[This message was presented during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, this morning.]
I collect buttons. The message of my favorite one is simple: No whining.
People who whine 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 three or four times and complains that women are impossible to get along with, not once wondering whether the source of at least some of his marital problems might 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. Throughout their forty year journey to the promised land, the people repeatedly caved in to the common human temptation of wanting to do things their own way and to ignore the will of God.
In Numbers 21:4, we’re told: “They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way…” The Israelites are whining: “Are we there yet?”
Verse 5: “...they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, ‘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 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. Today, we’re in the wilderness.
1 Peter 2:11, tells we Christians: “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” Christians are foreigners and exiles. We’re not “there,” not in our real home, yet.
Until we get there, things won’t be easy.
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. We take heart from Jesus’ words in John 16:33: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Now, go back to Numbers 21:5. The people are still whining: “...There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!’”
The “miserable food” 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 all the way 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!
There’s nothing wrong with wanting more good in our lives, as we said this past Wednesday evening. But in our wilderness, in this life, 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 to 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. Numbers 21:6-7: “Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you...’”
The people had broken God’s commandments. I can think of three: They 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). And they had broken these and other of God’s commands repeatedly. That's why God allowed the serpents in the desert to be so deadly to the Israelites.
Apparently though, the people were awakened by God’s action because verse 7 says that the people asked Moses to pray for them. Moses did. Now, look at verse 8: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and 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, please, at John 3:14-15, from today's Gospel lesson. Some 1500 years after the incident in our first lesson, Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
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. It’s easy for Christians to say, “I know what God says about sexuality, or covetousness, or loving others, but I just don’t agree with Him.”
That’s where the Savior on a cross comes in. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says of Jesus: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 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. When that happens, 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 have 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 one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
Christians who observe friends and acquaintances who aren’t believers going through difficult times and sometimes ask me, “How do they get through it, pastor? How can they face a life without hope?”
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 leaves us with nothing to hope for, while life with Jesus is filled with God’s presence now and with hope for eternity with God.
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.