Sunday, March 18, 2012

Whining in the Wilderness

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21
Ann and I wouldn't point to ourselves as parenting superstars, by any means. But one of the rules we had for our kids as they were growing up was, “no whining.”

We banned whining because whiners do more than just make unpleasant sounds. Whiners, whether they’re children or adults, are really saying: “I want to be the most important person in this relationship, this family, this business, this church, this country, this world.” “I want life to go the way I want it to go.” Or, like Adam and Eve in the garden: “I want to be like God.”

Whining is especially galling when it comes from people who repeatedly go down destructive pathways in life, then complain that the rest of the world hasn’t been fair to them. A man I know has been married multiple times and complains that women are impossible to get along with, not once seeming to consider that the source of at least half of his marital problems can be found by looking in a mirror.

Today’s first Bible lesson recounts God’s reaction to the whining of His people Israel during their wilderness wanderings from Egypt.

They had been slaves there.

God miraculously freed them so that they could go to the land He had promised them.

The trip should have taken eleven days. But it took the Israelites forty years.

That’s because, in spite of God’s grace and blessings, the people repeatedly caved into the common human temptation to do things their own way and to ignore the will of God.

Please look at Numbers 21: 4. We’re told: “Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom and the soul of the people became discouraged on the way.” The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible says that the people “became impatient on the way.”

Now, if you adults have ever settled in behind the wheel to take a long trip and five minutes into it heard a voice ask, impatiently, from the back seat, "Are we there yet?," you know exactly what the Israelites are doing here.

They were whining!

Now look at what they had to say in verse 5: “And the people spoke against God and against Moses ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?...”

Talk about gall!

Here, in effect, the Israelites were saying, “God, why did you answer our prayers and set us free from slavery in Egypt? Why did you take us from a place where we did back-breaking labor for masters who whipped us, beat us, and owned us?”

We Christians can be like this. “Yeah, God,” we seem to say, “I know that Jesus died on a cross because of my sins. I know that through baptism and my belief in Christ, You are saving me for eternity. I know that You’ve given me a new life and that nothing can separate me from Your love. But, really God, when are you going to let me call the shots?”

Even we who bear the Name of Jesus and have the free gift of new life through Him, can be world class whiners!

There are two things we tend to forget in our daily lives.

First, we forget that we aren’t God. We didn’t invent this amazing thing called life. We didn’t create the universe. We aren’t in charge and never will be!

The other thing we forget is that, like the Israelites, you and I haven’t yet reached our promised land. We’re in the wilderness.

Turn to 1 Peter 2:11. Peter says: “Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts [he’s talking about all desires that are contrary to the will of God; in other words, “Don’t get hung up on the things we crave in this world...”] which war against the soul...”

Sojourners and pilgrims. The NRSV renders those words as “aliens and strangers.”

The moment we are baptized in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are no longer citizens of this world. We're just passing through.

We can expect to be attacked by the tests and temptations that come from, as Martin Luther puts in The Small Catechism, “the devil, the world, and our sinful selves.” This world isn't perfect and never will be.

But, thankfully. our ultimate destination is not in this wilderness.

Our destination as believers in Jesus is what the New Testament book of Hebrews calls “a better country,” the eternal kingdom of God.

This fallen world, wonderful though it can be, is a faint hint of the perfect, sinless, eternal new creation God is preparing for us.

Now, go to Numbers 21:5. The people are still whining: “...There is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.”

The “worthless bread” they’re talking about is the manna that God had been giving them virtually every day of the forty years they were in the wilderness.

To get the manna, they never had to plant a single seed, water a single sprout, or remove a single weed.

Like every blessing that God gives to us and that we take for granted--from breathing to everlasting life for those who trust in Christ, the manna was simply there for the taking. It was a gift of grace.

But the Israelites wanted more!

Someone has said that the key to contentment is to want what you already have. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have dreams or ambitions. But in the wilderness, God wants to teach us to not let our dreams--our desires--supplant God in our priorities. God wants to show us that nothing this world may offer us can match the gifts God wants to give those willing to receive them by faith in Him.

God wasn’t happy to hear His people whining yet again. It was a sign of faithlessness, selfishness, and sin.

Look at verses 6 and 7 back in our first lesson: “So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people and many of the people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you...”

The people had broken God’s commandments. I can name three: They had failed to honor God as God (first commandment). They had used His Name for something other than prayer, praise, and thanksgiving (second commandment). They had borne false witness against both God and Moses (eighth commandment). That's why God allowed the serpents in the desert to be so deadly to the Israelites.

The rebelliousness of the first generation to be freed from Egypt already knew that God wasn't going to let them get into the promised land. That didn't mean that God loved them any less. It simply meant that their sins had blocked the blessing of living in the promised land from their lives. But now, in the seventh rebellion against God in the wilderness recorded in the book of Numbers, God was trying to bring His people to their senses. Whenever we replace God's judgment about what's right and wrong, wise and foolish, or good and bad with our own judgment, we're on a collision course with hell. God sent the serpents to wake His people to the deadliness of sin.

Apparently, the people were awakened because verse 7 says that the people asked Moses to pray for them. Moses did.

Now, look at verse 8: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery [or burnished bronze] serpent, and set it on a pole, and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.”

What a weird prescription!

Why was this God’s fix?

In the hymn Amazing Grace, we sing, “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.”

Before the undeserved grace of God can bring us forgiveness of sins, we have to be aware that we have sin that needs to be forgiven.

Before we can have our relationship with God restored, we need to know that we’re separated from God.

God doesn’t force forgiveness and new life on us. We must receive it by faith.

When the Israelites turned to the bronze serpent, they were reminded that their sin was what triggered their situation. Forgiveness, healing, and life could only come to them when they acknowledged their sin and trusted in God.

Now look at John 3:14 and 15, from today's Gospel lesson.

Some 1500 years after the incident in our first lesson, Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

In the wilderness, the bronze serpent became the repository, the scapegoat, for the rebellion and sin of God’s people and through their honest repentance, the means by which their lives were restored.

In our own wilderness, it’s easy for us to wander away from God, to get caught up in our own agendas, to think that God has wandered from us.

That’s where the Savior on a cross comes in.

The New Testament tells us that God made Jesus “to be sin who knew no sin.”

Jesus volunteered to be the repository, the scapegoat, for our sin.

He calls us to turn our eyes away from the wilderness and turn instead to Him.

Every time we picture Jesus on the cross and remember again that He had no sin, but that our sin--your sin and my sin--put Him there, we’re forced to acknowledge our need of Him. We confess our sin.

Our faith in Him is renewed and the life and forgiveness that only Jesus can give floods us once again!

The wilderness in which you and I live each day is hard.

But God lets us decide whether he or our sin has the last word over our lives.

Look at Jesus‘ words to Nicodemus in John 3:16 to 18:
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He [or she] who believes in Him is not condemned; but he [or she] who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the Name of the only begotten Son of God.”
Christians who observe friends and acquaintances who aren’t believers going through difficult times, knowing that I was once an atheist, will often ask me, “How do they get through it, pastor? How can they face a life without hope?”

Good questions.

The bottom line is that, while we’re here in the wilderness we will never have all of life’s answers. But it’s clear to me that life without Jesus is a hell of hopelessness and futility, while life with Jesus is filled with God’s purpose and strength.

Turn to Jesus each day.

Acknowledge your sin. Seek His forgiveness.

Affirm Him as the only way to life with God.

And He will stand by your side.

He will lift you up.

And He will give you life, here, now, in the wilderness...and beyond.


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