On the night of Passover, Israel set out to leave Egypt. Following Moses, they went to the Red Sea and wandered up and down the edge of the Sea. There Pharaoh’s armies chased them, intending to bring them back to slavery. And, there God opened a path through the sea on dry ground with walls of water standing up on each side. They walked through the Sea to safety on the other side. Then, as they looked back, they saw Pharaoh’s armies racing up behind them, following the path through the sea that they had just crossed. But now, God sent the Sea back into its place, and the sea swallowed up the chariots and the horses and the warriors. And when the sea was back to its place, Israel saw that they were finally free from Egypt. They were free from Egypt’s rule, but they did not yet know how to be a people led by God. So began the 40 year Exodus journey through the wilderness of Sinai. This was the journey that defined Israel as a people; this was the journey that led them to know that they were now the people of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
One day, they will arrive at Mt Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and its covenant. But, they have many more lessons to learn along the way: lessons about themselves, lessons about life, and lessons about God. Along the way, the desert wilderness of the Sinai becomes one of their teachers in their journey to become a people.
I. As the journey begins, the children of Israel have no idea how to they will survive in the desert wilderness. I have traveled across that desert. There is little vegetation, few animals survive there, and water is scarce. People make their homes there, of course. But, they are not many in number as Israel was. And they are not traveling as Israel was. So, the people complained to Moses. You have to love their complaint:
"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."
In just a few words they have gone from “I’m hungry”:
+to longing for Egypt -- where they were slaves,
+to imagining how well they ate – which they did not;
+to forgetting that God has led them out to freedom – which they did not have in Egypt.
The problem is that they do not know what do with freedom. This story is a great reminder that people do not automatically know how to deal with freedom. It is also a reminder that people can become comfortable with slavery, so much that they would prefer it over freedom.
As we are beginning the 2012 Presidential Election process, this story is already a reminder to us that this nation cannot assume that everyone knows what freedom is. Freedom is not merely the license to live anyway you want without cost and without restraint – though some would want that. Freedom is the right to be heard in the public debate; it is the right to have a vote that counts regardless of your bank account, your party, the color of your skin, your religion or lack of it, OR your gender. Freedom as a citizen means your vote counts with no regard for any of those considerations.
And freedom is costly. We easily give thanks for the soldiers who gave their lives to insure our freedom. And we should. But freedom is costly in other ways. Taxes -- there are some things that we want government to do. Paying attention to the campaign so you and I can vote intelligently; that is one of the costs. Taking time to vote. Living as good neighbors to our neighbors. Freedom must be written on our hearts.
You and I might complain that life was easier when our parents took care of all the bills and fixed the house when it needed repair. You and I might complain that life was easier when we were children. But, unless we are in fact children, it is time for us to take up the responsibilities and costs of full citizenship.
Israel was just learning the lessons of citizenship and faith. They began the journey into the wilderness with almost nothing. This journey will shape them into a distinct people with a great history and following a great God. It’s time for them to learn a lesson. It begins when they complain: they are hungry and tired, and they wonder if it would be better back in Egypt. So they complain about Aaron and Moses.
II. Now, God speaks in answer to the complaint.
[A.] Part 1: "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you,
and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.
God will give from his rich storehouse so that the people will not need bread from Pharaoh’s storehouses.
The theological point God is making to Israel, and now to us, is that God provides for his people. They do not need to look to their slave masters for their daily bread; it is God who provides for our needs. The difference is dramatic: as long as they look to their slave masters, then the masters hold their future; as long as they look to God, then God holds their future.
The fact is that we can be bought, you and I. When we are hungry and worried about our survival, we too can be bought for nothing more than a meal. Slavery is just that close. Israel came to see that the choice between freedom and slavery is not just a matter of faraway politics; it was as close as their daily bread.
[APPLIC:] So, let us give thanks to God for the gift of freedom. The experience of Israel in the wilderness is a constant reminder of the gift of freedom which God has given. God provides for us in the simple provision for our ordinary needs.
God might have continued the big miracles and wonders that make great movies but little more. The problem with the miracles and wonders approach is that we would learn to turn to God only at the edges of life; we would never realize our need of God in the center of life where we live every day. By providing their daily bread, God reminded Israel that they would meet God daily. Thus, we have been taught to begin our meals with a prayer of thanks to God for bread. As God provided bread for Israel in the wilderness, so we are convinced and grateful that God provides bread for us daily.
[APPLIC:] As you know, fall us upon us; Thanksgiving Day is not so far away. It is a day of football, family gatherings, trips to Grandma’s house, and all the rest. But, at its heart, it is marked by gratitude for God’s daily provision for our needs.
[B.] Now, God goes one step further.
5 On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in,
it will be twice as much as they gather on other days."
This is God’s provision for the Sabbath – just as God provided for the Sabbath in creation. But, this is the first time we have heard about it since Genesis 1 – 2. They had forgotten it, but God did not. God provided for the Sabbath.
The message of God’s provision for the Sabbath is that Sabbath is not an afterthought; it is the gift of God from the beginning. [DEF:] The term "Sabbath" derives from the Hebrew word, "to cease", which was first used in the Biblical account of the seventh day of Creation. On that day, God rested after six days of working at creation. To keep Sabbath is to enter into the resting of the Lord. Because Sabbath is shared with God, it is a gift of refreshment and peace.
[C.] Now, what follows are four statements addressed to the Israelites.
This is God teaching Israel how to worship. In one of these, Moses and Aaron say to all the Israelites:
"In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD. . .”
[ILLUS: My Dog Saw the Rabbit]
There is a story from the Desert Fathers about a young monk who asked one of the old men of the desert why it is that so many people came out to the desert to seek God and yet most of them gave up after a short time and returned to their lives in the city.
The old monk told him, "Last evening my dog saw a rabbit running for cover among the bushes of the desert and he began to chase the rabbit, barking loudly. Soon other dogs joined in the chase, barking and running. They ran a great distance and alerted many other dogs. Soon the wilderness was echoing the sounds of their pursuit but the chase went on into the night.
After a little while, many of the dogs grew tired and dropped out. A few chased the rabbit until the night was nearly spent. By morning, only my dog continued the hunt. "Do you understand," the old man said, "what I have told you?"
"No," replied the young monk, "please tell me father."
"It is simple;" said the older man, "my dog saw the rabbit."
In the wilderness, Israel saw God move among them. It was a memory they could not shake off.
Worship begins with “knowing that it was the Lord” and “seeing the glory of the Lord.” This is the beginning of worship. A little later, Moses says to the people, “Draw near to the LORD. . .” – again the words of worship. We say almost the same in the invitation to the Lord’s Table at Holy Communion: “Draw near with faith, and take this sacrament to your comfort.”
[IV.] As I look back over this story of the manna in the wilderness, I am struck by the way God is teaching Israel the basics. These Children of Israel have just been led out of slavery in Egypt. In the most profound sense, their slavery defined them. The Pharaoh gave them the food they ate, told them when and where to work, how to get along with one another, and how to worship. They might have groaned under the burden of their slavery, but they did not know how to voice a prayer to God. They did not know what freedom would look like, even if it was handed to them. They began in Egypt with the signs of the Ten Plagues by which God led them out of slavery. But, once in the wilderness, they had much to learn.
In a sense, the wilderness was the place of no rules.
+They could worship any god they liked;
+they could eat anything that did not eat them;
+they could set any rules for living they liked.
They were truly on their own to sink or swim on their own terms. But, God in wisdom used that time in the wilderness to teach them and shape them into a people.
[APPLIC:] As I have lived with this ancient story this week, I am increasing conscious that we are again traveling through a wilderness. It is a time in the nation …
+of social change. The recent Census has measured that change.
+of change in the role of work. What’s a 40-hour work week? The standards just keep rising. There are jobs and areas of study today that did not exist when I was in college.
+of divided politics in this nation.
We can fret that we are traveling through a trackless wilderness like the Hebrew children, wondering if we are going anywhere. Or, like the Hebrew Children, we can storm out of the house on Monday morning convinced that it is God who leads us to a Land of Promise, and it is God who is shaping us to be the a distinct and vibrant people who will know the joys and the responsibilities of freedom. Let us fight the temptation to go back to Egypt and its slavery; let us go forward in the conviction that a loving and wise God leads us forward.