Griping and Grace

I’m reading to you from chapter 16 of the Old Testament book of Exodus. Listen for the Word of the Lord with the help of God’s Holy Spirit:

The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim, and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt.

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Then the LORD said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.”

So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your complaining against the LORD. For what are we, that you complain against us?”

And Moses said, “When the LORD gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the LORD has heard the complaining that you utter against him– what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD.”

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.’” And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.

The LORD spoke to Moses and said, “”I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.’” In the evening quails came up and covered the camp, and 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.

When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.”  (Exodus 16:1-15)

You’d think God’s people would be in a better mood.

The Lord has just liberated them from Egyptian slavery through the parted waters of the Red Sea, and they’ve been enjoying their first month or so freedom.

But their path to full liberty in God’s Promised Land steers them into desert wilderness.

After living for years in the lush land of Goshen, they’re now in an arid, desolate place where water is limited and food is scare. And they’re facing many more miles to travel in the desert of Sin (seen). They’ve been wandering for a long time, and they’re a long way from anywhere. 

Like the term coined to peddle Snickers candy bars, God’s people are “hangry” – irritable and ill-tempered because of hunger. But they still have the energy to gripe and complain. And into all that acrimony steps God with a word of assurance.

Thus, this story pits against each other two opposing acts: grumbling and grace.

On one hand, it’s temptingly easy to criticize God’s people for their incessant, thankless complaining. “Sweaty ingrates” is how someone in my Bible study described them – and not without good reason. But, if you take that bait, you miss how completely human and understandable their complaints are. And who among us hasn’t been there, done that?

On the other hand, it’s stunningly simple to take too lightly how utterly gracious God is to the Israelites despite their stunning fickleness. God’s giving-in to the demands of these whiny, ragtag vagabonds displays a rich form of grace that should boggle your mind and sweep you off your feet.

Think about it: The Israelites don’t cry out for food. They don’t confess their faith in the God who not all that long ago delivered them from generations of slavery. They don’t ask the leaders, Moses and Aaron, to step in on their behalf with a prayer or two to God.

No, God’s people don’t say a blessed word to the Lord – not a prayer, not a remembrance of God’s promises, not even so much as a causal glance to heaven above.

Their recent experiences of God gracious power should have stirred stronger faith than that. They should have known that God was bigger than any obstacle or problem they could ever face. They’d seen that over and over. Rather than blaming their human leaders and forgetting their divine redeemer, they should have reached out to God in faithful-but-hopeful desperation.

So, one response to this story is to wag a finger of judging blame at God’s people then – and God’s people now (face it, many of us are wired to respond the same way that the Israelites did) – and to denounce the sin of grumbling that doubts the generous provision of God. But I’m not going there. Because the story doesn’t go there. Because God doesn’t go there.

God surely has divine reason to give the Israelites a good tongue-lashing for their towering heap of spiteful ingratitude, nasty grumbling, and lackluster faith. But God doesn’t do that. Sure, God acknowledges the incessant grumbling that’s filling the divine ears and the desperation that weighs heavy on the divine heart. But what God provides is not a scolding but a feeding. “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.”

That, without question, is what makes grace so amazing.

After all that he’s done for them, the Lord easily could have washed his hands of the whole sordid lot. “I’m done! Go back to Egypt, for all I care. Or, have it your way! I’ll just leave you to die out here. Makes no difference to me!” Instead, God gives them exactly what they need in their wilderness of hunger, doubt and anger.

Somewhere along the line, too many of us have come to think that God’s always-generous provision all depends on us: God will provide if we have enough faith. Well, not so much – at least not here, anyway. By amazing grace, the Lord gives generously to people who don’t have the depth of faith to ask for his blessing or the courage of belief to live lives as perfectly as God would have them lived.

There’s more to it than that, of course. God doesn’t give bread and meat and then just disappear with the desert wind.  No, God has more in mind. God wants this experience of grace to do something deeply spiritual for Israel, just as he does with us. “In this way, I will test them and see if they’ll follow my instructions.” 

From the beginning, when he created human beings and established his covenant of grace, the Lord has wanted nothing more than for people to love and obey him freely. That’s what creates authentic, mutual relationship between heaven and earth. Offering up nothing more than pre-programmed, robotic responses to a set of rules and regulations will never establish and grow the kind of relationship that God desires.

To form the kind of strong, loving tie that binds by grace and mercy, God doles out tests to take stock of where people’s faith is at and determine what needs to be done to strengthen the relationship. That’s the essence of teaching and nurturing in a nutshell: Start by finding out where your students are at and build from there.

Out there in that wilderness place, God tests the people with simple instructions about how to collect and share the bread from heaven. Each day they are to gather just enough manna for that day. Don’t take more than a 24-hour supply (which likely explains why we’re taught to pray “give us this day our daily bread”). And share if you have more than you need. On the sixth day, collect twice as much as on other days. It will last for the Sabbath, even though the surplus on other days will rot and be eaten by worms. Simple instructions, profound intentions.

In this provision of and instructions about bread, God wants to teach the Israelites and us the most important lesson in life: Our God is the God who rescues us, and all the credit is God’s and God’s alone. In the defeat of Pharaoh, in the parting of the Red Sea, in the resurrection of Jesus, God gains back the glory that all the false gods of the world have stolen away. Until we know who the one true God is and give the one true God the glory, we cannot lead the kind of trusting and obedient lives that God intends us to live.

Trust and obey – that’s all God has ever wanted. As the lyrics to an old hymn declare:

When we walk with the Lord in the light of his Word,
What a glory He sheds on our way!
While we do his good will, he abides with us still,
And with all who will trust and obey.
Trust and obey, for there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.

But short memory and puny faith rob us of that life and God of his glory.

So, from time to time, God gives us a special revelation of his glory, as he did for Israel before he actually provides daily bread.

We have seen the glory of the Lord many times, but we have often said what Israel said when they first saw God’s provision from heaven. “What is it?” We have seen the glory, but we haven’t recognized it. So, finally, God revealed his glory for all the world to see and explained what we were seeing. 

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

That’s what God gave Israel their desert and what God gives us ours: daily bread, the risen Jesus!

It’s no coincidence that Jesus identifies himself with this story. After miraculously feeding 5,000 people in another deserted landscape, Jesus recalls this story and makes a claim that both astonishes and repulses his questioners: “I am the bread of life. He [or she] who comes to me will never go hungry, and he [or she] who believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)

In response to that audacious claim, many grumbled, and others stopping following Jesus altogether. Even some his most faithful disciples bridled at the difficulty of what he was telling them. But, when he asked if they, too, wanted to walk away, they answer for all who believe: “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)

That’s right where the Lord wants us to be – in a place where you and I must depend totally on God for our well-being and survival. It’s almost as if God caresses the rose-colored-glass-wearing faces of those looking back toward the Egypts of the past and gently turns our gaze toward the land of promise and the kingdom of God.

Hear now, Jesus calling:

Peace is my continual gift to you. It flows abundantly from My throne of grace. Just as the Israelites could not store up manna for the future but had to gather it daily, so it is with My Peace. The day-by-day collecting of manna kept My people aware of their dependence on Me. Similarly, I gift you sufficient Peace for the present when you come to me by prayer and petition with thanksgiving. If I gave you permanent Peace, independent of My Presence, you might fall into the trap of self-sufficiency. May that never be!

I have designed you to need Me moment by moment. As your awareness of your neediness increases, so does your realization of My abundant sufficiency. I can meet every one of your needs without draining My resources at all. Approach My throne of grace with bold confidence, receiving My Peace with a thankful heart.

May it be so for you, for me, and go all God’s people.

Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, April 18, 2021. Scholarship, commentary and reflection by Doug Bratt, Walter Brueggemann, Stan Mast, and Sarah Young inform the message. (Artwork: Rudolf von Ems (1200-1254), The Israelites Collecting Manna from Heaven, The J. Paul Getty Museum)

Our morning song is “I Am the Bread” by Steve Angrisano:

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