not mean that the lives of the Israelites are magically transformed overnight. Because as soon as the Israelites cross over the Red Sea, they find themselves where…? In the desert, a place of thirst and hunger, with few natural resources, where death and disease is a constant and real threat.

And so very soon the Israelites are facing their first real test. Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they travelled in the desert without finding water (Exodus 15:22). Now put yourself in their shoes (or rather sandals) at this point. You had come across the Red Sea with hearts full of praise and thanksgiving. You had expected the Lord to lead you into a place of plenty. And what do you discover? That the water in camp is rapidly running out. Everyone is getting cross and dirty, and some are feeling more than a little unwell.

Eventually you reach a place called Marah which seems to be a place of refreshment, only you discover that the water there is bitter. You take one sip of it and instantly spit it out on the ground. How would you react? I am sure as good English people you would be grumbling with the best of them, and asking Moses, What are we to drink? (Ex 15:24).

But hang on a moment. You have just seen the Lord perform the most amazing miracle. You have been brought from death into life. You are now free in a way you could never possibly imagine. Where is your prayer and your praise now? We are told that three days ago – Exodus 14:31 – that when the Israelites saw the great power the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant. Yet that fear of the Lord and that trust has evaporated as fast as the water in their bottles.

Ultimately grumbling expresses a lack of trust and a failure to see God’s blessing. But as we shall later see in today’s reading, the Lord is incredibly gracious. At Marah, Moses cries out to the Lord and the Lord shows him what to do. Moses throws a piece of wood in the water and somehow it becomes sweet. Despite all their grumbling, the Israelites have enough to drink, and eventually they reach the oasis at Elim where, as the end of chapter 15 tells us, there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water.

But now it’s time to move on. And where do the Israelites find themselves again? Not too surprisingly, once more in the desert. And not too surprisingly, they once more are faced with a situation of great need. They apparently have enough water after their stop at the oasis. But now the food is running out. They are down to their last few rations. Children are crying from hunger, some of the men are working out which animals they need to kill.

And how do the Israelites respond to this latest crisis? Verses 2-3 tell us:

In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat round pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

It is as if the Israelites have learnt nothing from the deliverance of the Lord at the Red Sea or His provision in the desert at Marah. They are still grumbling, and indeed beyond the end of this story we will find that they continue grumbling right throughout their forty year journey in the desert. When the rubber hits the road, every time their faith is found wanting. Instead of looking to the Lord, they keep looking back. Never mind the fact that Pharaoh was slaughtering all their baby boys, or that they were forced to make bricks without straw. Egypt has suddenly become a place of plenty, a place where they could enjoy the good things of life.

And whose fault is it that they are out in the desert? Why of course, it’s Moses and Aaron’s. They were the ones who stood up to Pharaoh and they are the ones who claim to lead them. The current predicament is totally down to them, and as far as the Israelites are concerned, they are wholly responsible for this current mess.

The Israelites at this point are lacking faith, looking backwards and blaming others. They are, in other words, about as far as possible from being the people God wants them to be. Which makes the Lord’s words to Moses in verse 4 all the more remarkable: I will rain down bread from heaven for you. As we have seen already in our series on Exodus, and will continue to see, there is an amazing generosity in the heart of our Father God. The Lord does not give the Israelites a little bit of nourishment to send them on their way, with perhaps a promise that if they behave, they can have a little bit more. Nor does He tell them to stop complaining and sort out the problem for themselves. No, He promises to give them exactly what they are asking for, so there will be enough to go round and satisfy everybody.

If we want any proof from Scripture that God does not treat us as our sins deserve, then it’s right here. To a bunch of malcontents and grumblers God declares He will provide even though they barely believe in Him, and even though they do not expect He will hear their prayers.

So what is the point of such generosity? Well, most obviously the Lord wanted to provide for the Israelites’ needs. We have a God who knows what we require each day and He is not, despite what we may sometimes think, a grudging God who only gives reluctantly and sparingly. As Jesus says in Matthew 7:9-11:

9 “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?

10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?

11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

That’s why He teaches us to ask our Heavenly Father to give us today our daily bread. Because, despite what the Israelites believed, it is in God’s nature to give – providing, of course, that we ask.

But there was more to the Lord’s promise of bread than simply giving the Israelites what they wanted. His provision came with clear instructions to be obeyed and acted upon. Reading on in today’s passage, in verses 4 and 5:

4… The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions.

5 On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.”

Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Yet actually the acid test of our faith is not whether we have understood the finer points of theology, or how spiritual we are in our worship. It’s whether by the sixth day of the week we are still walking in obedience to the Lord, and doing what He wants us to do. Has the generosity of the Lord made a real difference to our daily lives or not? That’s a question we will be returning to later, at the end of the sermon.

And ultimately, the point of the Lord’s generosity was, of course, to remind the Israelites who the Lord is and why He could be trusted. Listen again to Moses and Aaron’s words in verses 6 and 7:

In the evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because He has heard your grumbling against him.

Just in case, however, the Israelites are wondering at this point whether they really are speaking words of truth, the Lord also appears to them directly as Aaron is delivering this message. All this time they have been led by a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire at night. And now as Aaron speaks, the Lord Himself appears to them in that cloud. He is making clear even in a way they could understand that what they are about to experience will be a miracle and entirely His work alone.

So that evening a flock of quail come into the camp. Maybe you could explain that as a natural phenomenon. After all, as I have seen for myself, there is an abundance of all kinds of birdlife in that part of the world, often on migration. But nothing could have prepared the Israelites what they discovered when they woke up next day. Verses 13-14:

In the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.

Now over the years people have tried and failed to come up with natural explanations for this white flaky substance that sustained the Israelites for the next forty years. Clearly something did sustain them on the journey in the desert, but what it was we simply do not know. It was also certainly something that the Israelites themselves had never seen before. That’s why they called what they discovered manna – the Hebrew words aWh !m’ mean “What is it?” This was the Lord’s generous provision, right there outside of their tents, a revelation of His glory, a clear and unmistakeable sign that He could be trusted.

So how did the Israelites respond to the Lord’s provision?

Well, reading on from the end of today’s reading, to verses 19-20:

Then Moses said to them, “No-one is to keep any of it until morning.” However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them.

Even after they had heard the word of the Lord, even after they had witnessed His glory, even after they had seen His wonderful provision, it seems that some Israelites were still not minded to obey. And what about the Lord’s earlier instruction about gathering twice as much on the sixth day? Moving on to verses 27-29:

27 Nevertheless, some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather it, but they found none.

28 Then the Lord said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions?

29 Bear in mind that the Lord has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Everyone is to stay where he is on the seventh day; no-one is to go out.”

The people of Israel have grumbled. The Lord has responded in grace. Yet they remained profoundly ungrateful and they refused to heed His word.

So what about us? Here today I know that most, if not every single person here today, is an experienced Christian. You have a story of a time when the Lord intervened in your life and you discovered salvation through Jesus Christ. You probably also have a story of a time when you have seen the Lord’s provision, and a situation which appeared so bitter suddenly became sweet.

But let’s name some realities here. There is no doubt that at the moment the people of God here at St Barnabas are in a desert place. For reasons the Lord alone knows, He is taking us through a time of testing and we face many challenges. And we can have a variety of reactions to our current situation.

We can grumble like the Israelites and maybe question why the Lord has brought the church to such a time as this. We can perhaps look back nostalgically at a time when St Barnabas seemed to be flourishing. We can ask questions of those who lead the church, and certainly I have no pretensions to be a Moses or an Aaron.

But maybe this passage today is a reminder that despite how circumstances may appear we are nonetheless called to look forward in faith. Because the reality is, we too have bread from heaven that is always there to sustain and strengthen us on our journey through the desert place. Of course, our bread is not the physical manna you can eat. Our bread is Jesus Christ Himself who declares:

I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:35).

And I passionately believe that whatever future the Lord has for this church, it is only to be discovered when together we come to Jesus, hungry and thirsty for Him to reveal His glory in us and through us. That is why I am asking everyone to make this summer a season of prayer and preparation – and I’ll say more about this next week. It’s also why I am calling together a group within the church to address the question, “Where do you see St Barnabas in five years’ time?” Because the key theme of Exodus is that God is the same yesterday, today and forever, and that His grace never fails – despite the fact that sometimes we all grumble and sometimes we are less than grateful. So let’s not look back or wish for days gone by. Let’s look forward trusting not in our own resources, but in the generosity of our Heavenly Father who, as Paul reminds us in Ephesians, is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine so that together we see the glory of God in this place.

Amen!

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