Monday, September 6, 2010

Help for the Road Home: Contentment

Preached Sunday September 5, 2010

Scripture Readings:
Exodus 16:1-36;
Philippians 4:4-13

Winter had arrived. It was the end of the school day, and a teacher was helping a little boy zip up his coat. She explained it this way. “The secret is to get this piece of the zipper to fit in the other side before you try to zip it up” The boy sighed out loud and said, “Why is it that I know how to do all the easy stuff, but all the hard stuff has to be a secret.”

Paul said, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13)

We know about Paul’s life. We know he lived through just about any and every situation; well fed and hungry, in plenty and in want. He had friends who went through some of these times with him. He experienced the presence of the Lord with him when he went through all these things.

But the secret was not simply given to him. The secret had to be learned. And it was not easy. He learned the secret of living in contentment by being fed but also by being hungry; by living in plenty but also by living in want. It was not easy. Why is it that all the hard stuff has to be a secret?

In our reading of the story of Moses and the people of Israel and their God, the word contentment has not appeared. But the word grumbling has: grumbling, murmuring.

This is discontent. God’s people were never contented. Read the story through, from Exodus to Joshua. They were never content. Their story is full of grumbling and murmuring, all the way from their slavery in Egypt to their future home in the Promised Land.

This was the typical attitude for God’s people: fear, resentment, anger, blame, distrust, unthankfulness; all the symptoms of a chronic discontent. This is their story of the road home, and it is not a pretty story.

We are all created to be at home. What we find, though, is that we live in a world that is very un-homelike; where it is easy to be deeply discontented. Human nature has been shaped on the foundation of having run away from home. This is what comes from the original rebellion of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Our real home includes harmony with God, and with others, and with our true self as God created us to be. And so it is the place of the deepest contentment. But by nature we set ourselves at odds in every way against the will of God, against the well being of others, and against our own well-being. This is sin, and this way of life is enslaving, and addictive, and deadly.

Perhaps all the achievements of our world have been motivated by discontent. But maybe there should be another way.

There is a road home. There is an exodus for us that will take us from slavery to home, to God’s country, to life as it was meant to be; to life abundant and life everlasting. The exodus of the people of Israel is only a prototype; a first step. The real thing is Jesus. Jesus is the way. Jesus is the exodus. Jesus is the road home.

If Jesus is the road, then it will be a very good road. But the Bible tells us that it will turn out not to be the road we expected. It will be a road of: “any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty, or in want.” But it will be a road where we will not go alone. It will be a road where we find what we need. And we will find that it is true to say: “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.”

Here is what the road of the exodus was like. God’s people were constantly and faithfully taken care of and provided for; but they could never believe it. God’s faithful care was a fact that they could never hold onto for long. They just could not manage to trust or love the God who led them to freedom. They were chronically discontented.

So they wandered, without trust or love, through a desert where they were free people who were continually enslaved by their own discontent. And sometimes they were fatally enslaved; enslaved to death. This accounts for some of the most disturbing stories of the exodus.

Somehow, in the word of God, the issues of trust and love and contentment are actually issues of life and death. This seems strange to us, but perhaps this is a sign that our priorities are wrong.

There was a miraculous food called manna that kept God’s people going and kept them strong every day of their lives, during those forty years on the road home. Let’s look at some of the lessons we can learn from this miraculous food and from the journey with God where they were strangely fed.

We have to see that God has always taken his people along a strange road on their way home. It has always been this way.

The road home for the people of Israel should have taken them maybe two or three weeks. In the place where we have caught up with them, before the manna came, they had been on the road for a month and a half, and they were nowhere near arriving. They had surely packed wisely for a three week trip, with something extra to spare, just in case.

The reason why the road was taking longer than expected was that Moses was leading them the wrong way. The truth is that he was leading them in the opposite direction of where they were going. This had to be very upsetting to them. How could they be content with that?

It’s true that there was a string of Egyptian fortresses along the direct route along the coast; and there were Canaanite and Philistine cities that stood along the road. It could have led them to war. But what if the Lord fought for them the way the Lord did when he parted the Red Sea and saved them from the Egyptian army. If the Lord wanted to bring them home, why didn’t he just do it?

As I look at the events of the exodus I think God saw the issue of contentment (the contentment that comes from trust and love) as a life or death issue. How could they ever be God’s people without contentment; or without the trust and love that lead to contentment?

Contentment is an ally of faith, and discontent is the sworn enemy of faith. This is the lesson all the way through.

God’s people were discontented because they had carefully counted their supplies before they left the land of slavery in Egypt. And now they were counting the days it was taking to complete the road home. They were counting and calculating every day.

In order to destroy their discontent, the Lord designed the exodus to destroy their obsession with counting and calculating. Their days on the road would run into weeks, and months, and years.

They would have to learn to stop counting the time it took to do anything. They (or their children) would learn to do a thing simply because it was worth doing; not because it was worth their time.

The Lord designed the manna to serve the same purpose. The Lord told them to call it bread from heaven, and it was truly beyond worldly comprehension.

It was crazy food! They learned that you could always depend on it being there when it was supposed to be there; but it obeyed laws of its own that made no sense. You could save it on some days but not on other days. You could slave away for as much of it as you could get, and yet never get more than you could use for a day. We read it like this: “some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, he who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.” (Exodus 16:17-18)

It wasn’t fair. How could it be fair to work harder than the others and have nothing to show for it? Now this is truly a dangerous lesson. The message of grace is dangerous and unfair. In terms of the grace and faithfulness of God we do not get what we deserve, we get far better than what we deserve.

The problem goes beyond economics. We are incurable counters, and calculators, and comparers. And this is not good for us.

Here is a petty example of this from my own life. I mail Christmas cards to many people who never send cards to me. I send letters to people who never send them to me. I visit relatives and friends who never visit me. But do I keep track of any of this? Am I a counter, a calculator, and a comparer? And, is this a good and joyful thing? No it’s not!

The question is whether you will work for something if the count is not favorable to your standard of measure. If someone has had a major surgery I will spend hours on the road for a five minute visit with them; to touch them, and pray with them, in person. I do this because I believe it is important. But, see, if you are a counter, a calculator, a comparer, you might wonder if I am trying to gain some kind of leverage with you or with the church by telling you this. Or you might wonder if I am giving the church the best use of my time for the money I am paid. Sometimes counting and calculating is deadly to the working of the Spirit of Jesus who did not count the cost to set us free.

Once Peter asked Jesus “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me; up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22) That didn’t mean that Jesus wanted Peter to carry a little notebook around with him so that he could count up to seventy-seven. Jesus wanted to destroy the counter and the calculator in Peter, and he wants to do the same with us, because he wants to give us the gift of contentment.

A man had a quarrel with his wife and he was venting his frustration to a friend. He said, “I can’t stand it. Whenever my wife is mad at me she gets historical.” “Don’t you mean hysterical?” “No, I mean historical. She keeps bringing up the past.” Husbands and wives, and parents and children, and brothers and sisters have to learn not to be counters and calculators.

Maybe a boss has to be a counter in order to do justice between his or her employees. Maybe sometimes we all have to count, for the sake of fairness and justice, but homes and communities and churches where everyone is always calculating and keeping count have no contentment and no faith. They are not on the road home.

Paul says “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” (Romans 13:8) How can you calculate love? How can you count it?

Love is work, and love is infinite in its cost. In the exodus, the direction of the road and the strangeness of the manna were designed to destroy all keeping count. They gave everyone work to do, and chores to do, that came down to earth from God, and followed rules of their own that could not be stored away and counted up and measured by earthly calculations. If you count your duties, and if you count your time, and if you count your good deeds, and if you count your work, you are probably not enjoying them, you are probably discontented.

The manna was also designed by God to make his people stop and rest. One of my best friends retired sooner than I though he should, but he had good reasons. There are probably only two reasons why some people don’t retire: one, because they love and enjoy their work; two, because they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they had to stop. It is good to love what you do, but it is not good to not be able to stop.

Babies are loved, at first, not for what they do, but for what they are. As we grow up we grow confused about why and how we are loved. Are we loved for what we do? Are we loved for our gifts and talents? Are we loved for our looks and personality? Are we loved for service rendered in the past? Or are we loved for our own sake?
When we can no longer do anything, when we no longer even know anything, when almost everything in our lives comes to a stop, are we still worthy of love? Are we still worthy of the labor and time of others?

In part we know ourselves through our work. We know ourselves through our interests, gifts, talents, and knowledge. We know ourselves in terms of a personality that we have more or less constructed that may conceal who we really are. We know ourselves in terms of our experience and history.

But there is a sense in which we do not know ourselves from the heart until we stop and rest. If we cannot face ourselves when we stop and rest we are not truly content. All our actions are an escape from our discontent, which means an escape from true faith and love.

Craig Barnes, who is a great preacher and thinker, went through a life-threatening battle with cancer. At his most incapacitated stage he was desperate because he couldn’t fulfill the responsibilities he felt as a pastor, as a husband, as a father. He prayed about his desperation and his sense of uselessness. Then he felt the Lord say to him, “You are too important to be necessary. You deserve to be loved.” It may be that an accident, or an illness, or unemployment, or grief, or some kind of attack, or some kind of failure in life will force us to stop counting and calculating, and to find the love of God that loves us without condition, and without limits or boundaries, as a child of God.

God never stopped taking care of his people in the exodus, on their road home. That road with its strange turnings and strange food was designed to teach them to go forward in a spirit of rest and contentment.

There was the need to go forward. There was the work of trust and love to do. But they needed to learn to stop, and rest, and be content.

The good news, the message of the gospel, is meant to teach us to stop and rest. Jesus on the cross is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. His resurrection is the victory that gives us a new life of freedom; freedom to find our home. Who Jesus is, and what he has done, is designed to make us stop and find the kind of rest we need to go forward.

The people of Israel had to come to the end of their own resources and supplies, so that they could be fed by the bread of heaven, the food of God. The gift of Jesus on the cross and in the resurrection is meant to bring us to the end of our own resources and supplies, so that we can go forward and find a new life fed by the grace of God in Christ. We need to receive Jesus, who is the bread of life, the bread from heaven.

It is not so strange to say that the road home is a life journey that cannot be counted in days, or years, or any amount of effort. It is not so strange to say that our own resources and supplies are not the real food for that road. Jesus is the real food for the road; and Jesus will exceed all our counting and all our calculations. Jesus will outweigh all the sources of our discontent. So it will be true, in the end, for us to say that, “We can do all things through him who strengthens us.”

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