The prepared text for today’s sermon at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York is below. We talked about our favorite cakes during the children’s message in a way that fits the larger theme of this sermon concerning grumbling and gratitude. The sermon audio is available at this link. You can read more about this part of Numbers in my commentary post available here. Next Sunday we will explore Numbers 12 and the grumbling that arises from envy. If you want to read further ahead, notice that today’s passage foreshadows what will happen in Numbers 13-14 and Numbers 12 foreshadows what will happen in Numbers 16.
One of the most deadly sins in the American church today is grumbling. Grumbling is whining about our misfortunes in the hearing of God. These misfortunes literally can be anything that we see as bad. But whatever “bad thing” is bothering us, we blame God for it. We may or may not actually come out and say it is God’s fault, but we are still blaming God when we are grumbling because He is the sovereign Lord. Grumbling is an attitude. Moreover, when we grumble, we have an attitude about it. Of course, we are supposed to cry out to the Lord when bad things are happening to us. When the psalmist complains, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1), the psalmist isn’t grumbling. The psalmist feels like God is very far from saving him and very far from the words of his groaning. He cries out by day but doesn’t hear God answer and by night but gets no rest. And still the psalmist trusts in the Lord. He isn’t whining. He is praying in faith with hope for the future. Indeed, a saving faith leads us to pray with a trusting hope in the Lord about the future and to have an attitude of gratitude to the Lord about the present. But the bad fruit of unbelief is an attitude of grumbling. Thus grumbling is an attitude that is the opposite of gratitude. If faith creates gratitude, then unbelief creates grumbling. And when it is most developed, the kind of grumbling that comes from unbelief (because we’ll see next Sunday that there is another potential source) often has a particular attitude with respect to the past, the present, and the future. Grumbling has a nostalgic attitude toward the past. It selectively remembers the past and paints it as a golden age when things were good. Grumbling also distorts our vision of the present. When we grumble, we paint the present as worse than it actually is. If grumbling only remembers the good from the past, then grumbling only recognizes the bad in the present. The truth about the past and the present is always much more complicated than the generalizations of grumbling. Furthermore, grumbling is a failure of imagination concerning the future. When we grumble, we focus on ourselves and our inability rather than trusting in God’s promises about the future. Unfortunately, grumbling is a contagious disease. It may infect those on the edges of the church first, but it even spread to Moses. Hear the word of the Lord:
The story of grumbling leads to death, but God’s story raises the dead to life everlasting.
Grumbling tells a different story than God’s story.
God’s story is brutally honest about our past of sin, slavery, and death. Grumbling pretends that the past was a golden age when we had it so much better. Egypt was a land of all-you-can-eat free fish and a great variety of vegetables. Their picture of the past was so nostalgic you could almost taste the garlic. It is similar to the way that immigrants will sometimes talk about the old country even though it was a harsh place that they were eager to leave. But the selective story told by the grumbling rabble on the fringes of the camp—these were the Gentiles who wanted to leave Egypt with the Hebrew people—spread to the twelve tribes. The truth of the matter was that Pharaoh and his government had oppressed and even enslaved the Hebrew people and many others living in the land too. Pharaoh had them trying to make bricks without straw with no pay and no time off from their slave labor. Worse yet, Pharaoh had decreed that every son born to the Hebrews shall be thrown into the Nile River to die. Thus grumbling conveniently forgets their past persecution and suffering as slaves and recalls the tastes of onion and melons. The grumbling of Israel isn’t any different than if we start thinking that we had it so much better before becoming a Christian when we could sleep in or even work on Sunday mornings, when we weren’t giving tithes and offerings, and when we had some great parties. The truth is that those parties weren’t all that great, that we weren’t rolling in money before we began tithing, and that we hated working on Sunday morning. More importantly, God’s story is brutally honest about this—we were dead in our sins, slaves to sin and oppressed by Satan, separated from God and without true hope and joy. The grumbling of Israel even sounds like the way many people remember the past of the American church—I know that it sounds like the way many people in mainline denominations speak of the past—maybe even especially the way many Evangelicals in those denominations speak of the past. The truth is that there has never been a golden age in the past. Indeed, many used to attend church in this country only for social reasons—it was necessary for your business and your standing in the community—but not because of a saving faith. It was not as if people were more aware of their dependence upon God for grace in the past than they are today. The past in American churches wasn’t this Garden of Eden that we want to make it sound like. (And just as the past wasn’t as good as we might want to remember it, the present isn’t as bad as we are tempted to think.)
God’s story is one where He is shining His face upon us right now and giving us many other blessings besides. The rabble started grumbling about being sick of manna to eat. First of all, they forgot that they were camping. Sometimes meals when you are camping are not as good as the meals you have when you are at home. But we all need to remember that home isn’t where we used to live, nor is it our present accommodations in this wilderness–no, home is where we are going. Instead of thinking about the parties of the past, we ought to be looking forward to the feast that awaits us. In the meantime, we shouldn’t overlook just how good the food is that we eat while we’re camping. Our passage goes out of its way to refute the grumblings. They grumbled that this manna was all that they had to look at. So the passage tells us how good it looked. It says that it looked like bdellium. Bdellium apparently is easy on the eyes. In fact, the only other time it is mentioned in the Bible is in Genesis 2:12 near the Garden of Eden with other precious things. They grumbled that the fish back in Egypt was free, but this manna came down free every night in the camp with the dew. They grumbled that manna was tasteless and boring by comparing it to the food in Egypt. So the passage says that they could fix manna in a variety of ways and that it tasted like cakes baked with oil. Remember what they are grumbling about – they are grumbling about the bread of heaven. Duguid puts it this way, manna is the original angel food cake. One of these days, I’d like to have angel food cake for communion. I’m just saying this manna was really good tasting food. Furthermore, they are grumbling that their strength is dried up, but feasting upon manna they should have had more than enough strength for the journey. When God gave them what they wanted—meat, specifically quail—then a plague broke out among them. Likewise then for us, we are meant to focus on the blessings that we have right now by faith instead of grumbling about the blessings God gives us in unbelief. (But as different as God’s story is compared to the story grumbling tells about the past and the present, the most crucial difference concerns the future.)
Not only does the story grumbling tells show a failure of imagination concerning the future, but God is a much better storyteller. The story that grumbling tells is bleak and hopeless. It is a story with no future. It is a failure of imagination for unbelief is a failure of imagination. Did you notice that when the Lord told Moses to tell the people that He would give them meat, and not just meat for one day or two days or five or ten or twenty but a whole month, how Moses replied in unbelief? He said, “The people among whom I am number six hundred thousand on foot and you have said, ‘I will give them meat, that they may eat a whole month?’ Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, and be enough for them? Or shall all the fish in the sea be gathered together for them, and be enough for them?” (Num 11:21ff). His lack of faith is not unlike that of the disciples when when Jesus told the disciples to give the five thousand men plus women and children something to eat and they said, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” (Matt 15:32ff, Mark 6:36ff). A denarius was a days wage for a laborer, so they estimated it would cost two hundred times that wage. Then Jesus told to see how many loaves they have and they said five loaves and two fish and Jesus went on to multiply the loaves and fish. The Lord answered Moses, “Is YHWH’s hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.” In other words, the Lord asked Moses, ‘Am I not mighty enough to supply them with enough meat to do what I’m threatening to do? Wait and see.’ Unbelief is a failure of imagination. Moses, with a grumbling attitude due to unbelief, never would have imagined that God would bring that much quail for them to eat. As an aside, C. S. Lewis started writing children’s fantasy because he understood that unbelief is a failure of imagination and that if he could get children to imagine then he could introduce them to the gospel. It is no accident that the church is in decline in places like America and Europe where we see the church as the past and the church is growing in places like China where people see the church as the future. Unlike the story of grumbling, God could imagine a future for Israel and being God He could and would make it happen. In fact, faith trusts that the milk and honey of the Promised Land will taste that much sweeter after these meals camping in the wilderness than anything we’ve ever tasted before. (But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For not only did God tell a better story than the story told by grumbling and not only did God tell a more accurate story than the story told by grumbling but He even told us a story where people started to grumble and everything worked the way that it was designed to work.)
God painted a picture of the system that made it possible for Him to live with the people without consuming them in the first scene of our passage today. As I was saying earlier, complaining in Numbers 11:1 isn’t quite the right word for it. The people were whining or grumbling in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes. This angered God for He is a holy and righteous God and the rebellious in His presence are consumed. And when His anger burned among them and consumed some of the outer parts of the camp, the people cried out to Moses and Moses prayed to the Lord and the fire died down. They even named the place after it so that they would remember what happened. That’s the way it was supposed to work. God in His imagination had designed a system to deal with these kinds of potentially deadly situations. To put it simply: when the great prophet Moses interceded for Israel, then the Lord relented from consuming His own people. But when Moses didn’t do his job, many people died. In other words, the story of grumbling is the story of an unbeliever and it ends in death because it is unable to imagine any other future. But God’s story is the story of faith and it is brutally honest that we were dead in our sins, it resurrects the believer from death and takes us through the wilderness by faith, and it ends with the Promised Land. (Nevertheless, both Moses’ failure to intercede for Israel in a moment of unbelief and the judgment that God pronounced upon Moses for it point us forward to the New Testament).
God is such a great storyteller that He could imagine an end to this story that makes those who trust in Him full of gratitude.
Jesus is a better prophet than Moses. Moses acts as both a type and a foil for Jesus Christ in this passage. As a type, Moses interceded for the people in the first scene. But as a foil, Moses failed to intercede for His people. Instead, Moses grumbled when the people of Israel were dangerously close to revolting because of the lack of meat. Moses even wished God would kill him. On the other hand, Jesus Christ interceded for His people. Often English Bibles will put in a heading before John 17 that indicates that it was Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. But John 17 wasn’t Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer—even though priests do intercede for the people. John 17 was Jesus’ prophet greater than Moses prayer. Jesus knows that He is about to be arrested and killed—even killed by crucifixion, but at that moment He interceded for His people as a prophet greater than Moses. Thanks be to God! (And yet that isn’t even the end of God’s story concerning this theme.)
Pentecost is the fulfillment of Moses’ wish of faith. Moses went and gathered seventy elders and the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him and took some of the Spirit that was on Moses and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it. The parallel to Pentecost is unmistakable—a couple thousand years later the Lord Jesus Christ would pour out the Spirit and the people prophesied (speaking in tongues) but they did not continue doing it. And as it would so happen in Numbers 11, two of the elders were back in the camp at the time and they prophesied anyway and a young man ran to tell Moses about it. And Joshua hearing this said that Moses needed to stop them. Joshua rightly understood that this event was a judgment upon Moses for unbelief. He understood that this would cause problems for Moses’ leadership of the people. But Moses was once again a type of Jesus Christ. Sure Moses could have focused on the negative reality of the present event as a judgment against him and ignored the blessing God was giving these seventy elders. But that would have been buying into the story told by people who are grumbling. And Moses could have despaired that this would lead to problems for his leadership and possibly even his death. But again that would have been buying into the story told by people who are grumbling. Instead, Moses wished that all of the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit on them! As God’s story would have it the judgment of Moses led to seventy elders receiving the Spirit and the judgment of Jesus on the cross would lead to all of God’s people receiving the Spirit. Apart from faith, it is better than Moses could have ever imagined. But now Moses was displaying an attitude of gratitude because he was seeing with the eyes of faith. Moses was imagining by faith a future where all of God’s people would have the Spirit. Moses was imagining by faith a future that is our present—a future where God’s people live by faith and tell people about the Lord with power. Indeed, God was imagining a future that makes all those who trust in Him full of gratitude. Thanks be to God. Amen.