"And 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...' 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 16:2-4, 15)
When our children were young they would sometimes start whining about what the other had done to him/her, or about what they didn't have that they thought they should have. We would say something like, "Stop whining! Speak in a nice voice so we can understand you."
We like to envision the church as a place where everyone gets along and everyone agrees with one another. If there is a disagreement between members or between members and the leadership of the church we like to think of those exchanges as kind and gentle. This is, after all, the church! We discover in the Old Testament lesson from Exodus for this Sunday,(printed above), that from the beginning the congregations had complaints about their leaders, and that, in fact, those complaints were made with much noise and whining. This is, after all, the church, made up of broken human beings who are at the same time, saint and sinner (Martin Luther).
I can't help but think of those days of raising children when reading these verses from Exodus. One can almost laugh at the childish, and very human-ness of the Israelites as they whine loudly to their leaders, remembering the food they had to eat while they were still in Egypt. How very human it is, when we are unhappy with our present circumstances, to look longingly back at the "good ol'days". We forget that those "good ol'days" were not as perfect as our convenient memories recall. The Israelites in their longing to be back in Egypt conveniently forgot one little detail: they were slaves back in Egypt, groaning under their heavy work load; groaning under a Pharoah who would not even allow them to worship God.
And yet, in the midst of their complaining, in the midst of their whining, in the midst of their short memories and ingratitude, God responds by giving them that for which they longed - food in the wilderness. God didn't say to them "If you stop whining and talk in a nice voice I will listen to you." God simply responded, caring for them and giving them what they needed to survive in the wilderness. It wasn't what they were expecting so they could have missed the gift, had Moses not been there to tell them what it was.
How like people today. It is so easy for us to be grateful when things go just the way we think they ought. When "life happens", we find ourselves moaning and whining as loudly as the Israelites with memories just as short.
God comes to us as quickly as to the Israelites, pouring upon us what we need to sustain us through the wilderness. The problem with God's gifts, though, is that they might not come packaged the way we had expected. We may miss the gifts from God that are right in front of our face, if there is no one to interpret them for us.
The Israelites had Moses to show them the gift of manna and to explain it to them. We have people around us, too, who can help us see the gifts of God in our lives. The body of Christ, the community of believers called the church, as imperfect as it is, is a place we can hear the truth about God who loves us and comes to us as we are. That's the important piece: God comes to us as we are, in the midst of our whining and complaining, and fills us with what we need for the journey ahead. As Moses helped the Israelites recognize the manna in their midst, worship is the place we are reminded of the gifts God has showered upon us - gifts that are all around us and even within us by the grace of God. Yes, the church is an imperfect institution with imperfect and even hypocritical people. It is also a place where the word of God's gracious love and abundance is heard, and where we are reminded of this life-giving gift in our lives.
Please pray with me: Gracious and all-loving God, it is so easy for us to focus on what is not as we wish in our lives. Come to us in the midst of our whines and our groans, and fill us with the food that will sustain us in this life: the love you offer in your Son Jesus Christ, who came, not as people expected but as a surprise. Keep us open always to your surprises. AMEN
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