Questions in the Wilderness
Exodus 16: 2-15 Philippians 1:27
September 18, 2013
I remember the first time I heard this part of the Exodus Story. I loved it. How honestly human it is. The Hebrew people had been living in bondage, in slavery, in a foreign land for centuries. Along comes Moses and they are liberated, freed from slavery. Freed from Pharaoh. God heard their cries and they were blessed.
But before they can be freed from Pharaoh they have to find a way through the Red Sea. And that happens. And then they begin their journey through the wilderness.
Things aren’t what they were. Food and water and shelter are no longer easily available. And the people begin to grumble. And suddenly slavery didn’t look so bad anymore. At least they were sheltered; at least there was food. They were secure.
This episode is so honestly human. Earlier they were threatened by slavery, and the Pharaoh, now they are threatened by fear of the unknown, and they want to return to what was secure even though it was destructive.
Let’s get a little deeper into this story and see what it has for us as individuals and as a community seeking the promise.
The Israelites, led by Moses and Aaron, left Egypt, passed through the Red Sea and entered into the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.
On their way. In between the old and the new.
Isn’t that a difficult place? In between. In the middle.
Away from the comforts and routines of home.
And just like a group of children in the back of the car, the people of Israel rose and said to Moses and Aaron, “Are we there yet?”
I’m thirsty. !!
We’re hungry! I want to go home.
It takes a lot of effort to leave home. It also takes a lot of effort to sustain oneself on the journey. We need reminding of why we left. We need reminding of who we are. We need to keep our focus forward. And we need to water to drink and food to eat.
In the passage just before this one God turns the bitter water sweet and says,
“If you do what is right in my eyes, if you listen to my commands I will never bring upon you any of the sufferings which I brought upon the Egyptians: for I the Lord am your healer.”
This helps me to see two things.
1) The time in the wilderness is not really an in between time. It is an essential part of the growing out of slavery into freedom.
During time in the wilderness they receive more than water and food, they also receive the teachings that will lead them into full humanity. They receive the wisdom of a thousand years.
2) These people didn’t know what was going on as they were first living this story. These people were learning with each struggle in the story that God was with them.
What happened back there? Will that happen to us?
In todays’ reading the people complain to Moses and Aaron,
We may have been slaves in Egypt but at least we had food. Have you brought us here to starve to death?”
Moses hears God’s response tells the people, “The Lord will answer your complaints with flesh in the morning and bread in the evening.”
Is this a miracle story?
Is this a story that reveals God glory?
It all depends on what your definition of miracle is.
I would like to suggest a possible natural explanation for the meat in the morning and bread in the evening while at the same time finding the glory in the story.
Nothing up my sleeve…
Bread, manna from heaven, is a secretion from the tamarisk tree. It is a sweet yellowish-white substance that dries in the heat of the day and can be gathered in the cool of the evening.
The quail, migratory birds flying from Africa sometimes fall from their flight exhausted over the desert.
These people of the Exodus did not know that gifts are provided in the wilderness.
These Exodus people are learning in the wilderness that the God of freedom is also the God that sustains. These are gifts from God for the people of God through the gifts of creation itself.
When the people saw the manna on the ground they say to one another, “What is it?”
Moses said to them, “That is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat.”
“Doesn’t look like bread. It’s not like the bread we had back in Egypt.”
Take it. Eat it. It is bread of heaven.
Now here is the glory part of the story?
How did Moses know that this was bread?
Back in Egypt they all, including Moses knew how things worked, what was safe, what wasn’t. How are they going to know what is safe when we are strangers in a strange land? How are we going to find our way when we are called to try something new? How are we going to find our way when we are asked to stop doing something that was familiar?
Moses, guided by God, guided by trust, was able to see what the people, guided by fear, could not see. Not yet anyway.
How do we venture into a new land when we don’t know the answers ahead of time?
Part of the answer comes from this story. Learning the story and then believing that we are living the story.
God was guiding these Exodus people.
Is God guiding us too?
What if there are gifts all around us that we don’t recognize?
How much abundance of energy is there in the congregation for the mission of this church?
How can we learn from a mistake made, or a question asked, or a load that is too heavy to carry? We all have something to learn and we are helped in this if we ask our questions and lift up our prayers to God that we trust because we have evidence of God’s generous love.
Like the Israelites bringing manna to Moses and saying, “What is this?” we can also bring our questions, doubts, mistakes to God and say, “What is this?” (Turn to wonder)
What is going on here? God, What are you trying to give me or teach me in this moment?
God didn’t judge or condemn the people in the wilderness when they cried out thirsty and hungry.
The Exodus story that we can learn and live can be a guide for us if we see that these people were in a wilderness discovering new blessings in the midst of hunger and thirst just like we are today. The wilderness may be a new job or no job. It may be an aching body or heart. It may be the call to leave something secure and known into something never tried before.
It’s all right in the wilderness to have questions, to be hungry and thirsty. The story tells us to direct our questions to God. When we call out, when we question, God responds if we patiently allow the body to generate its own healing power. Anxiety cuts us off from what is all around us abundantly. It is there and we cannot see it.
I have found that sometimes the prayer to God is not to ask a question or ask for guidance. Sometimes the prayer to God is just to stop the anxiety, stop the fearful tapes in our mind that move us back into Egypt rather than forward into the promise.
I have also found that this prayer can be very simple. It may be simply to say,
“Lord, hear my prayer.”
By repeating a phrase a simple as that may lead us from fear into trust and with that attitude of grace we are more likely to see that manna that surrounds us daily.
Another thing that I learn from this story is that fleeing from Egypt is only the beginning. Freedom from slavery doesn’t mean freedom from work. And the work, finding the blessings in the wilderness, is going to make us into something new.
Getting out of Egypt is just the beginning. Getting through the wilderness is just the beginning. But just like a child learning how to manipulate it legs and arms and the effect that this has on the development of the brain we will learn how to control our fears and anxieties and grow into the compassionate and creative people Gods knows we can be.
Part of the answer is in trusting that God is providing bread, water and guidance. It is often only our anxiety and need to be in control that stops us from seeing what is all around us.
Part of the answer is in learning the story and then seeing that we are living the story. Part of the answer is remembering that Messiah is among us, that we need one another to complete this journey.
And here I would to close with that wonderful verse from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and now Paul’s letter to us.
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the message of Christ,
so that whether I come and see you am absent,
I may hear of you that you stand firm in one spirit,
With one mind,
Striving side by side
For the trust in the Message,
For the faith in the gospel.
And not frightened in anything…
What we learn in the wilderness is what takes us into the Promised Land.
Are we there yet?
Trusting abundance teaches us that we are already there and we are not yet there. We are yearning to be there, we are learning to trust that God’s blessings are here calling us to step forward.
Trusting means moving. Trust is an active verb. It is an activating verb. It is no good to say that we trust God and then remain in Egypt.
We need to lean into the future knowing that there will be bread and water.
Knowing that there will be the bread that is broken open for us and the cup emptied for us,
Let us enter into this time of prayer and offering and communion with joy.
And may we then go into the world with joy and live the way we pray.