Work in the Wilderness

A Sermon for 24 September 2017


A reading from Exodus 16:1-15.  Listen for God’s word to us as we continue to hear from the story of the Exodus.

“The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt.  The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.  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.”  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.  On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.”  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, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because God has heard your complaining against the Lord.  For what are we, that you complain against us?”  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.”  Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for the LORD 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.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!


We could spend our time this morning seeing ourselves in this text.  When we stop long enough to get honest with ourselves, we confess:  we know well the Israelites in the wilderness.  We’re familiar with their complaints, aren’t we?  We know about fear of change.  Of lack.  Of growing into something or someone yet unknown – something or someone not like we’ve ever been before.  We know the desire to go back – even if the past wasn’t as fabulous as our memory makes it out to be.  We’ve learned a thing or two as we’ve aged – at least I hope we have.  So that going back really is something most of us only would be willing to do, IF we got to go back to re-live it all over again with our current hard-earned wisdom and courage and hope that we likely didn’t have back then, but that defines who we have become now.  We know the Israelites:  the blaming of their leaders, the finger-pointing at the Divine, the unwillingness to see what’s right before their eyes – the blessings that surround them NOW, though in a new place – an in-between place.  Though threatened by forces wildly beyond their control.  Though vulnerably uncertain about what the path ahead will require of them.  . . .  If we’re willing to be brutally honest with ourselves, we know that we know our Israelite forbearers well.

Here the LORD God, Sovereign of the Universe, is trying to do a new thing.  To liberate a people from their bondage.  To change a people into those who know deep down in their guts that they are free.  They are valued not for what they do but for who they are.  They are necessary to the Divine’s unfolding work in this world.  Through them – through what God will do in and among them – others will see the glory of the LORD.  Others will come to know the goodness of Love, the foundational nature of God.  . . .  It’s an interesting dance.  This two-steps-forward, one-step-back shuffle in the wilderness.  It’s just the fifteenth day of the second month since God re-set their calendar-keeping at Passover..  Some amazing work already had been done by God for them.  The Passover itself was the tenth miraculous sign in Egypt for all to see.  The whole company of Israel, over six hundred thousand men, and women, children, and livestock too, all went out of Egypt in haste when at last the dash to freedom began.  A pillar of cloud led them by day; and at night, a fiery column gave them the light they needed to find their way.  It was a roundabout path, purposefully, so that the freshly liberated people didn’t have to begin their freedom raging war through other nations’ lands.  Instead, through the sea they went – which was an unbelievable act!  Moses stretching out his shepherd’s staff so the waters themselves would recede, as in creation, for the feet of the multitude to cross safely on dry ground.  What may have seemed like the last leg of their journey, left them singing and dancing for great joy!  Moses’ sister Miriam led the women in joyful procession as Moses and the others sang with grateful delight.  . . .  Three days later in the desert, praise turns to protest.  No water.  No food.  No longer any happy campers!  It’s like that at the beginning of any transformation process, isn’t it?  Even when scary, the journey to something new entices – until the first real challenge comes along.  Like the caterpillar who thinks the world is over, until the moment it bursts from the cocoon as an incredibly new creature.  Wings now, it can fly to be in the world as something totally different.  . . .  Without water and food in the wilderness the people of God really could die.  But what makes us think God ever will lead us somewhere where there will not be enough?

In a wonderful book called, The Universe Has Your Back, spiritual writer Gabby Bernstein urges us to consider whether we truly believe that the Universe has our back.  Or, as I like to frame it:  do we really believe that God has our back?  That God knows even when we do not.  That God will guide so that we trust the beautiful words of the Psalmist, who wrote:  “God will not let your foot be moved; God who keeps you will not slumber . . . the LORD will keep your life . . . from this time on and forevermore” (Psalm 121:3,7b,8b).  . . .  We could spend all our time today thinking about how we are so very much like our Israelite forbearers, or we could listen for the truth of the God of the Wilderness.  Later, when the keepers of the law would record one of Moses’ last charges to the people, we hear:  “Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread  . . . because it is the LORD your God who goes with you; (and) the LORD will not fail you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).  In Isaiah, the prophet records likewise, God saying thus:  “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.  See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (Is. 49:15-16a).  We continually are before our gracious God.  . . .   Manna already was there for them – a substance secreted in the desert from “two insects that live on the tamarisk tree” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A Additional Essays, Proper 20, 2011, Carol J. Dempsey, p. 6).  Quail annually migrate from wintering in Africa to Palestine and Sinai in the spring (Ibid.).  In unknown territory, the gifts of God still were readily available to the people.  Maybe they didn’t really know it yet.  Maybe years of being settled in Egypt had taken their toll so that the people couldn’t remember the incredible generosity of the One who had cut an everlasting covenant with their ancestors Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, and to their offspring forever.  Maybe it was just the beginning of their intimately knowing the God who, according to the Psalmists:  searches us and knows us and loves us completely (paraphrase of Psalm 139).  And, as also recorded by the prophet in Isaiah, God proclaims:  “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior . . . you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (Is. 43:1b-3a,4).

What would our lives look like if we took those words deeply into our being?  How would we go about the living of our days – the ones when we are walking through turbulent waters that seem as if we certainly will drown.  The days when the pressure flashes like hot consuming flames.  And the days when everything within at last is at rest.  What if we lived our lives as if we trusted, what some have called, the sure and steady beneficence of God, the infinite generosity, the overflowing open-heartedness?  What would we be like if we took a little bit more into our souls, the truth of God?  . . .  Just a few years back, I read research that pointed to one of the primary reasons why unchurched Americans aren’t interested in being a part of a church today.  The key factor revealed that our unchurched neighbors don’t see that our lives look any different than their own.  It’s sobering to think that those who only know Christianity through our example, don’t perceive that our stress-levels are any lower than theirs.  That our priorities are any different than theirs.  That we approach connection with our families any differently than they do.  That the way we spend our money and time and lives really are all that distinct from their own.  Why get out of bed Sunday mornings if the other six days of the week aren’t going to be significantly impacted by what happens in us when we come together to worship and study and serve?  If we’re going to be as alarmed in the face of life’s challenges as all the others, why bother being a part of the church at all?

We have the power to change those perceptions; for we have the power of the Holy Spirit in us to go forth into the world a little bit different than how we were when we entered this place.  We can open ourselves to the unfolding of God’s work in our lives.  As joyously as possible, with eyes attuned in gratitude to the gifts that do surround us each day; we can invite God to work in and among us through whatever wilderness of transformation we face.  . . .  May it be so.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)


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