A Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 13 – Year B – 05 August 2012
Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector
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.”
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.”
What thoughts go through your mind when you hear the Israelites say to Moses “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt…when we ate our fill of bread; but now you have brought us into this wilderness to kill us with hunger.” Or as The Message translates it in contemporary language: “Why didn’t God let us die in comfort in Egypt where we had lamb stew and all the bread we could eat?” (The Message, pg 132).
It sounds to me like the Israelites were whining and it makes me think that they had incredibly short memories. After all it took to free them from Egyptian slavery – and I mean ALL it took, including the miraculous parting of the Red Sea – they had the audacity to wish that they were back in Egypt because they remembered their life there as comfortable!
It reminds me so much of my children when they were young and would complain for what seemed like no good reason. And it would predictably happen when Tenny and I were doing something special for them such as taking them on vacation or having a birthday party for them.
As excited as they would be to go somewhere such as the beach or the mountains, they would inevitably find something to complain about such as no TV to watch or no friends to play with. It was when they said that they wished that they were back at home that I would lose my patience with them.
Birthdays were the same way – occasions for whining. They were also exhausting; but when my children would tell me that they were bored after having just opened up a huge stack of presents, I would follow up with something that usually include the word “spoiled”!
But the Israelites were full-grown adults. So, why did it seem as if they were acting like spoiled children? The answer must be that I’m reading something into their story that isn’t there – that I’m projecting an attitude onto those Israelites that’s probably unfounded and unfair.
The conditions in the wilderness, including feeling as if they were literally going to starve to death, must have been much worse than any of us could imagine to have made their indentured status in Egypt seem pleasant by comparison. And how human of them to want to blame someone or something for their misery.
So, God and Moses and Aaron got the blame. And why not? They were in charge. Moses and Aaron must have been just as hungry as any of their fellow Israelites but maybe as their leaders, they had to save face, not only for themselves but maybe even for God. In the silence of their own hearts, though, I can’t believe they weren’t praying for God to do something- anything to prolong their lives. The fact is, they HAD come too far to die of starvation in the wilderness.
When you think about it, the Israelites were stuck – stuck between the land and life they knew so well and the land and life they were promised but knew nothing about. Not only were they really hungry, but they were also scared and perhaps frustrated and sick and tired. I know I’ve grumbled, and loudly, with far less reason than they. So, I think it really is a mistake for me to think of them as spoiled children.
And 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'”(Exodus 16:12). In other words, God had heard their grumbling and treated it like prayer. God had not abandoned them.
But maybe the question to ask is: why did God wait so long to act? Why did God bring the Israelites to the brink of death before providing for their needs?
There’s an expression that my Mother used to say when any of us children got impatient. “All in good time” she would say. I found out later that that expression “all in good time” really meant at a time that was most convenient for her! What about the expression: “All in God’s time.” What does that mean? What if Moses or Aaron had said that to the Israelites? Would that have caused them to be less fearful about their predicament?
The problem is that there has always been a big difference between the human clock and the divine clock. And that difference seems to be most noticeable when we’re waiting for an answer to a specific prayer. Faith says to rely on the divine clock. Impatience tells us to rely on the human clock.
When we get impatient for a response from God, not only do we lose sight of God’s involvement in our lives, but we also lose faith in the effectiveness of prayer. And if we no longer find that we can rely on prayer, then what can we rely on?
The truth is that we can rely on the same thing that the Israelites found that they could rely on so many years ago. And that is God’s unfailing love and care and concern for us, the crown jewel of His creation, the apple of His eye, the reflection of His own image. Why would God want to turn His back on that? It’s just our short memories of God’s involvement in our lives that cause us to ask: “But what have you done for us lately?”
What about those unanswered prayers of ours or at least those prayers about which God seems to be taking His sweet time?
When we wait, according to author Margaret Guenther, we live simultaneously in the “not yet ” and in the present “and the tension between them can (be stressful) and confusing” (My Soul in Silence Waits, Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 2000, p.44). That’s what the Israelites found out and maybe that’s where we sometimes find ourselves – praying hard for clarity about the future. And in this day and age, we want efficiency in the answer to our prayers – the same efficiency we demand in other parts of our lives. Yet Psalm 130 says otherwise: “O Israel,” it says, “wait for the Lord” (verse 6).
In other words, Margaret Guenther writes in her book called My Soul in Silence Waits (p.49): “Our waiting will not go unnoticed by God. Even when God feels distant and we feel lonely or even abandoned we are waiting in the context of (God’s) enduring love (for us).”
God’s time. Waiting for it to coincide with our time is perhaps the greatest test of our patience and lands us in that most uncomfortable place called “in the meantime” or the “in between” time. It’s where grumbling and complaining are heard the loudest and faith slips away unheeded. It’s a place where we try our hardest to exert some kind of control yet end up feeling powerless. “Why didn’t God let us die in comfort in Egypt” complained the Israelites.
We might express it in a different way such as: “My old job was intolerable; but relative to having no work and no income now, maybe it wasn’t all that bad.” Or, “I know I was in an abusive relationship, but those words that used to hurt so much are better than this awful loneliness that I feel right now.” Or, “I couldn’t wait to leave home and experience the freedoms of being on my own. Why didn’t anyone tell my how hard it would be? Where are you, O God?”
God’s time. It may seem like a time when “nothing” is happening, but it may well be the time “to let go and let God work” as David Muyskens writes in his book called Sacred Breath. It may be the time “when God is (most) present in power and (in) love” (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2010, p. 88).
So, if the expression “All in good time” makes you anxious because you want that time to be sooner rather than later as I’m sure the Israelites in the desert wanted, think instead of the expression “All in God’s time” and know that that time is the only time worth waiting for – no matter how long it takes.