Exodus 16: 2-15: September 21, 2014

September 21, 2014

When whining is a good thing

         Year A, Pentecost 14                                             
Robert Leahy recently wrote a book entitled: Anxiety Free.  In it, he refers to the time that we live in as the “age of anxiety.” He wrote that the average child today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the 1950s[1].  I am not exactly sure how he came to this conclusion; but it is a rather startling claim. I don’t think any of us would deny that we live in a time that is riddled with anxiety.  I remember getting on the metro in our nation’s capital and seeing the terror alert listed.  It was orange at the time. It felt like I was living in some dystopian novel.  Around that same time I was talking to an environmentalist and he mentioned something called “eco-anxiety” which describes a heightened anxiety that people experience regarding the state of our environment.   We are anxious about everything from the air we breathe to the terror that seems to surround us. I doubt there is anyone here who has not experienced some type of anxiety; some that is completely rational and some not so rational. 

            Keeping that in mind, it might be more difficult to judge the Hebrew people who were anxious about starving to death.  I remember in one church I served, there was a lay reader who generally read in a monotone, except when it came to the Exodus story.  Then she moved into this rather nasaly whine that woke everybody up and elicited a raised eyebrow from the rector.  People love to imitate the whine of the Hebrew people.   They get a bad rap and I wonder if they really deserve it. They were after all in the desert with very little food or water.  It’s not like they were just on a long stretch of highway between Starbucks.  So why are we so quick to judge them?  

To some, they just seem ungrateful. God just saved them from slavery and parted a body of water so that they could escape and now they are complaining again!  I admit that their comment that it would have been better that they had died in Egypt where they had plenty to eat was a little obnoxious.  But they were hungry and scared.  People say desperate things when they are in desperate situations.  Plus, the God that they had experienced, the all-powerful God who rained down plagues and killed thousands of people was not necessarily the same tender hearted God that we picture.  In their minds, they had a God who was a warrior and a deliverer, but maybe not a provider of food and love.

            While Moses was a little annoyed with the people and their complaints, God showed no such judgment.  As soon as they complained to Moses, God said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you…”  Problem solved.  Yet he provided an interesting caveat.  “…each day people shall go out and gather enough for that day.  In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instructions or not.”  The instructions were pretty clear.  The people were to gather only enough…only enough as they needed for that one day.  But these were hungry people who had just been through a period of slavery and uncertainty.  Sure, God had freed them from slavery but that was after a long period of suffering.  Some Bible scholars surmise that they were enslaved for 400 years.  The people who were freed had seen many of their loved ones die in slavery.  They had seen infants killed.  That was a high price to pay and not one that would be easily forgotten.  The people needed more than a miraculous act to believe in God.  They needed a relationship with God.

            God addressed that need in a couple of ways.  He started with communication.  He communicated directly with the leaders (Moses and Moses’ brother Aaron).   Then he did something rather surprising, even as we look at the story in retrospect.  Aaron told the people to “Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.”   With those words, the glory of the Lord appeared to them.  All the people saw it.  Imagine if after every time I recommended that you grow closer to God, he appeared.  That would be effective, would it not?  People would take those words pretty seriously.  What I find particularly interesting is that God never told Moses or Aaron that he would appear to the people.  He said that he would provide food, but he never mentioned that cloud of glory. It was an affirmation for not only the people, but the leadership as well. 

            The next way that God encouraged a closer relationship with him was by providing a test.  Most of us probably do not have warm and fuzzy feelings about tests.  I have not taken a test in about ten years and I still have nightmares about them.  Recently I read about a new method they are attempting in education.  The teacher starts the year with a test. It would be similar to the test that the student would take at the end of the year, but there would be no grade.  The idea is that the student would see what was expected of them for the year.  The teacher would also know what areas needed more time than others.  The classes that have used this method ended up doing much better on their final exam. 

This is similar to the kind of test that God was providing.  There was no grade, but there were results.  It was not a test as much as it was another teaching opportunity.  The people were only supposed to gather as much as they needed.  But they were hungry. They were used to having to grab everything they could get because they did not know where the next meal was coming from.  Need is a relative term.  They probably felt they needed as much as they could gather.  Of course they could not eat all that they gathered, so they stored it for the next day….just in case God did not deliver the bread from heaven.   When they woke up, the food that they had stored was infested with worms AND the manna from heaven rained down again.  It was a test but it was also a lesson and it was one that they learned pretty quickly.  This God was not a warrior, and not merely a deliverer.  This God was God who cared about their day to day needs but also a God who expected obedience.  

            Perhaps we are quick to judge the Hebrew people for their complaints because we are also quick to judge ourselves for our own lack of faith, our lack of confidence in God.   That is what complaints about or to God seem to indicate to so many…a lack of faith.   Yet the complaints of the Hebrew people actually resulted in a closer relationship with God.  Now I am not encouraging you all to start complaining…especially not to me (unless it is non-church related in which case, fire away)!  However there is something to say about complaining to God.  Sometimes when we are questioning our faith or when we are frustrated with our own life, it is tempting to shut God out, but that is the time when we really need to talk to God, even if it sounds like whining. 

This is an age of anxiety. It might be tempting to try to ignore that anxiety or pretend we are not really that anxious.  It is best not to ignore it or to perceive it as a lack of faith.  The best thing we can do for our own mental health and our relationship with God is to share those things that weigh us down.  We might not always get the answer we want.  Or the answer might seem as though it takes years and years to come, but the answer will come.  If you find that you have grown closer to God in the process and if in that process you catch even a glimpse of the glory of God, then you might discover that you don’t even need the answer anymore. 

[1] http://www.forbes.com/2006/12/13/most-common-fears-forbeslife-cx_avd_1214commonfears.html