The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
Lent 4, Year B is a challenging week to preach. The Revised Common Lectionary folk are never more obvious about what they want you to preach, and yet the topic is never more challenging. The lesson from Numbers, with the people grumbling against God and Moses and God sending snakes to bite them in a classic, I’ll-give-you-something-to-complain-about parenting moment, is such a crazy story that any good preacher worth her salt would avoid it at all costs, but then Jesus references it in the context of what is perhaps the most famous line from the Bible, John 3:16. You simply can’t avoid talking about snakes below and snakes above, but you can do so with some nuance. I hope to spend this week looking at the nuance.
As a parent, I tend to read the story of the Israelites in the wilderness through parenting lenses, and the first thing I notice is that though they are unhappy with their circumstances, they can’t quite make up their minds what they are unhappy about. “There is not food or water, and we hate this miserable food.” As I’ve said to my own children and for years in youth ministry to the children of many others, “is it that there isn’t any food or there isn’t any food you like?” One is a problem that we’ll have to deal with, the other is your problem that you’ll have to deal with.
The Lord had sent Manna from heaven. The winds blew and the Lord provided quail for the people. More than once, the Lord brought forth water from a rock. He had promised and provided enough food and water for all the people of Israel. It wasn’t that there wasn’t any food, but it was they had grown weary of it. It wasn’t that there wasn’t any water, but that they couldn’t get it on their own timetable. The people grumbled not because the Lord had failed to provide for them, but because his provision didn’t meet their expectations. It wasn’t that they didn’t have, it was that they didn’t want what they had.
The story of the Israelites grumbling in the wilderness is a story of human nature. It is the story of how the American Dream stands at the antithesis of God’s dream. God provides in abundance for all flesh, but we claim there is not enough and hoard it. We claim that we don’t like it, and we waste God’s provision. We moan and groan and forget that all things come from God, and God loves us anyway. It really is foolish on God’s part to love us so much. We’re so wasteful, so ungrateful, so toddler-esque, and yet God loves us anyway. He loves us so much that even in the midst of our tantrum, he sent his son to restore us to right relationship. Even in his great love for us, we have to stop and think, is it that I don’t have or just that I don’t want?