One day during Abraham Lincoln’s time as President of the United States, an elderly lady was ushered into his private office. Lincoln noticed that she carried a covered basket beneath her arm, and he inquired, “What can I do for you Madam?”
Placing the covered basket on the table the lady replied, “Mr President, I have come here today not to ask any favor for anyone, nor for myself. I simply heard that you were very fond of cookies, and I came here today to present you with a basket-full which I baked just for you!”
As he listened to the lady’s words, tears welled up in the President’s eyes and began running unchecked down his face. He stood speechless for a moment, then said, “My good woman, your thoughtful and unselfish deed moves me. Thousands of people have entered this office since I became President, but you alone are the first to come asking no favor for yourself nor somebody else!”
I wonder, if the Lord doesn’t sometimes feel much the same way as Abraham Lincoln did that day, when He hears the millions of requests and petitions we raise on a daily basis – prayers in which we ask for divine favor or His intervention into problems which afflict our daily lives.
Yet, amid all those requests for God to meet our every real and imagined need, let’s consider: how often do we stop and take time to utter a few simple words of thanks for all He has already done for us? A few words of praise for the blessings which He has continually supplied on a day to day basis even without our asking?
I truly believe that many people have the idea that God is supposed to be some sort of celestial “sugar-daddy” who exists simply to fulfill our every wish. We sort of expect this as our due, and sad-to-say, seldom pause and take a moment to express appropriate thanks for all He has done.
We live in a land of plenty where for the most-part, even the poorest of our people are provided with sufficient food, medical care and shelter. We are given the opportunity to avail ourselves of an education and to develop our talents to the best of our abilities. We can sleep at night, secure in knowing that there are laws which protect our freedoms and that there are people standing ready to enforce those laws when needed.
America is not perfect, no country is. Still, we have much for which to be grateful, yet the majority of us seldom stop and consider just how blessed we are. So, I’d like to pose the question this morning, “Do we live in gratitude toward God, or do we allow the enemies of gratitude to rule, much like the Israelites?”
An entire nation, thousands of people, are delivered from certain death when God makes a way for them through the Red Sea. God hears their prayers and makes it happen.
But then, the story says, they forget. In Exodus 14, we read the story of God doing the incredible, answering the Israelites’ prayers and pushing aside the water to give them a path to freedom. And sure enough, Exodus 15 begins with them dancing. For three days they dance with excitement and gratitude before God. Every child of Israel sings a song of praise before God.
But within just a few verses, the miracle has worn off. The Israelites are parched; they go looking for a water fountain, only to discover that the facilities out here in the desert are sorely lacking. They get hungry, and they reminisce about the buffet line back in Egypt. Their empty bellies cause them to have nostalgia about their slavery.
This is one of the signs you have really lost it: when you start to idealize your past, and your past involved being a slave to the Egyptian Pharaoh: “Back in the good ol’ days, when we spent all day making bricks and building pyramids, when we had no rights, and the Pharaoh occasionally killed all our male children, those were the days!”
In slavery, every day is the same. Oddly, there is something comfortable about suffering, because it is predictable. Freedom can be much more trying. Out here in the wilderness, when they have to depend on God, when they are in uncharted territory, there is no predictability. They wake up every day having to trust that God is going to lead them somewhere. They are suffering from postmiraculous stress disorder.
The Israelites, trapped in rosy revisions of their past, are blinded to the almost constant provision of God. They are numbed to the now and wander in their grumbling. People tend to pine for the past they never had, so much so that they never live in the present that they have. Nostalgia is an enemy of the present good. Already, they had forgotten the miracle at Marah (“bitter”), where God made the bitter waters of Marah drinkable (see Exodus 15:22ff). As long as they trust in God, they were not without hope or help. Their option was to relax and rejoice in the Lord. It was far better than resenting the Lord for where they were not, who they never were, and what they never had. It should be no surprise that they go in circles for forty years.
The Israelites were not grateful to God or truthful to themselves. Their lack of gratitude results in wishful thinking, sentimental longings, and disgruntled beings. They were unwanted guests and national enemies in Egypt; they were visitors, outsiders, and trespassers. Gratitude to God meant recognizing that God had freed them, saved them, and guided them. God was not the killer, Pharaoh was; the Israelite first-born did not die, Egyptian babies did; and not a single Israelite drowned, Egypt’s army did.
The truth of Egypt was that food was never in the abundance for Israel, and the Israelites were never comrades there, only slaves. Israel forgot about the oppression (1:11), the cruelty (1:13), the bondage (1:14), and the death (1:16) that befell them in Egypt. Their last days there were spent in groaning, wailing, and crying (2:23). Their cries were loud, never quiet sobbing or sniffing, but sadly, the groaning inside slavery had turned into outright grumbling in freedom.
By the time Israel had vented, Moses was the victim, not them (16:3). The accusation shocked Moses: “You have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” Moses was horrified to discover that he was chiefly responsible for leading an entire assembly – men, women, and children – to their death.
Nostalgia never leads you forward, because nostalgia casts an impossible standard – a candy-coated, much-improved rendering of what once was. Nostalgia is Egypt 2.0, with the warts and the thorns removed. The present can never match an idealized past, leaving us stuck in the quicksand of our edited memories, perpetually ungrateful for the place we now find ourselves.
This postmiraculous stress disorder still strikes God’s people (we may be the most prone to it), leading some faithful Christians to remember earlier days through a Norman Rockwell revisionist lens. We long for the “good old day” when life was easy. But which good old days would that be? The simpler times of the 1870s and Little House on the Prairie? Going down to the creek to wash your clothes doesn’t sound that easy. One central fire to warm you in the winter and no good way to cool down in the summer doesn’t seem that good. No hospital to go to when you’re sick, but just a local doc guessing at your problem? Doesn’t sound like much fun. Oh, but everyone was in church, right? In the 1870s roughly 25% of the American population attended church. By 1900 that number had jumped to 36%.
Alright, then, how about the 1950s – many see that as the idyllic time. The 1950s saw the pinnacle of church membership in America – 63%. That number, though, is less impressive than it initially appears. You see, for many, it was not a radical call to carry the cross of Jesus, but instead a shallow, cultural Christianity. At that time, 47% of Americans could not name one of the gospel writers. It was a religion that was a mile wide and an inch deep.
Whether it is holding on to the church of our youth (which ceased to exist many years ago) or clinging to a season of our own lives in which things were better than they are now, nostalgia quietly steals our joy and makes us indifferent to the flowing streams of living water God has provided here in this wilderness.
Just like the Israelites it is possible for us to begin to neglect all that we have been given. To start to undervalue God’s blessings in our lives and to take them for granted. To be content with our lives, just chugging along from day to day. Perhaps when we first met Christ we could not get enough of Him. We would pray as much as we could, read our Bibles all the time, come to every meeting for worship, praise and hearing His word. But gradually these started to get crowded out by other things. The word of God became a bore, meeting with other Christians a time consuming chore when we had more important things to do or more exciting places to be. Then God’s word started to discomfort us. The Holy Spirit spoke and we did not like what we heard. Perhaps then we started to remember the good ol’ days when the preacher didn’t talk much or only spoke about comforting subjects. Maybe we would only read the parts of the Bible that make us feel good, not those that showed us where our lives were not in conformity to the will of God or that said things that we would prefer not to be the case. We recall when the Holy Spirit was so encouraging, if only He would stop bothering us!
The stadium was nearly empty. More than an hour earlier, the winner of the marathon in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City had crossed the finish line. As the last spectators prepared to leave, John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania hobbled into the stadium. His leg was bandaged and bloody. A fall during the race had deeply cut and dislocated his knee. Through obvious pain, he pressed on to become the last of 57 competitors to finish the race, a race that had begun with 74. When asked by a reporter why he hadn’t given up, Akhwari paused as if mystified by the question. “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to Mexico City to start the race. They sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race,” he replied.
It is telling that the generation of exodus wanderers in this morning’s lesson never makes it to the Promised Land, perhaps because their nostalgia won’t let them get there. Liberation and hope lie in wait for those who can stop pretending that the past was perfect and who can walk in faith toward God’s finish line. How would the church be different if would stop looking back at the start of the race or focusing on that easy first or second mile and, with a grateful heart, move forward together?