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We like to think that 2020 has given us a lot to complain about, but what if you had been an Israelite! In spite of everything that has happened in 2020, we still have spacious homes with heating and air conditioning, indoor plumbing, hot and cold running water, and cupboards and refrigerators stocked with food. How does that compare with Israel? Let’s see. They had tents for houses – no heaters, no air conditioners, no running water, no indoor plumbing, just a tent. They didn’t have any cupboards or refrigerators stocked with food. In fact, there were times when they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. There were times when there wasn’t only no running water, there wasn’t any water at all. There were poisonous snakes and scorpions. They endured at least 5 plagues during their time of wandering. So, is there really anyone who would want to trade 2020 for 40 years of living in a tent in the wilderness? Compared to Israel, we have nothing to complain about.
Did you notice something about our reading for tonight, something that God very rarely gives us in his word? He gives Israel an answer to the question “why?” Usually when we ask God why he answers the way he answered Job. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? …Have you given orders to the morning or shown dawn its place? …Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons? …Do you send the lightening bolts on their way? Do they report to you? In other words, God’s usual answer to the question “why” is, “I am God Almighty. You will just have to trust me.”
The reason God gives an answer to the question “why” here may be that no one is demanding an answer from him. He is providing instruction for Israel, and for us, through Moses.
Why did Israel have to wander in the wilderness for 40 years? The first answer is because they listened to the ten spies who talked about how big and powerful the people were in the promised land, that they had walled cities, and there was no way they could possibly defeat them. They refused to listen to Joshua and Caleb who encouraged them to trust the Lord who had promised to be with them. Because of this God decreed that the whole generation that refused to trust him would have to die before he would allow Israel to enter the land he had promised them. That took 40 years.
But there was another reason. God would use the consequence of their disobedience for good. He would use it to test them, to train them, to help them learn to trust him for everything.
Twice in verse 2 God uses the word n[ml, which means “in order to.” Moses says, Remember the whole journey on which the LORD your God led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you. Why did God do this? He was using those experiences the same way he used the questions he asked Job. He wanted Israel to realize that they were not in control. He wanted them to realize that without him they wouldn’t have anything to eat or drink, without him they would not survive. They were not God, he is.
Don’t you think God has used the events of this year to humble us? Early on, a few Pastors who pridefully claimed that the virus was a hoax, or not dangerous, or that God would protect them from it, got the virus and died. How many times hasn’t some doctor or scientist pridefully made some claim about something that works or doesn’t work against the virus that turned out to be completely wrong? “Trust the science”, we were told, but which science, and how often hasn’t what claims to be science changed? God is using this pandemic to humble us, to help us see that we aren’t as smart as we would like to think; that we aren’t as much in control of things as we would like to think. Science is not God. We are not God. We are lowly, fallible mortals.
I pray we and many others learn this lesson because only those who humble themselves before the Lord will have him lift them up. Only those whose hearts are humble are able to say, “Lord, I can’t do anything without you. I certainly can’t save myself or do anything to earn eternal life. All I can do is trust your promise to give it to me for Jesus’ sake.”
God used the wandering in the wilderness to humble his people so that they would learn to look to him for everything, especially for salvation. And he used their wandering the wilderness to test them, like he tested Abraham. He was not tempting them. He was not trying to get them to sin against him, only Satan does that. But he was testing them in order to know what was in their heart, whether or not they would keep his commandments.
Do you see another parallel here? This pandemic has seemed to pit a number of God’s commandments against each other. Luther explains correctly that the fourth commandment doesn’t just apply to children and parents, but to all those in authority. We are to honor, respect and obey those in authority, any form of government, unless they ask us to sin against God. Then we must obey God rather than man.
The fifth commandment asks us to care for our neighbor’s body, to avoid doing anything that might cause our neighbor bodily harm. Some religious leaders have said that this means refusing to wear a mask is a sin because you might cause harm or even death by passing the virus on to others. I would say that’s going a too far because the effectiveness of masks is not completely proven, but if it might keep your neighbor from harm, why not wear one?
And then there is the third commandment. God wants us to worship him. In Hebrews he tells us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. Does that mean we have to disobey the government when we are told to limit gatherings at church? Have they told us we can’t worship at all? No, at least not in our state.
God is testing us. He wants to know what is in our hearts. Are we totally devoted to him? Will we find ways to continue to worship even if we can’t go to our church building for a while? Will we take the time to carefully examine the commandments and apply them to our situation, or will we jump on the band wagon of whatever group seems to express our feelings? God has truly put us to the test in 2020 and none of us have passed with flying colors.
That leads us to the next verse and the next “in order that”. God didn’t just test Israel. He didn’t just allow them to become hungry and thirsty and then forsake them. He showed them his mercy and faithfulness. When they were hungry, he provided them with mana, a perfect food that gave them all the nutrition they needed. When they were thirsty, he sweetened the bitter waters and gave them water from the rock. When they realized that they could not provide for themselves, he provided for them. He did these things in order to teach them that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.
God is certainly using everything that has happened this past year to do for us what he did for Israel. He wants to humble us, to beat down our natural sinful pride, because if we are not humbled there is no way that we will turn to him or recognize him as our God and Savior. He is testing us, asking us to pull out our Catechisms and review his commandments. He is asking us to consider what it means to love him above all things and to love our neighbor as ourselves, to realize that deciding how to put such love into action isn’t always easy. It’s not just a matter of feelings, but a matter of careful meditation on his word, and prayer for his guidance. He wants to know where our heart really is. He wants to see if we will trust him completely.
None of us have passed these tests with flying colors, but Jesus did. You recognize the words about not living by bread alone. They are the words that Jesus used when Satan said that he should turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger. Jesus quoted these words to defeat that temptation. In fact, Jesus lived every minute of his life on earth by the words that had come from the mouth of the Lord. He always loved the father above all things and he always loved his neighbor as himself. He did this, not for himself, but for us. He did this in order to win forgiveness for us when we fail the tests that God has placed before us, when we don’t always live by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Knowing that Jesus has passed the test for us, and then died to pay for our failures, may we be humbled, moved to trust God no matter what, and to devote ourselves even more to living by every word that comes from the mouth of God.