Israel in the Wilderness
We’ve talked about how Jesus’ time in the wilderness, where he confronts temptations that would take him away from God’s vision for the redemption of the world, where he goes having just been reminded of his identity as God beloved’s child, Jesus’s time in the wilderness is our model for wilderness time, and a major model for the season of Lent. We seek to go to the wilderness because Jesus does. But the other primary wilderness story in the scriptures is the story of Israel in the wilderness. God’s whole people, the Israelites, spent forty years in the wilderness as they journeyed between Egypt and the Promised Land. Through a strange series of events, the Israelites had become slaves of the Pharaoh in Egypt. They were the workforce in Egypt, and the Pharaoh was cruel to them – demanding more and more work, and eventually instructing that male Israelite babies should be killed at birth, because he was frightened they would take over and rebel against the Egyptians. God called Moses, and his brother Aaron, to lead the Israelites to freedom, to a Promised Land, a place the Israelites could make their home. Moses manages to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, out of a life of slavery and oppression. And you’d think from there it would be: “And they all lived happily ever after.” But no. Again, for a variety of reasons, the Israelites don’t march straight from Egypt to the Promised Land. Instead, they spend 40 years in the wilderness, learning from God, becoming a people, preparing for their new life. This is the other primary story that grounds our Lenten season. In Judaism, the Exodus, Moses leading the people to freedom at God’s direction, is one of the main stories that shapes Jewish identity. This week and next, we’ll spend some time with this story, today looking at a text near the beginning of their journey through the wilderness, and next week hearing more about Moses toward the later part of the journey.
Some important things happen before we arrive at our text today. Back while they’re still in Egypt, God gives the Israelites instructions on how to leave, and not only that, but while they are still in Egypt, God already gives them instructions for how every year going forward they are to have a Passover celebration to remember how God led them to freedom. Before they even leave, God is helping them to make plans to remember what they’re about to do. That should tell us something: God knows they are going to need to be reminded. They’re going to forget, something that probably seems impossible in the moment when they can almost taste their freedom. They’re going to forget how much they longed to be free. And so before they even leave, God prepares a ritual that will help them remember who they are, where they came from, and how God has been with them.
In fact, they forget almost immediately. The Israelites prepare to cross the Red Sea, escaping Egypt, with the Pharaoh and his armies chasing after them. The threat of being caught is imminent, and the Israelites are in a panic. They’re still mid-escape. They complain bitterly to Moses, saying, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” But then God led the way and Moses brought the people through the parted waters of the Red Sea, and Pharaoh and his armies were defeated, and they were free.
Fast-forward two chapters to our text for today. The Israelites are now in month 2 of what we know will be a 40 year period in the wilderness. That’s .4% of the total time they will be spending in the wilderness. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt for a long time – hundreds of years, in fact, according to the scriptures. And after just about 45 days of freedom and this new life, after hundreds of years as slaves, the people are complaining again. The people apparently are ready to go back and be slaves, now remembering their life in Egypt as “not so bad” after all. The Israelites complain to Moses and Aaron, “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.” Fleshpots, by the way, are places of luxury and unrestrained living. This is how they now describe their lives as slaves, 45 days later. It would be laughable if it weren’t so very sad.
As a reader, I can’t help but think, “You have got to be kidding me! You ungrateful, complaining, miserable people! How can you have forgotten that you were slaves? How can you have forgotten that your children were being slaughtered? How can you have forgotten the relentless work that kept increasing and increasing? And how can you not believe that the God who brought you safely from Egypt will also be faithful to the rest of the promises made to you?” Perhaps you, like me, want to give the readers a bit of a good shake.
But I wonder. I wonder if we are so different than the Israelites. I think, like them, we often think that the misery we know is better than the unknown future. Our fear and anxiety about what is yet to come, or our knowledge about the hard work that waits ahead of us can even cause us to reflect on our past with distorted vision, forgetting about the painful situations that we were trying to escape, forgetting about the injustice and hurt we suffered, remembering only the good moments. This kind of thinking – fear of the unknown future, and trying to forget what we’re escaping in the past – is part of the thinking that keeps people trapped in abusive relationships, or caught up in cycles of addiction. The road of healing, the road of recovery can seem like an endless wilderness, and maybe things weren’t really so bad before.
But thinking this way, acting this way, like we’d rather face the misery than the unknown isn’t limited to more extreme situations. I think about a friend in ministry who’d been serving a church for several years, and things were deteriorating. She loved her congregation, they loved her. But they had reached a point where she couldn’t lead them to the next step as a congregation. And people were starting to resist her leadership, resist her pushing them. She felt strongly it was time for a change – for her, and for them, so they could both thrive. She asked for a new appointment, and received one, a church that seemed like it would be a great fit, a congregation that was seeking just the leadership gifts she could bring. But the new appointment meant a big move for her, and a lot of changes for her family, and suddenly, she was heartbroken that she would be leaving her congregation. Suddenly, she felt like she was being torn away from the place she loved. And she did love her congregation. But I had to remind her that she had known for some time now that a move was right for them and her. I had to remind her that this was what she wanted, and that God was at work in her life and was bringing her to a new part of her ministry. It was a painful time of transition. And I can tell you, when she left her own church and started her new appointment, it was not immediate by any means that she started to feel like God had brought her to the right place, that she wasn’t looking back over her shoulder at the congregation and community she’d left. It was a lot of hard work, the transition. But eventually, eventually, she put down roots in her new home, and grew in her new ministry setting, and found a place where she could envision her life as a disciple unfolding for a long time to come.
This week I was texting with Danielle Atria. I’m pretty sure the praise will embarrass her, but I have to tell you that Danielle takes her faith seriously, and she reads the Bible regularly, and often texts with questions about what she’s reading. I love her dedication to learning and growing in faith. After a chat this week, she sent me a little saying from an app she has that has inspiring quotes which said, “You dishonor your future when you build an altar to your past.” We often don’t know where God is leading us when we commit to being disciples of Jesus Christ. But our future with God is always better than an altar that ties us to anything else: painful pasts, or beloved pasts. What past are you trying to hold onto? What is it that you fear about the future toward which God is leading you?
God answers even the unwarranted complaints of the Israelites. God rains bread from heaven, a substance the Israelites call “manna,” which means, appropriately, “What is it?” What it is is a gift from God in the wilderness, reminding them that even though they’re not sure what is going to happen next, their journey with God is where they belong, not back as slaves in Egypt. The people immediately try to store it up, still anxious, still planning for a future where they are alone and abandoned, but it won’t keep. It spoils if they try to store it up. It’s just for the day. The must learn to depend on God, and the daily manna is a sign that God plans to be with them today and every day. They can trust in God. And so can we.
A dozen years ago, retired Bishop Judy Craig was our guest preacher at Annual Conference. It was the year I was ordained – a special year for me. She is a dynamic preacher, a prophet, and I was blessed that she, along with our Bishop Violet Fisher laid hands on me at my ordination. Bishop Craig preached on this text that year. She said “God who led them also fed them.” But, she said, being fed by God is something we need daily. Being fed by God isn’t something that “keeps.” Being fed by God isn’t something you can put into canning jars and store up for later. “What we need today is not for tomorrow,” she said. That’s one of the reasons we’ve focused so much on the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and giving this Lent. They’re practices for each day, opportunities for God to be our daily bread. In the midst of this unmapped wilderness, this place where God is leading us, where so much is unknown, and where our fear can lead us to long for the past, or to store up whatever we have in front of us, this is known: God is with us in the wilderness. Our future belongs to God. And God will feed our spirit day by day if we keep coming back, ready to receive what God wants to give. The God who leads us also feeds us. Thanks be to God. Amen.