Complainers in the Camp

Numbers 11:1-17

Sunday, September 23, 2012


We all know what it is like to take a long trip. Whether a vacation, a holiday journey to grandma’s house, an extended business trip or an adventure with our church, all of us know how difficult, time consuming and exhausting the journey can be. Likewise, we all know what it is like to get frustrated along the way – whether it is the result of taking a wrong turn, getting caught in a traffic jam or just feeling as though the walls of the car are closing in on us.

I know the feeling too. In fact, one of my enduring childhood memories is of my initial trip to Walt Disney World in Florida. I was about 7 or 8 years old at the time and I was so excited about seeing the Magic Kingdom and Mickey Mouse for the very first time. But, my lasting memory from that trip is the drive down. As a family, we had recently bought a van from one of our neighbors. It was great in terms of space but our neighbors would have never won a good housekeeping award for cleanliness or the Mr. Goodwrench certificate for car maintenance. While we were able to get the van cleaned and all shined up after buying it, I suspect dad never checked underneath the hood with a fine toothed comb and you can guess what happened next. Sure enough, about the time we hit no man’s land in North Central Florida, the van broke down. My dreams of Disney seemed to be quickly vanishing away as we sat staring at the four walls of the local Ford dealership for the better part of the first day of our vacation.

And so it was that the Israelites in the book of Numbers in general and in our passage specifically as they too expressed their frustrations to both Moses and God as they made their own long, arduous forty year journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. The longer the trip lasted, the more manna that the Israelites ate, the more they became frustrated with where they found themselves in life. For many of them, their belief became that life was even better for them as slaves in Egypt than it was now that they were free. As a result, they complained. In fact, they complained a lot. Over and over again throughout this book the Israelites let their frustrations be known.

Now, before we beat up too badly on the Israelites it is important to acknowledge a couple of important facts. First of all, life wasn’t all that grand for the Israelites. Sure, it wasn’t as bad as they made it out to be – and we will talk more about this momentarily – but, it was a frustrating, difficult stretch. They did eat the same food every day, it was a difficult landscape to traverse and they did miss some of the positive aspects of their previous life. As a result, there truly was some validity to how they felt. Second, the Israelites in Numbers were no different than you or I in our life journeys today. All of us reach significant periods of frustration along the pathway of our own lives. This is all together human behavior.

And, this is exactly why recalling the experiences of the Israelites is so valuable. For in remembering their story, we find significant value for our own stories as their example provides us with some valuable insights and guidelines for our own moments when things simply do not go as we would desire and when our great temptation is to stop where we are and to do nothing but stomp our feet and complain.

The first thing that the Israelites remind us is that complaining without also being grateful and thankful is never completely accurate or realistic. Again, as I said a moment ago, the Israelites really did have some difficult aspects of their lives. Their diet truly was pretty bland with only manna to eat. The territory they were crossing really was difficult ground to cover. They really were not completely sure what the future held for them as individuals and as a people. And, this journey that they found themselves on seemed as though it would never end. Think about it, while most Biblical scholars tell us that the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land should have only taken about two weeks, it took the Israelites 40 years.

However, this was only half the story. The other half of their reality was that God was with them every step of the way – as a pillar of cloud by day and as a pillar of fire by night to guide them. God had also delivered them from their enemies. God was providing for their daily nutritional needs through the gift of manna and all they had to do was to go out and gather up the daily food that was provided to them free of charge. Further still, God was leading them toward the Promised Land even if it was not happening according to their desired time table.

For the Israelites to say that life was difficult in the moment was fair. But, for the Israelites to suggest that there was nothing to be thankful for or to insinuate that God had abandoned them or was not meeting their needs was completely false and inappropriate. In the same way, it is one thing to verbalize our frustrations with life from time to time but it is a completely different perspective all together to get into a practice where we talk and act as if there is nothing positive, good or worthwhile about where we are in life or our life situations. Rarely, if ever, are things truly as bad as we make them out to be.

With it being fall and college football season, I have been thinking a lot about a story that longtime Birmingham News columnist Clyde Bolton once told about Bear Bryant, the legendary Alabama coach. Once, Coach Bryant was speaking at a late summer news conference about the upcoming season and was asked by a reporter to predict how well he thought his team would do in the next season. Bryant responded by saying, “Oh, I don’t feel too good about things. If I had to make a prediction right now, I would say we would go 0-12.” “Wow, coach,” the newspaper reporter responded. “That is a particularly dismal outlook, especially in light of the fact that you only play eleven games.” “Yes,” Bryant said, “I think we will probably lose the bowl game too!”

What is even more comical about Bryant’s remarks is that if you are much of a football fan then you know that Alabama under Bear Bryant was kind of like Alabama under Nick Saban today. They rarely lost. Sure, there may have been some concerns going into the season for the coach, but, the truth was that things were nowhere near as bad as he suggested.

The same is generally true for us. It is one thing to suggest that we are frustrated, disappointed or bothered by where we are in our lives. But, it is rarely appropriate to live as did the Israelites as if the whole world is falling a part and we have been abandoned by God. Generally speaking there are always positives in our lives, there are always good things to celebrate, there is always some meaningful element to point to. And, as people of faith, we should always be able to embrace the good and affirm God’s presence and gifts no matter where we find ourselves.

The second thing that the Israelites remind us of is the fact that if we are willing to complain about what is wrong we also must be willing to be a part of doing what is right as we seek a solution. This text ends with a very crucial scene. Moses, feeling overwhelmed by the concerns of the people in the midst of their complaints, laments to God that there is no way he can do everything that needs to be done and make everyone happy. In response, God gives Moses some very sage advice. If the people are going to air their grievances then Moses should invite them to also help solve the problems. In other words, their concerns were not Moses problems to fix on his own. If the Israelites could identify the problem then they should help find the solution.

We need to all hear this word well for God’s suggestion to Moses remains valuable instruction for each of us. If we are going to complain and if we are going to point out what is wrong – whether at home, at work, in the community or even at church, we must also be willing to offer up our help in rectifying the problem. No one likes or listens to someone who only complains and never volunteers to help.

I love the true story of George Washington who took a walk one morning around his encampment of soldiers during the American Revolution. It was in the dead of winter and since Washington had his coat pulled up almost over his face, he was not quickly recognizable.

As he surveyed the camp, he noticed that one of his corporals was really letting his direct reports have an ear full. They were not working as fast as he thought they should on a building project and he was making sure they knew how he felt. But, as he watched, it appeared to Washington that the men were working hard. In his mind, the real issue seemed to be that they had too few workers. Shortly, Washington himself walked over, got involved and helped the men move a rather heavy log with which they were struggling.

When he finished, he walked over to the corporal who had been doing all of the yelling and asked, “Why didn’t you just help your men?” “Why, don’t you see, I am a corporal,” came the man’s reply. At this point, Washington revealed his true identity and said, “Well, in that case, the next time you have a heavy log that needs lifting, send for me.”

Without a doubt, complaining is simply a part of life. Yet as we face our own frustrations and difficult moments, may we also remember that there is still much to be grateful for and may we also never forget that if we can complain, we can also help solve the problem. Amen.