Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Sermon: Just Rescued, Already Complaining

Exodus 16:2-15

Our story today follows up on last week. The Israelites have just been rescued by God in one of the greatest miracles in history. A sea was parted and walls of water stood alongside them as they escaped into freedom. Yesterday they were slaves with hard labor, watching their children be killed by an oppressive king, and today there is a sea between them and they are safe. That’s the kind of thing you think would make an impression, and would change your attitude about everything.

But now today as we heard the story, the people are already complaining. “Oh, how we wish that God had just put us to death in Egypt, we are going to starve to death out here in the desert.” Now, in some ways, their complaints are justified. They are in a desert. There isn’t much water, and there isn’t much food. Clearly they are still in a difficult situation. That much we understand, but what seems a little shocking is that they are so focused on their current situation, they have forgotten already just how powerful the God that they are following is and what God has done for them.

Think about it, if God just parted a sea, can’t God provide food in the desert? If God wanted to rescue them just a few days ago, would God abandon them already? Logically it would be silly for God to go to such great lengths to save them, just so that they would die a few days later in the desert. But the people aren’t being logical, in fact, people seldom are when they are afraid. They are in a new place, with new problems, and so that is what they are focused on. They don’t just have the “What have you done for me lately?” approach to God, they have the, “What are you going to do for me now?” approach.

In the midst of their complaints, God is amazingly patient. God doesn’t get mad and say, “If you all don’t stop complaining, I’ll turn this car around and do just what you ask, put you back into slavery.”

Instead, God responds with Manna – which if you say “Man, uh, what is this stuff” – you actually get what the word means. Manna in Hebrew means “what is it?”

People are still trying to figure that out. One theory is that it was a sweet tasting secretion of a kind of plant lice that infected certain shrubs in the Sinai desert. Kind of like honey, only from a different bug. Another theory was that it was either dried algae or lichen that had been carried on the wind and landed at their feet.[1] Neither of those sound quite like restaurant quality cuisine. On the other hand – perhaps it was heavenly food, that tasted like ambrosia. But that really doesn’t matter, because whatever it was, God had saved them again.

Whenever we read this story, it is always easy to be hard on the Israelites. We think, if I had just been saved by God through the parting of the sea, I would have trusted God and wouldn’t have complained. But I think we overestimate ourselves.

The truth is that as human beings we are good at complaining, even after we have immediately witnessed a miracle of God. There's an old story that comes out of the Missouri Ozarks,

I bet you have heard it a time or two; it tells of a hound dog sitting in a country store, howling his head off, as hounds are prone to do. A stranger came in and said to the storekeeper, "What's the matter with that dog?" The man said, "He's sittin' on a cockleburr." "Then," asked the stranger, "why doesn't he get off?" "Because," replied the storekeeper, "he'd rather holler!"

As human beings we’d often rather holler than move because, I think it has to do with our fear of change. When a miracle happens that leads us into a new place, we are frightened, we don’t know what to expect, and all those fears and anxieties overwhelm us. There is a part of us that would rather keep things the way they are, even if they are rotten, even if it involves being enslaved and beaten and watching our children die. Because moving on to something new, just might be worse.

When I am counseling people and they want to make a change for the better in their lives, I often warn them, that it will get worse before it gets better.

This is not pessimism on my part. It is a reality of change. When we want to change something, the first step of change often feels easy. God has given us a miracle and we run through it with joy. But when we get to the other side it is unfamiliar and frightening, and emotionally there is a big part of us that would rather go back. We would actually rather be stuck in our prior problems than improve our lives.

For example, Maureen Brady talks about how sexual abuse survivors often self-sabotage improving their lives. “Sometimes we self-sabotage just when things seem to be going smoothly. Perhaps this is a way to express our fear about whether it is okay for us to have a better life. We are bound to feel anxious as we leave behind old notions of our unworthiness. The challenge is not to be fearless, but to develop strategies of acknowledging our fears and finding out how we can allay them.”[2]

And so we fight the changes we know we want to make. Or sometimes it isn’t we ourselves who fight it, but everyone around us: our families, our friends, our coworkers. They don’t like the changes we are making and so they actually fight against us – usually without even thinking about it.

It is amazing how often an alcoholic will be committed to stop drinking, but when he or she does the stress in the family actually increases. For so long, alcoholism has been the center of their life. It has been what they tip-toed around, what they fought about, what they worried about, what they stressed about, and now there is this void. The alcoholic now has to face problems they have avoided, and they are trying to break their one familiar and comfortable pattern they used to deal with them – what emerges instead can be fear, blame, anger and hypersensitivity. At times the family, in the face of this new problem will actually intentionally or unintentionally sabotage the alcoholic’s attempt to become sober. This actually was part of the reason that Al-Anon was started.[3]

Those are just examples, but the reality is that resistance happens with many types of change. God leads us into a miraculous new place, and although our first reaction is joy, a few days later we find ourselves wishing the miracle had never happened.

So what should we do, when we discover ourselves complaining just after experiencing a miracle?

Remember that God is still at work in our lives even after the first step and the big miracle. God has more miracles ahead, we simply have to be willing to fight through our own fears and anxieties about the change. Use that logical part of your brain – say to yourself, God wouldn’t have brought me through the Red Sea just to let me die in the desert. God will be faithful. Keep saying that over and over to yourself!

Remember also, that although we may look at the new situation God has given us and ask “What is this?” just like the people looked at the manna and wondered what it was, this unrecognized thing is a provision from the hand of God. Our new situation may be uncomfortable, it may be unknown, but it is part of the pathway of God – leading us on a journey to the promised land.

We have to be willing to accept the discomfort even in the face of the unknown. We have to be willing to face the resistance of others in order to get to the land that God has promised for us in the future. Keep your eyes open so that you see each miracle along the way, remember the miracles of the past, and most of all know that God has not abandoned us in the process, God will continue to help us, we simply have to trust and believe.

[1] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/what-the-heck-was-manna-anyway-56294548/
[2] Maureen Brady, Beyond Survival: A Writing Journey for Healing Childhood Sexual Abuse
[3] http://www.silkworth.net/magazine_newspaper/pageant_dec_1955.html

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