Number 21:4-9 Grumbling or gratitude? That is the choice that we have to make each and every day even before we throw off the covers and our feet hit the floor. Grumbling or gratitude? Which will it be?
For you and me and for all who are privileged to be called the people of God and enjoy his blessings and tender mercies--it ought to be gratitude. That we woke up—that we have a bed—that we have feet to hit the floor with--ought to engender in us profound gratitude to Almighty God. And yet the truth of the matter is that it is grumbling, not gratitude, that is natural to our sinful flesh.
The Israelites came to know the same about themselves during the years of their sojourn in the wilderness. The Bibles says, “From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom.
That they were making this journey at all was of course a miracle of God’s grace. They had been delivered from hard bondage in Egypt and made the free people of God—carrying with them the wealth of the nation that had previously enslaved them—all of it by an act of God’s merciful, powerful redemption.
For forty years--as they were led by God through a wilderness that should not have supported them for forty hours—they were given food and water by the Lord—their clothing and sandals never wore out—they were never alone. They had all they needed for life and what’s more they possessed what they had no right to have: a relationship with the one true and living God of the universe whom they could address as Father.
We can say the same about our lives. That we are sitting here today, living and breathing, is an unmistakable sign (for those with the eyes of faith to see it) that we have a God who protects and provides. For all the years of our lives we have been fed and clothed and sheltered. And what is much more important, we are blessed to be able to call God our Father through faith in Jesus Christ. We have been baptized into Christ and fed with his true body and blood. We can talk to God in prayer and hear his Word. Despite the faithless worries that afflict us at times—God has been, and will always be, faithful. People blessed like this ought to be grateful, right? The Bible says:
The people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread and no water! And loathe this worthless food!"
This wasn’t the first time that the Israelites showed this kind of grumbling, rather than grateful, attitude. Almost immediately after having been delivered from slavery they told themselves that it would have been better to die in slavery in
than live as the free people
of God in the wilderness. Egypt
They grumbled about what they didn’t have and weren’t grateful for what they did have. What was particularly shameful about their attitude is that the food they detested—the manna--was not just meant to nourish their bodies- but was a spiritual food meant to nourish their souls as they gathered just enough for each day to teach them to trust God’s ongoing provision and protection.
When we reflect upon our lives we see that we have some of those same kinds of spiritual struggles of grumbling rather than gratitude—and it is just as unwarranted. The bible says,
We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”
God has provided that to us and much more and yet we know how often our thoughts are filled not with satisfaction but with wanting—always wanting more.
What is particularly shameful is that, like the Israelites, we don’t always hold in high regard the spiritual gifts and provision of the LORD.
We watch television many more hours than we read the Bible. We worry about our problems rather than meditate on God’s promises. We find ourselves going through the motions as we come to the Lord’s Table rather than really reflecting on what is present there and resolving to amend our lives in the strength that we find there. Our prayer life is filled with many more “please give me’s” than “thank-you’s”.
What we learn today is that grumbling rather than gratitude demonstrates a lack of faith--and is deadly to our life with God. God loves his people too much to let them continue like that. The Bible says,
“Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people and many people of Israel died.”
The snakes that the LORD sent among the people as a punishment seem to us very harsh—and it was. But not as harsh as letting the Israelites continue in the direction they were going—a direction that would lead to their eternal damnation--more terrible by far than anything that could happen to them on earth.
God always had their eternal welfare as his first goal and so he disciplined them—even harshly—so that they would not continue along the broad and easy road that leads to eternal death. That biblical truth, that God disciplines those he loves, is important for us to remember as well for it stands to this day.
Now we have all kinds of goals and hopes and dreams that we want to accomplish. There are all kinds of things that we want to possess. But God has just one: that we would possess eternal life today and forever and he will do whatever it takes—even if it is painful-- to bring us safely to our heavenly home.
And so God uses hardship and suffering and loss to break the hold that sin has on our life—to get our attention—to bring us to our senses-and drive us to our knees just like happened with the Israelites. The Bible says that,
“The people came to Moses and said, "We sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you.”
It is when we see our marriage on the rocks that we realize we haven’t been following God’s model for men and women. It is when we are sick that we realize that we have been living as if this life would go on forever. It is when we suffer “want” that we realize that we haven’t been generous with God and with others. It is when we are alone that we realize that we haven’t been a friend to others. It is when our faith is weak and God seems far away that we realize we haven’t made use of God’s gracious gifts of Word and Sacrament-- and that it is us—not God—that has moved.
But I want you to know today dear friends in Christ-- that even in the late hour of the Lord’s discipline—it is not too late. The bible says, “A bruised reed he will not break and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”
God disciplines us in love so that we will despair of our own sufficiency—so that we will call out to him in our need—so that will look to him in faith and live. That’s what the Israelites discovered that day of the Lord’s hard discipline. They cried out:
“Pray that the LORD that he take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people.
In the hour of their deepest need, the Israelites discovered that in Moses they had an intercessor—one who would stand between their sinful grumbling and God’s wrath-- and plead to God for mercy and healing on their behalf.
That of course was not just
need that day--but a picture or a type of humanity’s need throughout history—to
have someone who will serve as an intercessor and mediator between our sins and
God’s wrath. That person is Jesus
Jesus Christ was sent into the world, not to save us from a desert serpent’s sting, but to save us from the eternally deadly sting of the satanic serpent who has been leading people into death every since Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
God promised them that a deliverer would come—one who would indeed be wounded by Satan but would have the victory by crushing him completely. And that is what God did in his Son Jesus Christ. Even though he was mortally wounded on the tree of the cross—suffering the full poison of the sins of the world which he bore in his own body—Christ was not defeated—his death was victory and he showed that victory to the world on Easter morning as he rose from the dead.
The person and work of Jesus Christ was the Lord’s antidote from the deadly sting of sin, death, and the devil--the fulfillment of what he showed to the people of Israel in the desert.
The LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live." So Moses made a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”
The LORD provided a cure from the sting of the deadly serpents—a cure that was for all the Israelites—a promise that anyone—young, old, rich, poor, male, female—anyone who listened to the promise of God and looked to it in faith—would live.
In exactly the same way, the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ is the God-given cure for the whole world from the Satanic curse of sin and death—it’s blessings and promise is for all people but just like then, we must look to it in faith if we are to live.
The faith which lays hold of the blessings of God that are in the cross and empty tomb comes to us in exactly the same way as it came for the Israelites—when we, by the powerful help of the Holy Spirit, believe God’s promises that are conveyed to us in his Word and Sacraments.
There is nothing miraculous in water anymore than there is in bronze but when God says that in Baptism we have died and risen with Christ we really have. There is nothing miraculous in bread and wine anymore than there is in snakes but when Jesus says take and eat my body and take and drink my blood for the forgiveness of sins we really have it. There is nothing miraculous in the presence of a pastor anymore than there is in a pole but when Jesus promises that when we hear forgiveness spoken by those who are called to speak in his name we can be sure that we have what they promise.
Today is the day for us to recognize God’s gracious provision in our lives—to re-commit ourselves to regular use of Word and Sacraments-- and to let gratefulness for the gifts of God rather than grumbling always be foremost in our hearts—and to look to Jesus and live. Amen.