Psalm 95 – Worship and Whining

Psalm 95 verse 4, by Cecelia Nedlin

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;
    let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before him with thanksgiving
    and extol him with music and song.

For the Lord is the great God,
    the great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth,
    and the mountain peaks belong to him.
The sea is his, for he made it,
    and his hands formed the dry land.

Come, let us bow down in worship,
    let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;
for he is our God
    and we are the people of his pasture,
    the flock under his care.

Today, if only you would hear his voice,
“Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
    as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested me;
    they tried me, though they had seen what I did.
For forty years I was angry with that generation;
    I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray,
    and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
    ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”
(New International Version)

Revelation and Response

Praise and thanksgiving. Complaining and grumbling. These two sets of words are antithetical to each other. Yet, out of the same mouth can come both worship and whining. Maybe the psalmist was trying to teach us a thing or two by inviting us to sing and bow to the Lord, as well as hear God’s voice.

Worship and listening are meant to go hand in hand. Revelation and response are to be the spiritual rhythm of the believer. True worship is a divine conversation between us and God. The Lord speaks. We listen and answer. Back and forth we go together. God and God’s people are in dialogue.

When the worship rhythm is off, then our response will be off. And that is what happened to the ancient Israelites. They were miraculously delivered from their cruel bondage in Egypt. You can imagine the kind of praise and worship service the people had in the desert! After four-hundred years of slavery, freedom!

The Rhythm is Off

Before you know it, the thanksgiving turned sour into grumbling. At the first instance of adversity, when there was no water to drink, it was as if the people had some sort of collective dementia set in. Suddenly, hardness of heart. Talk about fickle! One minute hands are raised in praise, the next minute, those same hands clench into fists shaking at God.

The people forgot that this was an ongoing dialogue – not a one and done conversation of revelation and response. God acted by delivering the people. The people responded with praise and thanksgiving. And they didn’t want it to stop. Yet, all of life is a rhythm. What goes up, comes down. Good times eventually fade into tough times. The real muster of any person or group is the response when the hardship comes.

God knew exactly what he was doing. The Lord purposely brought the Israelites out into the desert to face a difficult circumstance. God was teaching them to trust. The Lord wanted a response of faith and prayer to the adverse situation. But the people weren’t looking for a dialogue. They were looking for water. And when they didn’t have it, their hearts hardened through murmuring, bellyaching, and dissatisfaction.

However, God was still in the conversation. The generation who saw the incredible deliverance from bondage would die in the desert, never setting eyes on the Promised Land. And it all began because of grumbling.

Complaining is Unhealthy

We need to take complaining seriously. Why? Because it rots the soul, like Mr. Grinch who incessantly complained every year about Christmas. Grumbling makes one into a Grinch-like creature, like the song says:

You’re as cuddly as a cactus
You’re as charming as an eel…

You got termites in your smile
You have all the tender sweetness
Of a seasick crocodile…

Your heart’s an empty hole
You got garlic in your soul.

It was only when the Grinch forsook his isolation of complaining and began connecting in conversation with the folks in Whoville, that he had his rhythm restored.

The Need for Encouragement

When our rhythm is off kilter, what will it take to get it back? The author of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews helps us here. After quoting our psalm lesson for today, the writer responded to the biblical revelation by saying:

Be careful, brothers and sisters, that none of you ever develop a wicked, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. Encourage each other every day while you have the opportunity. If you do this, none of you will be deceived by sin and become stubborn. After all, we will remain Christ’s partners only if we continue to hold on to our original confidence until the end. Scripture says, “If you hear God speak today, don’t be stubborn. Don’t be stubborn like those who rebelled.”

Hebrews 3:12-15, God’s Word Translation

Revelation and response are the rhythmic dynamism of the Christian community. Lone Ranger Christians are an oxymoron, as well as moronic. We are hard-wired by God for community. All of us need to encourage one another – every day. Without the communal connections of encouraging conversations, it will be difficult to sustain a divine dialogue of God speaking, with people listening and responding in obedient faith.

Celebration is wonderful. We need times and experiences of celebrating deliverance from bondage. Eventually, when Christ returns, there will be unending worship in the form of jubilation. That time is not yet here. This side of heaven, we must learn to engage God in ways which address our hardships and difficulties. Otherwise, our hearts will become stubborn and hard.

Let your heart become open enough to receive encouragement. And let it also be brave enough to encourage others.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you caused earthly pain to be holy. And you gave us the example of obedience to your Father’s will. Be near me in my time of weakness and pain. Sustain me by your grace so that my strength and courage may not fail. Heal me according to you will. Help me always believe that what happens to me here is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God. Amen.

Philippians 2:14-18, 3:1-4 – Rejoicing versus Complaining

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain. But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So, you too should be glad and rejoice with me…. 

Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reasons for such confidence. (NIV) 

Here is a simple observation: Complaining and rejoicing cannot come out of the same mouth at the same time. The two of them mix about as well as toasters and bathtubs. Everything is to be done without grumbling or arguing. Sheer willpower is insufficient for the task. No, instead, you and I need to replace words of complaint with words of joy. Rejoicing is the antidote to murmuring. The world already has more than enough curmudgeons who crank on about everything from politics and religion to the weather and social media. Grumblers seem to always find the negative in just about everything. 

Any fool can complain. It is easy. Joy, however, takes some work. The sage person practices gratitude and joy so that it becomes the default response to most situations. We need more folks like this in the world. For all the talk we hear about how important it is to be positive, it is negativity that sells, wins elections, and moves people. The irony of it all is that a large chunk of people continually grumbles, complains, and argues about all the negativity in the world. *Sigh* 

Complaining and arguing are nasty practices because they breed disunity and division within groups and families. Murmuring only warps the ones who do it and infects others with spiritual disease. Grumbling is always the first building block of a crooked and depraved generation. Conversely, being blameless and pure is winsomely attractive and unites folks together as a cohesive force for the world. Joy inoculates people from divisive pathogens. A people who rejoice together produce generations of individuals who impact their culture with delight and satisfaction. 

Not even suffering and hard circumstances can curtail the comfort and cheer of the joyful. Rejoicing is a way of life – a path which no one and nothing can take away from us. Unwanted situations can be imposed on us, yet a person’s joy cannot be dislodged. Eleanor Porter’s 1913 storybook character, Pollyanna, learned to take such a look upon life from her parents. Even after losing them and being orphaned, she honored their memory by saying, “… there is something about everything that you can be glad about, if you keep hunting long enough to find it.” Pollyanna went on to teach an entire community about her way of life: 

“What people need is encouragement. Their natural resisting powers should be strengthened, not weakened…. Instead of always harping on a person’s faults, tell them of their virtues. Try to pull them out of their rut of bad habits. Hold up to them their better self, the real self that can dare and do and win out! … The influence of a beautiful, helpful, hopeful character is contagious, and may revolutionize a whole town…. People radiate what is in their minds and in their hearts. If a person feels kindly and obliging, their neighbors will feel that way, too. But if a person scolds and scowls and criticizes—their neighbors will return scowl for scowl and add interest! … When you look for the bad, expecting it, you will get it. When you know you will find the good—you will get that…” 

I wonder what our world would look like if we all took such an approach of finding joy in our lives. We are meant to guard ourselves from those who boast and brag, who belligerently bully others with their bellicose blustering and bellyaching.  

We are designed by our Creator for better things. Joy is more than the spice of life; it is life itself. Moving mindfully and without rush through our days, setting aside times for contemplation and rest, offering gratitude to God and encouragement to others, and exploring our own heart’s desire are all ways we can tap into the large hidden reservoir of joy within each of us. 

Complaining is cheap and easy. Joy is rich, full, satisfying, and takes practice to master. Rejoice in the Lord, take joy in the presence of the Spirit, and exult in Christ our Savior. In doing so, we shoo the devil away and create a better society. 

God is good all the time. And all the time God is good. 

O Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You mark out my journeys and my resting place and are acquainted with all my ways. Lord of creation, whose glory is around and within us: Open our eyes to your wonders so that we may serve you with reverence and know your peace and joy in our lives, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

Matthew 20:1-16 – The Parable of the Vineyard Workers

The Red Vineyard by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So, they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So, when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

“So, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (NIV)

We as humans have an innate sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice. We want life to be fair. It disturbs us when there is favoritism, discrimination, and preferential treatment. When things seem askew and others seem more privileged, envy can creep in and settle in our bones.

The envy can go even deeper. For example, is it fair that any child should struggle with health issues like cancer, epilepsy, and mental disorders?  Is it fair to have healthcare disparities? Is it fair to have a spouse taken from you before their time?  Is it fair to lose your job because of a pandemic? Is it ever fair to be treated like a second-class citizen?

Pat answers to people’s genuine struggles will not do, such as “Well, you just need to work hard and hope for the best;” “We have to take what is given us and accept these things;” “Think of all those starving children in India;” or the more crass, “Suck it up buttercup; life was never meant to be a rose garden.”  Those statements simply do not help.

At the heart of envy is the belief that others are getting something that I deserve.

Plenty of jerks have healthy grandkids, grow old with their spouses, and retire in comfort with plenty of money. “It isn’t fair!” we cry.

God does not always operate according to our standards of fairness. God’s very nature is to be generous and full of grace. The parable which Jesus told about the vineyard workers is a story not of unfairness, but a story of generosity and grace. It is all in how you look at it.

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard by Rembrandt, 1637

A normal workday in the ancient world was ten hours, not counting breaks. The workday began at 6:00am. A denarius was a typical day’s wage for laborers. The landowner went out at the third hour, 9:00am; the sixth hour, noon, etc. He kept returning to hire more workers even up to the last hour of the workday. Laborers were always paid at the end of the day. In this parable, the last workers were paid first, which prompted the first workers hired to think they would be getting more, even though they had been promised a denarius. So, they grumbled about not getting more. They thought the landowner was not being fair.

Grumbling. Complaining. Murmuring. It is the bane of our existence. Decades ago, when gas station attendants still filled tanks for customers, I was working at a station and had a lady go berserk on me for not checking her oil and cleaning her windshield, because I did it for the car in front of her. Even though there was a sign right in front of her that said checking oil and cleaning windshields is only done upon request, the lady thought she was getting gypped. 

In truth, the landowner did not cheat or defraud the workers in any way. He paid the agreed upon wage, just like he promised. Should he want to pay everyone the same even though the amount of work was different was his own business. The problem was not with the owner, it was with the worker’s envy of the owner’s generosity toward the others. God distributes gifts because he is gracious, not because we have earned anything.

Our standard of fairness is not the rule of the kingdom of God – grace is.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was physically thrown out of a church one Sunday because of a sermon he was preaching on the grace of God. Afterwards, when Wesley wrote about this to a friend, he said, “There is no Christian Doctrine more repugnant than the affirmation that we are saved by the grace of God through faith.”

Deep down many believe we control our destiny, and that we save ourselves by what we do. We discern that if we serve God all our lives, in the end, God will reward us. We believe that our pious activities, our acts of service and our work for the Lord, will bring us salvation, or, at least a leg up in the kingdom of God over others who have not worked as hard or as long as we have. After all, we do the right thing.

So, what about those who have not figured out Christianity… those who do not have the correct or proper beliefs… or those who have not straightened out their lives? According to a worldview of human fairness, they are out of luck. They should be in church. They should work harder, faster, and better. Then, they could get their lives in order. If they would only understand fairness, we reason, then all would be well.

Parable of the Vineyard Workers from unknown artist in the Middle Ages

But there is a problem, because the parable of the workers told by Jesus seems to be saying that is not how it works, at all.  Jesus seems to be saying that grace and grace alone saves, that God’s amazingly naive and irresponsible grace is available to anyone and everybody. And that troubles the workers to no end. 

Whenever we run headlong into God’s unfair grace and see that God’s way of doing things is so far removed from our way, there is bound to be grumbling.  After all, if God is going to run a vineyard like the one in the gospel lesson and give everybody the same pay regardless of their actual work hours, then what’s the use of getting up early in the morning to work? 

What is the good of sitting in church, listening to sermons from a crazy preacher who is no better than us, if these outsiders, these Johnny-and Jane-come-lately’s can waltz in at the last minute and receive the same treatment as the rest of us?  For many church folks who diligently serve, it is not fair to pay so much attention to outsiders and build ministry around people who aren’t even here, who don’t yet know Jesus.

The conclusion and point of the parable: The last will be first, and the first will be last. In Luke’s prodigal story, the elder brother grumbles and gripes: “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fatted calf!”  It is the firstborn son that complains. (Luke 15:11-32)

In both the parable of the prodigal son and the parable in today’s lesson, “good” people are the ones who fail to see the heart of the Father and of the landowner. The “firsts” got off track because, over time, they forgot the kingdom hinges on grace, not effort, on not simply doing the right things over a long period of time.

God controls the flow of mercy, not us. 

We will likely be surprised in heaven with those already sitting at God’s banquet table, and equally surprised with who is not there. Resentment can move us away from the table of mercy God is preparing. The problem comes whenever we think we are above other people.  We might be sinners, but we are not as bad as some other people are!  We commit ordinary sins, not mass murder!

Here is the unvarnished truth: God does not owe you or I a thing, and God cares about all kinds of people, not just us and people who think and live like we do. Our hearts need to be big enough to center ministry around other people who are different than us.

If our hearts are small, we easily get jealous when God pays attention to prodigals and profligates. Grace becomes too repugnant a doctrine for us.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is about grace. Life is not all about being decent. It is not all about morality, and it is certainly not about our own goodness. The gospel is about being steeped in and surrounded by the grace of God in Christ, so that we, in turn, can show others grace. Grace is the way God deals with us beyond what we deserve or feel we have earned. 

Grace is unfair; we get what we do not deserve. 

May we allow God’s grace to so permeate our hearts and lives so that we will give it to others as freely as we have received.Praise be to you, almighty and everlasting Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In Christ, you have given us every spiritual blessing in heaven. In Christ, you chose us before the world was made. You chose us in love to be your holy people—people who could stand before you without any fault. And before the world was made, you decided to make us your own children through Jesus Christ. It pleased you to do it. And this brings praise from us because of your wonderful grace, given to us freely, in Christ, the one you love. We have forgiveness of sins because of this lavishly rich grace. Thank you, O my Father, for your grace extending to me in Christ! Amen

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.