Feeding in the Wilderness

Feeding in the Wilderness

September 24th, 2017


Exodus 16:2-15

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 he 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 he has heard your complaining.” ’And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, ‘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.” ’

In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 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. 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.


Moses had a lot of experience herding sheep.  That was good training for herding a bunch of wayward Israelites.  Always finding trouble, getting lost, complaining, and wanting someone to blame.

I’m a little disappointed in Moses.  Even he sidesteps responsibility and blames God.  Imagine if the personnel committee were to call me in, say for preaching a really bad sermon.  And I blamed God.  It doesn’t fly in your workplace, it shouldn’t fly in mine.

So we have this story of a band of people struggling with some very present issues, the most pressing being their hunger.  Their hunger being amplified by the barrenness of the desert and the seemingly endless trekking about and getting nowhere.

The Israelites are experiencing a desperation that might come to any of us at any time.  So in answer to their situation I want to discuss three topics:

Yearning for the past, murmuring, and receiving the unexpected.

I believe all of us experience some yearning for the past.  We like to remember what we call “the good old days.”   Like the Israelites, suddenly wishing they could return to slavery in Egypt, we might like to go back—at least for a visit.

I grew up in San Diego.  It was beautiful in those days.  It still is, but not like it was.  If I could go back to San Diego in the forties and fifties I would go in a heartbeat.  But then I don’t want to go back to driving that ’47 Mercury or the ’39 Ford pickup.

Maybe those good old days weren’t quite as good as I like to remember.  It’s how our brain functions.  Without realizing it we kind of cherry pick the good stuff.

And what do you think ISIS is trying to do?  They are trying to go back to the good old days of the Caliphate.  I wonder how many fighters they would have if the full reality of the Caliphate were known.

In the church, at least in the Presbyterian Church, many of us think back to the good old days in the fifties when everyone went to church and church life was booming.  As much as I would enjoy seeing those days of church popularity return, I wonder if, in the midst of all that glory, we were in fact less dedicated to the hard requirements of a Gospel faith.

Well, here’s the biggest problem with our memory of the good old days.  You and I cannot embrace the future if we’re stuck in the past.  If our purpose is to get back to the past we are lost.  We can’t go there.  We experience time as moving in only one direction.

I submit that the Israelites, in the yearning to go back to Egypt, had lost their sense of purpose.  When they agreed to leave Egypt, they had not agreed as to where they were going or how they would get there.  The couldn’t see the end of their troubles.

So my suggestion to you is this:  Treasure the good memories.  Look to the future.  Get a sense of where you are going.  In this congregation we are headed into new and uncharted territory.  It can be an exciting and wonderful time.  Whether it is you individually or the church collectively, we need a sense of where we are going.  I believe your interim pastor will want to help you with this.  A well-defined sense of purpose for the future must override all your nostalgia over the past.

Our text says the Israelites were complaining.  An older translation has it more accurately:  They were murmuring.  They were complaining under cover, behind the back.  Murmuring is always a destructive force in the church.  It’s an acid that eats away at the fabric of our fellowship.

Murmuring happens when we talk about a problem in the church to everyone but those who can do something about it.  There are people who behave as if they would rather complain about a problem than fix it.

When I was at Park Avenue Church in Des Moines, where I served 16 years, I had a session member who always wanted to fix blame.  If there was a problem, he wanted to know whose fault it was.

I have learned that blaming is one of the most futile things we can do in the church.  So one session meeting I turned to this elder and I said, “Dave, it’s my fault.  Now how are we going to fix it?”  I did this every time he sought to know whom to blame.  I did this for about six months until he finally turned to me and said, “John, it’s not your fault.” I don’t know if he understood, but we were moving toward solving problems in preference to fixing blame.

I appreciate it when people take responsibility for their actions.  But usually in a church, an investigation just delays fixing the problem.  That’s what I really want. I want the problem fixed.  I want relationships restored.  I want the office equipment functioning.  I want the dirt on the floor mopped up.  If we can keep it from happening again, great.

I can’t speak for every pastor, but for myself:  I have always appreciated those who would come to me directly and tell me of their concerns for my ministry.  And I have appreciated having a fine personnel committee who would help me sort out the concerns I needed to hear and those I could set aside.

A few months after my first wife died my personnel committee confronted me with the fact that I needed to give more attention to my hygiene and personal appearance.  They were right to do this.  It was a kindness that helped to move me out of my post-partum depression, getting back on the track.

Murmuring never did for me what plain speaking could accomplish.

Complaining tends to leak out into the community at large.  No one intends that.  But it goes out and does its work and destroys the reputation of the church.

Friends, if you see a problem and you want it fixed, talk to someone who has the authority.  Talk to Mary.  Talk to the personnel committee.  Talk to the session.  That pretty much covers the trinity of problem solving in this congregation.  If you have to complain, complain to someone who can fix the problem.

Sometimes when we pray we ask for one thing and get something else.  The something else may be so different from what we asked that we don’t even recognize that our prayer was answered.

When the Israelites prayed for food, they had in mind the boiled fish they were eating in Egypt.  Familiar food.  Nourishing food.

What did they get?  A substance so unfamiliar that they called it manna, which translates “What is it?”  Actually, it was the excretion of an insect that lives in the tamarisk trees found throughout the area.  Yuk.  And quail who were passing through on their annual migration.  But we know they weren’t wrapping that dry quail breast in bacon. What the Israelites were given to eat wasn’t what they generally thought of as food.

When I describe this food, I’m not saying God didn’t do it.  I’m saying God used what was available, did what was possible, and it was totally unfamiliar and unexpected.

Receiving the Unexpected.  They wanted food.  They got manna.  Israel wanted a king.  They got Saul who was sick.  The Jews want a Messiah.  They get Jesus.  He didn’t fit their idea of a Messiah, so they rejected him.  The answer to pray may not be what we thought it should look like.

Friends, our life together is changing.  Our church may become more intimate.  We may no longer be able to afford to have people sitting on the sidelines.  Whatever problems arise, let us work together to solve them.  When it looks like things aren’t going so well, remember God is with us.

I wonder if there is some purpose God has for our congregations that we are to discover as we wander to our future together.  And to what extent we may already be in a Promised Land.

Wherever, whatever that future may be for us: Let us trust God to feed us, to carry us, to move us forward, as we seek God’s guidance and desire God’s will.

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