Exodus 15:22-27 – On Grumbling

Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.) So, the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?”

Then Moses cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became fit to drink.

There the Lord issued a ruling and instruction for them and put them to the test. He said, “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.”

Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water. (NIV)

I like children’s books. I suppose its because I’m still a kid at heart. It’s fun to read to my grandchildren. One of the books I read to them is “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” The book begins with Alexander recounting when he awoke one morning:

“I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning, I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day…. I think I’ll move to Australia.”

For the remainder of the story, Alexander’s day was a mishap of messes. Nothing seemed to go his way, and no one appeared to notice or even to care.

One of the reasons the book has been read so many times by so many children (and obviously adults, like me) is because we can all relate to the feelings of having a day where nothing seems to go right. In the middle of it we just feel like being somewhere else, like Australia.

In such times, when life is topsy-turvy and upside-down, it is so amazingly easy to grumble and complain. The ancient Israelites were having an Alexander-like day. Unlike having gum in your hair, not having water to drink is a big deal, a vital problem. So, we might understand why there was so much grumbling going on among the people. I am sure they were anxious, nervous, and scared.

Yet, complaining, unlike our emotions, is a volitional response. We choose to grumble. The problem with gripes and complaints is that it sets a person down a dark path. Oh, the criticisms and grievances begin easily and are seemingly harmless, at first. They are, however, anything but innocuous.

A mere grumble under the breath did not stop with finally getting water to drink. If we look ahead in the story of God’s people in the exodus event, the moaning and complaining quickly returned the minute something did not go their way. Then, the people became so disillusioned with their circumstances that they began longing for the “good old days” back in Egypt when they had plenty to eat and drink, forgetting about their cruel bondage in slavery. (Exodus 16:1-3)

The psychological progression continued with beginning to blame their situation on God, as if he were some mean malevolent deity. From that point, it was inevitable that the people would disobey God and eventually succumb to the idolatry of the golden calf. (Exodus 32:1-8)

Despite the grand celebration of leaving Egypt and experiencing a miraculous deliverance through the Red Sea, the people quickly forgot because of their present circumstance of lacking water. It is only logical and makes sense that the mighty God who saved them with incredible acts of power would care for the people in a desert. Yet, for many, there was no faith to be found in a new situation they had not faced before.

Failure of faith begins neither with ignorance nor an egregious sin. It begins with grumbling and complaining. And if allowed to run amok, complaints will bear the fruit of discouragement, disobedience, and eventually a disavowal of God.

The author of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews reflected on the grumbling of their forebears and had this to say in response:

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. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. As has just been said:

“Today, if you hear his voice,
    do not harden your hearts
    as you did in the rebellion.” (Hebrews 3:12-15, NIV)

Encouragement is the insecticide which eliminates the worm of complaints. If left alone, we stew in our own bitterness over missed expectations. Grumbling bores its way into our soul and eats away at our faith. We need the continual encouragement of one another to remember our collective deliverance and express gratitude for our salvation.

May it be so to the glory of God.

We give you thanks, Lord God, because you give food and drink to all, heal all, create wonders in this world, forge wisdom within us, and give refuge beneath the shadow of your wings. From your wisdom grant us wisdom, from your love grant us love, from your understanding grant us understanding. Feed us when we are hungry, give us strength when we are weak, raise us up when we are bent over, set us free when we are enslaved. Just as our spiritual ancestors were blessed – may you grant us the blessing of peace, strength, and gratitude. Amen.

Guilt, Grace, and Debt-Collecting: The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

Parable of the Unforgiving Servant by Nikola Saric
Parable of the Unforgiving Servant by Serbian German painter Nikola Saric

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt, and let him go.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35, NIV)

It is unfortunate that one of the few guarantees in life is that someone will hurt you, and that hurt will tear a hole in your heart and last a long time.

When the hurt comes, we all must decide how to handle the issue of forgiveness. Oh, it’s easy to talk about forgiveness when you are doing fine – its another thing when you are hurt. One man, during a conversation with his Pastor, had this story:

“Nineteen years ago, this guy stole my wife away from me. They got married and moved to Florida while my life unraveled.  After I was arrested for assaulting a police officer, this guy smirked through the entire hearing.  When I was convicted, he flipped me the finger. I’ve hated him for nineteen years. He’s coming up here next week. I have a thirty-two-caliber pistol strapped around my ankle, and when I see him, I will kill him. I’ve thought about it. I’m sixty-three years old. I’ll get a life sentence, but I’ll also get free medical, a warm bed, and three meals a day.  I’m ready to end my life this way.”

We may wonder: “Why even bother to forgive?  Why even care about that person?” Emotional pain and angry hurt can be so deep that we see no need for forgiveness. “After all,” we might reason, “look at what that person has done to me!”

Jesus does not want bitterness to be the last word; he wants it to be forgiveness. The parable of the unmerciful servant is a piece of Christ’s teaching concerning “little people,” that is, people who are, by status, lowly and unimportant to others. The heavenly Father’s heart is one that cares deeply for them. They are lost, lonely, and languishing in pain. They need help. Jesus clearly explained what to do, giving a three-step process to privately go to others who have hurt us and win them back through reconciliation (Matthew 18:15).

The disciple Peter, ever the wondering, if not wandering disciple knows that if a person hurts someone, they might do it again. So, if a lost sheep is brought back to the fold, and then is offensive again-and-again, at what point do we say enough-is-enough and stop forgiving?

We as people can often feel a keen sense of “ought to.” We feel we ought to pay the debt we owe to others, and that others must pay us the debt they owe. This works on the emotional level just as much or more than any other arena of life. If we offend someone and they become angry, we believe we ought to make them feel better.  If someone angers us, we expect them to make it right and make us feel better.

The late Methodist scholar and author, Dr. David Seamands, said the two major causes of most emotional problems among Christians are: 1) The failure to understand, receive, and live out God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness; and, 2) The failure to give that grace and forgiveness to other people. I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Seamands.

We have grace available to us in Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection. We cannot earn forgiveness.  Grace is free.  Equally true is the fact that no one owes us anything.  Grace is free for others, as well.

The Failure to Receive Forgiveness

In the end, was the unmerciful man in Christ’s parable forgiven?… No…. Why not?… Because he failed to understand forgiveness and receive it.  It was not the master’s fault; it was the man’s own fault. So, why did he react so mercilessly to a fellow person in debt? (The man’s debt was in the billions and could not be paid off, but the other man’s debt was just a few dollars). The unmerciful guy failed to grasp the master’s grace; he didn’t get it.  He thought he could work it off, and when the debt was canceled, he could not wrap his heart around such mercy. None of us can repay grace – it is free.

The inability to know and receive grace drives many Christians to the tragic treadmill of constant striving for perfection, achievement, and recognition from others. Many people refuse grace and instead try to get rid of their guilt through endless work – fueling the workaholic, motivating the addict, and animating much of the service done in the church and the world. The problem is not a lack of understanding sin or acknowledging personal sinful actions among Christians; the problem is what to do about it. Too many believers are trying to work-off their debt.

The Unforgiving Servant by American artist James B. Jangknegt

Here is a little test: Why do you do what you do? Why do you do good and right things?  Be honest.  Is it to truly worship and celebrate the Lord who has erased such a great debt of sin in our lives? Or, are we working to pay off a debt to God?  Am I striving to assuage my guilt? Are we searching to feel better through our service to others?

We can be so accustomed to operating according to guilt instead of grace that we don’t know what to with the absence of guilt – so we just go back to guilt as our default setting, like a dog returning to its vomit. Furthermore, the tragedy is compounded by insisting that others operate out of guilt, too.

Another little test: Are we content to simply ask people to help or to serve, or do we believe that there must be arm-twisting with some guilt to motivate them? Guilt and arm-twisting are inconsistent with the gospel of grace.  If we believe we must guilt our kids, family, co-workers, neighbors, or anyone else before they will do anything, then it is us who have a spiritual problem.

Ideally, we live and work out of a sense of gratitude toward God and not by guilt. Yet, there are always folks who continue to work out their unhappiness on other people by insisting they get on the guilt train along with them. We are unable to forgive ourselves, so we live with the guilt and try to pay off our debt, making ourselves and everyone else miserable in the process.

The Failure to Give Forgiveness

The unforgiven are the unforgiving. The reason the guy in the story responded so violently to a person who only owes him a few bucks is because he never really believed he was forgiven by the master in the first place. He could not envision a world in which his debt was paid. The unmerciful man was still operating as though life were a matter of collecting debts.

At the heart of many broken relationships and emotional conflicts is an insistence on debt-collecting. We want from others something they cannot give us. God in Christ erases the great debt we have, not some other person.  Yet, we go out and seek from others what only God provides. People are good at being people – but they make lousy gods. It is God who meets the deepest needs of our hearts – your spouse, children, friends, church, and community cannot do it. That is a job for Jesus. The watershed issue is grace – whether we can receive it, or not.  We cannot give something we have not first received.

It would be weird if a marriage vow went something like this: “I have a lot of terrific inner needs and inner emptiness and debts to pay, and I’m going to give you a marvelous opportunity to fill my Grand Canyon of insecurity and take care of me!”

Sometimes people have a nasty tendency to make idols of other people and look at them as though they owe us a debt of happiness, joy, and peace. For example, the weird marriage vow, if followed through with, inevitably will result in debt-collecting. A few years down the road the spouse says, “This is not what you were like when I married you… You owe me!” Our insecurity comes from the inability to receive grace. It is all about grace. Everything is about grace, not guilt and not debt-collecting because the debt has already been paid and the guilt has been erased.

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled (with the blood of Christ) to cleanse us from a guilty conscience. (Hebrews 10:22)

Conclusion

You and I are forgiven. There is no need to collect a debt which is already paid. The cross of Jesus Christ has taken care of the sin issue once for all, and not one person reading this is an exception to grace. Here is a final exam, to determine if there is someone we need to forgive:

  1. The Resentment Test: Is there someone you resent? Is there someone who has wronged you?  When you see them or think about them, do you have resentment in your heart?
  2. The Responsibility Test: You say to yourself, “I wouldn’t have this problem if it wasn’t for ________.”  This is passing the buck and believing that my happiness is dependent on another person. The truth is that no one is responsible for your emotional well-being and happiness except you.
  3. The Reminder and Reaction Test: Is there someone who “presses your buttons?” This is when we see or talk to a person who reminds us of someone else who hurt us, and we react to that person by transferring our anger and/or pain onto them.

The Pastor responded to the man mentioned earlier who had lost his wife to another man by saying, “Well, I guess it doesn’t matter if you go to jail because you’re already in jail.  The guy who stole your wife and smirked at your hearing isn’t in jail. You are. You are a prisoner of your own hate, and you are slowly killing yourself.”  A week after that conversation the man called the Pastor and said, “You know, I get your point.  I put the gun away.  I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in jail – and I want to get rid of this bitterness.”

The way to do deal with bitterness is through forgiveness. To forgive involves a long journey, just like every other aspect of following Jesus. Hopefully, by retelling the gospel of grace to one another week after week our hearts will be soft.  We will want to begin the journey to forgive others, stumbling forward with hearts torn by hurts, yet set free by grace.

May it be so to the glory of God.

Psalm 66:8-20 – Celebrate

Red Wing Blackbird

Let the whole world bless our God
and loudly sing his praises.

Our lives are in his hands,
and he keeps our feet from stumbling.
You have tested us, O God;
you have purified us like silver.
You captured us in your net
and laid the burden of slavery on our backs.
Then you put a leader over us.
We went through fire and flood,
but you brought us to a place of great abundance.

Now I come to your Temple with burnt offerings
to fulfill the vows I made to you—
yes, the sacred vows that I made
when I was in deep trouble.
That is why I am sacrificing burnt offerings to you—
the best of my rams as a pleasing aroma,
and a sacrifice of bulls and male goats.

Come and listen, all you who fear God,
and I will tell you what he did for me.
For I cried out to him for help,
praising him as I spoke.
If I had not confessed the sin in my heart,
the Lord would not have listened.
But God did listen!
He paid attention to my prayer.
Praise God, who did not ignore my prayer
or withdraw his unfailing love from me. (NLT)

Those of us who utilize the Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings are familiar with having a psalm each day. In addition, the same psalm is repeated three consecutive days, following the pattern of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday readings preparing for Sunday – and Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday readings reflecting on Sunday. The Psalter has a prominent place in the readings because it is viewed as the Church’s Prayer Book.

Within the book of Psalms, we have the full range of human experience and emotion. Much like athletes in weight training putting in their reps (repetitions) so the Christian is to use the weighty Psalms with repeated use for spiritual growth and development. Prayer and praise along with lamentation and celebration are necessary equipment for the strengthening of faith and a healthy Christian life.

Today’s psalm is a song of thanksgiving for the community of worshipers approaching the temple and offering their sacrifices to God. Together as the people of God they proclaim what God has done for them. Through hardship and difficulty, they have realized abundance and joy. Personal witness and testimony are given to the congregation for answered prayer so that all may rejoice together in God’s steadfast and unfailing love.

Expressing celebration is important. Without it, our spirits are famished and find it difficult to be patient and persevere. With celebration, our spiritual muscles flex with joy and are in shape for the trials and tribulations which lie ahead. Corporate affirmation and personal appreciation are meant to work together in a grand profession of faith in God’s good guidance and help.

“Come and listen and I will tell you what God did for me,” benefits both the individual and the group. If all we ever hear and experience is hardship, our faith muscle will be overused and give out. We need stories to celebrate. We have got to hear testimonies of God’s enduring love.

So, what has God done for you? What celebrations do we have today? Are you willing to share your story? Both the smallest and biggest of celebrations are appropriate, along with everything in between.

While writing this at my desk, a majestic male red-wing blackbird perched himself on the bush in front of the window. Being only a few feet from him, I could see his feathers in detail and his glorious preening for the benefit of the females. On a grander scale, I participated today in celebrating the discharge of a COVID-19 patient from the hospital. With the long hallway lined on both sides with hospital staff, the patient left to a thunderous applause of front-line workers needing to express good news as much as the patient needed to receive it. “Let the whole world bless our God and loudly sing his praises.”

May the Lord grant you the answers you seek. May you express those answers with thanksgiving and celebration to others.

Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ has overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant that, as by your grace going before us you put into our minds good desires, so by your continual help we may bring them to good effect; through Jesus Christ our risen Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Psalm 100 – Knowing God

scenic photo of castle during dawn
Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Pexels.com

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
     Worship the Lord with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations. (NIV)

The original use of this psalm was for the ancient Israelites approaching the temple to worship God.  Before worshipers ever came into the presence of the Lord, they were preparing themselves to encounter God through giving him thanks, using this very psalm.

When David and other Hebrew writers penned their poetic songs, they would center what they most wanted to draw attention to in the middle, so that what came before it and after it pointed to that central message. The center of Psalm 100 is verse 3: Know that the LORD is God.

There are three imperatives (commands) that come before this phrase; and, three imperatives that come after it.  All six imperatives are meant to help us know God better. “Shout” for joy to the LORD. “Worship” the LORD with gladness. “Come” before him with joyful songs are the three that lead us up to knowing the LORD.  “Enter” his gates with thanksgiving; “give thanks” to him; and, “praise” his name all come after the central command to “know that the LORD is God.” We belong to God. As God’s people we celebrate this tremendous knowledge with actions meant to impress God’s gracious inclusiveness firmly into us.

There perhaps is no better biblical way to experience God than through these six words: shout; worship; come; enter; give thanks; and praise. Declaring loudly of God’s character and works; kneeling and prostrating before God; approaching God’s throne with boldness; immersing oneself into the presence of God; voicing aloud gratitude to God; and, praising God’s holy name are all heartfelt actions of the faithful. These pious activities are to happen here on earth as they are always done in heaven. It’s what folks with a settled sense of belonging do.

To “know” God is to experience him through close relationship. It means we have a place and a purpose. It is a knowing and belonging which exists deep down in our gut. We get to know God by how he has worked in people’s lives, as well as our own. So, gatherings of believers (whether physical or virtual) are an opportunity to engage in the six imperatives of today’s psalm. Faithful worshipers deeply desire to focus on who God is and what he has done, remembering and rehearsing his qualities and deeds. Through this activity, we help one another know the Lord.  And knowing God is what real life is all about.  He is worthy of all the praise, adoration, and worship we can give to him.  So, let us praise God with heartfelt thanksgiving.

One of my favorite verses in the Bible has to do with knowing God. The Apostle Paul said, “I want to know (to experience with his entire being and not just with his mind) Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” (Philippians 3:10, NIV)

Everything in our lives, whether good or bad, is designed to help us know God better.  Shared experiences with each other encourage us to keep living for Jesus.  So, let us express gratitude today for all the gracious ways God has revealed himself and reached out to save such ones as us.

Almighty God, who works on my behalf, give me grace to put away the rootless existence of one who has no place; and, help me to experience and know your radical acceptance and inclusion into the dance of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Click Psalm 100 (Enter In) for a time of praise and thanksgiving to God.