May 23, 2010


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             Did you hear about the circus ringmaster who was approached by a man looking for work?  The man said, “I’m a high-wire artist, and I would appreciate a job.”  Before the ringmaster could protest, the man climbed the ladder to the top of the tent, and then, without a net below, rode a bicycle to the middle of the wire, where he remained stationary and in perfect balance.

            “You guys are a dime a dozen,” yelled the ringmaster up to the high-wire artist.  “I’m not interested.”

            The man got off the bike and stood on his head on the bicycle seat.  “I’ve seen that a million times,” yelled the ringmaster.

            The man calmly pulled out a trumpet and proceeded to play Dixieland tunes while the other circus workers cheered.  Then he rode the bike back to the ladder and climbed down.  “Well?” he asked.

            “I’ll think about it,” said the ringmaster.  “Let’s face it; Louis Armstrong you ain’t!”

            This morning think of God as the high-wire artist, and the Israelites as collection of ringmasters, and you get the idea.  Let me refresh your memory.

            We’ll begin with the Israelites hightailing it out of Egypt.  Pharaoh’s elite army was closing fast, and the recently liberated Israelites had no means of escape.  Terrified, they cried out to the Lord, and then said to Moses, and you can follow along if you like in Exodus 14:11-12,


            Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?  What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?  Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians?”  For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.


            Moses told them to have faith and stand firm because everything was under control.  There was nothing to fear because God would fight for them.  And God did.  God parted the Red Sea and the Israelites walked to safety.  And one would have thought that the parting of the Red Sea would have sealed the deal for the Israelites, but  like the ringmaster and the high-wire artist, apparently gods who could part seas must be a dime a dozen to the Israelites.  And three days later they were once again unimpressed with God and God’s chosen leader, Moses. 

            When the Israelites left Egypt, they carried out unleavened bread, and probably great quantities of water, however, since water is much heavier than unleavened bread, and humans use it in greater quantities than food, they ran out of water before they ran out of food.  Then, parched with thirst they stumbled upon their first watering hole only to find it brackish.  Let’s skip to the next chapter, chapter 15, verse 22, and let the author of Exodus describe the scene for us.


            Then Moses ordered Israel to set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur.  They went three days in the wilderness and found no water.  When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water because it was bitter.  And the people complained against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?”  He cried out to the Lord; and the Lord showed him a piece of wood; the threw it into the water, and the water became sweet (Exodus 15:22-25).


            Wow, if the Israelites still possessed that piece of wood think how much British Petroleum would pay to use it today!  Between this piece of wood and Kevin Costner, they would have the Gulf cleaned up in no time.  Anyway, getting back to the Book of Exodus, the story doesn’t end here.  Not only did they drink to their hearts’ content, but also God and Moses led them to an oasis fed by twelve natural springs and shaded by seventy palm trees!  Surely, the Israelites would get it now.  Surely, the Israelites would be impressed by God’s providential care.  God had not only delivered them from the Israelites, but also from dehydration. 

            They were impressed, but only momentarily.  You see, the food ran out.  That was not too surprising given the fact that travelers in those days figure on forty days of food when they set out across the Sinai Peninsula.  The Israelites had already been on the road for more than a month.  So what do they do?  Pray?  Ask God to provide?  Not quite.  They grumble once again.  Look with me at the next chapter, chapter sixteen, the first verse.


            The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt.  The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.  The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill the whole assembly with hunger (Exodus 16:1-3).


            Funny, how much better things often look with the passage of time.  Suddenly, Egypt had become a paradise with pots filled with meat and all the bread they could eat.  Again God provided for them, this time quail in place of fleshpots and manna in place of bread. 

            The Israelites’ grumbling, however, did not stop here.  They grumbled and mumbled throughout their years wandering in the wilderness, and God, who has a reputation of being slow to anger, finally said, “Enough is enough!”  This time we’ll skip ahead to the Book of Numbers, chapter eleven, verse one.


            Now when the people complained in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes, the Lord heard it and his anger was kindled.  Then the fire of the Lord burned against them, and consumed some outlying parts of the camp.  But the people cried out to Moses; and Moses prayed to God, and the fire abated.  So that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the Lord burned against them (Numbers 11:1-3).


            Prior to this moment, God had bent over backwards, suspended on the high wire, on a bicycle, on his head, playing the trumpet, to supply the legitimate needs of the Israelites.  God provided for their safety by parting the Red Sea.  God turned bitter water into sweet water.  God provided quail and manna for them to eat.  Then, the Israelites went too far.  They crossed the line from legitimate concerns to a negative, complaining, grumbling spirit, and God’s anger burned so hot, it singed the fringes of the camp.

            If you haven’t already guessed, grumbling receives poor marks in the Bible.  God intended us to change things through prayer, not grumbling.  Jesus encouraged us to ask, seek and knock, not grumble, grouse and gripe.  Not only that, grumbling also undermines Christian community.

            I remember the pastor who held up an egg during her children’s sermon.  She said, “The shell of an egg is pretty strong.”  She asked the children, “Why do you think that is so?”  She answered, “It is so the hen can sit on it without breaking it.  Because of its rounded shape, it is quite strong.  So, how do you think a baby chick can peck its way out?”  Again, she answered her own question.  “A chick finds it easy to pick its way through the shell from the inside.”

            She said, “The shell resists pressure from the outside, but from the inside it is easily cracked, and the little chick can get out.  It took a pretty smart God to think of that, huh?”

            She concluded by saying, “In the same way, a church can resist pressure from outside pressure and persecution as long as they hold together in love, but when they start picking on one another, the integrity of the church is easily broken.”

            To guard against becoming grumblers, to guard against destroying God’s family from the inside out, I suggest we work on a couple of things.  First, let’s work on emphasizing what’s right and not what’s wrong, in the church, in our families, really in all of life.

            Let me tell you the headline from The Boston Globe on November 13, 1857.  The headline read, “Energy Crisis Looms.”  The subhead read, “World to Go Dark?”  The reason for the headline?  A scarcity of whale blubber.  Now imagine a husband picking up the paper back in 1857, reading the headline, and saying to his wife, “Honey, we are facing the worst energy crisis in history!”  That seems silly today, but that’s how we often are.  You see, most newspapers, most television news programs want us to believe the sky is falling.  Why?  It sells.  Negativity sells! 

            I love my friend Hank Davidson.  Hank and I have been having lunch once a week for years, and he would never make it as a news anchor or newspaper reporter because he continually focuses on what’s right and not what’s wrong.  Years ago the two of us went on an all-sports weekend together in Southern California.  We flew out on a Thursday morning and flew back on a Monday morning, and while in California we attended a Dodgers baseball game, a Padres baseball game, horse races in Del Mar, the Nebraska-UCLA football game, and a Detroit Lions-Los Angeles Rams football game.  We had a great time together, and each day was an adventure with Hank, even on smoggy, overcast days.  Everything was the best he had ever experienced, even when his beloved Huskers lost to my Bruins!  I remember him saying, “We lost, but it was a great being in the Rose Bowl, and great being together.  I can’t remember when I’ve had so much fun.”  When we got caught in Rose Bowl traffic after the game, and the ended up going in the wrong direction, he said, “This is great!  I’m getting to see more of Pasadena then if we had gone the way he had originally planned!”  When we ended up staying in a seedy motel near the beach in San Diego, Hank said, “Boy, I’m glad our wives aren’t here.  They would hate this place, but think how much money we are saving by staying in a place like this!”  For Hank, every cloud has a silver lining.  Let’s focus on what is right and not what is wrong.

            Second, we need to work on practicing the art of contentment. 

            Before C.S Lewis began writing all his Christian works, he wrote a remarkable little book entitled An Experiment in Criticism.  It’s a book about how to read a book, and in it Lewis devoted a section to the subject of censorship.  He asked, “How do we protect young people - for that matter people at large - from bad influences?”  His prescription was simple: the best cure for bad literature is good literature.

            The same could be said about grumbling.  The best cure for a bad thought is a good thought.  Instead, of complaining about what we don’t have, we can choose to think about all the wonderful things we do have.  I came across of list of some “natural highs” in life.  Let me read them to you.


            Laughing until your face hurts.

            Falling in love.

            A hot shower.

            Hearing your favorite song on the radio.

            Lying in bed listening to the rain outside.

            Hot towels out of the dryer.

            A chocolate milkshake.

            A bubble bath.

            A good conversation.


            Accidentally overhearing someone say something nice about you.

            Finding a $20 bill in your coat from last winter.

            Waking up and realizing you still have a few hours to sleep.

            Swinging on swings.

            Playing with a puppy.

            Making chocolate chip cookies.

            Hugging the person you love.

            Watching a sunrise.

            Song lyrics printed inside your new CD so you can sing along.


            The list goes on, but you get the idea.  If we slept with a roof over our head last night and if we own an automobile, we rank in the top two percent of the people on this planet.  We are extremely fortunate and extremely blessed.  Let’s make sure we act like it.  Amen.