Whining About Winning
September 20, 2020*
By Pastor John Partridge
Do you like horses? Many of us do.
John Wayne once said that the best thing for the inside of a man is the outside of a horse.
But even if we don’t keep horses, or ride horses, or even if we don’t like horses very much, we often talk about them because horses have been partners with humanity for so long that they have become ingrained in in our language.
Most of us are familiar with some older phrases in English that grew out of our pre-industrial history. We say things like “biting the hand that feed you,” (which is pretty self-explanatory), or say that something, or someone is “long in the tooth.” That phrase, “long in the tooth” became a part of our language because horses’ teeth continue to grow as long as they live, so older horses, naturally, have longer teeth. And that brings us to the phrase “looking a gift-horse in the mouth.” Because a horse’s teeth can tell you a lot about how old it is, and what kind of care it has been given, it was, and is, standard practice to look in a horse’s mouth before you bought one. But if someone was giving you a horse as a gift, it was bad form, or even rude, to look in the mouth of a horse for which you paid nothing. After all, why would you complain about something that you were getting for free?
But throughout scripture, and in our present generation, the people of God have a bad habit of doing exactly that. Human beings seem to make a habit of complaining, and that complaining, grumbling, whining, often continues even when God answers our prayers, gives us everything that we wanted, and even pours out blessings for which we hadn’t even hoped. We begin in Exodus 16:2-15 where we find the people of Israel who, after four hundred years of slavery and captivity in Egypt, had been were finally free, and who had witnesses God’s protection as he destroyed the Egyptian army that had been pursuing them.
2 In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. 3 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
4 Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. 5 On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.”
6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we, that you should grumble against us?” 8 Moses also said, “You will know that it was the Lord when he gives you meat to eat in the evening and all the bread you want in the morning, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we? You are not grumbling against us, but against the Lord.”
9 Then Moses told Aaron, “Say to the entire Israelite community, ‘Come before the Lord, for he has heard your grumbling.’”
10 While Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked toward the desert, and there was the glory of the Lord appearing in the cloud.
11 The Lord said to Moses, 12 “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning, you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.’”
13 That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning, there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was.
For four hundred and thirty years, the people of Israel pray that God would rescue them and, eventually, he does. Then they pray that God would rescue them from the Egyptian army that is charging after them to kill them or return them to their slavery. And they watch, as God parts the Red Sea, saves all of Israel, and destroys the chariots and horses that had been pursuing them. And then… they complain and grumble that God doesn’t love them enough, that there isn’t enough food to eat, they maybe they ought to just return to Egypt on their own because at least when they were slaves, they had enough food.
Let me say that again. They were rescued from slavery, given their freedom, watched as God destroyed the most powerful military machine on the planet, and then complained that God didn’t love them enough and maybe they should just give up and go back because slavery was better than freedom. It sounds ridiculous, but this is not an exception. Human beings do this sort of thing far more often than we care to admit. In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus tells an entirely believable parable about a landowner who needed to hire workers to harvest the grapes in his vineyard.
20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denariusfor the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
So, let’s review. There were a bunch of people who needed work and gathered in the town square to meet people who would hire them. The landowner needed people to help with his harvest and offered them work. He offered them the common wage for a day’s labor, in advance, and they accepted. Several times, throughout the day, he hired more people and offered to pay them “whatever is right.” And then, at the end of the day, he paid them the agreed upon wage, or more, and… they complained. Because the landowner was generous, and paid everyone well, the people who had been hired first grumbled that they should have been paid more, even though they agreed that the wage he offered was fair before he hired them.
But what about us in the twenty-first century? After two millennia of following Jesus and studying his teaching, do we have it all together or are we just as prone to whine and moan and look a gift-horse in the mouth? In Philippians 1:21-30, Paul writes to one of the churches in Greece and says this:
To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons:
2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. 8 God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.
12 Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guardand to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14 And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.
15 It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16 The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former, preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. 18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. 20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.
27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel 28 without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. 29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.
Paul starts out his letter by making it clear that everyone knew that he was in prison because of Jesus. But, because Paul was in prison, other followers of Jesus became fearless in proclaiming and sharing the gospel message. Different groups had different reasons, but the response to Paul’s imprisonment by the community of faith was to preach louder and more often. And so, even though Paul was suffering, he rejoiced because he knew that good things had resulted from his pain and discomfort.
Paul believes that eventually, he will be released from prison and continue preaching. But he knows that if he dies, he looks forward to an eternity with Jesus. And so he tells the church that no matter what happens, they should conduct themselves in a manner worthy of Jesus Christ, work together as one to promote the gospel message, and do so without fear by those who would oppose them. For in the end, we have been given the gifts of both believing and of suffering. Because, as Paul explained, our suffering in the name of Jesus, is still a part of God’s plan, and good can still grow out of it.
The people of Israel were whining about winning. They got everything that they had wanted for more than four hundred years. They were witnesses to God’s power in ways that no one had ever seen before. And still they complained.
The people in Jesus’ parable were paid everything that they had agreed to, and more, and still they complained that they thought they deserved more.
But Paul rejoiced while he was suffering in prison and encouraged the church to do the same thing.
The difference was that Paul remembered to look at the big picture and remembered that God had a plan for the world.
So, what will we do?
Do we look a gift-horse in the mouth?
Do we complain because we can’t see the plan?
Do we think that we should be paid more?
Are we angry when God blesses someone else, or bitter that others are given more than we think is fair?
Do we think that the blessings that we have received aren’t enough?
Or do we remember to look for the big picture? Do we remember the many blessings that we have already been given and the untold prayers that have already been answered?
Rather than complain, in the middle of our pain and suffering, let us strive together as one for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who might oppose us. Let us remember that both our belief in Jesus, and our suffering in his name are blessings from God. May we be like Paul, so that our time of trial and hardship, through the blessing of Jesus Christ, can become our greatest time of victory and growth.
You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/h_g-ICMSbrA
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online). These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.