Summary: When we are frustrated with life, we wonder where God is. When no answer comes, we begin to grumble & complain against God & one another. Still, God stands always in our midst & gives us all that we need. Perhaps we need to learn better to trust in God?
On a regular basis, we gather here to fellowship with one another, to pray together, to study and learn together, and to worship as one body. Part of our covenant as a gathering of Christian believers is to journey together as disciples of Jesus Christ. This can mean a lot of things: it means we hold one another accountable, it means we celebrate together in the midst of life’s joys, and walk with one another in times of grief. We are meant to be a voice of strength for one another in the midst of doubt. Though we rarely admit it because we perceive it to be a sign of weakness, doubt is something that plagues us all from time to time. Which is why we have come here, to the middle of the Exodus story this morning. That question of the Israelites, “Is the Lord really among us or not?” is one we have probably all asked at least once in our lifetime. Really, this is the enduring question of all human beings.
But why were the Israelites asking this question? At this point, God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt, walked them across a sea on dry land, and destroyed Pharaoh’s army; it would seem that they should know better! And maybe they should, but again, the Israelites were not asking a question that hasn’t been asked a million other times by a million other people down through history. So what was going on with the Israelites at this point in their history that caused this uncertainty about God’s presence with them?
As you know, the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt for many generations. What do we know about slavery? We know that when you are enslaved, your life is not your own, right? It’s not just your work that is dictated to you. Certainly, long, hard days of labor are a central aspect of slavery, but slaves are told where they will live, what they will wear, what and when they will eat, and what time they will go to bed. In general, slaves are given what they need: a place to sleep, clothes to wear, and food to eat, but all of that is provided on the master’s terms. So, though a slave may not be able to share a home with his family, he knows he will have a place to sleep. Though a slave may not like the food, she knows she will be fed. That has been the only life the Israelites have ever known. Now, they have been delivered from slavery in Egypt, but they find themselves wandering in the “wilderness,” where there are inadequate supplies of food and water. Something they have counted on day-in and day-out can’t be counted on anymore. And as the Israelites’ stomachs begin to rumble and their tongues parch, they start to grumble against Moses, wondering if he had just brought them out of Egypt to die in the middle of nowhere. Now that God has brought them out of slavery, they are wondering why God isn’t continuing to take care of them.
I’m sure it seems a little strange to think that the Israelites couldn’t grasp God’s continuing presence with them after God had managed to get them all out of Pharaoh’s grip. But, it seems to me, that coming out of a life of slavery, it would be difficult to trust in anything, much less anyone. Certainly, thirst is the presenting problem here in this time of wilderness wandering, but I think there was a greater issue among the Israelites, a problem of trust. The Israelites felt abandoned and betrayed. They couldn’t believe that God would provide for them what they needed, and so ultimately they started testing God because they couldn’t trust that God was even with them.
But look at how the Israelites dealt with their problem of trust. They didn’t go to God with their complaint, did they? They started complaining to Moses. They felt they had put their trust in a faulty leader who had led them in the wrong direction. After all, God had not promised them a dry, desert land with no food and water. God had promised them a land flowing with milk and honey! How could they ever be hungry or thirsty in such a place? They wouldn’t be, so clearly, they concluded, they were in the wrong place! And so, in their tired, hungry, thirsty, miserable state, the people rebelled. They decided that Moses had led them astray, and not only that, they decided trusting in God was a big mistake, too! So the Israelites did what we all do when we are tired, hungry, thirsty, and feeling lost, they started whining and complaining.
Am I wrong? When life isn’t going the way we think it ought to be going, we quickly become dissatisfied, maybe even angry and resentful. We start to wonder if God is really with us, much less listening to our prayers. And then the complaining starts. The funny thing is, though, we don’t want to take our issues directly to God. Somehow, grumbling to God seems, well, inappropriate. So instead, we turn to the next best thing: each other. God had delivered the people out of slavery in Egypt, across the Red Sea on dry land, protected them with the pillar of fire and the column of cloud, and the people said it wasn’t enough. Moses was not doing enough for them. Moses, who had so reluctantly taken this post, and yet so adeptly led the people just as God willed, was now faced with a bunch of whiny, angry, tired, thirsty, hungry, and disappointed people.