Sunday Morning Sermon — Exodus 16:1-3, Anatomy of a Complainer

12 Sep

Exodus 16:1-3
Anatomy of a Complainer

INTRODUCTION: Sometimes at home the kids and I play around by singing “the Song That Never Ends.” Have any of you ever heard it? It goes like this. “This is the song that never ends, yes it goes on and on my friends. Some people, started singing it, not knowing what it was, and they’ll continue singing it forever just because, this is the song that never ends . . .” You get the idea. And after a while it gets so irritating that I just have to put an end to it. And that’s kind of how I feel about Israel’s time in the wilderness, the complaining that never ends. I was telling someone earlier this week, while looking at these next few chapters of Exodus, I feel like I could just take last week’s sermon and preach it again for the next four weeks, because it seems all Israel does in these chapters is complain. But as I have studied each passage more carefully, I have come to see that each episode has its own unique things to teach us about the nature of people and the character of God. And so it is today. In chapter 16, we get a kind of anatomy of complaining that we didn’t see in chapter 15. The characteristics of a complaining people are unveiled for us. So this morning, let’s focus on the anatomy of complaining on our lives. As we do this, I believe we will be more easily able to identify complaining in our hearts and fight it more successfully. And this is really important, because few things can squelch your desire for the glory of God like a complaining spirit. So the stakes are high. If you go on in a spirit of complaining, you will not make the spiritual progress you should. This is not about dealing with a little annoying habit of complaining, it is about the whole trajectory of your life with God.

The ANATOMY of a Complainer.
Exodus 16:1  They set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of 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. 2  And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, 3  and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
The people of Israel have left the wonderful springs and shade trees  of Elim because their journey to the Promised Land is not yet complete. And once again, they go from a place of victory to a place of testing, as we so often do in our lives. They come into the wilderness of Sin. Now the word Sin here is a Hebrew word, not our word for sin. So although the Israelites do sin here they are not in the desert of sin, as in transgression against God. They are in the desert of Sin, meaning “thorn bush.” As they arrive there, the people begin to complain again. This time a stronger word is used than what we saw in chapter 15. In chapter 16, this is a full scale outbreak of complaining and rebellion. In the political world, we like to complain. It seems we always complain if our person is not in the White House. When President Bush was in office, some people hated him and called him a criminal and all kinds of things. Now, with President Obama, other people are calling him all sorts of names and giving him grief. But with these men, there has always been a faithful core of support. We saw it on display this past week in Charlotte and there are likewise people who will always admire President Bush. But Moses and Aaron don’t seem to have a core of supporters here. They are bearing the brunt of complaint from the whole nation. And the problem is, unlike our presidents past and present, with Moses and Aaron, there are no legitimate grounds for complaint. Instead, Israel’s complaining is based on four faulty foundations.

First, there is . . .
    A.    Misplaced BLAME    (16:2).
The Israelites are grumbling against Moses and Aaron, going so far as accusing them of leading Israel out in the wilderness to kill them by starving them to death. These men had been their faithful leaders, but now they turn on them, blaming them for all their problems. But this blame is misplaced because it is not Moses and Aaron who led Israel out of Egypt. It was God. It was not Moses and Aaron who brought the plagues and parted the waters, it was God. Yet rather than call on God for help or trust in God to provide as He had already done so many times before, the Israelites in their time of struggle turn on their earthly leaders. The misplaced blame game is as old as the Garden of Eden and continues to this day in all kinds of areas. When the team is not playing well, fire the manager. My problems are always somebody else’s fault. Blame the government, blame my family, blame the church. It’s always easy to look for a scapegoat rather than calling on God and trusting Him. In the case of the Israelites, there is no one to blame, there is simply Someone to trust, God. Its normally the same for us. The more we turn away from blame and toward dependence on God, the better off we would be. These things are so simple, but so hard to learn, aren’t they? But really, what good does it do to have somebody to blame? I always get a kick out of people whose problems are somebody else’s fault. You’d figure after a while that they’d realize that they are the problem. But then I realize I do the same thing way more often than I’d like to admit. Misplaced blame is something we’re all guilty of from time to time.

Second, we see the complaining multitudes had . . .
B.    An Unrealistic View of the PAST (16:3).
I can’t help but chuckle when I hear the Israelites talk about their wonderful past. They act like they grilled steaks every night, complete with Bojangles’ biscuits and sweet tea and a slice of chocolate pie for desert. They act like their life in Egypt was one of plenty, like it was such a great joy. But we have studied Exodus, haven’t we? We have gone verse by verse through this great book. We remember the words of those opening chapters. Words like groaning, toil, grief. The Israelites suffered through 400 years of slavery. For a time they grieved as they saw their babies thrown into the Nile River. They made bricks without straw. They suffered under their harsh task masters. Yet when they think about it now it was all so wonderful. I guess the grass is greener even on the other side of the Red Sea.
This is something we do too. When we face hardship in the present, we tend to pine for the past. And in our pining, we tend to overemphasize the goodness of by-gone days and minimize the hardships. Yes, there was a time when gas was 50 cents a gallon, but there were other problems. There was a time when we were so scared about nuclear war that we did drills where school children got under our desks. There were days in America when our churches were fuller than they are today. But in those very years many of those churches would have never opened their doors to a black man. Most restaurants would not have served a person of color. So yes, there are many ways in which the good old days were good, but there were also many things about the good old days which were not good. We need to remember this when we face hard times in the present: the past was never quite so good as we think it was. We had problems then too. And not only on a national level, but on a personal level. Our relationships were not always easy, church life was not always harmonious, work was not always a breeze. Life has always been a mix of hardship and blessing, of pain and pleasure. We need to remember that so that the present is not more bleak to us than it should be.

Just as times of challenge tend to distort our view of the past, we also tend in these times to have . . .
    C.    An Unrealistic View of the PRESENT (16:3).
The Israelites were living with an unrealistic view of the present for at least two reasons. First, they had food. They were only a few weeks out of Egypt and we remember that when they left Egypt they left with vast herds and great livestock. Now of course these animals would have to be fed as well, but surely from these animals there were some resources for survival, like milk and cheese and maybe some of the animals themselves. Second, and more important though, the Israelites had God. They had his presence with them in the pillar of cloud and fire and he had provided for them repeatedly. He heard their prayers in Egypt and moved on their behalf, defeating the most powerful empire in the world through the plagues and at the Red Sea. He brought them out into the wilderness and had, in just a few short weeks, turned bitter water to sweet and provided them an oasis in the desert at Elim. He would not forsake them now, in their time of need.
Now I am not pretending that Israel had no problems. Gathering sufficient food in this circumstance would have been a difficult, but not impossible, proposition. I just don’t see the marks of desperation in this passage which were evident at the end of chapter 15. We can live longer without food than without water. One of the things that leads me to this conclusion on the problem of food is that whereas chapter 15 clearly said the Israelites were three days without water when they started complaining, this passage makes no mention of any kind of shortage of food. In fact, it seems their problem was not that they had no food, but that they did not have the kind of food they remembered having in Egypt. In other words, they were longing for certain kinds of food here, meat and bread. It may very well be that their problem was more connected to their greed than their need. Now we’re going to see next week that God is so gracious that he provides exactly what they craved in the manna and the quail. But for today, I hope what you see is that the Israelites had an unrealistic view of the present.
Just as the past is never quite so good as we imagine it to be, the present is never quite so bad as we imagine it to be. The Israelites were convinced it would be their lot to starve, but they forgot what the resources in their midst and most of all they forgot God, who delights to provide for His people.
Our discontent with the present can be driven by our overly optimistic view of the past. It can also be driven by our greed, our desire for the best of everything and for comfort above all. I have been struck in recent years by how many restaurants are using happiness and comfort as their key advertising idea. Coke, “Open Happiness” or going back a few years “Have a Coke and a Smile.” Arby’s “It’s Good Mood Food.” Golden Corral, “Help Yourself to Happiness.” And we can’t leave McDonalds out. What are their kid’s meals called? That’s right, Happy Meals. And they pioneered this thing with their slogan from forty years ago, “You deserve a break today.” Enjoyment of everything has become our goal. And when we are not enjoying something we are sad. We have made life an all or nothing game of “just what I want” or else “I’m going to gripe and complain and maybe sue somebody.” Our culture is deeply guilty of unrealistic expectations of the present, just like the Israelites were. When Paul says in Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” he’s not talking about ripping phone books in half or leaping tall buildings in a single bound, he’s talking about being content whether he is living in abundance or in need. This is the life God calls us to in the here and now, a life that looks at today with a steady gaze of faith, knowing that God will supply what is needed, knowing that we can trust him, even if all our dreams aren’t coming true. Because sometimes we have all the wrong dreams. We want fame or fortune or to be admired when God has shown us what is good in Micah 6:8, “To do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.”

The final characteristic of the complaining person is . . .
   D.    No Hope for the FUTURE (16:3).
The people of Israel are in such despair that they wished they would have died in Egypt. They are saying that they would rather have stayed slaves and died after a life of slavery than to see the hand of God at work in their lives. The work of God was too painful. The way was too hard. They weren’t interested. Just a few weeks out of Egypt they are ready to pack it in and give up. And this from a people who had been promised so much from God and had seen so much of God’s work on their behalf. And yet now they had died.
I would shake my head, but I see this same hopelessness about the future in too many other places in the Bible to think this is a one-time occurrence. I also see it too many times when I look in the mirror.
I remember seeing it in Abraham, when in his despair over his childlessness he suggested that his servant Eliezer could be his heir. I remember seeing it in the words of Job’s wife, as Job wrestled with God’s work, she told him to “curse God and die.” I see it in Elijah, after the great victory over the 800 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, Elijah running for his life at the threats of Jezebel and wishing to die. And I guess I see it most clearly in the Bible with Jonah, who, upon seeing the repentance of Nineveh at his preaching, finds shade under a vine on the outskirts of the city. Jonah 4:7  But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. 8  When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” 9  But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.”
10  And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11  And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city.” Jonah, you care about your comfort, you care about your agenda. You hoped I would judge Nineveh. You sat out here on the edges of the city to see if the fire would rain down. Because you hate these people. You preached only after you were swallowed by the great fish, only after you were brought to the edge of your own death, but even then you didn’t care about the eternal death of these 120,000 citizens of Nineveh. I preserved you and worked through you in ways that most people only dream about but all you can do is despair over a vine. I took you deep with me and you want to give it all back, because my way is not your way. Because my way challenges you in ways that make you uncomfortable. Because my way calls you to change, to trust me, to live by my agenda not your own.
Israel had no hope for the future because they were focused on the wilderness. As long as we are focused on the wilderness of our circumstances we will never break free to real hope. Until we realize that if we know Jesus we are in God’s hand and nothing can take us out of His hand or separate us from God’s love, we will always be paralyzed by poor circumstances. Until we see that God will be faithful to complete the good work He has begun in us, we will always tremble at new challenges. But with the faith that He will never leave us or forsake us, we can go forward with courage, knowing that circumstances are not eternal and that they can not ultimately defeat us, because we are safe with the one who leads us, even when He leads us through the valley of the shadow of death.
In 1993, Jim Valvano, former coach of the NC State basketball team that won the national championship in 1983, was dying of bone cancer. Before he died, he gave a memorable speech at an awards dinner. I have always remembered his closing words. He said, “Cancer can take away all my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever.”
I don’t know where Jim Valvano’s heart was with God, but I do know he had the right perspective on his circumstances, namely that circumstances are not destiny.
Christians of all people should be the most optimistic people in the world. We have eternal life through Christ and we have the promise that God is moving forward His plan in the world. He will not leave us. He will work in and through us for His glory and our joy. But that is next week’s message.

So we’ve looked today at the anatomy of a complainer. I ask you to search your heart today. Are you marked by any of these characteristics. Are you quick to shift blame and try to find a scapegoat instead of trusting in the sovereignty of God? Are you living in the past? Are you looking at the present in an unrealistic way? Are you believing the lie that you have no future? If so, you may be prone to complaining. Complaining will erode your trust in God, put you at odds with others and make you miserable within. It’s really one of the worst ways you can live. I have noticed in the last couple of weeks of preaching on this, how prone I am to complaining and how infrequently I turn to God in prayer in the midst of hardship. God has been working on me through this, and I hope you will trust Him to work on you too. He wants to free you from the grip of complaining and fill you with gratitude and graciousness.

3 Responses to “Sunday Morning Sermon — Exodus 16:1-3, Anatomy of a Complainer”

  1. Diane September 12, 2012 at 10:25 pm #

    Pastor Frady, I just left a comment on the wrong blogpost that was intended for this one! (Not that the other one is probably not just as great) But I apologize, it was intended for this one. Thank you and God bless you!

    • jsf08 September 13, 2012 at 9:23 am #

      Thanks for your encouragement, Diane.

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