Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21)
September 30, 2018
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church
The rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept and again said, "Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at."
Numbers 11:4-6 (ESV)
I want to begin this morning by asking you a question--a potentially embarrassing question. Let's suppose that you have a perfect memory and that you are reviewing your entire prayer life and making a list of every prayer that you have ever uttered. Now I want you to divide that list into two categories. In one of them put all of the prayers in which you gave thanks to God for some undeserved blessing that He has bestowed upon you. For the other, list all of the prayers in which you asked God to give you something or do something for you or complained to Him about something in your life that wasn't going the way you would like it to. Now here comes the embarrassing question: Which of these two lists is longer? And here's a follow-up question that may be equally embarrassing: Just how much longer is that longer list?
I trust that by now you've gotten my point. If you are honest with this little exercise in self-examination, you will have to admit that you ask God for a lot more than you thank Him for--that you complain to God a lot more often than you praise Him. I suppose it's okay to feel a little guilty about that, but don't think that you are any less grateful than any of the rest of us. It's a universal fact that everyone's "gimme" prayers and "if only" prayers far outnumber his or her prayers of thanksgiving. That's just the way we are. Children treat their parents that way, so what makes you think that the children of God would treat their heavenly Father any differently? In this morning's Old Testament Reading we catch a glimpse of the ingratitude of the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness on their way to freedom. It's not a very pretty sight to behold. Their attitude may even anger us. And yet, can we really say that we're any better? This morning we will attempt to find out.
The ingratitude of the ancient Israelites was truly amazing. We are told in the passage before us that they "had a strong craving." Another translation says that they "began to crave other food" (Numbers 11:4 NIV). What we need to understand here is that they were not starving to death. They had the manna that God had miraculously provided for them, sending it down from heaven with the morning dew. You would expect that they would be in great need, since they were in a desolate area, but the Lord had miraculously provided them with both food and water. You would hope that the average person would be grateful enough just to have these basic needs met, aside from being totally amazed at having them met in such an impressive way. But not God's chosen people. No, they were tired of this "same old stuff." Never mind that it sustained them; they wanted something different. They even remembered with fondness the food that they ate when they were slaves in Egypt. Apparently they didn't remember the suffering and degradation that they experienced there. They viewed the food of their Egyptian taskmasters in a favorable light compared to the food provided by their heavenly Father.
The big criticism that they raised against the manna from heaven was that they were tired of it. It's not that anything was lacking in it nutritionally. It's not even necessarily a matter of the manna not tasting good. It's just that they were tired of having this food and no other food. We might begin to wonder: what is so wrong with that? Don't we all like to have a certain amount of variety in our diet? There may be times and places when this kind of complaint is understandable and even appropriate. But not when you are in the kind of predicament the Israelites found themselves in. When there is no other food, you don't complain about the food that you have, especially if it has been given to you freely. The Egyptians fed the Israelites because they had to, in order to get more work out of them. Their entire motive in feeding the Israelites was self-serving. But God fed the Israelites because He loved them and wanted to sustain them on their way to freedom. You shouldn't place more value what is given out of necessity and selfishness than what is given out of love.
Can we honestly say that we fare any better than the Israelites did in this area of ingratitude? I don't think so. We also "have a strong craving" and "crave other food" (Numbers 11:4 NIV), although the food that we crave is spiritual food. God has given us (in Word and Sacrament) all the food that we need to grow in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. But we get tired of those same old means of grace with their same old message of the cross. We crave something different, something more exciting--perhaps a horoscope or an Ouija board or some other superstition, or maybe a vision or dream or something else that we can interpret as a divine message. It always amazes me how something that has always been taught in the Word of God can be totally ignored until it becomes "news" in the supermarket tabloids or until it is featured on the next Jerry Springer or Maury Povich show. I don't think that we are any less guilty than the children of Israel were when it comes to looking to places other than in what God provides for spiritual nourishment. We crave spiritual food other than the Gospel of Christ just as surely as the Israelites craved physical food other than the manna.
That's our basic human problem, whether we want to admit it or not--very often we act in a way that indicates that we view the God's means of grace in the same way that the Israelites viewed the manna in the desert. We probably don't feel comfortable saying it so bluntly, but the fact of the matter is that many of us find the Bible to be boring. Perhaps that is why the majority of Christians (or at least the majority of Lutherans) don't participate in any kind of Bible study after they are confirmed. It's "the same old stuff," so to speak. We've heard it all before. We prefer more interesting things--but those things are sure to enslave us just as the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians. These things are of course the things of Satan, who "pulls out all the stops" in his constant effort to keep people enslaved to sin rather than living in the freedom that Christ has purchased for them with His own blood.
In this world we are always told to strive for something better, not to be satisfied with our lot in life. And in many areas of life that is sound advice. After all, we would never learn anything or grow in way at all if we were forever content with the status quo. But here we are talking about something altogether different. In the Christ who comes to us in Word and Sacrament, God has given us the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation--everything that we could ever need or desire. Realizing this, we appreciate the spiritual food that our God has given us, feed on it daily, and give thanks to the God who has redeemed us in His Son and has provided His sacred means of receiving that forgiveness and living in it.
May the Lord bless your hearing of His Word, using it to accomplish in you those things for which He gave it. May you be enriched and strengthened in faith that you may leave here today to go out into our world armed with the whole armor of God, prepared to be able ambassadors of your Savior Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. Amen.