Even though Thanksgiving is about food for most Americans, it tends not to be a time for culinary adventures. Most of us tend to go for the tried and true when it comes to turkey and pumpkin pie. In fact, last week I heard someone describing how the family gets on his dad for experimenting with new stuff at Thanksgiving.
This morning’s story is all about food. But it comes out of the desert wanderings of God’s people. Wilderness and desert do not sound like a context for cooking. By the way, 70 percent of the Bible story takes place in the context of wilderness. But this morning’s Scripture is about creative Israeli cooks who hatched up a dish they might have called “Quail a la manna.” In Hebrew fast-food places, I wonder if they didn’t market mannaburgers. You could get your mannaburgers with or without roast quail.
The Hebrew people are on their long march between Egypt and the land of Canaan. God gives them a wonderful experience of deliverance from bondage in Egypt. They walk through the sea on dry land, while Pharaoh’s army is swallowed up in water. They celebrate with singing and dancing. We read about it in Exodus 15.
But euphoria quickly turns to complaint. The mob of ex-slaves pitch camp at Marah, where the water is bitter. God intervenes and sweetens the bitter waters.
Elim, the next stopping place, is a desert oasis with springs, palm trees and blue skies.
I wonder if Elim didn’t have swimming pools, tennis courts, golf courses, gourmet restaurants—sort of like a Middle Eastern Palm Springs. It’s everything tired hikers in the desert could ask for.
But God doesn’t let the Hebrews settle for long at the resort-like Elim. God makes them move out into the Desert of Sin. What an ominous-sounding name! What a hard place this is, the Desert of Sin! Sun beats down, absolutely no shade to rest in.
Water has to be rationed out. And worst of all, there is no food! “An army marches on its stomach” is an old saying. So no food is really bad news!
Pretty soon, from all corners of the Hebrew camp, you can hear gripe leaders go into action. Instead of cheer leaders, the Hebrews have gripe leaders. Soon, a chorus of complaint becomes a murmuring through the mob.
“Where do our leaders, Moses and Aaron, think they’re taking us? Look, we were at that wonderful place, Elim. Why couldn’t we stay there longer? Instead, we had to march out into this God-forsaken desert, where there’s no shade, no water, no food.”
Some begin to grumble: “Man, remember what it was like in good old Egypt? Remember the meat and fish and wonderful veggies of Egypt? It would have been better to die as slaves in Egypt than starve as free people in the desert. Moses and Aaron have brought us out here to starve to death. Down with Moses and Aaron!”
It’s only one month since the Hebrews saw God beat up on all the powers of Egypt with the 10 plagues. Egypt was the greatest power in the world of that time. But in a contest of power, God wins hands down.
It’s only a month since the parting of the sea. It’s just a month since their great deliverance from Egypt. Only one month is all it takes to start the griping and groaning and grumbling.
God finally spoke through His servant Moses. “All right! All right! I’ve heard your grumblings already!” OK, what Moses actually said on God’s behalf: “He has heard your grumblings.” Three times in three verses, this short sentence: “He has heard your grumblings.”
God then said, in essence, “If you want food, I’ll give you food.” The next morning, all around the camp was heavy dew. When the dew dried, a flaky substance appeared on the desert floor. “Manna,” they said. Manna means “What is it?”
Manna sounds like something a youngster might say when some new food comes to the table. “Manna! What is it?” Among the Hebrews, the name stuck—manna.
Who knows what manna was really like? Maybe it was something like honey-sweetened Cheerios. The Book of Numbers says that when ground into flour and made into cakes, manna tasted like wafers made with honey or like cakes baked in oil. Instead of mannaburgers, maybe they were like manna scones.
Whatever it tasted like, manna was God’s provision for human hunger. It was sufficient and satisfying. Manna was the gracious gift of a good God.
“I am the bread of life,” said Jesus (John 6:48). Jesus is today’s manna. Jesus is the satisfying provision for our hunger and thirst.
But back to the wilderness. That’s where we go again and again in everyday life. So much of human life is lived in the wilderness. When God said they were going to have manna, that’s what they got. Manna on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and on through the week.
And there was enough manna on Friday to last over the Saturday Sabbath so they wouldn’t have to do the work of collecting manna on
I suspect they had manna straight and manna toasted. They had manna cooked and manna plain. Songwriter Keith Green wrote a song about manna.
“And in the morning, it’s manna hotcakes.
We snack on manna all day.
And they sure had a winner last night for dinner—
Flaming manna soufflé.”
But if manna is all you get to eat, and if every day it’s the same menu exactly, you likely tire of it and forget what a wonderful blessing manna really is. Pretty soon, gripe leaders begin to stir up a chorus of complaint again. “Who can live on bread alone? Man, oh man, we remember all the good grub back in Egypt! What wouldn’t we give for some fresh vegetables, even if it was broccoli?”
The Book of Numbers records their complaint: “Now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (
Finally, God said, basically, “You want meat, you’ll get meat! You’ll get meat ’til you’re sick of it. You’ll get meat ’til you can’t stand that either.” Enter the quails! Small birds are brought into the camp by the east wind. They fly low, roosting at night on the ground, easy to capture. In the morning, it’s no sweat to swat a basketful of quail. Then, back to the tents and whatever Jewish mammas could make of a basketful of quail along with the ever-present manna.
Quail was good for a while. People like quail. Doesn’t quail taste something like chicken? People praised God for quail. But it wasn’t long before some began asking if they couldn’t just once have a burger. Or what about some tasty lamb stew or even some leftover turkey and stuffing. But it was just quail, roast quail, quail with manna. And they start to grumble all over again.
So why was it that the people of God grumbled? Why does anyone grumble?
Very simply, we grumble because we forget.
Grumbling Is Forgetfulness
Grumbling for the Hebrews was forgetting how bad it was to be a slave in Egypt. Grumbling was forgetting how much they wanted out of there. Grumbling is forgetting the gracious acts of God to liberate us from bondage. Grumbling is forgetting God’s promise of a new land, your own land. Grumbling is taking our eyes off the hope offered by God’s promises. Grumbling can be selective forgetfulness—remembering only the good in the past and forgetting its trauma. This is like folks who pine for the good old days, forgetting the way it really used to be.
Keith Green has the Hebrews singing in rollicking chorus:
“Eating leeks and onions by the Nile.
Ooohh what breath! Dining out in style.
Ooohh, my life’s on the skids.
Give me the pyramids.”
Grumbling is forgetfulness. Maya Angelou, African-American poet, tells of whiners who would come into her grandmother’s store in Arkansas. Grandma would always quietly beckon Maya to come closer. Then she would bait the customer with “How are you doing today, Brother Thomas?” As the complaining gushed forth, she would nod or make eye contact with her granddaughter to make sure Maya heard what was being said. As soon as the whiner left, her grandmother would ask Maya to stand in front of her. Then she would say the same thing she had said at least a thousand times: “Sister, did you hear what Brother So-and-So or Sister-Much-to-Do complained about? You heard that!” Maya would nod.
Grandma would continue, “Sister, there are people who went to sleep all over the world last night, poor and rich and white and black, but they will never wake up again. Sister, those who expected to rise did not …. And those dead folks would give anything, anything at all for just five
minutes of this weather or 10 minutes of that plowing that person was grumbling about. So you watch yourself about complaining, Sister” said Grandma.
Grandma would conclude: “What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”
Grumbling is forgetting the blessing of life itself and of life’s simple benefits.
Grumbling can become a habit of life. We can make a habit of ignoring or forgetting God’s goodness.
One summer during college, I worked at an overhead door factory in Hartford City, Indiana. It was not inspirational work. One day, I remember spending hours counting nuts and bolts from one bin into another. But it was work! And since I didn’t have to think about my work, I could think about other things. It was a wilderness summer in which I encountered God.
But I noticed at the factory that some workers came to work half an hour early. Why? They came to work early so they could sit and smoke and complain about work. Grumbling had become a habit, a lifestyle of forgetting.
A man and his teenage son were on a fishing trip miles from home. They decided to attend Sunday worship service at a small rural church. As they walked back to their car after the service, the father was filled with complaints. “The service was too long, the sermon was boring, and the singing was off key.” Finally the young person had to say something. “Dad, I thought it was pretty good for the dollar you put in the collection plate.”
Paul writes to believers in Philippi: “Do all things without murmuring [“complaining” in some translations]” Paul uses the same word found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word found in the story of grumbling Hebrews. It’s a word which sound like what it means—gongusmos. It’s like our English word “murmur.” Doesn’t that sound like grumbling?
“Do all things without murmuring,” writes Paul. For grumbling is forgetting. And that goes not only for our relationship with God but also for our relationships with one another. Often, when I murmur about people close to me, it is because I forget the good things in their lives and in our relationship.
One reason the stories of the Bible are written down and included for us is to help us not to forget. In fact, Moses was instructed to take a container of manna and place it in the Holy of Holies for safe keeping. The manna was to be an ongoing reminder of God’s goodness and God’s provision. One reason we observe Advent instead of leaping into Christmas is to help us not to forget. Grumbling is forgetfulness.
But look at the other side of grumbling. While grumbling is forgetfulness…
Thanksgiving Is a Response to Grace
The Exodus was the gracious act of a good and compassionate God. The Hebrews had not earned God’s goodness. They had forgotten the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob while suffering under Pharaoh. But God remembered His covenant with their ancestors and delivered them from slavery. The manna was a gift, an expression of God’s grace. So was the quail. God was graciously providing, though not the way the Hebrews wanted.
God still graciously brings exodus. God still graciously satisfies our hunger. God still graciously feeds us with the Bread of Life, Jesus Himself. Grace is something completely unearned, unmerited.
Thanksgiving is acknowledging that someone has given us what was not our due.
Thanksgiving is recognizing we have been given something not owed us. “But,” someone says: “I’ve been a decent sort of person. I’m a good moral citizen. I believe in God, go to church periodically, put some money in the offering, pray when I think of it. Why shouldn’t God recognize my spirituality with showers of blessings?”
We Americans are big on entitlement. We presuppose that God owes us something or that God is in our debt.
But not so! God’s goodness is never earned. If it were earned, it would be barter not blessing. In fact, sometimes God surprises us in that when we least deserve it, God pours out gracious blessings on us. An entitlement mentality seldom leads to thanksgiving. When we think we’ve got it coming to us, what is there to be thankful for? And why not grumble when we don’t receive what we think we deserve?
“Thankfulness,” veteran preacher Warren Wiersbe once observed “is the opposite of selfishness. The selfish person says, ‘I deserve what comes to me! Other people ought to make me happy.’ But the mature Christian realizes that life is a gift from God, and that the blessings of life come only from God’s bountiful hand.”
Thanksgiving is the response to grace. Thanksgiving humbly acknowledges: “God how good You are to me!” Thanksgiving is responding to God’s grace even in the midst of trouble. “In everything,” Paul wrote, “give thanks.” Not necessarily for everything, but in every situation, give thanks for who God is.
Give thanks even when mannaburgers are boring. Give thanks even when we’re tired of roast quail. Give thanks when Egypt tempts us to return. Give thanks at the waters of Marah and in the Desert of Sin. Give thanks because of God’s grace even in the midst of trouble.
Thanksgiving is a response to grace.
Once after a message, someone asked me a pointed question. “Pastor, how do you live up to your own preaching?” I had to respond honestly: “I don’t always!” And here’s a case in point. Like many of you, this week, I have counted again the tremendous blessings of life. But there are times when I take God’s blessings for granted. There are times when I forget and relapse into grumbling. There are times when I forget that life itself is
a gift of grace. There are times when I forget what God has done in Jesus. How about you?
Avery Brooke offers this straightforward prayer: “I have many things to be thankful for, God. Sometimes I remember them and other times I forget. When something large or small goes wrong, it fills my mind and I forget those things for which—when I remember—I am thankful. Help me to remember the good things, God. To name them, to savor them, and to be thankful to you. Amen” (Avery Brooke, Plain Prayer for a Complicated World).