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Tension in the Wilderness

16th Sunday after Pentecost
September 20, 2020

Exodus 16:2-15

Start with a basic two-door sedan loaded with luggage for a vacation trip. Add a father, mother, and three children under the age of ten. Aim the car at an objective that is 500 miles down the road. After 350 miles have passed, examine the scene. What is the condition of what has become a traveling circus? Pretty discouraging?

Now, magnify that situation thousands of times over, move it back some 3,500 years, eliminate the automobile, and you will begin to understand Moses’ predicament in Exodus 16. The thrill of freedom and the excitement of the exodus were soon erased by the discomforts of travel. Gratitude usually gives way to grumbling” (Michael P. Green, Exodus 16).

Well the Israelites are grumbling again. They have wondered in the desert for years and are getting testy. It isn’t just a small group that is complaining, rather it is the “whole congregation of Israelites” (v.2). Survival is their main focus. Why has Moses rescued them from slavery in Egypt and lead them out into the wilderness just to die of hunger? It isn’t a quick and smooth path to the Land of Milk and Honey. There is tension in the wilderness!

The tension is between looking back and looking ahead. Memory can play tricks on us. The Israelites look back to their life under slavery. They had shelter and plenty of food to eat. They have forgotten the drudgery and living conditions under the domination of Egypt. They are looking ahead to more wandering in a miserable environment that is dangerous and lacks the elements that make life livable.

In a similar sense we are in a wilderness during this pandemic. We’re looking back and wishing things could get back to “normal.” However, that normal no longer exists. Our looking ahead is filled with anxiety over changes that will be a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Moses is feeling the tension in terms of his authority as well. He is giving the people directions from Yahweh but they heap their complaints onto Moses. But in actuality they are complaining against Yahweh because it is God who is providing the manna. Moses then gets Arron to speak along with him in hopes that then they will listen to God’s directions.

Next Moses tells Arron to tell the entire community that God has heard their grumbling. As they looked out over the wilderness the glory of God appeared in a cloud (v.10). Yahweh spoke to Moses and told him to say to the congregation, “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” (v.12). Thus the word of God came true every night and morning.

When the Israelites saw the fine flaky substance on the ground they asked each other “What is that?” Moses told them that it was the bread given to them by the Lord. Its description, has been said to closely corresponds to the carbohydrate-rich excrement of two scale-insects that feed on the twigs of the tamarisk tree “ (14). The name of the food, manna (v31), is explained by an expression meaning “What is it?”(15). Verse 31 describes it “like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.” (We are talking about bug poop that tastes like honey LOL).

Manna (which means “What is it?” ) is known by most people even in the secular world as a blessing. Some unexpected gift, unexpected but needed.

This biblical story of manna gives a gift that is needed but takes place in difficult and uncompromising circumstances. The Israelites are looking back with mixed emotions and forward with unease.

While this story seems to be about bread, the greater focus is on the one who gifted it and our loyalty to the God who always provides for our needs—hears our grumbling as well as our praise and thanksgiving. But there are Pharaohs and their systems that compete for our loyalties.

Pharaoh can represent more than the ancient king of Egypt. Pharaohs can be whatever snares us or holds us down and moves us into a system that crushes the plans God has for us, which tests us and places a large number of expectations on us. In other words will we trust in God’s protection? Will we be generous in sharing our blessings so that everyone has enough?

Fear and anxiety impairs our confidence and keeps us oddly pinned down and chained to the systems that persecute all but those at the very top. We become accustomed to being in tune with such a system even though we may not even be aware of it. Are we people of God or people of Pharaoh? We must remain alert to who feeds us!

The journey for the Israelites was fraught with challenges. We face challenges in our life’s journey as well. The apprehension and worry the starving people of Israel suffered in the wilderness may be hard for us to identify with, but in this wilderness of Covid-19 there are many who are suffering from food insecurity. I see God at work in the actions of Food Share, the Five Corner Cupboard, the soup kitchens, children selling lemonade to raise money for those suffering from food insecurity.

As we travel through life we spend time in both the wilderness and the land of milk and honey. This week the focus is on the wilderness. We have so many in our country in that desolate place: fires, hurricanes, Covid-19, unemployment, depression, cancer, addiction, and a host of other factors. Many might ask where is God in all this. God is in the midst of their wilderness experiences; loving them, sending in angels to feed and comfort them, health care workers with passion and compassion who feel called to provide care, firefighters, doctors, teachers, school bus drivers, and a host of volunteers making masks, putting food in car trunks. I’m sure I have left out a group of angels but God knows who they are and rains down manna on them.

Our sense of manna is tied to our understanding of God’s work and presence in our lives. We like the Israelites can be blinded to God’s presence and work and we grumble and complain when we feel our prayers aren’t answered to our satisfaction.

Are we showing signs of our own tensions in the wilderness? How is stress, fatigue, anger, and anxiety affecting our attitudes? Are we taking the time to self-care? In our story this morning, God stresses the need for sabbath—for a day of rest. Our bodies and brains need rest! Our human need is to “Be still and know that I am God,” to recognize the grace that bolsters us and the source of our manna from heaven—unexpected but needed blessings.

Honor the Sabbath. Rest. Do something that brings you joy! Be intentional about seeing God’s presence today!

In the greatest of hope, may you find respite from the tensions in your wilderness today!

Pastor Carol