Back when I was a lad, as a trip of a lifetime back then, my parents took me and my sisters to Disneyland Paris. It was a long, hot car journey to get there, and so I got pretty grumpy - but we finally arrived late afternoon. We were staying off-site, and Mum and Dad wanted to go and check out the parking, so that we knew where we were going the next morning. So we basically drove right up to the gates of Disneyland – but we weren't allowed to go in.
And you might be able to guess where this is going… I had the biggest meltdown ever! I was screaming, shouting…it was a full-on tantrum! To the point that Mum and Dad had to say that if I didn't calm down, we weren't going to go to Disneyland at all!
You see, I'd completely lost sight of the big picture – that this trip was an amazing privilege and gift. And that grumbling in the context of the journey, or arriving there, just showed a complete lack of thankfulness to my parents and trust that they knew what was best.
In our passage today, the Israelites are on a journey. They're not only heading towards a high point (the Promised Land), they've also started their journey on a high - they've been rescued from slavery in Egypt. And yet…it's not long before they are grumbling. Big time. And so God teaches them some lessons on their journey. And they're helpful lessons for us as we journey through the new year ahead of us.
And the big point to take home for this coming year is this – God provides. We can trust him for each and every day.
God Provides for His People.
So we dive into this story straight after a lot of joyful singing! God's people, the Israelites, have been rescued from slavery under a cruel regime in Egypt. They've just seen God work the incredible miracle of parting the Red Sea, so that they cross through on dry ground, whilst the Egyptians pursuing them are swallowed up by the sea. And it's crystal clear that God has saved them. And so the first half of chapter 15, up to where we started reading, is a song of celebration! God has provided for his people!
God's People Grumble.
But within days, God's people are grumbling. That's going to be a theme as we go through this passage – we're going to see them grumbling three times! It's been said that Western societies are only three days of empty supermarket shelves away from rioting and major civil disorder. And it's the same with the Israelites! They've been three days in the wilderness and they haven't been able to find any water. Finally, they arrive at a place called Marah - they think they're finally going to be able to have a drink… but the water is undrinkable. And so they grumble against Moses. And Moses responds by crying out to the LORD.
That's what the people should have done. Rather than grumbling, they should have prayed. Despite all that they've seen God do for them. Despite the fact they've just sung this amazing song of thankfulness to the LORD, they don't trust him. They don't trust that he'll protect them and provide for them.
And it's so easy to look at them and think 'what are they doing?! They're a bunch of muppets! I mean, is God really going to rescue them from Egypt, bring all those plagues and part the sea, and then let them die of thirst in the desert?!'
But how quickly do we do the same every Sunday? We sing of all that God has done for us. And then a few days later, we're grumbling. Or even by Sunday afternoon. Or think of all the Christmas carols we've sung over the last month, about God come to dwell with us, to rescue us - that's what we've celebrated over Christmas!
But how quickly will we start grumbling when we're back to work and this year gets under way? Or how much easier do we find it to look at what we don't have rather than what we do have as we start this year?
Or how quick are we to grumble or worry when we face a difficult situation, rather than bringing it to God in prayer? We so easily lose perspective on all that God has done and all that he has promised us.
So three days in, the Israelites grumbled. How does God respond? How would you respond to them?
God Provides for His People.
"the LORD showed (Moses) a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet."
And we read that their next stop was Elim, where there were 12 springs of water, and they camped by the water. God is gracious and he provides, again.
God's People Grumble.
But right at the start of chapter 16, we're told that it's exactly one month since their Exodus began, and they're straight back to the grumbling. The first time it was about water. This time it's about food. We're told that the whole group grumbled against Moses. In verse 3 they say,
"you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger".
And they even claim that things were better in Egypt. They say, verse 3,
"If only we had died by the Lord's hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted…"
As so easily happens when we're grumbling, we look back with rose-tinted spectacles, or a different option looks so much better. The Pharaoh in Egypt had tried to have their babies thrown into the Nile. They'd been beaten and made to work as slaves. They'd been groaning and crying out for help. And yet, after finally escaping, they're basically saying "we wish you hadn't rescued us". They throw it back in God's face.
Maybe we can be the same? We so easily forget what life is like without Jesus and a family of believers.
We can think life would be so much easier if I didn't follow Jesus. I wouldn't have to stand out from the crowd and live differently. As if, those outside the church don't struggle with identity and what other people think of them.
Maybe we think, I'd have more money or more time. Despite the fact that virtually every academic study done on the subject has shown that we are happier when we're generous with our money and our time.
We can show an awful lack of thankfulness. We forget all the things God has done for us. We can be just like the Israelites can't we?
So how does God respond this time?
Once again, God responds to their grumbling with grace. He provides for his people…with manna and quails (little birds for meat). Verse 4,
"Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you…".
In the evenings quail would come so that they had meat. And in the mornings there was manna. It's a great name, Manna sounds like the Hebrew for 'what is it?' – which is exactly what they said when they first saw it! What is it?!
We're told later in the chapter that it was like wafers made with honey. Both wafers and honey were rare treats at the time, so they're basically saying it was like the most delicious food they could imagine.
But with this provision of manna comes a test. Verse 4 continues,
"…the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily."
The manna was to teach them to trust God to provide each and every day. You see, we're told that it didn't last until the next morning.
Farmers back then, and farmers now, know that you can't just harvest enough for one day. Once a crop is ready you get in as much as you can. And so they had to restrain their natural desire to stock up – particularly given they're in the wilderness – and they had to trust God that he would provide for them the next day. We're told, in verse 18, that they were able to gather as much as they could eat. But because it only lasted for the day, they had to trust that God would provide today, and tomorrow, and the next day.
And it wasn't easy for them. We're told that some of them tried to keep it until the next morning. They wanted the security of knowing that there was a back-up supply. But in the morning it was full of maggots and stank.
The only exception was on the sabbath, when God encouraged them to rest – and so they were to collect twice as much manna on the sixth day, and it would last for the next day so that they didn't have to collect on the sabbath.
God's provision of the manna was part of a plan to develop trust. Even the act of resting on the Sabbath was a sign of trust. They had to trust God to provide even whilst they rested for a day. God uses their complaining and grumbling to teach them about trusting him.
And this was such a key lesson that a jar of manna was to be kept throughout generations, Exodus 16.3. And later, the jar of manna was kept inside the ark of the covenant. One of the few objects in there – because it was such a clear sign that they were to trust God's continual provision for his people – each and every day.
In Deutoronomy 8, just before they enter the promised land, we're told exactly what the key lessons were from this journey through the wilderness. And we read this:
"Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord."
We need to learn to trust God day by day!
We don't generally like tests do we? They're not up there on our list of favourite things to do! But some tests are positive because they teach us and we learn from them. Think of a child who's talented at sport being put into a higher level team so that they're challenged and stretched. Or your boss at work carefully exposing you to a new challenge so that you grow and develop skills.
And in a similar way, the muscles of our faith need to be stretched and tested if they are to grow. We need to learn to trust God each and every day like the Israelites. That's what we're praying for in the Lord's prayer when we say 'Give us today our daily bread'.
But we're so easily like those Israelites who tried to hoard manna for the next day aren't we? We worry that maybe God isn't going to continue to watch over us tomorrow. Maybe it's clear in the way that we struggle to rest. If we're always on the go with work or family or ministry – it's because we're trying to justify our worth, or create our own identity, or trying to make sure that we don't need to worry about the future. But we need to learn to trust God to provide, and one of the ways we demonstrate that is by resting once a week.
Or maybe our concern that God isn't going to watch over us tomorrow expresses itself in worry. Maybe it's creating 'what if' scenarios in our heads for this coming year. 'What if Amy doesn't get into that school we wanted her to go to?' 'What if I'm made redundant?' 'What if I get to 40 and I'm still single?' 'What if those test results confirm the worst-case scenario?'
It's so easy to worry isn't it? But if God had given the Israelites a year's supply of manna on the first of January every year, they'd have trusted their storehouses for the rest of the year, before turning back to God around Christmas time as their stores depleted. But God wanted them to learn to trust him each and every day.
And Jesus' words are so helpful here. He said,
"Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."
I don't know what worries are on your mind as we start this new year? Some of us might be in a real crisis right now. Others might be sick with worry about what this year holds for various reasons. And Jesus says to us in those situations – I will give you grace and strength for today. Tomorrow is my worry.
Church pastor Tim Chester writes about a 5-year-old girl at his church who was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She was diagnosed on a Tuesday and spent nine hours in surgery on Wednesday, before a year-long process of treatment. And he writes that it was so helpful to be able to say to the parents, "We don't have to worry about how we will cope in three months' time. We can just take one day at a time. We trust God for today. And we trust that he will enable us to trust him tomorrow, and in three months time."
God doesn't give us everything we need for tomorrow today. But he does give us the grace and strength for today. And so rather than looking to ourselves for our confidence about tomorrow, we're to look to the God who provides and trust him.
We're told that God provided quail and manna to the Israelites so that they would know that he is the LORD, Exodus 16.12. And that word LORD is the name Yahweh, meaning 'I am' or 'I will be who I will be'. And that's the name God gives Moses at the burning bush before bringing them out of Egypt. He's saying "this is who I am. I'm the God who rescues. I'm the God who provides for your needs."
That idea of trusting God for each day is such a helpful but challenging lesson for us at the start of this year isn't it? And so we need to be careful not to be like the Israelites. Because the final thing we see in this passage is that they still haven't learnt their lesson.
God's People Grumble.
We get to their third grumble. And this one is almost identical to the first. At the beginning of chapter 17 (verse 1) we read that there was no water for the people to drink and so they quarrel with Moses and say "give us water to drink". It's a fair question – you can't go long without water! But it's their attitude that is sinful.
You see, we read, verse 7, that Moses calls the place where they are 'Massah' and 'Meribah'. Massah meaning 'testing' and Meribah meaning 'quarrelling'. Why? Verse 7, "because they tested the LORD by saying, "Is the LORD among us or not?". This time not only do they lack faith, but they question whether God is even with them.
God Provides for His People.
And yet once again, God responds with grace. He provides for his people. Moses is told to strike a rock and water comes out of it for all the people to drink.
Are We Hard of Heart? Or Will We Respond with Faith and Trust?
Psalm 95, which we read earlier describes these events. And here's what it says:
"Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers put me to the test
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work."
Ultimately, this generation of Israelites would not go on to enter the promised land. They were hard of heart. Hebrews chapter 3 quotes from this Psalm, speaking to New Testament believers, and it says,
"See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called 'Today', so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness."
You see, we too grumble. We too fail to trust God with each day. We question whether God is even with us. And ultimately these things lead to a hard heart. It's easy to think "grumbling, it's not that big a deal". But these passages tell us that if we keep on grumbling, if it becomes a habit, ultimately it will lead to a hard heart.
And so we need to encourage one another not to grumble, but to trust the God who provides. It's been said that trials make people 'bitter or better'. So are we going respond to the trials of 2019 with grumbling or with faith and trust?
You see, we've got so much more to go on than they did. We've seen God's provision even more. In Jesus, God provides not just for our physical needs, but for our spiritual needs.
In fact, the manna pointed to Jesus all along. Jesus says,
"I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die."
You see, in Jesus God provides for his people once again and it's the ultimate solution to our problem! Jesus the bread of life.
I hope it's been clear from my headings just how much the Israelites grumble and turn their backs on God again and again, despite his grace and provision. And just how much we can do the same. Yet in Jesus, God has shown his grace and provision, by providing a way for us to find forgiveness and eternal life, and relationship with the God who satisfies and provides.
Jesus achieved that for us on the cross. And as he faced up to that trial, which he had done nothing to deserve, he didn't grumble. Instead he prayed, and he trusted. He said, "not my will, but yours be done."
So as we start 2019:
1. Let's TAKE the bread of life (Jesus!) that satisfies and brings life.
2. Let's aim to TRUST God for each day, one day at a time.
3. Let's PRAY, that's how we express our trust in him.
4. And let's REST, one day a week. That's another way we express our trust.
5. And let's ENCOURAGE one another not to grumble, but to respond to life's trials with faith and trust in the God who provides.