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Grumbling in the Desert

The book of Numbers describes Israel’s journey through the desert. The Lord guided them from Mt. Sinai to the edge of the Promised Land. We might expect the sound of rejoicing would have filled the camp, but the opposite was true. Everyday the people found a new reason to complain. When our journey is filled with challenges, we can either grumble, allowing ourselves to be weighed down with despair, or we can trust the Lord to guide us through.

Text: Numbers 13:25-14:10

Introduction –

If you’ve ever been the beach, you’ve probably noticed that it takes twice as much effort to walk through the sand as it does to hike along a nice smooth path.

I found this out last summer.  We took a trip to Michigan, and spent time with some family.  One day we stopped at the lake, and after playing in the water for a little while, the more adventurous members of the family decided to go for a hike along the beach.  There were few grown-ups and a bunch of kids, and they were excited to explore.  Meanwhile, the rest of us were already feeling a little worn out, and so we decided to stay behind and relax.  We’re at the beach.  It’s peaceful.  Why not find a shady place and enjoy it?  So we watched as the group followed the lakeshore.  It wasn’t long before they disappeared around the bend.  We waited… and waited… and waited.  After they had been gone for a little while, we decided someone should go check on them.  Instead of following the beach, I found a trail up on the hill, leading in the same direction they had gone.  I thought: this will be so much better.  I’ll be able to cover more ground, much more quickly.  After a while, the sidewalk turned into a dirt path, which wasn’t so bad.  Then a little further on, the dirt path became a sandy trail.  With every step, my feet would sink into the sand.  I was wearing flip flops, which wasn’t helping.  About that time a group of Boy Scouts came along.  I asked them if they had a seen a few grown-ups with a bunch of kids.  No, they hadn’t seen them.  Now I’m really starting to worry, wondering if something terrible has happened, so I pick up the pace and move as quickly as I can.  The muscles in my legs are burning, but there’s no time to take a break.  Finally, I look down the hill and see them.  “Are you guys okay?” I call out.  “We’re fine,” they answer.  “We’re just moving a little slower, because the kids are tired.  But hey, since you’re here, you can help us carry them back to the car.”  When we made it back to the cabins, that evening, we didn’t have any trouble falling asleep.

In the book of Numbers, the children of Israel found themselves hiking through the desert.  They had spent a year camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, but now it was time to move on towards the Promised Land.  We might expect that there would be the sound of singing and rejoicing along the way.  After all, God was leading them to their new home, a land flowing with milk and honey.  But there was no singing, and no rejoicing.  To be fair, the journey was not easy.  They had to trek 400 miles through difficult terrain.  But it wasn’t the sand that made their steps so difficult.  The real problem is that they allowed a negative, grumbling spirit to weigh them down.

Every day the people found some new reason to complain:

“We are so thirsty.  This sun is hot, there is no shade, and we haven’t seen oasis for days.  What are we supposed to drink?  I wish we had never listened to you Moses.  You led us into the desert to die!”  —  God made water flow from a rock.  Still, they were not happy.

They groaned, “We’re so hungry.  When we were back in Egypt, there was plenty of food.  Those were the good ole days, I wish we were still there.  Where are we supposed to find something to eat in this desolate place?”  —  God gave them bread from heaven and quail.  Still, they were not happy.

The people did not trust God to bring them through the desert.  Over and over again, he proved himself faithful, but they continued to grumble the entire way.

It took a couple of months, but they eventually arrived at the edge of the Promised Land.  This was it!  Their hopes and dreams were within their grasp!  It was a momentous occasion!  Moses selected 12 men, one from every tribe, and sent them on a reconnaissance mission to scout ahead.  Go check out the land, he told them.  Find out what it’s like?  Are the crops good?  Are there many trees?  What kind of fruit do they produce?  Will we have to face many enemies?  Are their cities well defended?  Go, find out everything you can.

The spies spent 40 days gathering information.  They traveled from the southern edge all the way to the northern border and back again.  When they returned, the people were anxious to hear their report.  The spies started with the good news: the land truly is plentiful.  We brought back a cluster of grapes with us, and as you can see the fruit is impressive.  But there’s also bad news: the land is full of enemies.  They outnumber us, and they are fierce.  Some of them are like giants.  Their cities are well fortified, with massive walls protecting them.  The bottom line: we don’t stand a chance. We’ll never defeat them.  It’s hopeless.  This journey was a waste of time.  We might as well turn around and go back to Egypt. They complained that their journey had been for nothing, Moses had led them to their doom.  Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, offered a different perspective.  Yes, the enemy is strong, but God will give us the victory.  Don’t be afraid.  Follow God, and take possession of the land.

This was a critical moment.  What would the people do?  Would they listen to the grumblers, and give in to despair?  Or would they listen to the Lord, and keep going?

Like the children of Israel, our journey through life is not always as easy as would like it to be.  There will be plenty of obstacles along the way.  At first, we try to stay positive.  We tell ourselves, “I’ll get through this.”  But then there is something else, and something else after that.  It seems like there is always another problem to deal with, or another challenge to overcome.  Before long, we might start to feel overwhelmed.

You go out to the driveway in the morning, and find out the car has a flat tire.  By the time you put on the spare, you are late for work.  The boss gives you a hard time.  Then at lunch, you spill ketchup all over your new shirt.  The phone rings, and the principal at the school informs you that you teenage son has gotten into trouble, and will have stay over for detention.  By the time you get home, supper is cold.  And to top it all off, you turn on the news just in time to hear the weatherman call for more snow.  “Great, just what I need!  I might as well just stay in bed tomorrow.  Why do bad things always happen to me?”  You’ve probably heard a friend, or a family member, or a neighbor go on like this.  You do your best to encourage them, but they shrug their shoulders.  And there have probably been times when we have found ourselves saying these sorts of things, after a tough week when we are feeling a little beat up by the world.  Others try to encourage us, but nothing they say seems to lift your spirits. It’s one thing to talk to a friend about our struggles and admit: “I’m having a tough time and really need your prayer.”  But it’s very easy to allow ourselves to drift into despair.

We must rely on the Lord, through our struggles, because grumbling will only weigh us down.

Grumbling causes us forget God’s blessings.

Look at Number 13:25.

25 When they returned from spying out the land, at the end of forty days, 26 they proceeded to come to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the sons of Israel in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh; and they brought back word to them and to all the congregation and showed them the fruit of the land. 27 Thus they told him, and said, “We went in to the land where you sent us; and it certainly does flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28 Nevertheless, the people who live in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large; and moreover, we saw the descendants of Anak there.

We can picture the scene.  Here come the twelve spies.  They’ve been gone for over a month.  As soon as they enter the camp, a crowd gathers around them, eager to hear their report.  “What did you see?”  “What was it like?”  “Tell us all about it!”  Two of the spies are carrying a branch on their shoulder with the biggest cluster of grapes you’ve ever seen.”  Someone asks, “Is that the kind of fruit that grows in the land?”  People are reaching out to sample a handful of grapes.  As soon as they bite into it they say, “Wow, that is delicious.  It must really be a land flowing with milk and honey.”  They’re getting excited.  This is what God has promised all along.  But the mood changes instantly, when the spies start to describe the inhabitants of the land.  “The enemy is strong.  They’re warriors are giants, with broad shoulders and bulging muscles.  We felt like grasshoppers in their sight.”    The people forget all about that cluster of grapes, and their hearts melt with fear.

That’s not all they forget.  They don’t remember all of the good things God has done for them. They used to be slaves, but the Lord delivered them from the land of Egypt.  He delivered them from the army of Pharaoh, parting the waters of the Red Sea allowing the Israelites to cross on dry land.  They Lord revealed His glory to them at Mt. Sinai.  His presence filled the tabernacle, and went with them each step of the way.  He led them through the desert with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  God met their needs along the way, providing food and water.  And He brought them to the very edge of the Promised Land.  They were blessed.  Israel’s camps should have been thundering with praise, but instead of focusing on God’s goodness and grace, all they could see were the obstacles in the path.  It was a case of spiritual amnesia.  They couldn’t remember how the Lord had proven himself faithful again… and again… and again.

 

Sometimes we lose sight of the ways that God has blessed us.  God loves us.  His presence is always with us.  If you know Christ as your Savior, you are forgiven and have become a child of God.  The Holy Spirit dwells in our heart, and we are never alone.  God has surrounded us with people who care about us.  He provides for our needs.  There are so many ways God has shown his kindness to us.  Even still, we sometimes forget.

I’m forgetful sometimes.  Charity will send me to the store to pick up a few things.  We need milk, bread, and eggs, do you want me to write it down, she will ask.  But I shake my head.  No problem, I’ll remember.  On the way there I repeat it my head: Milk, eggs, bread… milk eggs bread.  But then I get there, and get distracted.  There’s a sale on cereal.  I wonder if we have any lunchmeat.  I go through the checkout line, and drive home, and realize I forget the milk.

If we allow ourselves to forget the goodness of God, it won’t take long before we find ourselves sinking into despair.  So when it feels like everything is going wrong, take a moment to acknowledge the blessings.

Psalm 40:5 reads, “You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you! I will proclaim and tell of them, yet they are more than can be told.”

Grumbling as a way of infecting the people around us.

Look at Numbers 13:32.

      So they gave out to the sons of Israel a bad report of the land which they had spied out, saying, “The land through which we have gone, in spying it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great size. There also we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak are part of the Nephilim); and we became like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.” 14:1 Then all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night. 2 All the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron; and the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness!”

It only took a handful of people to crush the spirits of the entire camp of Israel.  The spies returned from scoping out the land, and all of them except Caleb and Joshua were discouraged, hopeless, pessimistic, and defeated.  Their attitude quickly spread.  The crowd listened to their sad report, and went back to their tents to deliver the news to the family.

{depressed} “The spies returned.”

{excited} “Oh really, what did they say?”

{depressed} “Bad news, I’m afraid.  They’re saying the land is filled with monsters, and we don’t stand a chance.”

{deflated} “Oh, that’s awful.  What are we going to do?}

{depressed} “There’s nothing we can do.  It’s hopeless.”

{deflated} “What do you mean.  There has to be some mistake?”

{angry} “I said it’s hopeless!  The only mistake was listening to Moses!”

Despair spread like wildfire throughout the camp of Israel.  People were crying.  Their dreams had been crushed.  Others were arguing about what to do.  They were looking for someone to blame, and all eyes were fixed on Moses.  It started with ten of the spies, but by the end of the day everyone joined in on the pity party.

Isn’t that often the case?  Whether we realize it or not, our attitude affects others.  If there is joy in our heart and we are filled with hope, we often encourage those around us.  When you see someone smiling, you can’t help but feel warm inside and before long you’re smiling too.  It’s contagious.  But the opposite is also true.  If you’re down in the dumps or in bad mood we can pull others down with us.  As the saying goes, “misery loves company.”

You come into work on Monday morning ready to start the day.  You co-worker stomps in, and throws her purse on the desk.  “What’s wrong?,” you ask.  “Nothing,” she answers.  Whoa, I think I’ll try to stay out of her way as much as possible today.  Her attitude puts everyone else in the office on edge.  When lunchtime rolls around, you realize you’re in a bad mood, and you don’t even know why.  A bitter, grumbling spirit has a way of infecting those around us.  I’m not saying that we should put on a show, or pretend that everything’s fine when we’re really struggling. But even when life is tough, we can inspire others, with our example. As we persevere, and continue to trust God for the strength we need to get through it, people will see that and it will be an encouragement to them.

I was checking Facebook this week, and I watched a video that a family member posted to update us on her condition  She has been in and out of the hospital the past few weeks, battling through some really tough things.  She is one of the nicest people you will ever meet, but she has gone through so much.  You could see in the video she doesn’t feel well.  Her breathing was labored.  But even still, she thanked everyone for their encouragement and asked us to keep praying for her.  She said, “I hope to feel better soon so I can get out an encourage others.”  I typed, “you are an inspiration.”

Philippians 2:14–15 (NASB95PARA) “Do all things without grumbling or disputing; 15 so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world.”

That’s the kind of influence I’d like to have.  We all go through struggles and difficulties, but as we face those things with faith, we become light shining in this world.

Grumbling makes us doubt God’s ability to take of us.

Look at Numbers 14:3.  The Israelites were spiraling into a pit of despair, and they murmured,

  “Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become plunder; would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt.”

     5 Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces in the presence of all the assembly of the congregation of the sons of Israel. 6 Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, of those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes; 7 and they spoke to all the congregation of the sons of Israel, saying, “The land which we passed through to spy out is an exceedingly good land. 8 If the Lord is pleased with us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us—a land which flows with milk and honey. 9 Only do not rebel against the Lord; and do not fear the people of the land, for they will be our prey. Their protection has been removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” 10 But all the congregation said to stone them with stones. Then the glory of the Lord appeared in the tent of meeting to all the sons of Israel.

We see two completely opposites perspectives here.  The people saw the challenges in front of them and it seemed hopeless.  We’re all going to die, if we try to enter the land.  The enemy is too great.  Their warriors are too strong.  The walls of their cities are too high.  There is just no way we can win this war.  What they were really saying is: we don’t think God is powerful enough to give us the victory.  But Joshua and Caleb disagreed.  Yes, there are obstacles standing in the way, but God is able to give us the victory.  He is more powerful than any army.  He is bigger than any giant.  He is greater than any fortress.  As long as he is with us, we have nothing to fear.

They had seen God do amazing things. When the chariots of Egypt pursued them, after the Exodus, they were pinned in against the sea with nowhere to go.  They thought they were finished, but the Lord parted the waters, so that Israel could pass through on dry land.  After the last person made it safely to the other side, he closed the sea over the Egyptian army.  If God was able to save them from one hopeless situation, couldn’t he do it again?  There was no reason to doubt his ability.

We know that, in our mind, but when we’re facing our own challenges it can be difficult to hold on to that truth in our heart.  We ask ourselves, “What I’m going to do?  I can’t handle this.  I’m not strong enough.”  When we listen to these doubts, our confidence is shaken.  Maybe it’s true.  I’m not strong enough.  I’m not able to handle this on my own. But that okay.  I don’t have to be, because I know my God is bigger than every problem I will face.  It isn’t about my strength, or my ability. It’s about his strength and his ability.

Picture a little boy who is trying so hard pick up a bag of groceries and carry it into the kitchen.  He wants to help mom and put the food away, but he just can’t do it.  Just when realizes it’s too much for him to hand, his father comes along and scoops him up, along with the grocery bag, and carries them both into the other room. Our Heavenly Father does the same.  Ephesians 3:20–21 says, “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, 21 to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.”

When you’re feeling helpless, this is a verse that inspires confidence.  Now and then, we’re going to run into problems that look impossible.  From our earthly perspective it may seem like there is no way through.  It’s a good thing Scripture helps us to look our problems from a heavenly perspective.  There is nothing impossible for God.  So don’t listen to those doubts. Trust in the Lord.

Conclusion –

Sadly, that wasn’t how the children of Israel responded to the challenges that stood before them.  They were ready to go back to Egypt, and picked up rocks to stone their leaders.  But the glory of God appeared above the tabernacle. The people did not want to enter the land, and He wouldn’t force them.  They would have to wander through the wilderness for forty years, until that entire generation perished in the desert.  How sad.  They came so close, but missed out on the blessing God longed to give.  Their children would be the ones to inherit the land.

The NT looks back at this passage and warns us not to follow their example.  They were a stubborn, disobedient, unbelieving people.  Don’t make the same mistake.

One author writes,

“Life in the wilderness, full of trials and hardships, exposes our hearts.  [We are either] hardened by difficulties so that we want to turn back, or [we are] purged by them so that we long all the more to press onward into the heavenly land held out before us. When by faith we look to Christ… we are strengthened to endure the journey of faith marked out before us (Heb. 12:1–2).[1]

There are some days when it seems like we have good reason to complain.  I know.  The last few weeks have not been easy, and I caught myself murmuring.  But despite the challenges, I realize that God is good, and have so many reasons to rejoice.  How will you respond when the challenges of life start to weigh you down?  Will you grumble and complain?  Or will you trust in the Lord to guide you through?

[1] Morales, L. M. (2013). Numbers. In B. Chapell & D. Ortlund (Eds.), Gospel Transformation Bible: English Standard Version (pp. 185–186). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

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