Tuesday, October 3, 2017

We Had It Better When....

This is a sermon that was preached on Sunday, October 1, 2017 at United Presbyterian Church in Sterling, KS.  Listen to the sermon audio here.

Read Exodus 17:1-7 and Colossians 3:12-17 here.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be…[1]
Nostalgia is a yearning for the past. Reliving happy memories can be fun and even helpful, but it can also get in our way.  In our reading from Exodus 17 today, the Hebrews seem to have some misplaced nostalgia.

The nation of Israel is out in the desert with no water.  Not surprising.  Deserts aren’t known for having an abundance of water.  Lack of water has made the people grouchy, so they quarrel with Moses about it.  “Why did you bring us out here in the desert where there is no water?” In essence they’re saying, “We were better off back in Egypt.”

What’s wrong with complaining about needing water?
Were they really better off back in Egypt?

Let’s talk first about how they got here.  Over the past few weeks, we learned that they were living in Egypt serving Pharaoh as slaves.  The people cried out in anguish, and God heard their cries.  God sent Moses to negotiate with Pharaoh to let the people go.  Pharaoh was a tough customer, but after ten plagues, finally Pharaoh lets them go and they leave…but then Pharaoh changes his mind and sends his army after them.  The Hebrews end up trapped between the army and the Red Sea, so God parts the water and the Hebrews cross on dry land.  And there was great rejoicing. (Yay!)

But that’s not the end of the story. As they’re making their way across the desert, the first stop is at an oasis, a place where everyone can fill up their water jugs….except that it turns out there’s something wrong with the water.  It’s bitter.  The complaining begins.  “Now what are we supposed to drink?”  So Moses asks God for help, and God shows him how to make the water drinkable. That first stop gives us a glimpse of what becomes an ongoing issue for this group….complaining.[2]  God has miraculously brought them out of Egypt and out of slavery, and at the first sign of trouble they seem to have forgotten God.  Their complaining gets in the way of being able to see that God is right there with them.

Soon they are complaining again.  “We need food.”  So God brings them manna.  I love the name “manna.”  It literally means, “What is it?”  Whatever it is, it’s there waiting for them when they get up every morning for the next 40 years, the entire time they are wandering in the desert.  It’s their daily bread, and a daily reminder that God is there with them, guiding them and providing for them.

And everything is lovely and they have a wonderful journey across the desert to the Promised Land…except they don’t.  They get to Rephidim and again there is no water.  So the people complain.  This time, they get so riled up they’re even ready to stone Moses, as if it’s his fault that there is no water there. 
And their complaint includes another now familiar refrain, “We were better off in Egypt.” 
·      They said this when they thought they were going to be killed by the Egyptian army next to the Red Sea and God parted the water. 
·      They said this when they were hungry and God sent them manna and quail. 
And here they are saying it again.

We had it better when we were slaves in Egypt.

When they were in Egypt they knew what to expect.  There was water and food.  They had homes.  But they also had back-breaking labor.  And when they complained about how hard the work was, Pharaoh took away the straw he’d been providing for making the bricks and told them they now had to gather straw as well. 

We had it better when we were in Egypt.

We probably all have favorite verses in the Bible, but what is your least favorite?
What is the worst verse in the Bible?  I’ll tell you what it is for me:
Do everything without complaining and arguing. – Philippians 2:14
Is that even possible?
When I first discovered this verse, I was shocked.  
Does God really mean this? 
Are we really supposed to be able to do this?

We lived in California then, and I was working at a laboratory as an executive assistant.  I hated my job, and I complained about it all the time.  The people were annoying.  The hour-long drive to work through heavy traffic was excruciating.  The work was stressful and boring at the same time.  I’m sure I could find more complaints to remember, if I kept working at it, because I had a lot of complaints.  I don’t think I ever had much good to say about it. 

So you can imagine how much that verse from Philippians got under my skin.

After we had moved away and I had left that job behind, and we were living in South Carolina where I was going to school full time, my perspective changed.  I started to see the good things about that job that I couldn’t see in the midst of my complaining.  At that job I made the most money I’d ever made…maybe than I will ever make.  I had health insurance, life insurance, a 401k, a health savings plan, and a host of other benefits.  I didn’t appreciate any of that until I was a full-time student with none of it, and I began to learn the importance of taking the time to look at our circumstances more carefully and find the things for which we can be thankful.
There were plenty of things for which I could have been thankful, but I was too focused on seeing all the things I didn’t like, instead.
We had it better when….

It’s been said that “Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson. You find the present tense and the past perfect.”[3]

The Hebrews are longing for the safety and security of Egypt, forgetting about the bad stuff, seeing only the good stuff.[4] 

I got into this same mindset about California.  I’d grown up there.  I had lots of great memories there.  I dreamed about going back there.  I wrote stories for some of my classes at Clemson, and they were always set in California…not where we lived, not where I worked, but at the places where I had childhood memories.  The pictures in my mind as I wrote looked like old movies with Los Angeles’ most famous landmarks in the background.  The more I dreamed about it, the more I was saying to myself, “We had it better when we lived in California…”

We went back there twice last year, and we made it a point to go to all the old places, and see as many old friends as we could.  And we got stuck in traffic. We sat on the freeway going 5 mph or less. And we got lost because all the cookie-cutter neighborhoods look the same.  And we started to remember all the reasons we had wanted to leave in the first place.

And we realized that even if we did move back there, it wouldn’t be the same anyway, because it’s not the same as it used to be, but more importantly, because we’re not the same people we used to be.

Ancient philosopher Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” 
Or, as the writer Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.”

The good thing about looking back is that it helps us see how we’ve grown, and helps us understand that we aren’t the same people we used to be.  When I look back at my younger self, I see how negative and judgmental I could be.  I see how much I’ve changed.  I also see how many hard things I made it through, and how God helped me all along the way.

The bad thing about looking back is that it can get in the way of what’s happening now.  We can’t go back, no matter how badly we want to.  Looking back we can see how God was there, but God is also here now in the present and God is doing things we can be thankful for NOW, and if we’re stuck on looking back we miss that.  It would be a bad idea to drive down the road only looking backward.  How far would you get before you run into something? Or run off the road?

God calls us to be thankful people.  It’s why we’re spending six weeks talking about gratitude, and why our theme verse is 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “Be thankful in all circumstances for this is God’s will for us who are in Jesus Christ.”

Being thankful might sound passé or trite.  Honestly, I was concerned that people would dismiss this series before we even started because it sounds too simple to just be thankful.  But then I started doing the research, and I didn’t have to go very far to find some really good reasons for us to work on being thankful.

1. You are what you think.  It turns out that our brains are constantly changing and adapting to what we’re asking them to do.  When we think, the synapses send impulses across the gaps to each other.  When we get into a pattern of thinking, those synapses move closer together to make it easier the next time.  Our brain rewires itself.  So if we’re complaining, it’ll be a little easier to complain the next time.  Or if we’re practicing being thankful, then that’s the new wiring that goes in, and being thankful starts to become easier.[5]  The more we complain, the more likely we are to complain, and the more we are thankful, the more likely we are to be thankful.  So we need to practice being thankful to become better at it.

2. It’s not just about our own brains, though.  Our way of thinking is contagious.  If we are complaining out loud, those who hear us are then more likely to complain as well.  But if we are thankful, they are more likely to be thankful.[6]

We can do our own experiments to see this in action.  Watch what happens as you go through your day and see how one person can change the direction of the conversation by saying something positive or negative.

One thing we learn from reading Exodus and watching what happens with Israel on their journey through the desert is that it’s easy to forget.  They go from praising God and giving thanks for a miracle to complaints and anger, as if God weren’t even there, as if God had never done anything to help them. And it became a habit to complain.
There was a woman once who was an incurable grumbler. She complained about everything.  One day her pastor thought he had found something about which she could make no complaint.  That year, the woman’s crop of potatoes was the best in the entire area. 

“For once, you must be pleased,” he said to her with a big smile. “Everyone’s saying how wonderful your potatoes are this year.”  But instead, the woman scowled at him and said, “They’re pretty good, but now I’ve got no bad ones to feed the pigs!”
It takes practice and conscious effort to get out of the habit of complaining, and remember to thank God for what he has done in the past, and for what he is doing now.  It’s why we keep on having the Lord’s Supper, and saying the words Jesus told us, “Do this in remembrance of me.”  To remember what God has done for us and give thanks.

It’s why we’re going to have opportunities for discussion about this on Sunday afternoons starting today at 2pm, so we can work on this together, and encourage one another and see how we’re doing.

And it’s why I have a gift for you. A notebook. A great way to practice being thankful is to write down what we’re thankful for.  Write something down every day.  It’s pocket-size so you can take it with you and write things down as you see them. Say thanks to God right then for each of these things, and work on rewiring our brains to be more thankful.

I mentioned earlier that the theme verse for this series is 1 Thess 5:18, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who are in Christ Jesus.”  Whenever we are putting our faith in Jesus, we are IN Christ Jesus.  The verses that Diane read for us from Colossians 3 are one of the many pictures in the New Testament of what that looks like.  It tells us we put on a new persona, like putting on a coat, as we allow the Holy Spirit to help us to wear compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

We’ve talked a lot about how Israel was complaining in the desert, and I mentioned that verse from Philippians that says we are supposed to do everything without grumbling or complaining. That’s a challenge to us all to work on that.  But it’s not a challenge to us to point out other people’s problems with complaining.  Instead Colossians tells us, “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other.”  This is about working on our own attitudes, not about pointing out other people’s problems.  We don’t know their situation.

Twice in this passage from Colossians, Paul tells us to be thankful.  “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.” (3:15)

Be thankful for all the ways God has brought us to this day. 
Be thankful for today. 
And keep on looking for all the ways that God is at work in our world today, so we can say thanks.

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col. 3:17)

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