The Grumblers, Exodus 17:1-7
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, September 27, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer
Grumblers. Have you met any?
Maybe you’re willing to admit that you’ve had a grumbling moment or two at some point in your life.
Sometimes we get in a mood. We know we’re being negative, but we’re on a roll. One thing bothers us, and you know, while I’m on it, this is bothering me, too. One thing leads to another.
We may realize it’s happening and decide we need to give ourselves a time out. Take a nap. Go to bed. Take a walk. Whatever works for you. Tomorrow will be different.
If you have a friend who has a tendency to grumble, maybe you’ve told them a time or two that they need an attitude adjustment. Go take a nap. Or a walk. Whatever.
As we read this morning’s scripture and the ones leading up to it, we’re reminded of God’s patience—because truly, when it comes to being grumblers, the Israelites are champions.
You’ll remember that the grumbling began very early in their adventure. With the Red Sea in front of them and the Egyptian army approaching from behind they confronted Moses: This was your idea, it wasn’t ours. We were just fine. What’s the problem? Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt that you needed to bring us out into the desert to die?
It just makes a tough situation better if you have someone to blame for the mess, right?
In Chapter 15, right after the parting of the sea, when everyone is safe and sound on the other side, Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, along with the other women, with timbrels and dancing, sing a song of celebration:
Sing to the Lord,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.
From there, the people follow Moses into the Desert of Shur. For 3 days they travel without finding water. Once they found some, it is undrinkable.
The people grumble. What are we to drink?
Moses cries out to the Lord, who shows him a piece of wood that he throws into the water, and the water becomes fit to drink.
God then speaks to the people. God says to them, “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians for I am the Lord, who heals you.”
The people then camp in Elim, where there are 12 springs and 70 palm trees. Water. A good place to rest.
But they can’t stay there forever.
In Chapter 16, we read that the people are on the move again, in the desert, and the people fall back into their pattern of grumbling.
They’re remembering the food of Egypt, and looking back, it was all-so-much-better-in-Egypt. “Oh, if only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt. There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted. But you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve us all to death!”
God hears, and once again, God provides. In the morning, the people receive “bread from heaven”/manna, a layer of dew that appears on the desert floor like frost. It dries into flakes, taste like wafers made with honey and can be eaten like bread. They aren’t to gather more than their household can eat as it would spoil by morning, but there is enough for what they need each day. On the 6th day, they are to gather twice as much as they need—enough for 2 days—so that the 7th day can be a Sabbath. There is no manna on the ground on the 7th day; on that day they are to rest.
Not only do they receive manna, but each evening, quail covers the camp. Bread in the morning, meat at night. In this way, God provides.
For 40 years, we’re told that God provides manna, until the people come to a land that is settled; they eat manna until they reach the border of Canaan (16:35).
This morning’s story immediately follows the story of God’s provision of manna and quail. Again, the people are thirsty, but there is no water. Again, Moses is to blame. The people are so riled up, that Moses is convinced they’re going to stone him. God instructs him to gather the elders, and within their sight, to strike a rock with the same staff that he had changed the Nile into blood, the same staff that he had raised over and parted the waters. Again, this time, as Moses follows God’s instructions, water flows from a rock and the people are able to drink.
There are so many things for us to think about as we read these stories from Exodus as the people wander in the wilderness and as they learn lessons about freedom, about who they are, and about who God is. As always, the lessons are important for us, too, as we live in the various wilderness experiences of our lives, and learn to be followers of Jesus Christ. There are always things for us to learn, it seems, always ways we are “put to the test.” I’m not sure I exactly believe that God “puts us to the test” in the way God put the Israelites to the test, and yet—I do know we are constantly offered opportunities to learn, to grow, to practice, to fall short, and then to learn and grow some more. I want to be a life-long learner in many different ways, including learning what it means to be a Christ follower. So, I listen to these lessons and consider what they’re teaching me, what they have to say to us today.
The first thing that I think the Israelites have a hard time remembering but that we see very clearly in their story—is that God provides for them. God provided daily bread. They were able to eat everyday throughout their wilderness years, right up until the time they come to the place where they can easily find what they need.
God provides. It may not be exactly what we might expect or hope for, but God provides for us, taking care of our needs.
One way God provides today is through other people—through community.
I think of the detailed and intentional way scripture describes how the people aren’t to gather more than they need, and how the bread becomes inedible if they do. Today if we load up our pantries with more than we can eat, we’ll be tossing food, even canned goods if we’re not careful. Things are still good for a while beyond expiration dates, but maybe when we see good deals at the grocery, instead of loading up for ourselves more than we need, we might consider loading up and donating to the food pantry or neighborhood center so someone else can have what they need, too. These stories talk about food and water, but I think, too, of those things that I’ve gathered, lightly used or saved for later that when later came, were discolored or mouse-chewed. Perhaps giving away instead of storing up is a better option.
Bottom line is that God provides. God continues to provide. And God will give us what we need, even more so when we’re willing to share what we have with others.
The second thing is related to the first, but I want us to view it from a little different perspective. It is this: we are gifted with what we need in unlikely places. For the grumbling Israelites, it was bread and meat in the desert. Every day. It was water out of a rock. Who would have considered that possibility? I always think—how could the people not have been so awed by these things that they didn’t just step back at the next rough spot and say to God—instead of giving Moses such a hard time—what do you have for us today, God? How will you show your glory for us today?
During this season of our lives we’ve been gifted with helpful equipment through a grant, we’ve been gifted with folks from our congregation who have generously given of themselves to help make worship happen every week so we can all be together in this way. We’ve been gifted with medical personnel, with teachers, with essential workers—who in all kinds of ways, have risen up to meet changing needs. We are surrounded by heroes in all kinds of places, and we’ve been blessed. We have been gifted.
The third thing, which is the thing we began talking about this morning is grumbling. As I hear the Israelites grumble over and over, I wonder about their faith, and if they’re learning anything about God’s love for them during this experience. For we who are outsiders looking in? We can see how much God cares and how God is taking care of them. And yet the people keep going back to whether or not God is paying attention or will take care of them: Are you trying to kill us out here? Starve us? Dehydrate us to death?
It seems to me that the better, more positive and helpful thing to do rather than grumbling and threatening to stone Moses begins with simply expressing their need. A lot of time their grumbling arises out of fear—and fear makes perfect sense in response to their situation! There are times when we read that Moses perceives the underlying concern and responds to it, and yet we also see that the grumbling has a payoff. God always provides when they grumble. But I can’t help but wonder—might they have spent less time wandering in the wilderness if they would have spent time talking together, offering ideas, and working together instead of placing blame, instead of fussing and getting themselves all riled up? I don’t know. We do know that the distance they needed to travel in order to get where they were going should have been covered in maybe a few months at the most, and yet it took them 40 years. It took a long time for them to learn. They needed to be changed from the inside.
There was a man who was very unhappy. He complained about almost everything. His food was always too hot or too cold. His house was too small, his garden too large, his glass was neither half full nor half empty, he’d never asked for anything to drink he said. One day in desperation his wife hauled him out to see a wise woman who lived in the next village. “I don’t want to be here anyway,” he told her. “It’s too hot to be standing around talking to you, and you can’t do anything to help unless you’re going to come to my house and fix everything.”
She looked at him, leaned over, and took something from a basket. “My friend,” she said to him, “I have a riddle for you. In my hand I’m holding a cricket. Is it alive, or is it dead?”
“How should I know?” scoffed the man. “you tell me. Is the cricket alive or dead?”
“Oh, my son,” said the woman looking at him, “it’s entirely up to you.”
I’d like to invite you to take a blank sheet of paper, and imagine that you’re having a gripe session with God. This is your time to grumble.
Make 3 columns on your paper. Head the first column “Complaints.” Mark the second “Underlying Fear,” and the third “Daily Trust in God.”
In column 1, write down one or two complaints that you would like to tell God. It can be anything. “I don’t have enough money” or “I miss my friends” or “I don’t have any friends” or the “news is so depressing” or “I’m sick of sitting in front of my computer and not worshipping in person.”
After you’ve written down your complaints, take some time to identify the fear that underlies that complaint. It could be “loneliness” or “fear” or “death.” It can be anything, because it’s your fear, and you are the one who knows what that is.
In the last column, consider what God offers you on a daily basis to deal with these fears or insecurities.
This is something that I want you to take time doing and thinking about. Praying about. It might be a helpful thing in this time as we journey to the place where God is leading, whether you’re a grumbler or not.
I’ll give you a few moments to think, and then I’ll invite you into a time of prayer…