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Deliver Us From Grumbling (Ex. 17.1-7; 1 Cor. 9.24-10.5; St. Matt. 20.1-16)



“Deliver Us From Grumbling”
Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus   

Exodus 17.1-7; 1 Corinthians 9..24-10.5; St. Matthew 20.1-16

05 February 2023



It’s often said that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Make enough noise and someone will pay attention to you, but that doesn’t seem to be what happens in our three readings today. Those who grumble and complain indeed get attention, but not the attention produces good results.

To grumble is to complain in a bad tempered way, making sure that someone else hears how discontented we are. Grumble in the Greek of the Gospel reading is a word which imitates its own sound. It’s γογγύζω, gongudzo. Murmur was the word used in the King James translation. It too, imitates its own sound. Both use a low tone of voice, angry sounding. The New King James Version uses “complain. Sometimes it is quarrel, a loud kind of complaining, again in a bad tempered way. All of that belongs to both the Old Testament and Gospel readings. And in our Epistle Paul warns us against it because it carries deadly consequences.

This was not the first time the Israelites grumbled and complained. In Exodus 15 and 16 we hear them grumbling against Moses. We hear these words:

And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” [Ex. 16.2-3]

And then it happened again at Rephidim when there was no water to drink. They quarreled with Moses, the man God had appointed to lead them to the Promised Land. Moses replied,

“Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”

It was against God that they were really grumbling. They were testing God, trying his patience, like an unruly child who tests his parents’ patience with bad behavior. It had reached the level of a quarrel with shouting, clamor, arguing noisily. Moses gave this place names—Massah, for “a judgment place,” and Meribah, for “a place of strife.”

Through Moses the people put God on trial as is seen by their question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” If God were among them then why did they suffer hunger and thirst? With the business of the manna, the Lord spoke to Moses:

that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not. [Ex. 16.4]

In our Epistle reading [1 Cor. 10.5], Paul writes that God was not pleased with his people because of their attitude and actions. They did not have faith in God’s protection and plan. They believed that God was unfair to them. He had provided manna from heaven to satisfy their hunger but now they were complaining that he had not provided water for them to drink.

Is God unfair? That’s really the question you and I must answer. The workers in the vineyard thought he was. They could be seen as those special workers, those who had been called to work in God’s vineyard, a picture of the kingdom of heaven. We often use these words of Jesus to recruit pastors:

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” [Matt. 9.37].

Some pastors complain that they don’t have as good a situation as others or that they don’t get paid as much as Pastor X down at St. John’s by the Interstate. Perhaps he toils harder and longer and doesn’t have it as good as another, or he has a ministry that he doesn’t really want to have. He covets a better, more fruitful situation. Yet, this parable really applies to all Christians, who are to use their time and talents to bring in fruit for their Master. You, too, have been called into God’s vineyard.

How things happen in the kingdom of heaven are clearly presented here by Jesus. This parable speaks not about the economic realities of the world but of how one gains heaven, how one conducts himself in it here on earth. It isn’t the work one performs. It doesn’t matter whether you have had it harder on the job than others or even how long you worked. It is all about the master’s generosity. For the Israelites it came down to unbelief that the Lord was among them. Moses wrote that the people put the Lord on trial in the person of Moses.

Yet, both these readings focus on grace. Works have nothing to do with getting into heaven. God deals with us in grace, not by merit. God tests us to find out if we really believe it.

The sin is that those who were sent out first compared themselves to those who were sent out last. “I worked harder and longer than those who came last; therefore, I should get more when compared with that other guy.” The first workers thought that the agreement should be renegotiated because they worked all day. They enjoyed the master’s blessing from the beginning. That was what the agreement stated. They would be given what the master promised. Those who get into heaven at the last hour get the same reward as those who have been there all their lives.

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” [Luke 15.1]

Psalm 95 provides a warning for us.

Today, if you hear his voice,

do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,

as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,

when your fathers put me to the test

and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.

10  For forty years I loathed that generation

and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,

and they have not known my ways.”

11  Therefore I swore in my wrath,

“They shall not enter my rest.” [Psalm 95.7-11]

We cannot put God into our debt; that is, we cannot make him owe us something. Everything that we are and have is a gift of his grace. What God gives us is not what we think we have earned, but his grace. It is not a reward that we can get by good behavior, it is grace. A Christian cannot operate on the principle of merit or he is not really a Christian, and yet he may sit in the pew Sunday after Sunday. Even Peter had it wrong when he complained to Jesus:

“See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” [Matt. 15.27]

In other words, “What do we get out of it?” Even on the way to Jesus’ crucifixion the Twelve were jockeying for positions in what they thought was an earthy kingdom. They were grumbling.

Grace is “undeserved mercy.” Undeserved! No one earns it! Grace is the great leveler of all mankind. No one is before another. “The first will be last and the last first.” That’s the way it works in God’s kingdom.

Is there grumbling in the Church? Oh, yes! Paul exhorts us to be like the runner who runs to win the race or the boxer who disciplines his body so that he trains to win. He can’t be merely a shadow boxer.

Paul warns us that we should not desire evil as the people of Israel did. All three readings record the sin. In fact, it has happened in every age. In the verse immediately after our Epistle [1 Cor. 10.6] Paul says that these things are meant as warnings for us not to fall into evil because it is, at the end, grumbling against God himself. This is not the way things happen in the Kingdom of God. It is idolatry, a sin against the First Commandment.

The Israelites numbered 600,00 men when they came out of Egypt. I am certain that there were many distinguished, great men among them. The 70 elders with Moses were there, too. They all witnessed God’s miracles in delivering them. They helped set up the tabernacle where God met with them in the wilderness. And yet, of that vast number of those who came out of Egypt only two who came out with them went into the Promised Land—Joshua and Caleb. Not even Moses himself went in because of his disobedience.

The people of Israel tested God by asking, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Paul makes it clear that he was!

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.

Paul connects passing through the sea to Holy Baptism and the miraculous manna and the water from the rock to the Sacrament of the Altar. That Rock was Christ himself! These are not mere symbols but the reality of Christ’s real presence among his people. To ask if God is among us or not, we need not look far. Here in this sanctuary is the gracious presence of Christ. Here he comes to be among us with his Word and Sacraments. God bestows his lavish mercy on us all. Christ comes to us in his true body and blood, not mere symbols, but truly, bodily, in us. As the yellow pew card quotes Paul, “Christ lives in me” in the Sacrament, an even more intimate relationship than the Israelites experienced. He feeds us with his body and gives us to drink of his blood. He is the spiritual Rock from which we drink. He is the spring of life that never runs out [John 4].

These things which took place in the wilderness are meant as warnings to us not to fall into evil grumbling and complaining, either about God’s providence in providing for our physical or spiritual needs, or about those who have worked but one hour and enjoy all the blessings of heaven. Everything depends upon the superabundant grace of God in Christ Jesus, the spiritual Rock that satisfies all spiritual hunger and thirst. Having faith in Christ, our Rock, we will enter God’s eternal rest.

O God the Holy Spirit, keep us in the true faith and strengthen us to run our race so that we receive the prize, life everlasting!

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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