The Israelites just didn’t seem to get it.
Despite the fact that God lead them out of slavery to freedom—they don’t get it. Despite the fact that God provides them with heavenly food—they don’t get it. Despite the fact that God establishes a covenant with them on Mount Sinai—establishes the law—rejects the golden calf—they don’t get it. Nothing seems to have driven the point across that it is God who has freed them, provided for their needs, kept them safe, and desires to be in a relationship with them. They didn’t get that they were called by God to be God’s people. Instead of seeing opportunity, potential, and promise . . . well, they complained. They did not trust God.
Now it is true that things had not and were not going as smoothly as the people had hoped. True that they had endured more than a few bumps in along the way. True that it was a lot harder than they had imagined it would be. The present backtracking of their journey’s route just happened to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. The result? Complaints . . . lots of complaints.
It did not take long for the complaints to escalate to the forming of what the Reverend John Jewell refers to as the “back to Egypt committee.” In their complaints against God to Moses the people expressed a desire to return to Egypt . . . at least in slavery there was food and shelter . . . it beat the heck out of what they were experiencing: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” Such murmuring and complaining only served to create more murmuring and complaining to build even more momentum for the “back to Egypt committee.”
Needless to say God’s reaction with this constant and incessant complaining is a little disturbing—God sics venomous snakes among them to bite and kill the complainers. That’s right—God sends poisonous snakes to kill the people. Our reading tells us that many Israelites died. I would venture to say that God was not too happy with the people . . . not were the people too happy with God. It doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to know who is going to win this battle.
If we are honest with ourselves we would have to admit that we have all been a part of more than a few “back to Egypt committees” in our lifetimes. We would have to admit that we have done our fair share of moaning and groaning, complaining, murmuring, and lamenting when things weren’t going the way we wanted them to go . . . of if it was more difficult than we thought . . . or, if it wasn’t moving as fast as we wanted it to go. When we haven’t been happy . . . we bellyache. Instead of seeing good, we only see the bad . . . instead of blessing, we see curse . . . the glass is not half filled, it is half empty. Negativity.
This is dangerous. Negativity breeds negativity. The spirit of any “back to Egypt committee” is contagious. Remember . . . mudslinging works . . . the negative sells. Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to get a negative, complaining discussion started? Complaints create more complaints. Such behavior brings everything to a halt—nothing gets done—it kills momentum, kills progress, squashes opportunity, and nullifies potential. In biblical terms such a complaining spirit is a sinful spirit.
Even the people in our reading this morning recognize this. Running to Moses the people confess . . . “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you.” They want help . . . “Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” At this point I am not sure whether or not the people get the point . . . whether they understand; but, they do recognize that they are in a whole heap of trouble.
As I stated earlier, we have all complained . . . we have all been a part of a “back to Egypt committee.” Especially when we have become frustrated . . . when we have become impatient . . . when we have decided the results were not what we thought they would be . . . when things are harder than we imagined it would be. So, we complain. What does complaining do? Usually not much . . . at least not much good. Typically it creates more problems than it solves . . . it is a poison that slowly kills. Such was the complaining of the people of Israel . . . it was slowly killing them . . . slowly killing the dream . . . and, slowly killing the relationship between them and God. They had committed the sin of separating themselves from God by complaining and not trusting God and God’s word.
We are now four weeks into the season of Lent . . . well into the thick of it. In the season of Lent we are called upon to examine our journey of faith . . . to examine our relationship with God . . . with one another. We are asked to find and identify those barriers and blockages that keep us from these relationships . . . to discern them . . . to pray about them . . . and, to remove them to grow closer to God and one another. We all know that this is hard work . . . time consuming work. It takes a lot of patience and trust . . . God’s ways are not always our ways.
At this point in the season of Lent it is not unusual for those who are taking serious the challenge of the Lord to examine and change one’s life and journey of faith to be close to the point of complaint . . . this is hard work. No one likes the season of Lent. But to find the reward one has to go through the darkness to embrace the light.
So, what is the solution to the complaints? Well, it is to look up and beyond. God has Moses make a bronze snake to place upon his staff. He is to hold the staff up. Those who have been bitten by the snake and look up to this bronze snake are spared from death. In the looking up and beyond the miracle is squarely in the hands of God. The bronze snake was a symbol of their sin . . . only when they looked beyond their sin towards God would they ever be saved from their sin . . . they had to look beyond themselves and to trust God and God’s word.
It is the same for all of us. We must look at our complaints for what they are . . . they are desires . . . our wants . . . our expectations that are not being met. The focus is on us and not God . . . on us and not God’s will . . . on us and not others. In looking at our complaints . . . our sins . . . in looking beyond ourselves towards God . . . we begin to avoid the death that so often happens with the “back to Egypt committee.” God calls us away from the self.
In the Gospel of John the writer tells us: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15) In the cross, we see the consequences of sin. When we can stop our complaining and look beyond ourselves we discover our hope. The cure for sin . . . the cure for complaining . . . is not within us, but rather is from God beyond us.
We are on a spiritual journey in this life. From time to time we hit bumps . . . we get side-tracked . . . we lose our way . . . we complain . . . we organize “back to Egypt committees.” Yet, we are still on the journey. Lent calls us to reflect upon this journey. The secret to fulfillment in this journey is to look up and away from ourselves towards the promises of God. For the Israelites it was a bronze snake on a staff . . . for the followers of Jesus it is the image of Christ upon a cross . . . beyond that is the promise.
Yes, the journey is hard . . . but the promise is worth it all. In the words of Jesus we all find the hope during this season of Lent . . . “whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Amen.