- Written by Nelson Scheifele Nelson Scheifele
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Consider the Birds
Scripture: Numbers 11
What an extraordinary story we have heard this morning from the book of Numbers. Did you hear the drama, the language, the conflict, and the emotions? Consider some of the words and phrases we heard:
• Verse 4: The riff-raff (rabble in some translations) craving for other food, the whining (wailing in other texts).
• Verse 5: Nothing tastes good here; manna, manna, manna! We ate fish and got it free; the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. We had a better life in Egypt!
• Verse 10: The Lord’s anger blazed up (became exceedingly angry), and
• Verse 15: Moses saw things were in a bad way. He was distressed. Moses’ words “It’s too much… If this is how you intend to treat me, do me a favour and kill me. I’ve had enough, let me out of here.
• God: So you think I can’t take care of you?
• Verse 19: The Lord’s response to the people, “You are going to eat meat. You will eat it until it comes out of your mouth – out of your nostrils, and you’ll throw up at the mere mention of meat. You have rejected God.”
• Verse 31: A wind drove quail in from the sea, covering the ground to about three feet, as far as a day’s walk in any direction.
• Verse 33: The people hardly swallowed the first bite … the anger of the Lord burned against the people. They were struck with a terrible plague.
• Verse 34: They buried those who craved meat and the place was named “graves of the craving,”
This is a story of a community in crisis. This episode according to Numbers 10: 11 occurred just over two years after God had liberated the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. They had just left Mount Sinai and moved further into the wilderness. And now this chaos.
I find this story compelling because it is more than just an ancient Biblical story. Yes, it describes life in the wilderness. But figuratively, it is a story for today. I suggest it describes elements of every person’s experience, every community’s experience. It is my story. It is your story. It is the story of the faith community. Wilderness with all its chaos is a part of each of our lives. I suspect we can think of times when the chaos of our wilderness experiences were not so different from that described in Numbers 11.
Here are a collection of eight wilderness experiences common to all of us. Which of these have you experienced?
1. Many of us throughout our lives experience an economic wilderness. A time when life just gets rough – in personal finances or in business. We wail for better times.
2. All of us at some point in our lives have travelled the wilderness of bereavement, the loss of someone intimate, someone we need, someone we cannot conceive of living without.
3. Most of us at some point in our lives travel the wilderness of broken relationships. We lose a friend or friends, a romance comes to an end, the family breaks up, or we experience alienation from a community. The pain can be long term and excruciating.
4. There are times we experience the harshness of spiritual wilderness. God is no longer there. Our doubts overwhelm us. Faith and belief become difficult. Our spiritual world feels empty and frightening. The Psalmist writes of this frequently.
5. Most of us experience, at some time during our lives, the wilderness of a health crisis, a diagnosis that changes our life or that of a loved one, an event that often forces us to re-adjust life patterns and plans.
6. A good percentage of us experience times of a mental health wilderness, periods when mental health challenges overwhelm us; anxiety, depression, addiction or a myriad of other forms of mental ill-health challenges.
7. Some of us have experienced a cultural wilderness, a common experience for refugees as they adjust to another country, a new language, new foods and a foreign culture. We may experience it just by moving to a new community or neighbourhood.
8. Faith communities also experience wilderness, often the wilderness of theological differences and transitions. What the church in North America is experiencing today is such a wilderness experience.
The above wilderness experiences could each be explored further. I suspect each of us can identify with two or three. Surely then, we can identify with those Israelites who had spent 400 years in slavery, experienced liberation amidst much chaos and violence generated by a largely unknown god. They were led into unfamiliar territory, travelling to some promised land they had never seen. They responded to their wilderness in much the same way we today respond to wilderness experiences. Human nature has not changed in the past three millennia. Too many times, our responses are similar to the responses of the Israelites.
Let’s briefly explore typical responses to wilderness experiences? And here I am indebted to the writing of Waldemar Janzen, Old Testament scholar and writer of the Exodus Believers church Bible Commentary. To which of the following five responses can you relate?
1. Wilderness causes us to be insecure. Our life is out of balance, out of focus. Such malaise often leads to desires, cravings, greed or other behaviour, uncharacteristic of us in normal times. The positive person becomes angry and critical. The cheerful person becomes despondent. The strong person appears weak. We experience an inability to appreciate what we have, to count our blessings. The Israelites had their daily food provided but they craved something different and that craving for meat became uncontrolled and insatiable for them.
2. Wilderness makes us nostalgic for the past. “We were better off in Egypt,” was the wailing lament of the Israelite people. “Why did we ever leave Egypt?” In their exaggerated nostalgia they convinced themselves that food was good and plentiful in Egypt, that life was rosy back then, even in their slavery from which they had pleaded for delivery. Forgotten for the Israelites was the misery of slavery, their miraculous escape with the parting of the sea, the pillar of cloud guiding them by day and the pillar of fire protecting them by night, the sweet manna that had fed them for the past two years. In their disorientation, Egypt became the good life in the good land. How absurd, we say. Yet, how many times do we yearn for “the good old days”? Times that were simpler, less complicated, more secure, happier. Our present unhappiness, fear, uncertainty, or misery blots out the bad of the past. We only remember the good and that becomes exaggerated.
3. The corollary of nostalgia is, wilderness makes us unable to visualize the future. The present overwhelms us. Instead of looking to the future we gaze longingly to the past. Forgotten is the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey. Their current pain and frustration robbed them of the vision for that Promised Land. We respond no differently, I suggest. During our times of wilderness we find it difficult to believe there will be a future. Our present fully consumes us.
4. Wilderness experiences makes us look for a culprit, someone we can blame. The people of Israel blamed Moses – big time. They blamed God – big time. “Why did you bring us out to this wilderness to die?” Why can we not eat like we did in Egypt? In turn Moses himself experiences the wilderness burden of leadership. It is heavy. “Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you?” he laments to God. Who have you blamed during your wilderness experiences? How often during a time of wilderness do we question God? Why me? What have I done to deserve this? How often in the darkness of wilderness do we struggle with God’s faithfulness? Who have you blamed in your wilderness experience? God? Parents? Family members? Church leadership? The Psalms are a great comfort at such times. The Psalms of lament lash out against enemies, God’s absence or coldness or unfulfilled promises.
5. Wilderness can be a brutal teacher and forces us to recalibrate our lives and our relationships. In this story, God reaches out to Moses and provides support with additional leadership. But Moses also was forced to recalibrate his life. Due to a fit of anger, recorded in Numbers 20, God forbade him to enter the Promised Land. But with the people, God is less gracious. On the one hand, God responds positively to their craving for meat. He sends quail in great abundance. But this is where the newscaster’s warning applies. “Viewer discretion is advised. The following scene may be upsetting.” As they gorged themselves on this beautiful succulent quail meat, meat often served to royalty and at state banquets, “even while the meat was still between their teeth, the Lord’s anger struck them with a severe plague.” The lesson ends with the terse words, “Therefore the place was named ‘graves of the craving,’ because there they buried the people who had craved meat.” Food other than that which God provided.
If time permitted, I’m sure we could tell our own stories about what wilderness experiences have taught us and how our lives have been recalibrated by out time in the wilderness. I invite you to reflect on those experiences.
The children of Israel experienced so much during their forty years of wilderness travels. The turbulence of their time at Mount Sinai in the two years before this story, the rebellion and fear about moving into the Promised Land recorded in Chapter 14, plagues, snakes, painful conflicts. What was it all about? What might this story teach us?
In his introduction to the book of Numbers, Eugene Peterson describes it this way. “The book of Numbers plunges us into the mess of growing up. The story of the Children of Israel gives us a realistic feel,” he continues, “for what is involved in becoming the people of God, a human community that honors God, lives out love and justice in daily affairs, learns how to deal with sin in self and others, and follows God’s commands into a future with promises of blessing and hope.” Becoming such a community is “a long, complex and messy business,” Pederson concludes.
So let us not look down our noses at those Israelites in the desert. They were struggling to adjust from lives of slavery to becoming the people of God. They were struggling to understand this God of their ancestors. He was unknown to them. God, in turn, was struggling with them as a people. God and this wandering people were mutually struggling to develop an understanding and a covenant relationship. It took more than the life-time of the people who escaped slavery from Egypt to develop this relationship.
The importance of the wilderness experience did not escape the attention of other Biblical writers either. Psalm 78 rehearses the Israelite story in some detail. The Apostle Paul in writing to the Corinthian church (chapter 10: 1-13) uses this story to admonish and encourage the church. It can happen to us, he warns. But remember, “God will never let you down. So when you see people reducing God to something they can use or control, get out of their company as fast as you can” he admonishes. Our spiritual health depends on serving God not on having God serve us. The reversal of that understanding was the deadly sin of the Israelites.
If there is anything we should remember, it is that the Israelite story is also our story. It’s a messy business! God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus has promised us also a Promised Land of full reconciliation with God. But it is a messy business, on our personal journeys as well as our communal journey. There will be times of wilderness, times of testing, times when we go “off the rails” through disobedience and sin. It takes most of us a lifetime
Again to quote Eugene Pederson: “Many of us fondle a romanticized spirituality in our imaginations. The ‘God’s in his heaven/all’s right with the world’ sort of thing. When things don’t go ‘right’ we blame others or ourselves, muddle through as best we can, often with considerable crankiness, and wish that we had been born at a different time. …the Bible nowhere suggests that life is simple. The book of Numbers is essential in training our imaginations to cure some of these less-than-romantic details, the wilderness experiences by which we are formed into the people of God” and mature Christians.
For our hymn of response, I have chosen number 589 in our blue hymnal. My Shepherd will supply my need. It is based on Psalm 23. The Psalmist wrote many Psalms of protest, anger, frustration, pleading, lament and reconciliation. In the beloved words of the twenty-third Psalm, he affirms that in spite of all the messiness of life, God shelters us, nourishes us even when facing the shadow of death, even in full view of the enemy, The Lord is my Shepherd and my shepherd will supply my need. Even in the wilderness. May this be our testimony. Amen