TEXTS: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
“IMPATIENT ON THE WAY”
Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts. Shine through the darkness.
Christ, be our light! Shine in your church gathered today. Amen.
Grace and peace to you my brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace. Amen.
“They set out…but the people became impatient on the way.”
The Israelites had been traveling a great distance and a long time since they left the land of Egypt. It had been a miraculous time filled with amazement at God’s mighty hand – rescuing them from slavery, loaded down with bounty given them by their oppressors, they exchanged the fertile soil of Egypt’s fields for the dry dust of the wilderness. Heading only toward a promise of new life in a new land.
In scripture, stories with wilderness settings should clue us in that this will be a time of testing for both God and the people. Will the people remain faithful to God and live in God’s promises? Or, will the journey cause them to forget and forsake the God who has saved them? Will the God of the covenant remain faithful to faithless people? Even while providing for their daily needs, the journey got the best of them. The wilderness test was getting harder each day as they looked to what they left behind in the past (which, as time went on, the memories became far more rosier than the reality had been.) The people began to look back and turn in on themselves: what they wanted, what they needed; and, as they continued to look in the wrong directions, they were missing out on experiencing what God was doing in their present time.
So, they grumbled against God. They grumbled against the leaders God gave them. They were a miserable lot of grumbling, complaining, ungrateful people. They had lost their focus on the purpose of their wilderness journey. They had lost sight of the promise God had given to them.
“They set out…but the people became impatient on the way.”
Turned in on themselves, they soon turned against each other.
And apparently, God had had enough. Enough of their ungratefulness. Enough of their whining and pining about the “good old days.” Enough of their lack of trust even though their daily needs continued to be met by God’s gracious hand. Enough! They were failing the wilderness test.
Now, this is one of those really tough, scary Bible stories which goes on to say, “Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people; and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” It was enough to finally get the attention of the people to stop their grumbling and repent from their ornery ways! Confession and a request for forgiveness quickly followed. “They cried to the LORD in their trouble and he saved them from their distress; he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction.” (Ps. 107:13-14)
Yet, true to God’s character, “the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Ps. 86:15) God provided a way for healing and salvation. “Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.” (Ps. 107:21-22)
God did not abandon God’s people or forsake God’s covenant promise with them. Wilderness time occurs throughout history and human nature. Jesus was not immune from wilderness testing either. With his very life, Jesus became the One lifted up to bring light and life, hope and healing, for all creation. Jesus is God’s covenant promise – the sacrificial gift once and for all. As he said, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:14) In John 12:32, Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
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Have you ever faced a wilderness time in your life? Even now, as a community of faith in this Interim period, we might consider ourselves journeying through the wilderness. How will we fare the test as a community of faith? Fractured and grumbling? Or, keeping our focus on God’s promise in the One who is lifted up and drawing all people to himself? Is there a sense of “impatience on the way” and focusing in on personal needs and personal issues rather than on the whole people and where God is leading? How is Christ drawing you and others to himself?
Martin Luther defined “Sin” “as being turned in on one’s self.” That’s what happened when the Israelites began to long for the past, living in the memories, complaining about the present and being fearful of the future. It can happen in faith communities, too, especially in wilderness times of transition, hard work and waiting.
“They set out…but the people became impatient along the way.” Though not surrounded by literal serpents, make no mistake, biting words tossed around carelessly or maliciously have just as much poison and potency. Venomous bites of grumbling rather than gratitude, negativity rather than new life, unrealistic expectations rather than energized partnering in reaching out…it happens – and we are not immune from it.
The only antidote is to lift high the cross, to tell of God’s love, to celebrate God’s gift offered freely at Christ’s expense: “for by grace you have been saved through faith, it is God’s gift.” (Eph. 2:5) When we reframe our mission in light of this grace, in light of the cross lifted high in our conversations and activities, the light of Christ shines in us, and through us, illuminating our path along this wilderness journey – it will draw all people to Christ.
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This past week, our Director of Youth & Family Ministry Meagan and myself, along with two other adults from Our Savior’s had the privilege to journey with eight of our senior high youth down to Luther Seminary for two days of classes. (By the way, these classes are open to everyone and we would love to have more adults join us!) For several of these young people, it was their 3rd and 4th time attending seminary classes. For some it was a brand new experience. It is exciting to be a part of their faith journey! It was also exciting to watch them participate in class. As they share traveling, meals, class time, chapel, devotions, laughter and games and ice cream together – we watched them form bonds of friendship and grace. Confirmation classes, other youth activities and an upcoming BWCA trip will also provide the means and grace to learn additional ways of working together, trusting God in new situations, and sharing their faith.
Encouragement and caring for each other builds those bonds so that the light of Christ shines brightly. That light of Christ was shining through our young people this week. It was noted by our hotel desk clerk as well as several seminary staff members. Our adults were told several time what “well-behaved, respectful young people” we had with us. These young people want to make a difference in the lives of their friends and families, their faith community and the world! And, they are doing it!
Parents – you are to be commended; and, Our Savior’s – as a faith community, God has blessed us with the opportunities to provide a wonderful, caring environment for nurturing faith growth for all ages. We need to say, “Thanks be to God!” and tell others how God is working in our midst! God calls us to be partners in this amazing mission!
Grumbling and turning in toward ourselves will not allow us to see or celebrate God’s mercy and goodness here and now. Nor can we offer thanks and praise to God for providing for our daily needs in this wilderness if we are self-consumed.
Wilderness journeys provide opportunities to grow closer together as a community – or to splinter off into separate ways. Stay the course. Keep your eyes on Christ, the One who leads us into light and truth. Trust in God – who has been faithful in bringing you through difficult times in the past and can be trusted to bring you through again. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Eph. 2:8-10)
Thanks be to God for this incredible gift!
Let us pray.
Lord God, you sent Christ to be our way of life. May your Holy Spirit open our hearts and minds to reflect His light. Help us to look beyond ourselves to You that we may shine with your love. Give us courage to refrain from becoming impatient that we would fully trust that You are, even now, already in the future – preparing this faith community as well as the next Pastor, to serve You together in new and exciting ways. Lead us in Your timing out of the wilderness to amazing new opportunities to be God’s people wherever You call us. Amen.