Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Grumbling In The Wilderness

Exodus 14:5-14

 Last Sunday we talked about calling Moses to go back to Egypt to announce that God was setting his people free from slavery.  So he goes back to deliver the message to Pharaoh, and I think we’ve all seen The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt enough to know what happens next.  

 Moses says, “Let me people go!”  And Pharaoh says, “I’d rather not, actually.”  After all, Pharaoh was a god to the Egyptians.  Why would a god yield to some other god, a god of slaves for that matter?  So God convinces Pharaoh with a series of 10 plagues.  He must have been pretty stubborn for it to take 10 of them!  Finally Pharaoh relents and begs them to leave.

 So they march out of Egypt, carrying the gifts the Egyptians beg them to take, and they’re on their way.  Now there were two ways out of Egypt for those traveling east toward Sinai or Canaan.  To the north was the Way of the Sea, which led right along the Mediterranean coast, but it also went into the heavily armed region of Philistia.  And that might not work out too well.  Apparently God knew something about how timid the Israelites were going to be!  The other way, to the sourth, was called the Way of Shur.  The Israelites started going that way, but then God led them off the road and into the marshy region near the Yam Suph, the Sea of Reeds.

 It’s hard for us to reconstruct exactly how the Israelites went on their journey out of Egypt because so much has changed over the last 3500 years.  Aat the time of the Exodus, much of the eastern border of Egypt was made up of lakes and marshes, some fresh water and some salt water.  But many of the marshes and lakes were drained, either naturally or by man.  Others were destroyed in the building of the Suez Canal in the 19th century.  

 But most Bible scholars agree that they probably didn’t cross the actual Red Sea, the arm of the Indian Ocean.  Why not?  It wouldn’t have made sense for them to cross the Red Sea, since it was further south than they intended to go.  They probably crossed one of several lakes between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, all of which were called “Yam Suph, Sea of Reeds.”  But that doesn’t really take anything away from the miracle.  It’s no less miraculous for God to open up a lake than a sea.  

 The Bible reveals that this detour to the shore of the Sea of Reeds was on purpose.  God intended this to provoke Pharaoh to change his mind about letting the

Israelites go, which he did.  God was determined to demonstrate his power over the world’s might.  Pharaoh fancied himself a god, and with his vast armies, he was probably the most powerful man on earth at the time, or at least the most powerful in the Near East region.  And he had an ego to match.  And it was too much of an insult to his arrogance to watch the Israelites march “boldly” out of Egypt, carrying off great wealth as they went.

 So he goes after them with 600 chariots.  Chariots were the most feared weapon of war of the day.  They were fast and deadly and evoked fear in the hearts of those who faced them.  And it seemed as if he would easily win the day when he pinned them against the shores of the sea with no way of escape.

 The people were frightened and cried out to Moses:  “Were there no graves in Egypt that you brought us out here to die?”  Of course, Egypt was known throughout the world for its extravagant graves, the pyramids and the Necropolis, the city of the dead.  “It would be better to live in slavery than die in the wilderness!”  

 But of course we know where the story goes.  God parts the sea and they pass through on dry ground.  God demonstrates his power over the forces of chaos and death, often represented by water.  Pharaoh sends his chariots after them.  There’s no indication that Pharaoh personally led them or that he himself died in the sea.  It would probably be mentioned if he had.  And God brings the waters crashing down to drown Pharaoh’s army.  The greatest army in the world is no match for the power of God.  

 If that were the end of the story, I would find it so satisfying.  God delivers his people from slavery.  They have a moment of doubt, but God comes through.  The end.  But of course, that’s not the ending is it?  It’s just the beginning of their time in the wilderness.  And what follows is just plain maddening!

 They travel for three days and they come to a place called Marah, which means bitter, named for the bitter, salt water found there.  They’ve apparently ran out of water that they brought with them from Egypt, and now they’re in a bind.  And they go to Moses, grumbling, “What should we drink?”  

 So God turns the bitter salt water into refreshing sweet water.  And everything is fine again.  

 Until a month later they come to a place called Elim.  Now they’re out of food.  And they come to Moses, grumbling again, and they say, “We should have stayed in Egypt.  We had plenty to eat there.  Why did you bring us out here to starve to death?”  

 So every morning God gives them manna, this strange substance that appeared on the ground daily.  It’s their “daily bread.”  God told them to gather a certain amount each day for every person.  They weren’t to gather any extra, except on the day before the Sabbath.  But of course, some people collected extra.  They didn’t trust God to provide daily.  “I need to get more now because I don’t know what the future holds.  I have to be ready.”  And the extra all went bad.  

 On the Sabbath, God told them not to go looking for it, but of course, some did!  And they didn’t find any.  

 And every night, God brought quail to their camp.  

 Another month or so goes by, and now they’re at a place called Rephidim.  Again, they’re out of water.  And they grumble again.  “Why did you bring us out here to die?”  they ask Moses.  “Why do you test the Lord?” Moses asks them.  

 Again, God delivers.  This time he gives them water out of solid rock.  And they called the place Massah and Meribah, which is Hebrew for Grumbling and Testing.  

 I find the story just plain maddening.  I read it, and I think, “What was the matter with those people?  After all God had done for them, why did they keep doubting him?  Will they ever get it?”  

 But then I wonder what God thinks of me.  Will I ever get it?  

 A few months ago, we had a succession of “financial hiccups.”  We found out we owed more on our taxes than we thought.  Then we got a rather large medical bill that we thought our insurance was going to cover.  Then we had some car problems.  And I “lost faith” for a bit there.  I wondered, “What’s the deal, God?  Why is all this stuff happening at once?”  But it really wasn’t that much.  And we have savings that we could have tapped into, if we had needed to.  But we didn’t even need to. We just had to cut back for a few weeks.

 It reminded me of a time years earlier when we had much more significant financial problems.  Again, we had a big tax bill, and some other problems.  And this was

right after we got out of seminary.  We didn’t have any savings back then.  And I remember that at one point we had $47 to our names.  But God brought us through.  If he brought us through that, why couldn’t I trust him this last time?  

 We all know that the Bible tells us not to “test God.”  But what does it mean to test God?  I’ve often wrestled with that.  

 Sometimes God invites us to test him.  In Malachi chapter three, God accuses the people of cheating him by not bringing in their tithes as they should.  And he says to them, “Test me in this.  Bring them in, and see if I will not open the floodgates of blessings.”  

 And sometimes faithful people tested God.  For example, when God came to Gideon to ask him to free Israel from foreign powers, Gideon asked for not one, not two, but three signs that God was “really going to do this.”  But to his credit, Gideon did obey God after all those signs.

 I think the bottom line when it comes to testing God is this:  God understands that we have doubts and struggle to have faith at times.  And God is patient with our doubts and questions.  But the Israelites in the wilderness clearly wore out God’s patience!  It’s one thing to have doubts, but it’s another thing to refuse to have faith, to consistently doubt God without good reason.  

 Let’s go back to God’s answer on the shore of the sea.  I want you to see three things in it.  First, God tells us not to fear.  God is with us, and he is faithful.  He will not let us fall if we trust in him.  So second, stand firm.  Believe God means good for us.  And finally:  Be still.  Be silent.  Watch and wait for what God will do.  

 If you have no way forward, wait for God to open one.  If everything in life has become bitter, see if God cannot make it sweet.  If you hunger and thirst for things that satisfy, ask God and see if he will not provide them.  

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