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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

  Northern Great Lakes SynodEvangelical Lutheran Church in AmericaBethany on Facebook  

Pentecost 8/2

          One of my stock answers to the question, “How’re you doing?” is “Can’t complain,” to which I or the other person then often adds, “doesn’t do any good anyway.”  The underlying assumption there is that we don’t like complainers.  You’ve got problems?  Well, so do I; so does everyone else.  Deal with it.  It must be in Bible somewhere, Proverbs maybe, “Complaining lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who suck it up and deal with it will be blessed.”  I made that up, it’s not really in the Bible…but maybe it should be.

          Or maybe it shouldn’t be; because what is in the Bible is today’s first lesson which has to do with the chronic complaining of the people of Israel in the wilderness after they have escaped Pharaoh’s Egypt.  They complained incessantly, but rather than smiting them for their complaining, rather than saying, “You want to complain?  I’ll give you something to complain about,” rather than that, four times the text says, “The Lord has heard your complaining.”  Four times, including the verses that we skipped over, four times emphasizing not just that the Lord has heard but also that he is going to do something about it; the Lord is going to respond to the complaint of the people not in punishment but in gracious giving. 

So the clever response, “Can’t complain, doesn’t do any good anyway,” isn’t biblical.  According to the Bible there is a place for complaining…because God hears and responds favorably to complaint, sometimes; sometimes in ways that we easily recognize, sometimes in ways that are harder for us to figure out, but there is a response; complaining does do some good at least some of the time.

          We are invited into relationship with God and it is a relationship that isn’t just one of praise and submission but one which allows for complaint, understanding that such complaint is not a turning away from God but a turning to God, trusting that God doesn’t dismiss or ignore our complaints.  It’s faithful complaint, calling on God to be God in a time of need.

          There is an extensive tradition of complaint in the Bible much of it in the Old Testament but not just there; it’s also in the New including Jesus cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”  There is also an extensive tradition of God hearing and responding to such complaint.  Yet Christian piety has never been very comfortable with it in part because we think no one likes a complainer, but also because complaint seems…disrespectful (and to be fair and balanced in my reporting here, there are times God gets angry at the complaining of the people)  The result though, of our hesitancy to complain is that we can find ourselves in our personal wildernesses wanting to complain but afraid to, afraid that we might offend God and make the situation worse, unaware that complaint might be just what’s called for in the wilderness, the way into a closer relationship with God because the wilderness, while forbidding, is not a God forsaken place; not at all.  You might not want to be there forever, but the wilderness is not God forsaken.

          The people of Israel kept looking back toward Egypt.  Led by Moses they were headed into the wilderness, but they weren’t sure they really wanted to go.  They kept looking back, because after all, the glory of the world was back there in Egypt, the glory of the world was back there represented by the person of Pharaoh and in addition to the worldly glory there were also life giving resources back in Egypt.  To be sure, those resources were controlled by Pharaoh, but if they worked, the people of Israel knew that they could share in those resources even if they were still slaves.  So they looked back and then they looked the other way into the wilderness and when they looked into the wilderness, they didn’t see the glory of the world, and they also didn’t see life giving resources.  They weren’t sure that they really wanted to go. 

          Wilderness is a pretty common image in the Bible, but it’s an image that a Yooper might have trouble with.  Up here a lot of people know the wilderness but it’s a different kind of wilderness.  Here much of what we think of as wilderness is rich with resources.  Even if you were lost out there, in most places you wouldn’t die from a lack of resources.  You might die from a lack of knowledge of how to use them, but life giving resources are there.

          Biblical wilderness though, is lacking in resources.  In some ways it represents a return to disorder and chaos.  Self-sufficiency is not a possibility there.  That’s what the people of Israel saw when they looked away from Egypt into the wilderness; and so they complained.  They knew that they couldn’t make it on their own and they weren’t too sure about Moses’ abilities.  At least back in Egypt there was a system that provided for them, as oppressive as that system may have been.  In Egypt they knew where their next meal was coming from; not so in the wilderness; and so they complained.   What they also saw in the wilderness though, according to the text, was the glory of God.  “They looked toward the wilderness and the glory of God appeared in the cloud.”  The wilderness was forsaken of visible resources, but it was not God forsaken.

          Whether it was Moses and the people leaving Egypt heading into the wilderness, or the people of Israel and Judah in the wilderness of Babylonian exile, or Jesus in the wilderness tempted for 40 days, or moving out of the Bible to the various monastic groups who sought refuge in the wilderness to get away from the corruption and temptation of the world and sometimes the corruption of the church, whatever the specifics, biblical wilderness is a place where the usual systems of provision are less available making your personal skills for self sufficiency inadequate.  In the wilderness you realize that you’re not as independent as you thought, that you don’t have as much control as you thought.  At which point you can throw up your hands in despair, or you can turn toward God as the answer to your need, but that turning might begin in complaint.  

          And so the people of Israel complained and they found that the wilderness was not God forsaken.  The Lord heard their complaining and each day he provided manna and quail, as much as they needed.  Their need was quite specific and concrete, and the Lord provided just what they needed even if their response was, “What is it?” in Hebrew manna.

This story of the Lord hearing complaint and responding in generous  abundance became one of the stories that was told over and over again as a reminder of who God is and what God does, a reminder that God does provide.  The story of the manna in the wilderness would have been known by every Jew, so when the gospel writers wrote about Jesus providing food for thousands of people at a time in the loaves and fishes miracles, the connection to the manna story would have been immediate and the conclusion that only God can do this kind of thing would have been obvious.  That’s why in John this is identified not just as a miracle, but as a sign, one of Jesus’ signs as it points to his identity as true God as well as true man.

Jesus’ feeding miracle as a sign also points to the fact that this is about more than providing for immediate need; the sign indicates a relationship that is about more than “what have you done for me lately,” more than a relationship in which we just place our wish list before God.  The relationship might start with concern for everyday needs and that concern might include complaining, and all of that is OK.  But being part of a sign in the wilderness we also encounter God not only as a gracious provider of daily bread but also as an abiding and eternal presence.  The real bread from heaven was not the manna and it was not the bread that went along with the fish on the Galilean hillside.  The sign points to Jesus himself as the bread of life.

In the mystery of Holy Communion, Jesus offers himself to us; he offers the bread of life and we are nourished spiritually.  In Holy Communion we are reminded that God became human in Jesus so that we might share in his divine humanity.  As Jesus becomes part of us we share in the gifts of his life, gifts which include eternal life with God. 

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  In that there is nothing to complain about.   

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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