I suppose that it was inevitable.
After all, it was now about six weeks out from their deliverance from slavery in Egypt and their subsequent journey across the parted Red Sea into the Sinai wilderness – just long enough for food supplies to run out, patience to wear thin and the harsh reality of their situation to settle in. And moreover, to be fair, there was a certain vagueness to this whole enterprise. There’d been a whole lot of talk about freedom, a better life and “a land flowing with milk and honey,” which was all good, but so far no specific indications as to how that was all going to work out; nor had they had any real say in the process. All they knew is that this pilgrimage through the wilderness had now become a battle for survival; bad to the point where they’d even begun to reminiscence about the good old days back in Egypt; thinking that even in the worst of times they “sat by the fleshpots” and ate their fill of bread! So it was kind of understandable; and before we dismiss the Israelites as a bunch of ungrateful whiners, we need to remember what they did was exactly what any of us might have done under the circumstances: they complained.
Now, in other translations of scripture, the word used is “grumble,” but actually for my money the best translation comes from the old King James Version where it says that “whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured” against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The idea that out amidst the dry sand and blistering winds these people were murmuring their discontent, for me says it all: no rioting, no attempted coup or petitions for asylum; just this growing crescendo of fear and uncertainty, an overwhelming feeling of helplessness that builds into anger and desperation.
And that we can understand. After all, we are a people who want, need and expect some measure of control in our lives! M. Craig Barnes, the wonderful writer and teacher, says this very well: “Vague is one of our least favorite adjectives. If you give a report or presentation at work, the last thing you want to hear is that you were vague… when your daughter announces she is getting married and you ask about their plans for the future, you don’t want to hear they plan to live on love. Vague frightens us. We are a people who prefer plans, strategies, numbers, and lots of details.”
The trouble with all this, however, is that oftentimes life is far out of our control; and just like Israel, we find ourselves wandering aimlessly in the desert. Things are going along just fine, and then you lose a job; you have to make a move; there’s a health scare; or a cherished relationship comes to an abrupt end. Or maybe the pathway you’ve been walking, the plan and dream you’ve followed every day of your life suddenly takes a sharp turn into unfamiliar territory; and you’re totally disoriented, scared to death and wanting like anything to go back to the way things were, where at least it was safe.
That’s the desert experience, friends; that’s what the Israelites were facing out there in the wilderness; and that’s what you and I very often have to deal with in the utter uncertainty of our own lives! In the face of that, murmuring just seems like the proper response!
But here’s the other thing about the desert experience: while it is most definitely the place where we have to give up control, it is also the place “where we learn to receive the mysterious future God has for us.” To quote Craig Barnes again: “The desert journey is hard because it is so threatening. Resources and assurances are few; questions and anxiety are plentiful. In the desert you discover you have no choice but to trust God, which is why it is a place where souls are shaped.”
In our reading from Exodus today we discover that the Israelites’ problem is ultimately not with Moses and Aaron, but with God. Even Moses can see this: it’s not he or his brother that the people can’t trust, it’s Yahweh; and that’s because they don’t know or understand that this same God who enacted their deliverance also plans to be with them in the wilderness. They don’t “get” that while their plight is very real, God in his providence will sustain them for the journey ahead. Once you’ve started crossing the desert, you see, there is no going back; the future and its promise lay ahead – and Israel had not yet come to embrace the truth that only the God of mystery could get them there.
So what does God do in the midst of the murmuring? How will God respond to a people who won’t trust him to lead? Well, the answer comes in one of the most evocative images we have in the Old Testament: God tells Moses that “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you.” It’s manna, a fine, flaky substance with the taste of honey that appears each new day with the morning dew, “as fine as the frost on the ground.” It is a true gift of God, but it is a gift that comes with instructions: first, every family has to gather their own; you can’t hoard it because by the middle of the day it will have been spoiled by the worms; and only one day’s ration was allowed, except on the sixth day of the week, when you could have an extra portion for the Sabbath. So, manna in the morning, followed by the arrival of quail in the evening for meat – not too much, to be sure, but enough, just enough sustenance to keep them going on the journey.
Interestingly enough, while Moses is very reassuring in bringing this news to the people – “in the morning you will see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your complaining” – God, on the other hand, is very up front about how this will be a test of Israel’s trust and faith; whether or not this measure of food will lead them to trust that God will continue to provide along the way. At first read, that almost sounds vindictive, the very vision of the judgmental God of the Old Testament. But looking at this a little more closely, it makes perfect sense that God would see this as a test of faith; it actually kind of completes the gift!
You see, God knew there would never be enough sustenance in this world to rid us of every concern and anxiety we carry; for the true nature of our life is that it predictably unpredictable! In other words, just about the time we figure out what we need to survive whatever we’re facing today, here comes another challenge that needs facing tomorrow! On some level or another we will always be hungry, we will always be thirsty, there will always be yet another unexpected twist and turn along the pathways we follow; like it or not, that is simply the nature of human life, and if we’re going to live that life with any sort of confidence or integrity, friends, we are going to have to walk those pathways trusting God, knowing that there will be more manna when we need it.
Granted, we do the best we can along the way: we put away money for the future, we build up our pension accounts, we get serious about losing weight and exercising more, we focus on doing things correctly and well. But at the end of the day, that only takes us so far, and we have to give the rest over to God… this God who will provide for us one meal, one day, one blessing at a time; truly giving us “this day our daily bread.”
Most of you probably know by now that before we came to East Church, I was at a place I like to refer to as “in-between callings.” Lisa, the children and I had left Ohio and had come back to Maine, where I was going to focus all my attention on the search and call process and finding a new church. And we did so knowing that in the United Church of Christ, this is a process that can take some time; but hey, it was summer, we had the camp and it was going to be fine! But… as August turned into September and the days of autumn crept toward winter and still nothing concrete about a pastoral position, I’ll be honest; we were all starting to feel a little nervous as to how the future was unfolding!
Lisa and I started talking more about how the bills were going to get paid; how we were going to handle things if in fact, the right church didn’t come along right away. With the weather getting colder at the lake, we moved in with the in-laws for the winter (an act of great love and generosity that I’m sure was nonetheless a shock to their systems!), and Zach started his senior year in a place even more unexpected than he’d planned on. Now in retrospect, as the weeks rolled on I don’t know if I ever doubted God, but in all honesty I had begun to feel completely mired in the middle of my own personal desert wilderness. And I remember one day around Christmastime driving through a blinding snowstorm, all so that I could put in an application for some part-time job at a local radio station that I was not qualified for and would never get; and very angry and frustrated about it; feeling all the world as though I was now being forced to leave the vocation I loved, to which I felt called, in order to survive.
I was murmuring, friends… oh, yes. I murmured.
The funny thing, though, is that we did survive. And moreover, looking back, we did pretty well considering. I can tell you that each one of us in our family grew from the experience, and that we would not be where we are now in our faith had it not been for those days. Mind you, it wasn’t that there were all these great and abundant miracles that just fell out of the sky; but I can say that with every new day there was a blessing: a lesson learned, an insight gained, some relationship strengthened, and even an interview or two with a search committee that opened our hearts to what God was planning. All I can say, friends, is that every day along the way we got to experience just a little bit of God’s glory – our gift of manna and quail.
Was it an easy pathway to walk? No. Did I still worry sometimes along the way? Oh, yes. And if sometime in the future I find myself overwhelmed by the journey might I star murmuring again? Yeah, probably. But what I learned from all the walking was this – and I reason I’m telling you this story is in the hope and prayer that if you’re in the midst of a desert today, this might serve as good news for you – that in trusting God to provide the food we need for the way, receiving those daily blessings that God has to give us, the chances are very good indeed that by God’s providence and his grace, there will be something like an East Congregational Church waiting for us at the end of the journey.
Truly, for this and all of his daily blessings, thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry