• Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Complaining against God

How God Moves Us, week 3 of 4 A Four week Fall series from the book of Exodus

Preached September 20, 2020 for the 9:30am Worship


Context

This worship series, Caitlan and I titled Exodus: How God moves us. We are trying to remember and believe how God sometimes pushes or pulls, invites or commands us to move.


Two weeks ago, we heard the story of the 7th plague, the death of the firstborns of Egypt that moved Pharaoh to let the Israelites move toward freedom. Last week, we heard the Parting of the Red Sea, where Pharaoh obviously changed his mind and chased the Israelites to the sea. God held the Egyptians back with a pillar of fire, parted the sea, moved the frightened Israelites through the sea, then let the waters crash over the Egyptians as they pursued.


Today, the story of Exodus shifts. Its not longer about Egypt or Pharaoh. Today, the people of God are moving into the wilderness.


Let’s pray and listen for the word of the Lord…


Prayer


Scripture Exodus 16

16:1 …the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt, 2 The whole congregation of the Israelites began complaining against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3 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; but you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”


4 Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for all of you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way, I will measure them, whether or not they will follow my instructions. 5 On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.”


6 So Moses and Aaron replied to all the Israelites, “In the evening you all shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord because God has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” 8 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 God—what are we? (Remember,) your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”


9 Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for God has heard your complaining.’” 10 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 clouds. 11 The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12 “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.’”


13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 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. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, (man hu) “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. 16 This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather (only) as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.’” 17 The Israelites did so, (but) some gathered more, and some less. 18 But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing extra, and those who gathered little had no shortage; each had only as much as each of them needed.


35 The Israelites ate manna forty years until they came to a habitable land; they ate manna until they came to the border of the land of Canaan.


(This is the word of the Lord… Thanks be to God!)


Sermon

You might think the Israelites would be celebratory. You might think they’d pause and be grateful to have escaped. You might think that their face would have a hint of a smile on it, even as they sit down to plan together for the journey through the wilderness. They are free to pursue happiness without masters over them and tasks forced upon them. You might think that.


You might also think they would believe and trust God is God, and is with them and will help them. You might think they would tell and retell the story of God who made Egypt and Pharaoh release them from slavery, who blocked Pharaoh’s armies, who parted the sea and led them through the waters on a safe path, and who let the sea swallow Pharaoh’s charging chariots. You might think that.


But two months into the wilderness, they are complaining.


It says the whole congregation complained against Moses and Aaron. I doubt that. In my corporate and church leadership experiences, it’s pretty rare that everyone is complaining. In those moments where a leader moves a group to change, there must be a good number of people in active support of the change for it to have happened at all, and in any moment of change for a group of people, there’s usually a fairly large number of people not supporting and not complaining, but quietly content to go along.


Still, with any change, there are always some who will complain. That’s normal. But sometimes, the complaints can be so loud, so passionate or strong, so pointed or personal it can feel like everyone is complaining. They might even say “everyone” things like, “Well, everybody I talk to is saying we should go back to the fleshpots” or “I’ve been getting a lot of emails and phone calls from people, and they wish we hadn’t even left Egypt.”


When complaints like these hit leaders, it's not a surprise but it does hurt. Moses and Aaron probably felt that sour metallic taste in their mouth, that queasy feeling in their gut, the weakness in their knees, as they were suddenly confronted with complaints from some of the very people they love and lead.


It hurts because the complaint is so pointed at the leaders. “If you two Moses and Aaron hadn’t led us out of Egypt, we’d still have meat and bread every day. Now, we’re going to starve to death and it's all your fault!” The complaint hurts because there is some truth in it. If they had stayed in slavery to Egypt, they’d still have meat and bread, and here in the wilderness, they do not yet know what they will eat. The complaint also hurts because it's so personal. It questions the character of Moses and Aaron. It insinuates their foolish intentions and accuses them of having no integrity to risk anything for freedom, and no faithfulness to God. That kind of complaint, even from one person, is very painful to a leader’s heart.


Moses and Aaron do what I often do when a complaint hits me in the gut. They went to sit with God a bit, and wonder if the complainer is right. Should we have stayed in slavery? Would it have been better to not move, not try at all? Will we make it through these hard times to that promised hoped-for place?


God’s response is first to the leaders, not the people or the complainers. God says to Moses, “I will provide. There will be enough. Every morning, I will rain bread from heaven for all the people. They will not starve here. Teach the people what to look for, and how to gather just enough. I promise, no one will get all they want, but everyone will get all they need.”


I love what Moses and Aaron do next. Having heard from some of the people their complaints, and having felt the pain and possibility those complaints could be right, and having carried those complaints to God in prayer for God’s opinion, Moses and Aaron are now ready to respond. They go in front of all the people and say, “Just so you know, we didn’t lead you out of Egypt. God did that. So your complaint isn’t against us. When you complain about how or where God moved us, you are complaining against God.”


Then they really stick their necks out. “Starting tonight, God will provide meat every evening, and starting tomorrow, God will rain bread from heaven every morning. There will be just enough for everyone, so everyone has to learn to take only what they need, not what they want.”


Meat every evening? I keep imagining God’s head-turning, and brow furling at that Meat in the evening part. “Meat? I didn’t say that, did I? Did I promise Moses meat for the people? I don’t think so. Somebody check the minutes from my last meeting with Moses and Aaron.” All God had promised was bread. But Moses and Aaron know God and know the people, and know they’re going to need a little meat too, and know God is generous. Moses and Aaron upped the ante on God.


God appears to all of them, gives Moses the side-eye for over-promising, and then goes along with it. “Yep, I will give you bread every morning, and quail every evening. There will always be enough for everyone. But, as a sign of your faith in me and my promises, take only what you need, no more, no less.”


The complaining stopped for a bit when the manna and quail started arriving. But I wonder how long it took for some to be dissatisfied with their fair, equal portion. Some tried to take extra… you know, just in case God hadn’t done the math right. Moses took their extra back by measuring everyone’s take against an omer. I have a feeling those who felt they needed more but couldn’t have it were not happy with the rules and probably complained. I bet they made a case for why they needed more than someone else.


I hope Moses and Aaron and the people could see those complaints weren’t worthy of too much attention. I hope they kept making sure everyone had enough by making sure no one had too much.


In some of the later verses, we didn’t read this morning, some tried to save a little every night, in hopes, it would build up over time and they would have a nice storehouse… you know, just in case God didn’t provide enough tomorrow. Anything they tried to save, spoiled. I feel sure these folk complained about the manna and tried to make a case if they were willing to save, then it shouldn’t spoil. It should last, so they could have a safety net.


I hope Moses and Aaron and the people knew these kinds of complaints weren’t worthy of their attention either. They couldn’t change the manna, just accept what it is, and enjoy it. The goal was to help the people rely first on God every morning, not on their own ingenuity.


When God promises there will be enough for everyone, it's quite unloving of our brothers and sisters to take more than enough for ourselves. Complaints that some deserve or need or can’t have more than others shouldn’t change how the community of God works.


When God promises there will be enough every day all the way through the wilderness, its quite distrustful of God to hold some back just in case. Complaints that we are aren’t able to save enough shouldn’t change how God’s community works.


Lately, in our wacky world, we are going through a long wilderness. There is an intensity to the complaints we are offering against our leaders. I feel like we’ve been given plenty, enough for everyone to get through this wilderness together. But I also feel like some leaders are no longer making sure no one takes too much, and everyone has enough.


Let’s be careful with our complaints. Let’s make sure they aren’t for what we think we deserve, or for what we want. If we aren’t getting what we need, then, by all means, complain, protest, march, scream to your leaders. But if you have enough, maybe even a bit more than enough of what you need, let’s be careful with our complaints. We might find we are only complaining against God.


To God be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.


Benediction

Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.

Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown

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In 2002, I left my corporate career, and went to seminary. Since 2005, I've been serving churches, and trying to follow Jesus, and lead others in doing the same...

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