Numbers 11:4–23 (selected verses) The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. 6 But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” 10 Moses heard the people of every family wailing at the entrance to their tents. The Lord became exceedingly angry, and Moses was troubled. 18 “Tell the people: ‘Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow, when you will eat meat. The Lord heard you when you wailed, “If only we had meat to eat! We were better off in Egypt!” Now the Lord will give you meat, and you will eat it. 21 But Moses said, “Here I am among six hundred thousand men on foot, and you say, ‘I will give them meat to eat for a whole month!’ 22 Would they have enough if flocks and herds were slaughtered for them? Would they have enough if all the fish in the sea were caught for them?” 23 The Lord answered Moses, “Is the Lord’s arm too short? Now you will see whether or not what I say will come true for you.”
Kelseymae is stressed. Her status update says, “My stress has stress.” She got 190 digital hugs, 15 shares, and 129 stars. CarterB is disappointed. His status update says, “The only time this girl ever sits next to me in class is when she needs to copy notes or something. Other than that I sit at the table by myself.” He got 157 hugs, 18 stars, and four shares. Aeright is sad. Her status update reads, “You know the kind of heartbreak where you can physically feel your heart being broken more?” She got 126 hugs, 40 stars, and six shares. That’s how the most popular feed reads on this new app I downloaded called Vent. It’s a well reviewed and popular social media platform where people can – well – vent and get support.
The idea that venting is a path to emotional and spiritual healing has been around now for a little over a century. It was first popularized for us by a guy named Sigmund Freud. He used popular science at the time to make an application to the life of the soul. We used to drain out bad blood out of the body and siphon away black bile. We did this because we believed that by opening up and ridding the body of toxins that it would heal. Freud took that concept and applied it to the soul. Freud taught that people should open up the windows of the soul to vent their toxic feelings to get rid of them.
You know what venting really is? It’s actually nothing new. It’s just grumbling rebranded. And Moses take on it? Maybe it’s enough for now to pull a Sesame Street and point out he’s not like the others. Especially Freud. And believe me, it’s not because he hadn’t seen or considered the impact of the grumble. It’s because he had. It had started with just a few tag alongs from Egypt. Turns out the journey to the promised land wasn’t nearly as glorious as that rabble thought it might be. They just weren’t being delivered the desires of their hearts on that trip. Moses writes about them explaining that their souls, “had a deep, deep desire,” (v. 4) for meat. And that desire – that craving – made itself known through an angry, angry grumble.
And that grumble took on a life of its own. There’s no other way to talk about it. It lived in people’s thoughts. It captured people’s hearts. It moved people’s imaginations. And for good reason too. This grumble as grumbling so often does held up a stunning and beautiful alternate universe. It didn’t matter that it hadn’t ever existed. The only thing that mattered was the glory of the idea. “We remember the fish we ate,” and, “the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.” (v. 5) The massive variety, the tastes, the greens, the yellows, and the reds of the vegetables. And the fish! It was so captivating to their hearts. They could smell it. They could taste it.
And the result of that was nothing short of devastating. Moses wants to make that abundantly clear to us. The NIV translation says, “Now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (v. 6) That’s a pretty good translation, but in the interest of showing you even more clearly what Moses is describing here I want to give you a very straight and literal translation of the Hebrew. He wrote, “Now our souls have withered; we never see anything but this manna!” (v. 6) The people self described the state of their souls saying, “Now our souls have withered.” Grumbling had left them with wilting, joyless, and dying souls.
So ruined was the state of their souls that they couldn’t even enjoy the best parts of their world. Even one of God’s most amazing and best gifts to them, manna, was wrecked. Even manna. Even the food source which had at first been so amazing them that they named it, “what is it?” Even manna that “settled on the camp at night,” (v 9) like divine snow. Even manna that was so versatile that they “ground it in a hand mill or crushed it in a mortar.” (v. 8) Such was the power of grumbling. It so completely destroyed their inner lives that they had no ability to enjoy even the best parts of their lives.
It’s such a thought provoking thing, isn’t it? That God uses something as mundane and normal and daily as dissatisfaction with a dinner menu to show us the destructive power of grumbling. My wife helped me understand why he does this. Earlier this week she told me told me about a Washington Post article she had seen. It was entitled, I Really Love My Daughter, But I’m Not Supposed to Talk About That. The article went on to say that people are so in love and so used to grumbling about parenting in our culture that it’s now taboo to say anything good about it. Grumbling’s so the norm that this author felt she couldn’t talk about how much she loved parenting her daughter.
It’s just so easy and natural to us. Do you see that? We’ve got right here in front of us a story full of thousands upon thousands of people who apparently have in themselves an incredible ability to wreck even the best things for themselves. You know what the truth is? I’ve totally seen this in myself and maybe I’m alone in this, but time after time after time after time I’ve shown this. If there’s a blue sky, I’ll find a way to put clouds in it. If there’s a beautiful ocean, I’ll focus on a piece of trash in it. If there’s a single problem in a day, I’ll find a way to shove aside every overwhelming grace to obsess over it. Do you see how the Spirit wants to convict us today? Sin makes grumbling so magnetic to us that we can even take life’s best - parenting, food, whatever - and reimagine it as a curse.
You know what else the Spirit wants us to know? Grumbling doesn’t just ruin life’s best parts for us. It also has the potential to ruin us to God. I suppose it might be enough to point out that when we’re down on life, we’re also not particularly joyful about the Lord. But Moses apparently wants to illustrate this in his own life. He just lays it out this conversation that happened between him and the Lord. The Lord said to him, “If the people want meat, then I’ll give’em meat. I’ll give’em so much meat that it’s going to start, “coming out of your nostrils.” (v. 20) He was saying, “I will go to amazing lengths and in this case absolutely overwhelming lengths to convince my people I have everything handled.”
And that’s when Moses makes it abundantly clear what grumbling had done to his faith. It had almost completely dismantled it. We know this because he comes back with such a vacant and unbelieving response that you almost have to do a double take to make sure it’s still Moses. He says, “There are six hundred thousand men here. And you’re going to feed all of them meat? Good luck, God.” “Would they have enough if flocks and herds were slaughtered for them? Would they have enough if all the fish in the sea were caught for them?” (v. 22) Even if you put on the biggest and widest manhunt in history you’re not going to find faith in that answer. It’s just ugly. Grumbling left unchecked goes right at the heart of our faith.
That’s when it happened. Right then as Moses himself is falling. Right then as the tide seemed to be sweeping away all the believers. That’s when it happened. The Lord turned the spiritual tide. You know how he did it? He asked a question. Interesting strategy, isn’t it? Right in the place and time when we’d seemingly most benefit from answers about why our lives are the way they are, the Lord delivers up our leading question for today, “Is the Lord’s arm too short?” (v. 24) Is the Lord’s arm dwarfed? Is it chopped off? Is it mangled or broken? Is it powerless or impotent? Is the Lord’s arm too short? Do you see what that question does? It pries our heart’s gaze off whatever we’d like to have, but don’t have. And it reorients us to the life we do have by having the Lord ask us, “Do you think I’ve got this? Do you?”
There’s so much that’s gorgeous and healing about that question. You know what I think may be the best part? It’s not that suddenly it reorients us back to our present lives. It’s that in a dramatic reversal we’ve suddenly stopped thinking about what we’d like in our lives and we’ve started to think about what the Lord can do in them. Do you see that? When we ask, “Is the Lord’s arm too short?” we stop thinking about what we’d like and instead we start thinking about what the Lord can do. That’s this question’s power. That’s its force. That’s its mission to our souls. It’s there to be a momentary rhetorical question meant to move us off of ourselves and center us back on the Lord’s power and grace for us.
But let’s be clear. This isn’t actually a rhetorical question. Not even close. Moses made sure we knew that. After the Lord asked, “Is my arm too short?” The Lord went to amazing and even overwhelming lengths to answer it. Because the quail did come. Millions of quail descended on the camp. There were so many that they had meat coming out of their nostrils. But that wasn’t the Lord’s final answer to his question. Not yet. The question still hung in the air for the Lord needing to be answered. It drove him and pushed him and motivated him all through history so that with complete theological integrity I can tell you that the Lord’s answer to this question is the entire rest of the Bible. Those are the amazing and even overwhelming lengths the Lord would go to to finally answer his question.
And finally answer it he did. This time though it wasn’t to feed a hunger that would only rise again. This time it was to feed us in such a way that we’d never be hungry again. This time it wasn’t millions of quail that descended to fill our stomachs. This time it was just one who descended to fill our souls. This time it wasn’t quail. This time it was Jesus. The Lord finally showed the length and power and strength of his arm in Jesus. Think of it. In Jesus, the Lord’s arm became so long that it reached right down into this world and totally redeemed it. In Jesus, the Lord’s arm became so strong that it swept away all our grumbling and replaced it with perfect grace and complete forgiveness. In Jesus, the Lord’s arm became so powerful that it took away any reason for ever grumbling or venting again.
You know when I think it’s toughest to believe that? When dreams get dashed. At least, that’s what I’ve found. Our dream was Mia. She was going to be our adoptive daughter. We’d take her home. We’d raise her. We’d snap selfies and laugh and read books. We’d be her parents. It was going to be so wonderful. It was so exciting. We just couldn’t wait. Until we had to. A short and brutal phone conversation happened. “We’re sorry. The birth mom decided to keep the baby.” I know we’re not alone in life moments like that. I’ll bet there’s not a single person in this room who hasn’t been captured by some alternate universe. Maybe it’s a career you thought might rocket. Maybe it’s a marriage you thought you’d still have. Maybe it’s a kid or a bigger kitchen or a new car that’s still in the offing.
When that’s on our hearts it’s so easy and so natural for us to slide into a grumpy, whiney, wailing kind of spiritual funk. And it’s right there and it’s right then where we’re just not going to. It’s right then and it’s right there when with the gospel and with the Lord’s help we’re going to stand in the gap and believe. We’re going to see the blue sky of God’s power for us not the clouds of sin. We’re going to stand in awe and glory in the ocean of grace not noticing Satan’s trash floating by. We’re going to obsess on the Lord’s guiding hand not the single problem that’s come up. With the Spirit’s power we’re going to ask ourselves, “Is the Lord’s arm too short?” and we’re going to believe it’s not. Even when life twists. Even when life turns. Even when life feels empty.
Melanie and I – we drove to Perkins the day of that phone call. I’m telling you the Spirit was with us. There’s no other explanation. None. We were terribly sad, but still trusting. Our hearts were down, but they were not crushed. Not even after the very biblical seven years of dealing with infertility. You know what ended up happening? I suppose maybe you do. Little did we know that at that very moment the Lord was going to amazing and even overwhelming lengths to give us something even better. Maybe you’ve met her. Her name’s Elliana. In the last analysis, everything always works out that beautifully. Everything. It may take us ‘til heaven to see that. It may take us ‘til then to totally wrap our minds around that truth, but truth it still is. How can I be so sure? Because – well – is the Lord’s arm too short? Amen.