Wilderness Tensions

Theology Thursday

Here is the sermon I was telling you about yesterday. This was Round One. Round Two went better, partly because the people in the second service are more apt to laugh at jokes, and partly because I had already made it through this here trial run. (Please feel free to leave comments on the video itself, and/or thumbs up and down.


Also here (in case you couldn’t decipher my mumbling) is the sermon I was telling you about yesterday.

Wilderness Tensions – Exodus 16.2-16

Who here has been on a road-trip? How ‘bout a LONG road-trip? How ‘bout a LONG roadtrip with super whiny kids? The story from the passage that Don read for us today is, in a way, about a really really long road-trip with really really whiny kids. Going on this trip together are God, Moses and Aaron who are God’s spokesmen, and the rest of the Israelites. They’re all traveling together through this bleak desert, and every time something doesn’t go the way the Israelites want, they start whining, “Are we there yet?”

As you know, in the Bible passages of the past few weeks, God has just set the Israelites free from 400 years—400 years—of slavery in Egypt. The thing is, they don’t know what to do with their freedom. And, if the truth were known, they don’t know what to do with God, either. In fact, even though they’ve seen the plagues in Egypt, and they saw the Red Sea split in half, and right before this story God cleaned up some brackish water for them so they’d have something to drink, they seem to have forgotten all about God because now their bellies are rumbling and they’re blaming Moses and Aaron. They’re kind of being drama queens about it, too—

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wildernessThe 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 [Moses and Aaron] have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Listen to what they’re saying. They’re saying, “We had it good in Egypt!” [They didn’t—they were being tortured there. For 400 years.] “If God had any part of this, He would have just let us die there.” [It’s pretty clear from the preceding stories that God is the reason they didn’t die in Egypt.] “YOU guys are interfering jerks who dragged us out of luxury to this horrible place to starve to death.” [There was luxury, but the only one of them who ever experienced any of that was Moses.]

I think if I were Moses and Aaron I might’ve at least thought of saying to the Israelites, “Seriously, guys? You are a pain in the . . . neck! We would not be doing this if we didn’t have to. This totally was not our idea!” I guess they’re a little more mature than I am, because they don’t say that in so many words. But they do say, “Okay, people. God hears you. God is going to feed you. But please understand, you whiners, that when you think you are complaining about us, you are really complaining about God.”

That same night, God sends quail so the people have, you know, protein to keep their strength up, and the next morning, God covers the ground with this flaky bread substance they’ve never seen before, which they can gather to prepare for their families to eat. The end.

Good story, right? But what does it have to do with us?

We could probably preach sermons on this one passage for a couple of weeks, but one concept kept coming back to me as I read over and studied this passage, and that is that God wants to know us and be known by us. God wants to be an active, integral, irreplaceable part of our daily lives. God wants us to come to Him when need something. “Give us this day our daily bread,” anyone?

A few weeks ago some simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting videos appeared on the Internet, of soldiers airlifting Yazidi refugees out of Iraq. This is the closest present-day parallel I can think of to what God did for the Israelites in the book of Exodus. But the Exodus story goes beyond even that extreme rescue. Because instead of just getting the people out of Egypt and then leaving them to get on with life, God stays with them, leads them, protects them, provides for them. This is what God wants to do for all people. We were created in God’s image, to reflect God to the world through our relationship with God. This is why God rescued the Israelites, and this is why God wants to rescue us from a life of slavery to our own selves or our own circumstances.

The Israelites in this passage knew about God. They had been praying for 400 years to this vague “God of our ancestors” concept, that He would rescue them. But because up to that point they had had so little personal experience of Him, it appears they didn’t recognise His work in their lives when He began actually answering those prayers. So they put it all on Moses and Aaron.

Moses tells it like it is: “What are we, that you complain against us?” he asks in verse 7. And in verse 8 he says it again: “What are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.” And then in verse 9 he says, “Draw near to the Lord, for He has heard your complaining.”

There are two words in that verse that sum up one of the main messages of this text: Draw near. “Come a little closer,” God is saying. “You guys obviously don’t know Me yet. All that complaining you’re doing? Is not against my leaders. It’s against Me. But don’t worry. I hear you. Draw near.” God wants to know us and be known by us. It just might be that when we’re going through a hard time and looking around for someone to blame, God is right there, saying, “Come over here, child. Stop freaking out. This is happening in your life because it is the only way I could think of to get you to just stop, and get to know Me. Draw near.” He wasn’t going to let the Israelites starve to death. That had never been His intention. But He allowed them to get hungry so they’d have the opportunity to get close.

There are two reasons I can think of that the people would have blamed Moses and Aaron and assumed those two men had led them into the wilderness to starve them to death. Either they didn’t know who God was, or they knew exactly who God was.

The Israelites had been passing along stories about this God for centuries—stories of how God had chosen their ancestors, stories of what God had done for their ancestors. But until God started sending plagues to Egypt, they hadn’t experienced God personally and directly themselves. They had probably heard very accurately about some of God’s characteristics—God is creator, God is good, God is holy, God is just. They were starting to experience God’s power. But if that’s all they knew about God, they might have been afraid to be honest and complain about God Himself because . . . what it if God got mad? We’ve seen God mad. Or maybe God just doesn’t care. Maybe this problem isn’t big enough for God to bother with. God took care of all the big stuff, but this is just humdrum “we gotta eat, people” problems and God has more important things to deal with. Because we know God is good, and if that’s true and He’s still involved, how can we be in this terrible situation? We’re so hungry! A good God wouldn’t put us in this fix. Must be Moses’ and Aaron’s fault.

It makes sense, right? And don’t we do that sometimes? Some of us have been going to church our whole lives. We’ve heard the stories. Maybe we’ve even experienced a few things that we can point to and say, “God did that!” But the stories and miracles have nothing to do with normal life, and normal life has struggles which have nothing to do, we think, with what we know about the goodness and love of God. We might complain about our lives—we might complain a lot, and sometimes we might even have good reason to—but there’s no way we would come right out and blame God for our difficulties. That would be disrespectful, and we know that at least God deserves our respect.

We say, “I’m going to get established in my job, or my family, or my hobbies, or even my volunteer work, and then maybe I’ll have time for God and church.” Then, when things don’t go our way, we blame other people, or we might even blame ourselves, but we don’t draw near to God because . . . if we’re honest with ourselves, we just aren’t totally convinced God cares that much. We think we have to get our lives figured out on our own before we can “draw near” to God. We don’t want to bother him with this normal life stuff. If we keep going like this long enough, we become spiritually as hungry as these Israelites were physically hungry, there in the desert. We’re absolutely starving, but we don’t know what to do about it—so we just complain.

But God does care about the basic stuff of life. In verse 12, God tells Moses to say to the Israelites, “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.” God has heard the cries of His people, and He is planning to satisfy their hunger as He satisfied their thirst in the last chapter. But they’re going to get hungry again, and they’re going to get thirsty again, and God really wants them to know who He is, because God is the one who has led them to freedom, and has rescued them from their enemies, and has quenched their thirst, and will fill their stomachs. He will do that for us, too, if we take our concerns to Him.

You might, if you read it a certain way, even hear God’s pain and longing when He tells Moses, “You’ll all get to eat—and then you will know that I am the Lord your God.” Maybe you didn’t know it when I sent the plagues . . . or when I split the sea apart . . . or when I purified the water for you, but after this? Then you will know who I am . . . “ God isn’t needy like the Israelites were in this story, but if you love someone deeply, it’s natural to long for them to love you back.

On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, the Israelites had a hunch about the kind of God they were dealing with. Maybe they did believe, but they didn’t want to draw near because they were afraid of what getting close to that creative, powerful, good, just and holy God would mean. Maybe they wanted the freedom, but not the upheaval to their lives that a relationship with this God would entail. They had seen some upheaval—plagues and a divided sea are kind of drastic first impressions!

I think we can understand this from our own lives, too. We can get quite comfortable with the idea that we are God’s children, but we’re maybe not so comfortable with the idea of having to interact with this Parent of ours. He might ask something difficult of us—something that interferes with our plans, something that might even change how we see ourselves and God and others. So we keep to ourselves as much as we can.

This apprehension is a little justifiable. In this passage it’s clear God expects something of them. God does fill their hunger . . . but He attaches some strings. He gives them a specific way and time that they are to gather this new wafer-like Manna bread. In verse 4 God comes right out at says He’s giving the Israelites a test. Sounds like a set up. What kind of loving God is that?

So yeah. Maybe God is just playing games. But I think what God is really doing is providing one more way for His people to learn and understand just who He is and how much He does love them. Obedience is not a popular word in our society, and that’s because among us humans, the concept is often abused. The Israelites already knew about obedience. They had been obeying their Egyptian slave drivers for centuries. That kind of obedience comes from fear at worst and duty at best. That kind of obedience negates relationship. It’s the kind where you just work hard and put your head down and hope you don’t get noticed.

But obedience from relationship is almost completely the opposite. It is not born of fear, but of trust. If you are a parent you know this. When your kid obeys you gladly, you love it, not because you have power over them to make them do things (I hope!), but because by obeying you, they took you at your word, trusting that you had their best interest at heart. In this passage the people haven’t even had the opportunity to disobey God about the manna yet. So I think what God is upset about here is their dishonest avoidance. They were hungry, and they were upset, but instead of taking their issues directly to God, it’s like they were kind of talking behind His back.

God so longs for people—the Israelites, but also all people—you and me, too—to “know that He is the Lord our God,” because if we know that—really know that, on the basis of an open and honest relationship with God, we will obey because we already know God’s heart. We already know that no matter what happens, He’s got us. We already know we can trust God—so that when God asks us to do something, we “obey,” not because we’re being ordered to, but because we trust the God who is telling us.

This, by the way, is what “faith” means. It means trust. And trust is practical. Trust does something. It isn’t something that is just in our heads. It isn’t a label. It’s an action. It means when God nudges you to help serve in the food pantry downstairs, you say yes because you know God’s going with you there. It means when you start to wonder if maybe you haven’t been totally honest in your business but that getting honest is going to have negative repercussions, you start cleaning up the mess anyway, because you know God will be with you as you do it. It means if you feel like you should probably be reading your Bible more but you don’t have one spare second in your day, you find one, because you trust that God will help you fit everything else in that needs to get done that day. It means going out on a limb for Someone who we are discovering is both loving and powerful enough to free us from our own personal slavery, deliver us from our enemies, quench our thirst, and fill our hunger.

Here’s the difference between our story and the Israelites, though. Even though I believe God wanted the Israelites to be honest about who they were really upset at, they really did have middle men: Moses and Aaron. It’s a lot easier to blame someone you can see than someone you can’t, and God had already been speaking through those two guys. But in the time between their story and ours, God became one of us, in the person of Jesus. We have the perfect middle man—someone who both perfectly represents God (because He is God) and us (because He became human). We really have no excuse not to draw near to God, because He has already drawn near to us. And here’s something interesting—not only is Jesus our mediator, like Moses and Aaron were to the people of Israel, but He tells us Himself in the book of John that He is our “Bread of Life.” He is our fulfillment. He is what we are really seeking. As we get to know Him, we will get to trust Him. If we bring Him the pieces of our lives, our hunger and our thirst—and even our disobedience—He will take those pieces and make something whole and fulfilled and trusting out of them.

Sometimes our relationship with God begins with—or at least contains—a time of tension. We all have ideas of how we want our lives to go. We might prefer that God gets to know us by following us along in our plans, instead of the other way around. It’s when we “draw near” to Jesus and honestly bring Him who we are, even if that means complaining to or arguing directly with Him for a while—without the other “middle men” of blame-shifting, false respect, or avoidance—that we can get to know and experience who God is. God is love, and that love is not always easy, but it is always trustworthy, and always glorious. He is the Bread of Life.

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he 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.’”

Present-day glory in the clouds

Present-day glory in the clouds


10 thoughts on “Wilderness Tensions

    • Aww–thanks, Bas! That means a lot!

      Also, I love how Theology Thursday now has an acronym. Makes it sound like a thing. 😉

      You need to jump into the tweetfests I’ve been part of recently. I think you’d like the new tweeps I’ve met. I’m actually ENJOYING Twitter this time around.

  1. A wonderful message! I like the image of a road trip with whining kids “are we there yet?” And the link between obedience and trust really caught my attention. Bless you Jenn!


  2. Well done, Jenn! 🙂
    One thing I noticed, for all of us joyful pedants…. I was told that the people who left Egypt under Moses’ leadership were the Hebrews (Hebiru in Egyptian). A ragtag group of escapees. Not Israelites. Any thoughts on that, anyone? Been a while, not sure where I read it.

    • “Israelite” is admittedly probably not the greatest term, but they were “children of Israel” if any of their history is to be believed. Also ethnically Hebrew, which is probably how they were known when they arrived in Egypt, when their “father” Israel (aka Jacob) was still alive.

    • As to the ragtag, the text does mention a “mixed crowd,” implying that some other non-Israelites or even non-Hebrews left with them. In this case “Israelite” is a generalisation assuming that these other people were now identifying themselves with the majority of escapees.

      • They were called Israelites after Exodus, when they founded Israel and Judah. My memory is that Hebrews was a general term for various Semitic groups that had come to Egypt to better their lot, and eventually left with Moses. No sense thinking that only Jacob’s family went down… maybe Phoenicians, Amarites, Moabites and the rest of the various tribes mentioned… they were all Egypt’s neighbors and would have welcomed the leadership of Moses when things got unpleasant. Yeah, non Hebrews too… a smattering of Egyptians… why not? Nobody was asking for pedigrees while fleeing the pharaoh… 🙂

  3. Pingback: There Are More Than Two Ways to Say Tomato | That's a Jenn Story

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