Strain Your Relationship with God
Rev. Dr. Ronald E. Braxton
Senior Pastor, Metropolitan AME Church
Sunday, March 18, 2012
Scripture: Numbers 21: 4-9 (The Message Bible translation): 4 They set out from Mount Hor along the Red Sea Road, a detour around the land of Edom. The people became irritable and cross as they traveled. 5 They spoke out against God and Moses: “Why did you drag us out of Egypt to die in this godforsaken country? No decent food; no water – we can’t stomach this stuff any longer.” 6 So God sent poisonous snakes among the people; they bit them and many in Israel died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke out against God and you. Pray to God; ask him to take these snakes from us.” Moses prayed for the people. 8 God said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it on a flagpole: Whoever is bitten and looks at it will live.” 9 So Moses made a snake of fiery copper and put it on top of a flagpole. Anyone bitten by a snake who then looked at the copper snake lived.
The Bible is loaded with a series of, what I want to call, “Wilderness and Desert Experiences.” In Genesis 21:15, Hagar and her young son are sent out into the wilderness or desert of Beersheba. In 1 Samuel 26:3, David, fleeing for his life, was hiding out in the wilderness of Ziph. Jeremiah in chapter 2 talks about the God who stayed with him, “through the wilderness years…through all the hard places.” John, known to us as the Baptist, is said to have lived in the wilds of the wilderness. In 2nd Corinthians 11:26, the Apostle Paul cites living in the dangerous wilderness as one of his afflictions. If you remember, after the baptism of Jesus, Paul is led by the spirit to the wilderness and engages in a series of trials, temptations, and tests.
These wilderness moments and experiences are marked with hard times, times of great trial, times of extreme temptations and tests. It is clear that, for those who must endure these wilderness and desert times, it is as if everything in their lives is on the line. Their life, their faith, their trust and their belief in God, seemingly is hanging in the balance in the wilderness/desert.
One of the worst times in the lives of the Hebrew people was the journey out of Egyptian slavery to the freedom of the Promised Land. In Exodus 13:17 we are told that God did not lead them through the land of the Philistines which was the shortest route, for fear they would end up in a battle. Rather, they were led by God through the wilderness. Here is an aside — sometimes the only route to get to where God wants you to be is through a wilderness route. Craig Kocher writes in his commentary on this passage, “Moses has led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Day after day they have been tramping around in the desert.”
Most of us can testify and witness that there is no fun, very little joy and jubilee going through the slums of a wilderness/desert moment. One of the things that the Bible makes very clear is that all of the biblical characters are human and, at times, wear their humanness in front of the rest of humanity. Though they are men and women of great faith and with great testimonies about the power, love and goodness of God in their lives, the Bible never presents to us men and women who are flawless in their own humanity. Kocher goes on to say, “Because they are weary and frustrated, not at all sure where they are going or if their leader Moses knows what he is doing, and sure they are about to die, dissension has grown in the ranks.”
Now, for sure, these Israelites are not people of great faith, trust or belief. Every time they come up short on anything they follow the same behavior of most of us — by grumbling, murmuring and complaining. In Exodus 15:22ff, they complained about the bitter water of Marah; in Exodus 16: 2ff, they complained about what they said was a lack of food; again in Exodus 17: they complained about being thirsty; after God sent the manna each day, in Numbers 11:4ff, they complained about the manna; in Numbers 14 they rebelled at the prospect of invading Canaan. And now in this text, listen to them — “The people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Clearly, this endlessly tramping around in the wilderness, not sure where they were going or where they would end up, had worn these people down, and their relationship with God and Moses had become strained.
Wilderness/desert experiences: Been out of a good paying job for too long; been suffering with this illness long enough — where is my healing; as hard as I pray for that child and nothing seems to move him/her in the right direction; this battered relationship that I am in; this sense of helplessness, loneliness, lack of self-worth that creeps its ugly head into my life; this day-to-day tramping around in my wilderness pity party, beating up on myself, wasting the gifts and talents that God has blessed me with talking about — “I can’t”; “It’s no use trying”; “It’s the same old thing”; “They don’t like me.” I am talking about wilderness/desert experiences; they can strain your relationship with God.
The text says, “The people spoke against God.” The Message Bible puts it this way, “The people became irritable and cross as they traveled. They spoke out against God.” Apparently, it did not take much for these faithless, doubting people to lapse into this untrusting, unfaithful posture. And, unfortunately, it does not take but so much for us to follow the same pattern and behavior. Just let God not move sooner than soon, quicker than quick — like some cosmic bell hop or some supernatural waiter at our table of distress — and our relationship can very quickly become strained. And let me denounce any theology blaming God for our troubles, blaming God for our wildernesses and deserts. They are just there and we just have to deal with them. The promise of God is that He will be with you, never leave you; will help you and give you what you need while you are in it.
1. Learn to be patient with God. Let me give you a major contributing factor why our relationship with God can become strained in our wilderness and desert times. It is wrapped up in the sin of impatience. And here lies point #1: We must learn to be patient with God. It amazes me how we (without exception) can become so demanding of God, telling God what to do, when to do it, how to do it, where to do it, and to whom to do it to. Have you ever heard that hymn, “I must tell Jesus, I cannot bear these burdens alone, Jesus will help me, Jesus alone….” At some point in your wilderness travels, tell Jesus; then step back; pray, do all you can humanly do, and wait on God to do what nobody else but God can do. Be patient with God, God will send God’s blessings when God wants to send God’s blessing. God will open that door, make that way, clear that path in God’s own good and ready time. Exercising patience with God will keep your relationship with God from becoming strained. Maybe the Apostle Paul was stabbing at this thing of patience with God when he tells the church, “In all things…give thanks.”
2. Never be afraid to fess up to your mess up. Here is the 2nd thing — in your wilderness and desert experiences, if you want to keep your relationship with God from becoming strained, never be afraid to “fess up to your mess up.” Maybe that way of saying it is too “street.” In church and theological terms: Seek God’s forgiveness. I like the street better, “Fess up to your Mess Up.” When the people saw that they had wronged God and Moses and that their relationship with God was not only strained but had brought upon them some unbearable conditions, they quickly fessed up to their mess up. Look at verse 7, “The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned…Pray for us.”
It’s okay to say: “God, I messed up!” It is okay to tell God about your mess up…it can be cleansing to tell God about your foolish and sometimes uncontrollable behavior…it is just the thing to do to tell God how short you fell…how messed up your mind was in that instant…how terrible and painful was your deliberate mistake. Fessing up, confession cleanses and purifies the soul. In one of King David’s most strained wilderness moments, he goes to God to fess up about his mess up with Bathsheba and her husband Nathan: “Have mercy on me O God, wipe out my bad record. Scrub away my guilt; soak out my sins in your laundry. I know how bad I’ve been; my sins are staring me down…against you and you alone have I sinned…” Message Bible translation.
3. It doesn’t take much to get back on track with God. Finally, from this lesson we learned that, back then, it did not take much for God to put our relationship with him back on the right track. Moses prays for the people, and God blesses the people. Moses prays, and God relents. Some were still bitten by the snakes and some still died. Sometimes even in God’s grace and with God’s forgiveness we have to suffer the consequence of our behavior, but still mercy and grace prevails in our lives. I want you to know this morning that grace and mercy prevails.
I think that I made a mistake — I said that it didn’t take much back then for God to relent, for God to change God’s mind. And for us, it doesn’t take much; but it took a whole lot for HIM. For us now it doesn’t take much—a sincere heart, a cry for mercy, a plea for Grace. But for God it took a heap, a whole lot:
Temptation in the wilderness
Betrayal by a friend
Denial by a loved one
Mocking and Scorning
A Cross on his back
A march up a dirt road
Nails in his hands and feet
Stakes in his side
It took a wilderness on God’s part to keep our relationship with God intact.
You will go through your wilderness/desert moments. But don’t let them strain your relationship with God. Be patient with God; fess up to your mess up; and know that God has worked it all out for you.
- Sermon Notes: Be Clear About Your Relationship with God
- Sermon Notes: On the Road to Getting it Right With God
- Sermon Notes: When You Need to Hear a Good Word
- Sermon Notes: “When God Comes Crashing Into Your Life”
- Sermon Notes: When Mountains Loom Larger Than Faith
Tags: Rev. Ronald E. Braxton