Exodus — Part 4
October 4, 2020
Long journeys have this annoying ability to bring out the worst in us. I took a number of road trips growing up in Colorado with my family, but the longest road trip I took was with my ultimate Frisbee team to a tournament in San Francisco. We drove 24 hours straight, leaving at 7pm on Thursday night and arriving about 7pm on Friday night. It was a pretty miserable drive there, as you might imagine, but with the excitement of the tournament in front of us, it was manageable.
The drive home, however, was another story. The tournament did not go well for us, so morale was low. And having sore and aching muscles is not particularly conducive to sitting in a cramped car for 24 hours. I remember that drive home as being a very long, uncomfortable one. And we grumbled all the way home. We grumbled about how we wish we hadn’t gone – it wasn’t worth the 48 hours of driving for upset and disappointment. We blamed the coaching staff for creating poor lines and over-utilizing players who were not playing well. Players in the cars got annoyed with each other. It was not the greatest of moments for our team.
The Israelites, in our passage today, have also found themselves on a long road trip that brings out the worst in them. We’ve fast forwarded a few chapters in our reading through Exodus. The Israelites are now a month and a half removed from their escape from Egyptian bondage. They watched in awe as God delivered them from Pharaoh’s hand using ten different plagues. And even when Pharaoh pursued them with his army, God washed them away in the Sea of Reeds. This is all still fresh in the Israelites’ memories. They’ve seen God’s extraordinary acts of deliverance, and they’ve tasted freedom for the first time. But now it has taken just 45 days for things to turn sour. That’s what happens on long journeys.
The whole congregation of Israel is wandering through the desert wilderness of Sin (not it’s English name, but probably an apt name); they have just left Elim, a desert oasis with springs of water and palm trees abundant. But now they are back on the road, travelling by foot to God-knows-where, and there seems to be a food shortage. The whole congregation of Israel grumbles against Moses and Aaron, saying to them, “Would that we had died back in Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate our fill of bread; but instead, you have brought us into the wilderness only to kill us all with starvation.”
A food crisis for the Israelites has become a faith crisis. With every step further on their wilderness journeying, their faith erodes like the sand dunes they traverse across. They’re on their way to redemption and liberation, but they now doubt whether they will ever get there. Their trust in the God who has already provided for them in miraculous and extraordinary ways is paper thin, as they mistrust whether God gave Moses the correct GPS coordinates. This must all be a mistake; it must all be in error. It would have been better had they never been liberated from Pharaoh’s grip; at least back in Egypt they had enough food. The way forward is uncertain and questionable, so the Israelite’s begin questioning God’s provision for them.
The Israelites can be a frustrating bunch to read about. I mean, they literally just witnessed God splitting the sea open so they could walk through it on dry land; they witnessed God bring plagues upon the Egyptians, and they witnessed themselves liberated from one of the most powerful nations of their day. Yet now they’ve run out of food and they wish they were dead back in Egypt. The Israelites’ story can be so frustrating for us to read, I think, because they are so like us. Because like the Israelites we focus on the scarcity in our life, rather than the abundance; like the Israelites we blame and scapegoat everyone else for why our life is going so poorly right now; like the Israelites, when trouble comes we quickly forget the ways God has provided for us in the past; like the Israelites, we focus on everything that is going wrong with the world, meanwhile failing to notice what is going right.
It is very human of us and the Israelites to focus on what’s not so good in life right now. Suggestions from visitors at the gorgeous and mountainous Bridger Wilderness Park in Wyoming humorously illustrate this tendency. They offer these following suggestions to the park:
“Trails need to be reconstructed. Please avoid building trails that go uphill.”
“Too many bugs and leeches and spider and spider webs. Please spray the wilderness to rid the area of these pests.”
“The coyotes made too much noise last night and kept me awake. Please eradicate these annoying animals.”
“Escalators would help on steep sections.”
“Too many rocks in the mountains.”
Bridger Wilderness Park boasts of alpine lakes, glaciers and breathtaking views of the mountains. But what captured the attention of these visitors wasn’t the beauty around them, but what was going wrong right in front of them.
We all have the tendency to do this sometimes, don’t we? Especially during a year like 2020 — a year that has felt like a painfully prolonged road trip where the car is on fire and we keep taking the wrong turn and have no idea when we will end up at our destination and finally be able to pile out of the car again. And there are no bathroom breaks on this road trip through hell.
2020 has been a long and painful journey, and has provided us with no shortage of disasters and injustices that capture our attention and won’t let us look away. Perhaps we can commiserate with the Israelites. Because it’s hard to grateful for much when you’re worried about starving. It’s hard to trust God when this year has brought heartache after heartache. It’s hard to focus on what is going right when so much is going wrong. And so we grumble. We grumble to each other. We grumble to God and against God.
But check this out: what I think is most striking about our passage this morning is that God never rebukes the Israelites for their grumbling. God doesn’t tell them to knock it off or to be better at trusting in him. No. God says, “Come near to me, for I have heard your grumbling.” God gets it. God hears their grumbling and responds. First, God appears in the form of a cloud, hovering over them and guiding them. It is a reminder that God will be always present with them. And second, God provides daily bread that forms like frost on the ground each new morning, and quail for meat.
The God who worked wonders and miracles in Egypt, who split the Red Sea open, now blesses Israel in a rather ordinary and less dramatic way. You see, the detailed description of manna here corresponds quite closely to a natural phenomenon in the Sinai Peninsula, which is where they were traveling. There’s a type of plant lice that punctures the fruit of the tamarisk tree and excretes a substance from this juice, a yellowish-white flake. It’s rich in carbohydrates and sugar, and is still gathered by natives today, who bake it into a kind of bread. Regarding the quails, migratory birds flying in from Africa or blown in from the Mediterranean are often exhausted enough to be caught by hand. Such gifts of God’s good creation are provided through natural means and are placed at Israel’s disposal.
And this is no accident that God has chosen to provide for them in a less extraordinary way. Now, don’t get me wrong, it is extraordinary how the manna and quail provided are always enough to feed everyone in the assembly. But providing flakes of bread and quail through natural means is nothing compared to splitting open seas and raining down plagues on Egypt. In our passage Israel reacts to the bread and quail only with curiosity, rather than astonishment. You see, the people of Israel had grown accustomed to looking for God’s provision in the extraordinary or the miraculous; they looked for God’s care for them only in that which fell outside the ordinary. “The all too common effect of this is to absent God from the ordinary and everyday and to go searching for God only in the deep-sea and mountaintop experiences” (Fretheim).
The Israelites feared they might starve in the wilderness because their now-infant theology believed God only worked in extraordinary ways, paying attention only to big picture pieces that needed moving. But by blessing the Israelites with daily bread and sustenance through rather ordinary means, God demonstrates to his people that their ordinary needs and daily cares are just as important to God, and will be provided for.
God’s activity on behalf of his people is not focused simply on the dramatic moments in life. God is concerned with all the little things that go to make up our daily rounds. “God is a factor to be reckoned with everywhere, in everything, even in the natural processes of the created order” (Fretheim).
In a year like 2020, it can be all too easy to look for God’s action only in the big picture, to wait for God to act in dramatic and groundbreaking ways. This is not wrong to hope for and to pray for. In fact, as Christians we’re called to do so. But we must be careful not to get so caught up in waiting for God to work in extraordinary ways, that we miss the very real, very tangible and very ordinary ways God is already working and providing for us in our daily life.
Even while a pandemic continues to spread around us, even while we are in the midst of a painfully turbulent and at times gut-wrenching election season, and while we witness more injustices than we know what to do with, we woke up this morning with breath in our lungs and blood beating through our hearts—another day gifted to us. Even while 2020 has been a challenging year for all of us in different ways, we have had food on our tables and clean drinking water. (And if this is not the case for you then please come talk to me and we will make sure you’re provided for). We have friends and family who care about us and whom we care about. We have technology that allows us to connect with one another over long distances. We’ve been gifted with this gorgeous morning outside in God’s creation.
As Pastor Rick Warren writes, “I used to think that life was hills and valleys – you go through a dark time, then you go to the mountaintop, back and forth. I don’t believe that anymore. Rather than life being hills and valleys, I believe that it’s kind of like the rails on a railroad track, and at all times you have something good and something bad in your life. No matter how good things are in your life, there is always something bad that needs to be worked on. And no matter how bad things are in your life, there is always something good you can thank God for.”
When we refuse to allow any bad rails to define our lives, and instead identify the good rails – the ordinary blessings and daily gifts from God—then we will suddenly realize how present God is in our life. This won’t make the “big picture” bad things go away. There is still a pandemic, there are still injustices and suffering in the world that we hope and pray will be redeemed one day. But even as we hope and pray and endure, we notice the manna and the quail all around us. We notice the everyday blessings and gifts that remind us that God is with us. If God cares about our daily needs, then how much more can we trust that God cares about all the big things going wrong in our world? God is bringing about his new creation even now, weaving redemption and healing into the very fabric of life. God is effecting change and hiding gifts in every nook and cranny of your everyday life.
So even as we wander this wilderness place, on a journey much longer than expected or preferred, we trust that God is with us and is at working redeeming all things. Nothing is too great or too insignificant for God to care about and redeem. This is the hope we cling to. Amen.