New Revised Standard Version
2 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
4 Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5 On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” 6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” 8 And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”
9 Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” 10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11 The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12 “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’”
13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”
Well friends, today is rare! Why? I’m talking out of the Old Testament, or the Torah, this am! If you haven’t noticed the past almost 3 years, I pretty much stick exclusively to sharing stories out of the four gospels, not that I have anything against the other parts of the Bible, just that I love the teachings and life of Jesus…but, today, I’m preaching out of the Exodus passage from the lectionary. It’s an amazing story of provision and promise in the midst of wandering in the wilderness.
I have not been to the Middle East. Someday I hope to visit Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and many of these places. But, I have spent time in the wilderness, and in places that may be similar to the land between Egypt and Israel.
I’ve always loved the mountains, but in the past dozen years or so, I’ve fallen in love with the desert, specifically the high desert.
When we lived in southern California while attending seminary for my M.Div., we started going to Joshua Tree National Park quite a bit. I fell in love with the barrenness of the high desert, yet also the beauty of the rock formations and those amazing Joshua Trees! I remember sitting on rocks and simply looking at the surroundings and noticing that in this seemingly barren place, there was so much beauty and an abundance of life when you slowed down to see it.
It was also a place of joy for my family, I remember waking up one morning in the desert and my son, who was about 5 at the time, so excited as he was looking out of our tent to see snow coming down! It was snowing in the desert and so surreal seeing snowflakes surrounding sand and Joshua Trees. It was a magical moment!
Our passage in Exodus this morning talks about abundance in a place or season of barrenness. The Israelites had been enslaved for hundreds of years in Egypt. Moses comes along, actually at a very old age, probably in his 70’s or 80’s, demanding that the Pharaoh of Egypt let his people leave. That was a hard thing for the Pharaoh to do, his empire’s wealth had been built on the backs of a people with free labor for generations. It’s a story that’s been repeated throughout history, exploit and dehumanize a certain group and use their free labor to build wealth for another group…its how empires are made it seems.
For those that have been enslaved, it literally and generationally beats them down! The Israelites wanted to be released, yet, they also did not know what that would mean.
You know the story, after a while, the Israelites were released after all sorts trials and tribulations put upon the Egyptians by God…and they went, and were even chased by the Egyptians after they second-guessed themselves and realized that would no longer have free labor…yet, God delivered them…into the wilderness between enslavement and the promised land.
God had told Moses it would take 40 years of wandered in the wilderness, in the desert, but that God would provide. After a while, the Israelites forget about the bad things of being enslaved and put a nostalgic twist on being in Egypt, they had food, they weren’t exposed…they complained to Moses and Aaron…and, I love this, Moses and Aaron said don’t complain to us…we are just doing what God said, complain to God. And, they did…and God answered.
God gave manna from heaven…just enough for them. If they hoarded it, it went bad…if they did not collect enough, God still gave them their fill. The gospel lesson that goes with this passage int the lectionary is the parable of the vineyard workers that work different hours, but still get the same wage. In other words, God’s economy is not based on how much you work, but how faithful you live…and that faithfulness is wrapped up in God’s fidelity and faith in you, me, all of us together in community and loving relationship.
The Israelites complained, and God, because God is relationship, listened…and gave them abundance in the barren land, abundance for all of them, not just the leaders like Moses and Aaron…and gave them something more, something that they had to work for while wondering in the desert for 40 years, and then 40 more even as they didn’t listen to God…and they had had not finished their work. Their work was to find new ways of being, away from enslavement and exploitation, away from the luxuries of the promised land…they had to find their identity as Israel. They became a nation while wandering the wilderness, not by arriving at their destination in the promised land.
In my doctoral class, I had to write on where I am, and where I think our church is, during this season, here’s what I wrote a couple of months ago:
Our church, and the church universal are in a time of wilderness where we are being emptied so that new things can potentially grow. I am as well. It is dry at times, I’m a bit lost, my enneagram “3” persona is activated (to work, to achieve, to move our church forward), but also evolving and I am becoming deeply aware that I am moving towards a new place within me and in life in general in the midst of so much uncertainty.
An image that comes to mind is Moses and the Israelites wandering the desert, the wilderness, on their way to the promised land. It takes them 40 years, and then 40 more, and finally they get there. But, even the promised land has its ups and downs and the Israelites forget what they learned in the wilderness. They forget after a while of being in the promised land that God gave them abundance in food, manna from heaven, birds, water, and gave them an identity as a people as they formed new practices and ways of being.
In so many ways, I have arrived at a great place, with good people at our church.
I would add, that we are not in the promised land, yet, but that great place is a journey together and that we are present with one another.
Friends, I know, I am listening, we are in a wild season culturally and in our personal lives. Yet, we are not alone, God is listening, God is answering, God is providing abundance in what seems like a barren land or season. And, God is not through with us, we have work to do. Moses was in his 70’s or 80’s (maybe even 90’s) when he led his people out of captivity and into the wilderness…he never made it to the promised land, he accepted it and took on leadership and legacy and had faith that God would lead his people home. It’s my prayer that we see the abundance around us and that we do the work of building up faith and our identity while we wander together in the wilderness…and, in the meantime, what wonders we will see! Manna from heaven, maybe? Snowflakes in the desert, possibly? Who knows…let’s just keep our eyes, and our hearts, open to ourselves, to others, to possibility, and to God!
Let’s end with these words from Isaiah:
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. – Isaiah 43:19 NRSV