Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
August begins. Summer has reached its zenith, and soon our routines will resume their more normal rhythm. Not exactly the same rhythm as the last time around, of course, because nothing endures forever but God and His word. Children will move to new grades in school, and some will change from one school to another, perhaps even leaving home for the first time, off to college. Our congregation starts a new budget year, financially tenuous as always. Such is the fragility of organizations which depend upon voluntary contributions from us, who would rather spend on ourselves than on the salvation and welfare of others.
Even for people who are in the middle of their careers or are retired, as summer dwindles away, change is on the horizon. Companies and government organizations often make significant changes in the latter part of a year, preparing for the coming new one with hope of improved performance. National, state, and local elections bring changes in leadership and policies, leaving some filled with satisfaction and hope, and others with disappointment and dread.
Any day is a good time to take stock of what is going on in one’s life, but before the more hectic days of Fall fall upon us, perhaps it’s a good time for me to ask you: What kind of life do you want? What would you choose if you could dictate your own situation?
There are several challenges and difficulties in this, aren’t there? For one, just because we make a choice, it doesn’t mean we’re going to get the outcome that we want, does it? We can’t anticipate every variable and potential consequence of our choices. We don’t know what temptations will come our way. We don’t know how God’s will and guiding hand will govern our path. We can only trust that He will, as He always has.
Often, though, we make those choices, those temptations come, God guides our path—and then we blame Him for the results anyway, because we don’t like what they are. They don’t meet our expectations or desires, or they don’t arrive on our timetable, or we disagree with how things have progressed along the way. We want a “do-over” to take things back to the way they used to be, so we can make a different choice, and think that things would turn out differently the next time around.
“And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’”
Ah, yes. Even before God has established the sacrificial system for the people of Israel, they had already come up with the concept of a scapegoat. That is, something or someone who can take the blame for the bad things that have happened in our lives—sometimes things of our own fault; sometimes the fault of others. In the minds of the people, Moses and Aaron were to blame for their current predicament. The smelly stuff may roll downhill, but blame tends to bubble up to the top.
In this case, even after witnessing all the powerful plagues that God had used to wear down the Egyptians; even after they had been spared from the certain death of their firstborns in the shedding and distribution of the Passover lamb’s blood; even after the miraculous rescue at the Red Sea and the destruction of their greatest worldly enemy, faith in God and confidence in His appointed leaders was still in very short supply. The only things that were plentiful were grumbling and regrets—the idea that they had a better way than the path they had chosen and on which God had guided and protected them. They didn’t remember and acknowledge with praise and thanksgiving the many great blessings that God had provided them. Their grumbling was not against Moses and Aaron, but against the Lord Himself, for He had led them to their current situation, and He sustained them still, that He might test them.
And the congregation grumbled, “Would that we had not taken on so much debt years ago to prepare our building for the high school, that we might be comfortable now, and have less need to be generous givers to sustain our church.”
And the congregation grumbled, “Would that we had not traded an unbuildable strip of land that we somehow think is ours rather than God’s for resources that will enable us to address some of our congregation’s needs.”
And the congregation grumbled, “Would that we had not changed the chapel to provide more space for Bible studies and meetings, that we might keep things the way I remember them, and bring glory not to God, but to those who made donations for it years ago.”
Yes, we make choices. We make them individually, we make them collectively. Sometimes others, those whom God in His wisdom has placed over us in our schools and our jobs and our government and His Church, make choices for us. Some changes we like, when they work out the way we and our leaders intended. Other times, they don’t and we grumble. But God remains in charge, always.
When we make our choices, we have to weigh certain factors and priorities, because there may be tradeoffs. In worldly things, you’ve probably heard it said, “You can have it fast, you can have it good, or you can have it cheap… pick any two of the three.” That is, you’re not going to get everything your way. There is no free lunch. Having to make these choices, though, is a way in which God tests us.
Do you demand results sooner, rather than later? He may be testing whether you have patience. Do you want it easy, rather than difficult? He may be testing your persistence. Do you want something exactly your way? He may be testing your trust. Do you want a lot of something, or a little? He may be testing your generosity.
Our human nature, of course, wants it now, wants it easy, and wants more of it than anyone else has. When the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they longed for the benefits of Egypt—you know, those benefits of bondage, slavery, and forced labor. They preferred full bellies to freedom; they preferred subservience to salvation.
It hadn’t changed much by Jesus’ day. People came to Him in Capernaum seeking bread, seeking answers, and seeking signs. They wanted more of the bread they had enjoyed on the other side of the lake. They insisted on the answers. They demanded the signs.
But Jesus has some surprises for them that day. Instead of giving them perishable food, He feeds their souls. Instead of telling them how to work for God and work toward God, He tells them to believe. When they think they know how and why the manna came about in the wilderness, He sets them straight on who had provided it, and why it was only a temporary fix for what ailed their ancestors.
Some accepted His words, asking Jesus for the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. He then reveals to them that He is that true, lasting bread—the bread and drink that fully satisfies our needs. You’ll hear next week that while Jesus can fully satisfy their needs, He didn’t satisfy their wants. New grumbling will arise among the congregation in that synagogue in Capernaum; new arguments among the people about the right understanding of what Jesus was saying, about what He would do.
Thanks be to God that most of our arguments here are not about Jesus, but about ourselves and our own limitations. There are rarely disagreements in our midst about what gifts He has given to us, but rather frequent struggles within ourselves about what we will give back to Him, and debates among us on how to use those gifts. Our reluctance is not about what He has done, but about what, and when, and how we are to do what He has made our mission. These are not insignificant things, of course. But they do pale in comparison to the importance of our salvation in Him by the forgiveness of our sins.
Earlier, I asked you a question: What kind of life do you want? I think another way of asking that would be, What kind of God do you want? You’re not going to change God; that’s a given. He is the everlasting One, from age to age the same.
Yet He has chosen you, elected to offer you His grace in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the faith He grants you in Him saves you. There’s no place for debate, no place for argument, no place for negotiation. In other words, there’s no allowance for grumbling.
You might not like all of the Ten Commandments, but they’re His choices, not yours, and they are His gift to you to guide your life’s choices. You might not comprehend everything the Creeds say, but they proclaim God’s nature, God’s attributes, and God’s work in your life and in the world. You may have difficulty trusting Him for your daily bread, but still it comes, through the gifts and abilities He has given you and others. You may question His will, find it hard to forgive others, and thrash and kick your way out of His arms to chase after all sorts of temptations and evils, but still He remains your faithful Father who art in heaven.
Is Holy Baptism not spectacular enough for you? It’s still His way, for His words carry power and do great things. Have a problem with faith coming by hearing? It still does. Are you troubled that it’s sinful and not perfect men who are called and ordained so that they might proclaim His forgiveness to you? Rejoice that you don’t have to depend on finding perfect men in order to receive that comfort, but only upon the perfection of Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. Are bread and wine too ordinary a means to bring His body and blood to you, to strengthen your faith and cleanse you of your unrighteousness? They are far more miraculous and lasting a meal than the mere quail and manna which sustained and strengthened the Israelites for a time.
These things are God’s choices, not yours. He has chosen you, out of all the people on earth. He has chosen His ways to reach you, touch you, uplift you, and sustain you. And choices always come with consequences.
Adam and Eve chose self-wisdom, and brought death into the world. The Israelites chose to grumble, and they fell in the wilderness. King David chose pleasure, and brought murder upon Uriah and death upon his child. The list is long, and the list has your choices, too.
In the end, though, God’s choices always win out. His choice was to be patient with the world. His choice was to make us promises through His prophets. His choice was to send His Son to live, suffer, and die as the uncomplaining Lamb for your bad choices—your ugly sins, large and small. His choice was to raise Jesus from the dead, and to have the glorious story of His faithfulness proclaimed through His apostles, ancient and modern. And His choice, then, now, and forevermore, is to create, sustain, and strengthen faith in Christ within you. May you always know His love for you, and may He grant you wisdom in your choices each day.
In Jesus’ holy (+) name, Amen.