Numbers 11: 1-35.
There is a lot of whinging in this passage.
Everyone seems to be complaining.
It starts off with the people complaining to God about their troubles.
Then they complain about not having meat.
Then Moses complains about the people complaining.
As a leader I love Moses’ complaints. I think anyone who has been a true leader has spoken these words of complaint at some time.
‘Why are they acting like babies? Why am I always the one to be the bad guy? How am I supposed to sort this all out? This is too much for me? I wish I was dead.’
Anyway back to the complaining.
God sorts it all out by supplying food and supplying leaders. And the leaders do their stuff, and then the leaders complain that those outside the tent are leading and not leaving it to the leaders to lead.
What a mess of a passage.
It also seems a bit frightening.
Here is God punishing those that complain.
Those that complain at the start, God causes a fire to destroy one end of the camp.
Those that complain about the food, God causes to end up with a disease that kills the people too.
Is that meant to be our message?
‘Look you lot, stop complaining or God will punish you.’
A couple of weeks ago one of the less well behaved boys in Zones came up to me and said, ‘Will God punish me if I misbehave? ‘
I looked at that seven year old and said, ‘Yes. In fact it is worse than that. People who are bad go to hell. That’s an eternity of punishment.’
No I didn't say that.
Though to be honest it did cross my mind. As I looked at that boy I thought to myself. ‘If I tell him yes would that make him behave for any length of time? If it did maybe it would be worth it?’
But that doesn’t help us with this passage.
To be honest the punishments are easy to explain. In the theology of the time if it happened then it happened because God was behind it. Either God did it deliberately, or God let it happen.
So people dying? That was either God doing it himself or letting other agencies like fire or disease do it. So either way it was God. So God must be angry with them to let it happen to them.
That is the way the people of that time thought.
Personally I wouldn't think that way. I would see the deaths as indirectly caused by the people themselves. They are complaining, they are moaning. And when your heart is like that you do stupid things. If Moses tells you to do something then you deliberately don’t, just because it will annoy him. You would literally cut off your nose to spite your face.
So if Moses tells me to make sure all lights are put out by sundown, well who does Moses think he is to tell me what to do?
But the safety thing is...that if a fire happens before sundown in a tent, because lit oil has accidentally spilt on the fabric of the tent, then everyone is still alert and awake so people tend to either get out the tent or be rescued.
But if you have kept the oil lamp lit, because you know better than Moses when to blow out your lamp, and everyone in the tent has fallen asleep and the rest of the camp is asleep then by the time the fire is noticed then it may already be too late, the fire might already have spread to neighbouring tents and they are also asleep.
How many die before it is noticed and someone raises the cry for help?
If the whole camp has been on a vegetarian diet for years and then suddenly they stuff themselves with meat then you’re going to get ill. And if they haven’t eaten meat in a long time then do they know how to cook it right, do they know how to store cooked meat right so it doesn’t go off?
And if Moses says, ‘This is how you cook the meat,’ and you don't want to listen to Moses then you say to yourself, ‘How dare he tell me how to cook my meat.’
I suspect it was less God’s anger that killed those people but more their own stubbornness.
But then again...
As I look out to you lot.
As you come up to me and complain about the most silly of stuff.
Why are we doing this?
Why don’t we do that?
Why are they doing that?
Why can’t I do this?
I am so unhappy because someone has done something that annoys me. What are you going to do about it?
I think this is my message.
God doesn’t like complainers. Bad things happen to people who complain to the leaders God has put in charge.
I am the person God has put in charge here.
If you want to complain about something then do so...at your own risk.
Honestly though, there is a dangerous warning in his passage.
But I don't think it is about God punishing us.
I think it is a warning about our hearts.
It is in verse 25. God has chosen 70 leaders to help Moses.
‘Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him. He took some of the spirit he had given Moses and gave it to the seventy leaders. When the spirit came on them, they began to shout like prophets, but not for long.’
Things need to change.
Things always need to change, and even if they don’t need to change well they change anyway.
The truth is that things go well for a while, then life changes.
And when life changes then we need to change, to adapt to the new changes.
Here’s the thing.
We are Moses. We are the Moses’ for our life. And we have all these responsibilities.
And at times we don’t want them.
At times we want to just give up and die.
And then God intervenes for a while and we are like the 70 new leaders. We are full of enthusiasm, we can cope...for a while, but not for long.
Then a new problem arises and we want to give up again.
Then someone says something stupid to us and we can’t be bothered any more.
What do we do then?
Do we just give up?
Do we just walk away?
I would like to give a couple of bits of advice.
The first is that no one achieved anything by just giving up. There isn't an Olympic athlete that at some point just wanted to give up, and persevered when the training was just a slog. There is no World Champion Boxer that didn't want to give up at some point but had to work through the hassle of training.
If the people wanted to reach the Promised Land then they had to persevere.
I’ll tell you the biggest hassle in my head just now.
They have decided to put the whole of presbytery into groupings to sort out the lack of ministers. They have created local areas to discuss locally local solutions to the problem. Our area is called the Hillfoots. It includes Dollar, Glendevon, Muckart, Tillicoultry, Alva, Menstrie, possibly Tullibody and possibly Logie.
This is fine, until you realise that Presbytery is made up of 9 of these groupings and they have to allocate 19 ministers to 9 groups. That is toughly two ministers per grouping. We have to work out how to allocate 2 ministers between all those churches.
I tell you now. We won't solve the problem by just giving up.
We don't solve the problem by wishing we didn't have a problem.
We don't solve the problem by pretending it isn't our problem.
Sometimes, like the people Moses was leading. We get closer to the Promised Land, not by running away from the problems, but by taking one more step towards it.
So we need to just persevere.
The next thing though, is we need to do things that get us closer to God.
I am sure that the problem with the seventy new leaders was this.
They were in their group. They had brilliant ideas. Then they went out into the world they needed to put those ideas into action and they just got sucker punched by everybody telling them that it wouldn't work.
And here’s the thing.
Our enthusiasm is limited.
So we need to do things that will replenish it.
Do you remember that very old children's hymn, 'Running Over’?
‘Running Over, Running Over,
my cups full and running over.
Since the Lord saved me I'm as happy as can be.
My cups full and running over.’
That’s the way it is meant to be.
And that is the way it can be.
But often it isn’t because we take our cup and when we are desperate God fills our cup and it runs over and then off we go and we bless people with that cup of joy and happiness and hope. And every time we do that part of the water goes and we have less and less and eventually we have nothing left in the cup.
The cup is dry.
Two mistakes we make.
The first so that we just sit there and look at our empty cup. And stay there. All dried up and dehydrated. We become prune Christians, all wrinkly. Not an inspiring thing for a Christian to be.
Or, and this is just s bad, we go rushing back to God and get all full up again and full of enthusiasm and then do the same stupid stuff all over again. We are full of joy until we are all dried up again. We are like some kind of schizophrenic Christian, half the time we are full and bubbly and half the time we are angry and frustrated.
That is not the way the song should go.
‘Running Over, Running Over,
my cups full and running over.
Since the Lord saved me I'm as happy as can be, until my cups is empty and I feel deflated and indifferent and why am I the only one who is doing anything?
Until I go away on holiday and recharge my batteries and then I am running over again.‘
God has given us rhythms.
The Sabbath Day to remind us to come back to him.
Times of prayer, times to reflect, times to rest.
We are supposed to be always going back to the well for more. Not when we are desperate, but always.
For some that will mean doing something creative.
The reason I did that cross stitch stuff for the Autumn fayre was because my daughter told me that I needed to get back to cross stitch. She saw I was getting narky and knows that I see a creative God when I a dong something creative. When I don't see a creative God then all is see is waste and decay and things not working.
For others it may be using bible study notes, writing prayers, keeping a blessings diary, reading a hymn before you go to bed, having lunch with someone, going for a walk and just looking at the world around us.
Whatever it is, if we don't replenish the spirit within us then it will dry up.
And it doesn't need to dry up.
There is a Promised Land, a place where we know God is around us, and we get there by taking one more step towards it.