Text: Numbers 11:4-34 W 19th Sunday after Pentecost
You Asked For It
In the name of him who set us free
from our captivity, and who now leads us and provides us with everything we
need for our journey to the Promised Land, dear friends in Christ: If you’re hoping to be inspired by examples
of the inherent goodness and nobility of the human spirit, then you probably
know that the pages of the Holy Scriptures are the last place you should
look. No, the stories of the Bible don’t
try to hide the truth. They show people
as they really are – as we really are – incorrigible sinners: weak, faithless, ungrateful, irritable, rebellious,
quick to succumb to temptation, prone to distraction, and all the while
constantly complaining about it. This is
especially true of the episodes that describe the Exodus of God’s chosen people
Consider: at first we find them in hard bondage to
their Egyptian taskmasters. There their
lives are short and bitter. In their misery,
they cry out to the Lord; and he, looking down with compassion, sends a
deliverer in the person of Moses. Initially they are overjoyed that the Lord has
sent help and they thank him from the bottom of their hearts. They even cheer Moses when he goes to face
the Pharaoh, “Go get him! You are God’s
man on our behalf!” But things don’t
turn out quite as they hoped. The Pharaoh
of Egypt proves to be more stubborn than they anticipated, and he makes their
burdens heavier than before. Rather than
continue to trust in the Lord and his sent deliverer, they turn on Moses. “Why couldn’t you leave well enough alone? We were happy just the way things were!” Funny, that’s not what they said before Moses
came. But anyway, even though they’d
lost faith, Moses proceeds with God’s plan.
Nine plagues later and the Pharaoh is beginning to have doubts about the
wisdom of insisting that his Hebrew slaves stay. Some people are slow to take a hint. He finally makes up his mind when the last
plague falls. One morning he awakes to discover
that all the firstborn of
The Israelites, for their part, have been protected from
this final plague by the blood of the lambs that Moses instructed them to put on
their doorposts. Now they are free, and
they begin to sing the Lord’s praises.
“Who has ever imagined a God as great and powerful as the Lord we
serve?” they shout in their songs, “The Lord God who has saved us with a mighty
hand and his outstretched arm.” Their
songs of joy and confidence do not last very long, though. Shortly after their departure, the Pharaoh
changes his mind. The idea of the sudden
labor shortage disturbs him: might be bad
for the economy so recently shattered by all those plagues. So he sends a horde of war chariots after his
erstwhile slaves. God’s people find
themselves pinned between the attacking soldiers and the
And you’d think that by now they’d be sure of that; but
as it turns out, they’re not. A few days
later their water supply runs low, and they’re right back to accusing God of
bringing them into the desert to die – this time by dehydration. When finally they come upon a spring, they
think maybe it’s going to be all right after all; but then they taste the water
and find it to be brackish and unfit to drink.
The grumbling begins at once:
“What a cruel God we have. Can
you believe it? Now he’s trying to
poison us!” Through Moses the Lord
miraculously cleanses the water and makes it potable. Cheers from the thirsty crowd, and the Lord
is number one on the charts again. But
do you suppose it lasts? Of course not,
for I’m sure you’ve detected the pattern by now. This time it’s a food shortage. Now the Lord is trying to starve us all to death. “Oh, why did we ever leave our happy homes in
And I suppose that’s exactly the imagery he intends. But you see what’s going on here: by steps and degrees the Lord is trying to impress upon his people that they can indeed trust him. He’s trying to teach them to walk by faith and not by sight. He’s showing them that even when things look bad and they can’t figure out how he’s going to solve the problem they’re facing, he will always come through for them. Over and over again he proves it, and then he sets them up with another test to see if they’ve got it yet. And every time, at least through all the episodes we’ve covered so far, they flunk the test. And of course, by studying these stories and seeing how the Lord works with his people, we’re supposed to learn precisely the same lesson so that when our times of testing come, as they surely do and will, we will fare better than they did. Unfortunately, very often we don’t. In the face of adversity, want, or need we often find ourselves acting like our spiritual ancestors and suffering a crisis of faith.
But the crisis of faith we heard about in this morning’s
Old Testament lesson is of a different sort altogether. This time the people’s bitter complaining
against the Lord has nothing to do with some kind of shortage or dire threat
that they’re up against. No, this time
all their needs are completely satisfied.
All is green light and systems go.
But still there’s a problem – a huge, monstrous, major problem, at least
in the minds of the people. And what’s
got them so worked up? They’re tired of
eating manna all the time. And to fully
appreciate this story, it’s important to understand that it doesn’t happen at
the end of forty years of wilderness wandering.
One might allow that a steady diet of manna could get boring after a few
decades; but no, when this story unfolds, it’s only been a few months since they
But still they complain. “We’ve lost our appetite”, they moan, “How can we be expected to tolerate this loathsome manna even a second more? Give us meat to eat!” And it isn’t like a delegation goes to Moses and says something like, “This manna is pretty good stuff, and we’re happy with it; but would you mind asking the Lord if he would consider sending us a little variety now and then?” No, instead we’re told that whole families stood in the entries of their tents and wailed. So what we’ve got here is the temper tantrum of a spoiled child on a national scale: some two million people crying about the fact that even though their gracious God sends them a steady diet of bread from heaven each day, it’s lacking a few of the flavors they crave.
When the situation is seen in this, its true light, we
are right to be disgusted with the people’s behavior. And even Moses fares poorly in the
story. He throws his own little hissy-fit
about how tough it is to lead such people.
And while his complaint may have some merit, he too resorts to excessive
theatrics. “Lord, you’ve made me the
sitter for a big, bawling baby. I can’t
take it. If this is the way it’s going
to be, just go ahead and kill me now.” And
then when the Lord says, “They want meat?
I’ll give’m meat: more than they
can stand. I’ll give’m meat ‘til they
vomit it up all over themselves”, Moses responds to the Lord with
disbelief. “Where are you going to get
that much meat, Lord? It’s not
possible.” Think about that for a
second. Here’s the guy who parted the
But that doesn’t stop us from imitating them, does it? What do I mean? Simply this:
the story is about spoiled, ungrateful people who turn up their noses at
the means that God has graciously given them to sustain their lives through the
wilderness while they travel to the Promised Land. In a spiritual sense, that’s the journey we
are taking now. We are passing through
the death shrouded desolation of this fallen earth on the way to our eternal
And you know what I’m talking about: “Oh, it’s that Bible story again. I’ve heard it hundred times before.” “What, Communion again this week? Well, there’s another fifteen minutes of my day shot.” “Nuts. A hymn with seven verses. Do we have to sing them all?” “Well, at least the readings are short this morning. Maybe if we’re lucky the sermon will be too.” Any of that sound vaguely familiar? It gets worse. Every Sunday when I get up to preach, you know that sooner I’m going to discuss some sin in your life (like I’m doing now), I’m going to call you to repent, and then I’m going to point you to the Gospel – to the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world by offering himself as a bloody sacrifice on the cross. It’s like clockwork in its predictability. But that’s it: that’s the priceless truth by which God gives us life through his Son; and we’ve heard it so often and now take it so for granted that it rarely fazes us. It’s like telling a multibillionaire like Bill Gates that he won a hundred dollars in a lottery. Big deal. “Yeah, yeah, yeah: ‘Jesus died for my sins.’ I knew that. Now I’m bored with it. What else you got for me?”
A better question, of course, is “What else is there that really matters?” but that doesn’t stop us from growing weary of it. And on account of it, many people avoid it. They just stay home as if they don’t need the feast of grace that God gives us here. Or they’re hit and miss Christians, skipping spiritual meals because they don’t think they’re very important. Funny, they don’t treat their bodies that way. And which is more important, their bodies or their souls? But perhaps the biggest problem we face today is the temptation to crave something else. This is why people are flocking to the big mega-churches of Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, and their ilk. There they serve up meals heavy with sugary treats but short on sound nutrition. You’ll hear all about what you can do to have a more satisfying life, but very little about your sin and God’s grace to you in Christ. Oh, but it’s fun. It’s exciting. The services are more like high school pep rallies than the traditional, reverent, Christ centered sort of worship we are used to.
And this is happening even in our
own church body. Rather than serve up
the humble Bread of Life, many congregations are craving the leeks and
The good news is that many people are discovering that. It may surprise you to know that the average length of membership in those big mega-churches that try to cater to people’s spiritual cravings is about two years. Like the Israelites stuffed with quail meat, people soon get sick of the lack of any real content. For many, it only leads them to the next church down the road where they’ve heard new and exciting things are happening; and where once again, after a short stay, they find themselves sick of it. That’s what comes of craving something new and different all the time. But others are discovering the richness that we have had all along and that we unfortunately so often take for granted.
And of course the reason I say these things is to encourage you to appreciate all the more what we do have. To those who ask for something else the Lord sometimes gives it – and then they discover too late that it’s not what they wanted after all. In the end, it makes them spiritually sick. But here we have the Bread of Life from heaven. And if we allow ourselves to really taste it, we will see that it isn’t as dull and boring as we sometimes claim. In God’s Word, in the worship of the church, and in the Sacraments there is great variety. It comes to us packaged in stories, parables, hymns and psalms, prophecies, and proclamations. There are many stories with multiple levels of meaning and deep threads of connection that would take a lifetime to unravel. There’s always something new to be tasted even in old stories you only think you know – and at the same time, there is always to be found in them the central and live-giving truth of God’s grace to us in Christ Jesus our Savior. That’s what we who are ungrateful, easily distracted sinners so much need to hear everyday. May God in his mercy give us always the grace to hunger and to ask for that daily Bread, for this is a prayer he loves to answer, and he will do it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!