Easter 6: Instead of Grumbling, Pray with Thanksgiving

by Rev. Brian J. Thorson
Lessons: Numbers 21:4-9, 1 Timothy 2:1-6, John 16:23-33
Hymns: LSB 487, 663, 464, 668, 548

It is sometimes difficult to comprehend the vast amount to time the Old Testament era covers. It covers a timespan of at least 4000 years. Today’s Old Testament lesson takes place during the 1400s B.C. I’d like to give some context. Abraham and Sarah had a son named Isaac. Isaac and Rebecca had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau’s descendants became known as the Edomites, which we will hear about in a little bit.

Jacob’s descendants become known as the Israelites. Jacob had 12 sons and a daughter. His favorite was Joseph, who is one of the youngest. When Joseph was 17, he was sold by his brothers and they told their father he was dead. Twenty-two years later, they are finally reunited in Egypt during the seven years of famine. Israel moves to Egypt, for Joseph can supply for their needs. After all, Joseph had risen to second in command of all of Egypt.

Could you imagine knowing for 22 years that your son is dead, only to learn he is alive all along? Could you imagine living with the lies that you told your father concerning your brother and concealing them for 22 years? Could you image being Joseph and living a new life in Egypt, not knowing what the future will bring or if you’ll ever see your family again? Yet they all persevere during those 22 years.

We are two months into dealing with COVID-19 and we are tired of it and ready to move on. And so we plead to God in prayer that He will remove this pestilence from among us.

The Israelites remain in Egypt for 430 years. To put that into perspective, 430 years ago was 1590, a time in which there were no permanent European settlements north of Florida.

To release the Israelites from the Egyptians, God raises up Moses. Yet they do not enter the Promised Land for 40 years! Due to their sin, they wander in the wilderness for 40 years before they can own their own land and live in freedom.

Do we have it in us to preserve and exercise that kind of patience?

Yet, they had much difficulty in remaining focused on their destination, which flowed with milk and honey. As we heard in the first verse of our Old Testament lesson, the people became impatient on the way. Part of the reason is that they had to go around the land of Edom. Remember, these are the next closest relatives to the Israelites. Yet, they are unwilling to let the Israelites pass through. So, the Israelites must go around.

They do so with grumbling and complaining. They speak against God and Moses, saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There’s no food or water and we loathe this worthless manna.”

How often do we stare at cupboards, refrigerators, and freezers full of food, thinking, “What’s there to eat?” We want it to be quick and easy. Or we are looking for comfort food instead of nutritious options. Or we simply want a roasted chicken to come flying into our mouths.

When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we are praying that we would realize that God provides for all that we need to support our bodies and lives. We also learn to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.

You see, God teaches us to pray not only to make requests, but also He teaches us to pray with thanksgiving, as we heard in our Epistle. We are to give thanks to the Lord continually for all His benefits. He supplies our needs. He sent us His Son as our Savior. He gives us everlasting life. For all this, our mouths should constantly be speaking words of thanksgiving to our loving Savior, Jesus.

Yet, we find ourselves like the Israelites who saw the wonderful works of God and still grumbled and complained. Here God had rescued them from slavery and was bringing them into the Promised Land. And they were ungrateful!

We are in a similar situation. Like the Israelites, we were once in bondage. We were once slaves to our sin. We born blind, dead, and enemies of God. And God rescued us from our slavery through the waters of Holy Baptism. He called us to be His own. He freed so that we stand before God as His forgiven children. He added us to His family. And as our Heavenly Father, He takes care of all our needs.

Just as the Israelites wandered without a permanent home for many years, so also the Scriptures call us Christians sojourners and exiles. We heard that reading two weeks ago from 1 Peter 2:11. This fallen world is not our permanent home. We are strangers, living in a foreign land. Our time here is temporary. And God is with us throughout our time here. He loves us. He guides us. He protects us.

He even chastens us, as it is written (Hebrews 12:6), “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” God does not do this arbitrarily or without reason. He brings it about to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. It is written (Hebrews 12:10-11), God “disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

Throughout the Old Testament, we hear of examples when God chose to discipline His people. His aim was always to bring them to repentance, guide them to focus on the Messiah, and ultimately grant them the gift of eternal life.

When the Israelites grumbled and complained against God because they could not pass through the land of Edom, God brought about a punishment. He sent venomous snakes which bit and killed some of the Israelites.

While this may seem extreme, just think about it. Here God was guiding His people and protecting them. He was preventing their clothing from wearing out during those 40 years. He was feeding them bread from heaven (manna). He was teaching them His ways. And for all this, they grumbled and complained.

And, of course, God had a plan and purpose in sending these fiery serpents. The people were drawn to the Lord. They repented for their sins of grumbling and speaking against the Lord. They turned to God in prayer. They asked Moses to pray for them, that God would take those nasty serpents away.

It is my sincere hope that you have all been drawn closer to the Lord during this outbreak of the novel coronavirus. God is certainly using this as a time for you to turn to the Lord, repenting of your sins of trusting in your possessions, grumbling and complaining, and speaking against the Lord. God is using this as an occasion for you to improve your life of prayer and your time in the Scriptures. And for this, we pray to God in thanksgiving.

When the Israelites prayed to God in repentance, seeking that He would take away those venomous snakes, God’s response was probably not what they expected. Instead of driving them away by His divine Hand, He commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. When people were bitten by snakes, they simply looked at that bronze serpent and God healed them.

God provides in similar ways today. Sometimes He chooses to work miracles or He sends His angels to protect His people or He uses His divine hand to end pestilence.

Other times, though, He chooses to work through the means of our knowledge or the skills of others. Look at the great harm polio caused many people and God gave us the ability to come up with a vaccine. He hasn’t taken polio away, but it is now rare. In the same way, God chose not to take the snakes away, but provided for them with a way to heal them instantly.

Over 1400 years after these events, Nicodemus would meet Jesus at night to talk to Him about His work. Jesus would tell Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).

You see, God used the bronze serpent as an occasion to teach about the work of the Messiah. Just as the bronze serpent was lifted up on the pole, so also Jesus was lifted up onto the cross. Just as the bronze serpent was God’s work to heal the Israelites, so also Jesus is God who brings about forgiveness, life, and salvation to all who call upon Him.

Our almighty, loving, gracious Lord invites us lowly people to call upon Him in every time of trouble, to pray to Him, to praise Him, and to give Him thanks. This is an amazing privilege and gift. He promises to hear our prayers and answer them.

And while His way of answering our prayers may not always seem best to us, God knows all things and uses all things for the good of those who love Him. God answered the prayers of the Israelites when they were getting bit by snakes. He used it as an opportunity to teach them about Jesus.

And God continues to teach us about our Savior Jesus, who was lifted up on the cross to pay for our sins and grants us the gift of everlasting life. He is risen and lives to answer our prayers.

So, keep on praying, knowing full well that the good and gracious will of God is always done. Cast all your cares and troubles upon Jesus for His yoke is easy and His burden is light. Pray to God, knowing full well that He will hear and answer everything that you ask in the name of Jesus. He is faithful and He will do it. Amen.  

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting.  Amen