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Complaining about Blessings March 15, 2015

Posted by sandhandrews in Sermons.
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Numbers 21:4-9

Fourth Sunday in Lent

March 15, 2015


Focus:  God provides the way out!

Function:  That the hearers give thanks to the Lord for the blessings in their life.

Structure:  Walking through the Scriptures.


Complaining about Blessings


Our texts for this weekend are a preacher’s feast.  You can’t go wrong here.  Our gospel reading today includes the most well-known verse in all of Scripture.  “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  You’ll see that verse plastered on posters at almost every major event from a sports game to a rock concert.  When the NFL holds their veterans’ combine next weekend, you’ll even see it sharpied on Tim Tebow’s eye black.  It’s a tremendous summary of the Bible.

And then there’s our epistle reading, which includes what has been dubbed the Lutheran verse.  “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”  You can see it, you can see how coming out of the Reformation and opposing a theology of works, that we had to earn our own salvation, you can see how that verse points us toward the faith that we have.  That it’s not our doing; that we can’t earn it, but that God freely gives it.

But since those are so well-known, I’m going to preach on the Old Testament today.  From the book of Numbers, which if you’ve been following our church’s devotional plan, you’ve been reading for the last several weeks.  Numbers is the fourth of five books that Moses wrote for us.  And it really has two purposes: to establish God’s law for His people to follow and to recount events on their journey through the wilderness from Mt. Sinai to the Jordan River.

So let’s set the scene, sort of a paint by Numbers if you will.  We begin on Mt. Sinai.  Moses skips over the blueprint for the tabernacle, the Ten Commandments, and the golden calf incident because he’s already talked about them at length in Exodus, even if they would fit perfectly in Numbers.  The first third of the book is about their travel from Mt. Sinai to the region of Kadesh.

We begin with their preparations for the journey.  All kinds of things, like arranging the camp and setting up the duties of the Levites, to establishing the method for confession and absolution, as well as creating a new national holiday by setting up the Passover feast, which is like the equivalent of our Thanksgiving.

By the time they finally set out, it only takes twenty verses before things get messed up.  The people begin to grumble, they start complaining about the lack of meat to eat.  At least we had meat in Egypt.  It’s thanklessness, it’s discontent, it’s rebellion.  That God would provide for them and they threw it back in His face.  And so He gives them quail, but they also suffer from a plague.

The second chunk of the book recounts their journey from Kadesh to the region just on the East side of the Jordan River, known as the Transjordan.  And along the way, Moses sends out twelve spies to go and spy out the land, to bring back some of its fruits and to give the people a report about the cities and their inhabitants.

This account from Numbers is pretty well-known, with pictures of spies walking back carrying large bunches of grapes hanging from a pole hoisted up on their shoulders.  But when they return, they don’t give a good report.  Instead, they show fear and a lack of trust.  That even though God just delivered them from the hands of Egypt, from the hands of the world’s greatest superpower in that age, and completely wiped out their army along the way, these men were still afraid of a few Canaanites.  They didn’t trust that God would indeed deliver on His promise, just as He had, well, promised.

On hearing the bad report, the Israelites rebel against Moses and against God.  This is where the punishment comes in.

Yahweh said, “I have pardoned, according to your word.  But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of Yahweh, none of the men who have seen My glory and My signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed My voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers.  And none of those who despised Me shall see it.”  – Numbers 14:20-23


Their actions, their rebellion, their distrust of His promises remove them from the promise.  Their punishment is that they don’t get to see the Promised Land.

It’s in this time that we hear of the man guilty of breaking the Sabbath.  That he failed to trust that the God who created the entire world in six days could take care of his proportionately smaller life even if he were to take one day off a week.  Believe it, the Sabbath is a trust issue.

And then there was Korah’s rebellion.  That surely Moses and Aaron were terrible leaders, that Korah and his men knew better what God’s will was for the people.  This is where we get the interesting challenge.  Aaron’s staff and the staff of a leader from each of the tribes were to be placed in the Tent of Meeting before the Ark of the Covenant.  And when they came back the next day, God had made Aaron’s staff, a dead piece of wood, not just bud, but fully blossom and produce almonds, overnight.

At the beginning of chapter 21, where we find our text today, the Israelites prayed to the Lord.  “If You will indeed give this people into my hand, then I will devote their cities to destruction.”  Then after tasting victory on the battlefield, after experiencing the power of God to drive out their enemies from before them, after naming the region Hormah, Hebrew for destruction because of their complete and utter victory there that day, after leaving the Mountain of destruction, Mt. Hor, they grow impatient with God.

We’re told: “And 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 loathe this worthless food.’” We loathe this worthless food.

What food did they have?  Did they have to work for it?  Did they have any land to call their own, to plant crops and then harvest them months later?  They didn’t.  They were wanderers, sojourners in another land.  Their constant travel made it impossible to set up crops and fields.  They couldn’t sow and reap.

The food they had was a gift.  Manna and quail.  Laid out on the ground at their feet and all they had to do was bend over and pick it up.  No work, just gift.  In fact, Numbers chapter 11 describes the manna for us as tasting like “cakes baked with oil.”

That wasn’t normal food.  Imagine the work required to produce the flour, the yeast, the salt, and of course, the oil.  Oil could be made from the fat of animals or from pressing olives.  But that all took work, and lots of it, doing it by hand.  Couldn’t just walk into Fareway and buy a bottle. Cakes baked with oil. I won’t call it a delicacy, but it was real, solid food.

We’ll make just a small jump here.  Imagine waking up in the morning, walking into the kitchen, and having your favorite food, a delicious warm meal, already sitting there.  All prepared, no work.  And even better, it has all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals that your body needs to go throughout the day.  Just eat up, enjoy!

That’s what they had.  God providing high quality stuff for them to eat everyday with very little work, very little cooking involved.  And yet, it wasn’t good enough.  They complained, they rebelled.  And the result this time was a plague of fiery serpents whose bite led to death.  Death is the punishment of sin, we know this, and we simply see it again here.

And yet in verse 7, the people repent, they acknowledge their sin and they ask Moses to pray to God to forgive them.  And sure enough, God answers by providing a way out.  He instructs Moses to build a serpent of bronze and to mount it on a pole.  And whenever an Israelite is bitten, they should go and look at the bronze serpent and they would live.  Notice the plague isn’t removed, the consequences of their actions remain, but forgiveness is given, they’re spared.

This connects directly and fully to our own lives.  Like the Israelites, we complain, we grumble, we grow impatient with the Lord.  He blesses us with able bodies capable of working so that we can provide for our families.  And in response, we complain about the stresses of our job or the pains we suffer.  He blesses us with the food on our tables and we complain about having to do the dishes.  He blesses us with a roof over our head to provide shelter and warmth in the midst of another freezing winter and we grumble about the upkeep that our homes need or that we need to clear a little snow off the driveway.  And when our sinful bodies grow weak and we get sick and God blesses us with the wonders of the doctors and nurses in this community, how often do we find ourselves complaining about the cost, or the care, or how long we have to stay at the hospital and eat their lousy food?  Take a moment now, but also occasionally throughout your life, take a moment, and give that some thought.  pause.  We, too, have rebelled.

And yet in the very midst of our rebellion, God has placed a bronze serpent on a pole, lifting Him up in our presence.  That whenever we are bitten by the wrath of sin, death, and Satan himself, we might look at it, and we might be spared.

I would wager that 9 out of 10 of those people holding up the John 3:16 posters have no idea that that is what John is referring to.  Do you remember last week?  Do you remember the importance of that little three letter word gar, or for?  It’s explaining something.  John 3:16 is explaining something, giving us the purpose of it.

lift up the altar cross. John tells us “And 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 everlasting life.  For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” – John 3:14-16.

Jesus isn’t the plague of fiery serpents, He’s the bronze snake on the pole, the One that we are to look to and be restored.  That our sins would be forgiven.  And that happens, all the time.  Paul tells us this very same thing.  “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” –Ephesians 2:4-5 “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The book of Numbers ends without the Israelites receiving the promise.  It ends with them just across the Jordan River, never fully getting there.  It ends with them waiting for God to fulfill His promises.  But it is also full of His blessings for His people.

We find ourselves once again in that same place.  So full of God’s blessings in our lives.  Yes, the Scriptures end with us waiting for the promise of Christ’s return and the power of the resurrection to new life.  We are left waiting.  But we wait in the midst of countless blessings given to us, our families, and our communities.  Take the time this week, try to count your blessings, if you can count that high.  Take the time this week to be thankful for everything that the Lord has given you.  Because He has truly given you everything.  Whether it’s the daily needs of the present, or the promise of new life in the future, He has truly given you everything.



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