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In evaluating the Exodus text for this day, it is insightful to remember that the Hebrew Bible’s “hymnbook” — the book of Psalms — is filled primarily with two types of songs to the Lord. There are the psalms of praise (such as the glorious Psalm 100 — “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord!”) and there are the psalms of lament, sometimes known as complaint (ya gotta love Psalm 6:3 — “My soul is in deep anguish. How long, LORD, how long?”) I often ask Bible study groups which type they would expect to predominate in the book of Psalms, and the answer is almost always, “Well, praise of course!”
Wrong again, bucko! The lament, or complaining psalms outnumber the praise songs by a considerable margin.
All of which helps us to understand the situation Moses (and Yahweh) are dealing with here. Are the Israelites happy and thankful for all that has happened to them? We are, after all, only a chapter or two removed from the deliverance at the Red Sea and a truly “mighty act of God” in obliterating Pharaoh’s army.
No, true to human nature, they begin to complain and lament — remembering how delicious it was by the “fleshpots of Egypt.” (Not sure that sounds all that tempting to me, but hey — the memory tends to magnify whatever it is we don’t currently possess.)
Of course, this is the setup to the miracle of the manna — I’ve always loved that little word play in Hebrew, the fact that manna means “what is it?” And I suppose there’s something to be said here for the fact that the God who appeared in such awesome power at the Red Sea is also willing and patient enough to bless his grumbling people as they wander in the wilderness.
How long, O Lord, indeed?
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Psalm 105 fits the description (see above) of a psalm of praise; once again, we are reminded of God’s presence in the cloud and the fire. It is a tenacious presence, enduring all sorts of travail and difficulty. It is also a patient presence, enduring all manner of our doubt and sometime faithlessness to feed our bodies and our souls.
Jonah, the pouting prophet, who was upset that God proved to be “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah much preferred the vengeful, angry God who does things like bury horses and riders in the sea!
But, that’s God for you! God was awfully honest with Moses that day at the burning bush: “I AM WHO I AM….” God will be who and what God will be; God always chooses God’s own response. (Exodus 3:14)
And besides, if any of us get pouty and decide we don’t want any part of God’s work of redemption in the world — God can always use a worm instead!
The psalm connects God’s worthiness to be praised with the fact that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
Id est — praise, don’t pout!
Most of us preachers — and, no doubt, most of those who fill our pews — have experienced the dilemma Paul outlines in this text. Some days, we would just as soon cash it in and go on to whatever reward awaits us in the life after this life. That might be relief from pain and suffering, or the joy of hearing the Master’s “well done, good and faithful servant.”
But, as long as we draw another breath, it is apparently more needful that we “remain in the flesh.” Living with Christ in eternity is the better place; however, living for Christ in my present circumstance is my calling, my privilege and the commitment that I will seek to fulfill.
Even if I am prone to the occasional, “How long, O Lord?” (see how handy those laments are?)
There are very few of Jesus’ stories or parables that invade our sense of fairness more than this one. If we are ever likely to join the hearers gathered in the crowd that day in a sputter or a shout, it is after the “punch line” of this jewel of an illustration.
Aren’t there those times when you would like to argue with the text…say to Jesus, “I just don’t think that’s right!” We want to stick up for the poor guys who got in too soon and worked all day on the cheap. And those laggards that showed up and got a whole day’s pay for just an hour or so of work? Who do they think they are?
Well, they are blessed by the generosity of the master, evidently. It is true that everyone got the wages they agreed to, despite what we may think of as fair or unfair.
Again, I refer you to Dr. Chilton’s treatment in the sermon below; he has given us a pretty good payoff line, as well. “God’s generosity is not tied to any of our human notions of fairness or equity.”
How long, O Lord? Hopefully, forever.
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton