Tag Archives: Exodus 16:1-15 sermon

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.)


21 Sept. 2014 sermon — Exodus 16:1-15

DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!

The Past, Present, and Future Church

21 September 2014 — 15th Sunday after Pentecost

Click here to read scripture first: Exodus 16:1-15 (NRS)

When my parents and sister were here two weeks ago, we went to tour the Hermitage. I felt like an undercover spy checking out the historical roots of this church.  As we entered the museum, one of the first things that stood out was a panel about Ms. Nancy. If I’m remembering the details correctly, President Jackson brought her to the Hermitage to be a seamstress. The last sentence about her tells that she and her descendants were one of the only slave families to become members of this church. The house was beautiful and I loved the garden. But I found myself having difficulty with the history of the 150 slaves serving the Jacksons on the Hermitage. Their jobs ranged from house cook, to stableman, to field hands. Knowing about the ways many slaves were treated in early America, we only can imagine how harsh their lives were. Now, I realize everyone who was anyone owned slaves back in the early 1800s. But I still don’t like it. The fact that only one family of the 150 slaves of the Hermitage ever became members of this church leaves me wondering:  how can such an engrained trend of racial separation ever be turned around.  . . .  Before we finished our tour, I took my family back to the old church building and explained to them that’s where we have Easter Sunrise service. Had it not been for the fire in the late 1960s, we still might be worshipping each week in that very spot. . . . I’ve read the documents from around the time of the fire when this church re-asserted who it was and who it wanted to be in the future. A strong commitment to worship and study continued – which supposedly was the reason Rachel Jackson first asked Andrew about a space on the Hermitage for a church. From all I’ve read, we have great pride in our Hermitage roots; but as we were moving into this facility, we wanted it to be known that we’re not just the church the Jackson family started. We have our own identity and mission apart from having President Jackson’s pew marked with a memorial plaque, as it is in the old church building. It came through the mission documents that we want to worship God, grow in our faith, and be of service in this community.

It’s all got me thinking about looking to the past. Churches so often do it and in some respects, we must. I mean, we have to know from where we came if we want to know where we’re going. Like: it’s important for us to be aware of the nature of the connections our founding church family had with those around them if we want to address how we best connect with those around us today. I suspect our church members of the 1960s knew that, which is why they asserted their appreciation for our start among the Jacksons, yet affirmed our growth into a church with its own convictions and direction. . . . We just can’t be a rowboat church. You know, you row a boat looking backwards from where you’ve come. But you sail a boat looking forward. Heading in the direction you hope to reach. Attending to the forces of the winds upon the sails right where you stand. It might be comfortable to be a rowboat church. Because we can longingly gaze upon the past, in order to keep us from having to face the unknowns of the future.

It’s what Ancient Israel was doing. There they were, just six weeks into their miraculous freedom from Egypt when they started grumbling against Moses and Aaron, for the second time, no less. “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt,” they complain, “When we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread. For you (Moses, our supposedly mighty leader, and you, Aaron, his sidekick,) have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger!” (Ex. 16:3). The pressure’s on. They’re hungry. The unleavened bread they might have brought with them out of Egypt is about ate up. God just had provided amazingly sweet water for them when nothing but undrinkable stuff was around them in the wilderness of Shur. Now in the wilderness of Sin between Elim and Sinai, they’re so afraid they’re going to starve that they long for the past days of their slavery.  . . .  It’s amazing to me how incredibly patient God is with them – with us. They are romanticizing their past. Thinking the security of food in their stomachs under the Pharaoh of Egypt is better than the freedom they have with God at their side in their present circumstances. There they are and as long as they remain rowboat people, looking back to glorify a past that never really was all that glorious anyway –they were slaves. As long as they keep looking back at their past, they will not see the blessings with which God is surrounding them right there in their present. They’ve got bread – manna every morning and quail every night – thanks to the God who is with them trying to make them into something amazing for the future.

A fairly new process for organizational improvement exists called Appreciative Inquiry. Some of you might know of it from your roles beyond the church because it started in business and eventually trickled its way into the church. Appreciative Inquiry is a process in which you take stock of what you have, then build upon that. It sounds so much like common sense. Like: instead of running out to the store all the time to pick up something new because a recipe calls for it; just figure out what dish to create with the ingredients you have in the kitchen. Common sense, right?  . . .  Two sociologists at Case Western University created the Appreciative Inquiry process where an organization is to focus on its strengths in order to improve its bottom line. That’s energizing. That’s exciting. That even seems like the most faithful way to honor the gifts with which God surrounds us each day.  . . .  It no longer becomes about fixing a problem – trying to get something we don’t have, or be about something none of us is really any good at, which seems how we so often tend to live our lives – especially in the church. We either get stuck looking back at how it was and think we need to keep that up today. Or we compare ourselves to how everyone else is – what other churches have that we think we need to have too.  . . .  I’m so very glad God is so very patient with us because just like the ancient Israelites: God is showering gifts on them in their present. Sending manna and quail as their food each day but they keep whining away for something else – something other than the gifts God is giving them today. Churches that operate like that might find themselves as frustrating to God as were those would-not-live-free slaves who found themselves having to wander forty years in the wilderness for God to shape them into something else.

To be guided by Appreciative Inquiry is to name and claim our strengths in order to grow from there. It’s to inquire about what we have to appreciate and then to build upon that. It’s like the story of the wise teacher who reminds that God doesn’t ask why we’re not doing a better job at being Moses. God asks if we’re doing the best job at being ourselves.  . . .  In a nut shell, Appreciative Inquiry includes a five D cycle where you define, discover, dream, design, and then live into your destiny. It’s a way to take stock of the present. To ask the same question the Israelites were asking when they said of the manna: “What is it?” (Ex. 16:15). What is the bread God has provided for us today? What are the strengths we have among us that are God’s gifts to us for being the church today?  . . . Churches that undergo the process are set free to create amazing ministry that is relevant and responsible with the gifts of who they are right in the time and place God has put them. It’s being who God wants them to be:  a present church living into God’s desired future. Seeing the bread God is giving each day and being faithful to enjoy and allow the fruits of that bread to grow.

I realize it might be a new way to be. And I know new things can be scary. Can you imagine how scary it was for Ancient Israel? Nothing about their lives in the wilderness seemed familiar. The story goes that they had to go through huge walls of water with the Egyptian army chasing after them. That had to be terrifying. As far as we know, no other people ever had to do that before. Then they landed in this desolate land – dry and rocky and oh so very dark out there in that great big expanse all by themselves each night. It all was new. Unfamiliar. Unknown. Yet, God was present. Not one day did they travel without the fiery pillar at night and the cloud to shelter them from the hot burning sun of the afternoon. God never leaves us alone. The future always is unknown. New things always are new; but we always are with the One who knows us completely. Who, with or without our cooperation, brings the new out of that which is worn-out. Who holds us in our past, present, and future – to our end and beyond. It’s the God with us who gives what is needed to make it through each day. We’ve no need to fear. Just the curiosity to look around to ponder what gifts do we have for today that will lead the way into our future. What strengths has God provided upon which we can build? What is the blessed bread God has given that will be food not just for us in this place, but for those beyond the walls of this sanctuary?

May the God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow open our eyes to see it all.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2014  (All rights reserved.)