Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Unfairness of God

Below is the message I shared at Good Shepherd on Sunday morning.  I hope you are able to hear God speaking to you through it.  One of the texts for the message is embedded in the message (Exodus 16), but I also used Matthew 20:1-16 - The parable of the workers in the vineyard.  That passage can be found here

Our scripture passages this morning are not paired together by accident.  They share a few common themes.  Primary among them is that they both tell stories about complaining to God.  The gospel passage comes in the form of a parable, but like many parables it isn’t that hard to imagine them playing out in real life. 
            In the gospel passage the workers that have been working the longest see that the master has given those that had only worked one hour a full day’s wages.  The long time workers suddenly expect to be paid more than what they had agreed to.  They are disappointed to receive the same wage as all the other workers. 
            The workers go as far as claiming that the master (God) is being unfair!  Of course he is.  But not to them, all the workers got exactly what they were promised, he is a good master.  His unfairness comes from what he promised to the late-coming workers, giving them far more than they deserve. 
            What I think we need to understand about this parable is that none of us are those first workers.  The ones there from the very beginning, the ones that worked all day through – remember these were 1st century workers, not 21st century ones, there was no lunch hour or 15 minute breaks. - Those ‘deserving’ workers had been there from the beginning with the master and had never stopped working during the day. 
            Can any of us really say that we fit into that category with our master and our God?  I know that I can’t.  So we must realize who we really are in this story – one of the undeserving workers (it doesn’t matter which ones) that are undeserving recipients of God’s grace. 
            When we start looking at and coveting the gifts and blessings that others around us receive, we run the risk of forgetting the blessings and gifts – all undeserved – that God has given us.  The reminder from this parable for us this morning is to trust in the master that keeps his promise to all of us and offers us that which we do not deserve, and not to be so caught up in comparing our blessings or our level of ‘deservedness’ to others.
This morning’s other text, Exodus 16:2-15, deals with another problem and another case of God demonstrating his unfairness for our benefit.  The Israelites are not comparing themselves to other people, but instead complaining about the situation they are in as a result of following God.
To get the whole story of the Israelites, I am also going to be reading selections from the rest of the chapter as well as doing a very quick summary of what has happened in the story so far – a sort of ‘previously on . . . .’ . 
            So the story so far: 
Exodus 1:8 tells us that after the Israelites had lived in Egypt for some time in relative peace, "a new king [pharaoh] arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph." That pharaoh oppressed the Israelites, and their cries for help reached the ears of God.
We read in Exodus 2:24-25, "God heard their groanings, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them." God called to Moses from the burning bush and sent him to demand that pharaoh allow the Israelites to leave Egypt.
A series of confrontations between Moses and pharaoh, in which God demonstrated his power over the Egyptian gods, culminated in the death of all the Egyptian first-born. Afterward, the Israelites left Egypt and began their journey to the land God had promised to their ancestors (Exodus 6:7-8). 
No sooner had the people left Egypt, however, than they began to grumble against Moses and God. When they reached the shores of the Red Sea and saw that the Egyptian army was pursuing, they cried, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?" (Exodus 14:11). As we talked about last week, God intervened, allowing the Israelites to cross the Sea in safety. Exodus 15:1-21 records the people's joyous celebration of their miraculous deliverance.
Only three days later, the people were thirsty, having found only bitter water and they grumbled again, saying, "What shall we drink?" (Exodus 15:24). God provided fresh water and they continued on their journey. And here is where we pick up our reading for this morning:
1-3 On the fifteenth day of the second month after they had left Egypt, the whole company of Israel moved on from Elim to the Wilderness of Sin which is between Elim and Sinai. The whole company of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron there in the wilderness. The Israelites said, "Why didn't God let us die in comfort in Egypt where we had lamb stew and all the bread we could eat? You've brought us out into this wilderness to starve us to death, the whole company of Israel!"
            Did you catch where we are in the time line – the 15th day of the second month.  45 days into their escape from Egypt – even less time removed from their miraculous passage through the Red Sea.  45 days and already the Israelites are drowning in their sorrows.  Less than two months removed from lives of captivity – lives of slavery so harsh and cruel that their children were being killed – and they are already looking back, across the sea to ‘better times’. 
            The Israelites are crying out "If only we had . . ." Words of regret in the present, of fear for the future. "If only . . ." they say again and again.  But just a few short months ago, the Israelites cried out to God in their oppression under pharaoh. God sent Moses, Aaron and Miriam to lead them out of their oppression. God guided them through the first perilous days of their journey to freedom.
God provided water when they felt they could go no further. At every juncture, God was there. According to Exodus 13:21-22, "The LORD went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day . . . and in a pillar of fire by night . . . Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people."  So, when God hears the people’s grumbling it would be very understandable, or we could say fair, for God to be upset, even angry at the Israelites lack of trust, lack of gratitude and lack of, well faith.  But as we continue the reading listen to how God responds:
4-5 God said to Moses, "I'm going to rain bread down from the skies for you. The people will go out and gather each day's ration. I'm going to test them to see if they'll live according to my Teaching or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they have gathered, it will turn out to be twice as much as their daily ration."
            Instead of greeting their complaints with anger, which would have been the expected and ‘fair’ response, God immediately states that he will continue to provide for every need that the Israelites will have – including the need for food. 
But, God makes clear that there is a catch to this provision.  The catch is played out in two almost contradictory ways: first, the Israelites must only take enough manna for that day – they must not store it or try to ‘stock up’ on it.  Second, on Fridays they must collect and make enough to last through the next day’s Sabbath. 
            You see God was calling them to live by faith, trusting in him to continue to provide for them.  We often tend to think of faith as an noun – it is almost like a possession, faith is something we ‘have’.  But this is not the Hebrew understanding or usage of the word.  For the Israelites faith was a verb, an action, something they did.  And God was calling on them to act and live in faith.  God was calling them to actively trust in his unfair provision for them– to live their faith in him every day. 
And that is why every seventh day God commanded that humans stop, individually and as a community and put aside their daily chore of gathering bread, and marvel at God's care for them. In the wilderness, God forged a relationship with the people that called them to trust God to provide for their every need, not just for today, but for tomorrow as well.  Continuing at v. 6
6-7 Moses and Aaron told the People of Israel, "This evening you will know that it is God who brought you out of Egypt; and in the morning you will see the Glory of God. Yes, he's listened to your complaints against him. You haven't been complaining against us, you know, but against God."   8 Moses said, "Since it will be God who gives you meat for your meal in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, it's God who will have listened to your complaints against him. Who are we in all this? You haven't been complaining to us—you've been complaining to God!"   9 Moses instructed Aaron: "Tell the whole company of Israel: 'Come near to God. He's heard your complaints.'"  10 When Aaron gave out the instructions to the whole company of Israel, they turned to face the wilderness. And there it was: the Glory of God visible in the Cloud.
            Moses has Aaron tell the people to ‘come near to God’ because from the very beginning what God wants, what God desires from the Israelites and from us is a relationship. The Glory of God that was ever present with them in the wilderness, a cloud in the daylight and a ball of fire at night.  It was a constant visual reminder that God was, quite literally with them. 
 11-12 God spoke to Moses, "I've listened to the complaints of the Israelites. Now tell them: 'At dusk you will eat meat and at dawn you'll eat your fill of bread; and you'll realize that I am God, your God.'"  13-15 That evening quail flew in and covered the camp and in the morning there was a layer of dew all over the camp. When the layer of dew had lifted, there on the wilderness ground was a fine flaky something, fine as frost on the ground. The Israelites took one look and said to one another, man-hu (What is it?). They had no idea what it was. 15-16 So Moses told them, "It's the bread God has given you to eat. And these are God's instructions: 'Gather enough for each person, about two quarts per person; gather enough for everyone in your tent.'" 19 Moses said to them, "Don't leave any of it until morning."  20 But they didn't listen to Moses. A few of the men kept back some of it until morning. It got wormy and smelled bad.  31 The Israelites named it manna (What is it?). It looked like coriander seed, whitish. And it tasted like a cracker with honey.   32 Moses said, "This is God's command: 'Keep a two-quart jar of it, an omer, for future generations so they can see the bread that I fed you in the wilderness after I brought you out of Egypt.'"  35 The Israelites ate the manna for forty years until they arrived at the land where they would settle down. They ate manna until they reached the border into Canaan.

The manna found in the desert was a gift to our ancestors in faith and it was a test. The gift was food for the journey; the test was of faith in God's promise of good provisions.
God providing the manna and the quail for the Israelites has always been the most interesting aspect of the story to me I have often wondered if there was any way to explain the miracle. 
Well, I was quickly able to find a well documented natural phenomenon that occurs in the Sinai Peninsula (which, as it turns out is located between Egypt and ancient Israel).  A type of plant lice punctures the fruit of the tamarisk tree and excretes a substance from this juice, a yellowish-white flake or ball.  During the warmth of the day it disintegrates, but it congeals when it is cold.  It has a sweet taste.  Rich in carbohydrates and sugar, it is still gathered today and baked into a kind of bread (called mana).  The food, though, decays very quickly and attracts ants and other insects. 
As for the quail, apparently migratory birds flying in from Africa or blown in from the Mediterranean are fairly common and are often exhausted enough from their flight to be caught easily by hand. 
So, you see.  The Manna and the Quail were not really a response by God to the complaints of the Israelites.  Rather they were part of God’s divine plan – from the very beginning – to care for and provide for the Israelites while they labored in the wilderness of the desert. 
If you begin to take away the (quote, unquote) miraculous aspect of this story – God raining down bread and providing quail out of nowhere – the level of God’s provision actually increases and becomes more profound.  In the setting up of the world, he made allowance to provide for His people as they struggled through the wilderness.  At the beginning of time, during the formation of the world God was thinking of His people.  God was thinking of the Israelites and God was thinking about you and me. 
The kind of God that would do that – set up a naturally occurring source of sustenance for the Israelites from the beginning of time.  That kind of God is not a reactionary God, only stepping into our lives or getting involved at the bleakest moments with a miraculous turn.  No the God that would order the world to provide in this way – our God - is a God that is a presence in our daily lives and a God that desires a connection with us every day. 
God doesn’t go about making a show, he has no interest or need with such things.  Instead all that God does, whether obviously miraculous or seemingly ordinary is done because he loves us and is done with the purpose of showing that love and grace and bringing us into a relationship with God. 
With a God like this – one that is so unfair to our benefit, giving us much more than we deserve - the only question that remains is – why would we doubt, why would we worry?  Why would we ever lack trust in a God that not only knew that his beloved people would be hungry and thirsty in the desert, but a God that also was able to provide the food and water that was needed.
We are blessed to live in a world where we are surrounded by conveniences and products to meet ‘needs’ that we don’t even know we have – but yet we are still plagued by worry and doubt about so much.  We wonder how we will get by in this new, more volatile economy.  We wonder how we will continue to pay all the bills when we pay $4 a gallon for gas and the price of everything seems to be rapidly rising. 
We wonder, and in our wondering we eventually find ourselves in the middle of the wilderness.  A wilderness where we are filled with fear, where we doubt that we will be taken care of or that we will make it through this time of trial. We find ourselves standing in a desert, thirsty with no water in sight and hungry with nothing to eat. 
God invites us into the wilderness and allows us to be there so that we can begin to understand his care for us.  Too often in our world, surrounded by all that ‘we’ have made and that ‘we’ have provided we lose sight of God working in the everyday rhythms and patterns of life.  And we begin to see only ourselves. 
God invites us into the wilderness so that we can experience God’s love, care and providence.  It is only in the wilderness of our lives, where our eyes are opened to the needs that we have, needs that we can’t fulfill on our own.  It is in the wilderness that these needs are clearly separated from the passing ‘wants’ that change by the day and don’t really satisfy. 
And just like it was for the Israelites it is in the wilderness that we can most easily and clearly see and feel God’s presence working in our lives and through all of creation. 
The Israelites spent 40 years in the desert slowly learning the lesson of trust in God – They remained in the wilderness until they began to fully trust in God – a whole generation had to pass before that transition could be complete. 
How long are we going to remain in the wilderness of not really trusting on God?  Of wishing for anywhere but where God has placed us?  Of not seeing God working in and through all of creation to care and provide for us?
Manna from God, in whatever form it takes in our daily lives, is God's promise to provide for us; it is God’s promise to give us more than we deserve and be unfair to our benefit; it is up to us to gather the manna during the days it is given and to trust in God that it will be there again tomorrow.  God provides and cares for us always – but often we must go into the wilderness to see it.

1 comment:

  1. it is estimated it would take 300 boxcars full of food to feed them in the wilderness. imagine that. plus the fact their shoes never wore out either.