First Mennonite Church
August 10, 2014
From the Fringes to the Whole Camp
Text: Numbers 11: 1-15
You must have heard the story of Billy Sunday, the Chicago evangelist of the late 1880s and early 1900s. Billy Sunday was born into poverty in Iowa and spent some time in an orphanage. At the orphanage, Billy Sunday got a decent primary education, developed good habits and good skills at playing baseball. Sunday eventually played with the National League Championship. In 1887-88, Sunday was converted. He quitted his professional baseball contract, which paid him $3,500 a year to do ministry at the Chicago YMCA, which paid him $83.00 a month.
Billy Sunday gradually became an evangelist. He was known by the phrase: “Hit the ‘Sawdust Trail’; fall on your knees and receive Jesus Christ as Savior. Then walk out of the revival tent into the streets and get hit by a Mack Truck and go straight to Heaven.” The Sawdust Trail was a wide aisle leading from the front entrance of the tent all the way back to the pulpit where Billy preached.
It was covered with several inches of thick sawdust – which mostly served to keep the dirt down during the hot summer months and to soak up the moisture and the mud when it rained.
Sunday’s formula for a secure salvation, prompted Eugene Peterson to says –
“It’s a wonderful formula for getting to Heaven the quickest and easiest way. And virtually foolproof. There is no time to backslide, no temptations to bother with, no doubts to wrestle with, no spouse to have to honor, no kids to put up with, no enemies to love, no more sorrow, no more tears. Instant eternity.”
However, it is the experience most Christians that once converted there is a journey to travel, full of those challenges and responsibilities Eugene mentions in the quote I just read. Although there is real and profound joy at the moment any person experience salvation at first, gradually the reality of the real world sets in. And every Christian knows what it is like to live the life of faith in this challenging world.
So when the joy and excitement of coming out of Egypt and when the amazement and jubilation of crossing the Red Sea on dry land faded away, the Israelites suddenly realized that the Promised Land was far beyond they had ever imagined. Numbers 11, verse 1 tells us that, “Soon the people began to complain about their hardship.” The journey to the Promised Land demanded far more perseverance, patience, and trust than the Israelite had ever thought it would. The conditions along the way seemed more inconvenient than having a task master whipping their back while they were in Egypt. Their craving for fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic could not be satisfied with manna, no matter how they prepared it.Their dependence on God to deliver them all the way through to the Promised Land required patience and trust. But instead, the people began to complain about their hardship. The Israelites got discouraged at every turn and about everything.
William Ward defines discouragement in the following manner:
Discouragement is dissatisfaction with the past, distaste for the present,
and distrust of the future. It is ingratitude for the blessings of yesterday,
indifference to the opportunities of today, and insecurity regarding strength
for tomorrow. It is unawareness of the presence of beauty, unconcern for
the needs of our fellowman, and unbelief in the promises of old. It is
impatience with time, immaturity of thought, and impoliteness to God.
The passage for today can serve as a perfect illustration on how a marginal item in the life of the church can become a major setback. I mean, not only in terms of progress, or clear direction, but also of spiritual burnout.
So let us take a look at what happened at fringes of the Israelite camp. Read verses 1-3.
- Soon the people began to complain
- And the Lord heard everything they said.
- The Lord’s anger blazed against them, and he sent a fire to rage among them,
- And he destroyed some of the people in the outskirts of the camp.
The situation and context described in verses 1 to 3, sound odd. Out of nowhere there is an outburst of complaints due to the hardship being faced. The location of this complaint happen at the outskirts of the camp. We should remember that while the Tabernacle of Yahweh is set in the middle of the camp, the glory and holiness of the Lord radiated outwards to the extending camp around. But every voice, whether of praise or complaint, was within the hearing range of Yahweh and so he heard the complaint of those even when they were at the very margin of the camp. And his rage rose and brought punishment in the form of fire. Some of the people died and God pruned his people by cutting away those who fail to believe in his deliverance and to rely on his faithfulness.
God also hears our voice no matter how subdued it is when we speak; the Lord hears what we say. And there is a hard truth in this story true even today: complainers do not last long before they are no more around. God will not burn them as he did in Numbers 11, but those who complain normally do not stay for long in the church. But those who are committed and desire for God’s holiness and glory stay around, no matter how challenging life in the camp could be.
But complaining was not all that was going on at the fringes of the camp. There was also craving for something different than manna.
Then the foreign rabble who were traveling with the Israelites began to crave the good things of Egypt. And the people of Israel also began to complain. “Oh, for some meat!” they exclaimed. 5 “We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt. And we had all the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic we wanted. 6 But now our appetites are gone. All we ever see is this manna!”
Israel had love-hate relationship with Egypt. Love-hate relationship can exist in the simplest forms. When we hear about love-hate relationship we easily associate it to couples with ambivalent feelings towards each other in their relationship. A man or woman who has an emotional attachment to the other in the relationship yet knowing that staying in the relationship is hurting him or her. But there are other kinds of simpler love-hate feelings. Take for instance someone’s good taste for chocolate, ice cream, cheese or sizzling steaks. Someone might crave for these things fully aware that he should not eat them for dietary reasons. But there is still yet another subtle kind of love-hate relationship that is not easy to avoid. Let me just ask you: do you like your job or boss? Some might say, “Yeah, I like my job, but….” And there is the “but”! And here’s another question, Do you like your country or living in CA? And again the answer might be, “Certainly yes, I love my country or living in CA, but….! And again there is the “but”. The Israelite people loved the idea of living in the Promised Land, but they did not like having to eat manna all through their long journey. The Israelites hated Egypt and their life of slavery, but loved the onions, melons and the fish. So, when the “rabble” began to crave for good things in Egypt they aroused the Israelites’ desire for meat. Then the whole community began crying for fish and all the garden produce.
This story in Numbers 11 proves to be a critical reminder to us today. Craving for “meat” and the good things of Egypt are ways in which the Israelites despised the provision of God for them. Wanting something other than manna was a way in which Israel demonstrated its rejection of what God had done for them and what he had given them. The rabble might refer to the mixed group of people that came out of Egypt along with Israel (Exod. 12:38). Therefore, it is really interesting to see that beginning with those who lived in the margins of the camp along with those who make up this marginal group, called the “rabble”, their complaint and craving spread out rapidly to the entire camp of the Israelites. Here is another interesting observation: Egypt did have good things to offer after all. The Israelite admitted it and craved for them. And these are the issues we have to deal with today also. First we must be aware that what might be a marginal issue in the church can rapidly become an overwhelming problem. Another warning found in this story is that what could be a concern of a few people within the church can gradually become an issue that affects everyone. Therefore the warning for us as a church that we should not overlook at any issue and say, “Oh, that is not important. It’s not a big deal.”
The other warning we can glean from this passage is that we should be aware that even when there are “good things” out there, they might not be what God wants for us. “Meat” can be various things we might crave for. What are you craving for? What is the “meat” you are desiring for in direct rejection of the manna God has given you? Who is arousing in you those craving? Friends around you? TV ads? Money you have? Time in your hands? For the majority of the Israelites their craving was aroused by those living at the margins both of the camp and of the social makeup within the group. Craving for “meat” is dangerous, not only because it a sign of rejection to God’s provisions, but also because it leads to leadership burnout. Let us see that now.
Read verses 10-15 again.
10 Moses heard all the families standing in the doorways of their tents whining, and the Lord became extremely angry. Moses was also very aggravated. 11 And Moses said to the Lord, “And why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You have laid the burden of all this people on me? 12 Did I give birth to them? Did I bring them into the world? Why did you tell me to carry them in my arms like a mother carries a nursing baby? How can I carry them to the land you swore to give their ancestors? 13 Where am I supposed to get meat for all these people? They keep whining to me, saying, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ 14 I can’t carry all these people by myself! The load is far too heavy! 15 If this is how you intend to treat me, just go ahead and kill me. Do me a favor and spare me this misery!”
Last Sunday I said that complaint and murmuring can easily drain the patience in anyone. Complaint and murmuring can lead to leadership burnout.
In July, a dear friend of mine told me that he had to resign from his pastoral position. He said, “In the congregation there were many who love me and appreciate me and what I did, but there was also a small group which I could not bear any more. Not only did they not support me, but they also caused me great pain.” He resigned after many year of ministry in that congregation. The Israelite complaint made God extremely angry and aggravated Moses to no end. The words of Moses to God are very revealing. “Why have I not found favor in your sight?” Let me tell you brothers and sisters, there is a sense of abandonment for church leaders when things are not going well in the church. It feels like if God grace has been removed away from the pastor and other church leaders. When the church is not growing, when there is conflict in the congregation, when the needs seem to multiply and solutions seem scarce, it does feel like if we have not found favor before the eyes of God. Another revealing truth is that Moses was caught between God’s expectations and Israel’s desire for meat. God gave manna to Israel but Israel wanted meat and they asked Moses, not God.
Manna is God’s food for his people during the journey. God’s Word is our food while we are in the journey of faith. Meat is desirable but the simple exposition of God’s word might seem boring, unappetizing, and sleep inducing. If the sermon would be like a show, it would be appealing. And many prefer spiritual “meat” instead of the simple Word of God. And many preachers get caught in the middle of this dilemma: offering manna, but the people wanting meat.
If we read all the way to the end of chapter 11, we will find that God did give the Israelite the meat they craved for. But while they were still chewing the meat, death came upon them. They died with their mouths full of meat still between their teeth. God’s manna gives and sustains life; all other “meats” bring death.
Let me close with the words of the apostle Peter. 1Peter chapter 1, verse 1-3 say: Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. Amen!
 William Ward, Today in the Word, April 1989, p. 18.