Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The passage from Exodus places us with the people of Israel in the wilderness after being delivered from Egypt. The people come to Moses and say unexpected things:
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness of Sin. 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." (vv. 2-3)
Already they're complaining. They're only a few weeks past the great event of deliverance from slavery, and now they wish they were slaves still. It seems incredible. Of course, slavery was all they had known for four centuries. Though their labor was intense, their needs were supplied for them. They ate adequately. They had shelter, and apparently some sense of security, even if in the context of severely restricted freedom.
Now, this upstart from Midian named Moses has led them—where? Into a wilderness with only the possessions they could carry and with totally inadequate supplies of food and water. As upset as the people are only a few weeks into this adventure initiated by God's promise, it's difficult to imagine at this point how they fared for forty years of wanderings in the Sinai peninsula.
Moses interprets their odd behavior in the verses deleted from our reading:
"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." (vv. 7b-8)
Moses rightly sees that their complaint isn't nearly as important as the lack of trust and absence of faith that complaining betrays as they relate to their God. This God, who established covenants with their ancestors and who now creates the circumstance for a fulfillment of the promised land, who had provided deliverance both from slavery and from the soldiers of Egypt who pursued them as they escaped-this God is now being ignored. Or, more accurately, slapped in the face. God has granted a great gift, and the response is complaint.
Moses' wisdom comes through clearly here. It would have been easy to take this personally, forgetting God in the face of such dissension. But Moses sees their behavior for what it is—faithless mistrust of God. God had brought them thus far, but the people fail to keep the faith.
In the Exodus narrative, this story may point to one of the reasons that forty years of wandering in the wilderness was necessary. These former slaves are hard-hearted and they lack maturity. They still need to be nurtured into a healthy sense of responsibility and trust. This opening incident serves to emphasize the need for a time of building the attributes necessary for creating a nation.
They need to strengthen family bonds and the sense of interdependence within the tribes. They are in need of trust in their leadership and faith in their God. As they are, they exist as a loose association of families; in order to receive the full promises of God, they need to be transformed into a community.
Moses' unwillingness to accept the derision of the people is a sign of his wisdom. He can see through the verbal abuse to the immaturity, irresponsibility, and faithlessness that motivate their murmurings.
Moses also wisely avoids the temptation of taking all the credit. He knows that alone he could have done nothing. With God, the people are delivered. It isn't Moses who accomplishes the liberation of the people; it is God. The people betray their confusion by focusing their attack on Moses and Aaron.
Childishly irresponsible and unwilling to accept the consequences of their own actions, the people of Israel turn on the one they chose to follow. When the good times cease, they totally forget the past, ignore God and blame Moses. It reminds me of the song, "What have you done for me lately." The phrase is a litany that's irritating in its brash and presumptuous message that people are only worth what they provide today.
"What have you done for us lately, Moses?" the people seem to ask. "Yeah, so you got us out of Egypt. Big deal. Now what?" It's pathetic, and Moses deserves immense credit for not throwing in the towel on the spot. He chooses mature response to infantile reaction.
Their complaining is a sign of their immaturity. Effete grumbling betrays a sense of powerlessness, an attitude that implies an expectation that others will meet one's needs. Mature people act to remedy or adapt to situations; immature people complain.
I think of the child who complains of boredom. They want a parent or a teacher to make things better for them, rather than taking the initiative themselves to find stimulating activity. It's a sign of laziness and an unhealthy dependence, instead of personal resourcefulness and independence.
When my own children would betray such attitudes, I often just remarked that what I found for them to do would probably not be what they had in mind—things like sweeping the garage or weeding the gardens. As you might guess, with that approach, the children usually found something to do on their own fairly quickly.
Moses sees through the complaint to the immaturity. He calls the people to an attitude of trust.
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 toward 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; they you shall know that I am the Lord your God." (vv. 9-12)
The proper counsel for those who abandon faith is to "draw near to the Lord." The people need to turn from their selfish anxieties and return to the Lord of their deliverance. And the sign of God's trustworthiness is the provision of manna and quail. As in the communion of the elders with God on Mount Sinai, the whole people are here offered a share at God's table, and they are nourished by the food God provides.
One of the best ways to build community is to share a meal together, whether it be the wedding feast that follows a marriage ceremony or the holy communion that follows reading and hearing God's holy Word. Those with whom we receive physical and spiritual nourishment become our sisters and our brothers—as Francisca Pinto Ramirez, from Chile, became our sister around this altar two Sundays ago. The food doesn't merely satisfy physical needs, it is a spiritual blessing for the building of relationships, the people of God, a nation-in the case of ancient Israel, and the body of Christ.
I'm struck by how honestly the bible portrays this budding nation. The purpose of the writers of scripture is the same as ours in reading, studying, and meditating upon it-to let the grace and the glory of God show through. It was not, as is clearly the case with these whining, murmuring masses, their faithfulness or attractiveness or righteousness as a people that led God to redeem the nation of Israel. It was solely the gracious and loving act of God for God's creatures. They didn't need to spruce up the story, because it wasn't about them. It was and is about God and the glorious gracious acts of God on behalf of God's people.
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...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." (vv. 4, 13-15)
Nothing could be more gracious or glorious given the circumstances. Anyone in their right mind, according to worldly standards, would have dumped this chosen people off at the earliest opportunity. God chooses to grant what is requested and more.
It is important to note that these are not merely simple demands either. This is not a righteous need for sustenance, but a vain desire for the luxuries of the past. And yet, God accedes to their extravagant requests. God grants what they desire and more—as a demonstration of grace and a test of obedience. Providence extends beyond need to want, beyond sustenance to celebration, beyond meeting the felt need to addressing the spiritual need.
By God's providence and grace, all that we need and more is ours. Neither the "What have you done for me lately?" attitude of faithless forgetfulness nor the "So what" attitude of presumptuous taking for granted are what makes for a community of believers worthy of God's promises and God's providence. God desires that we receive God's gifts with thankful hearts and that we "Draw near to the Lord" so that we shall know that the Lord is our God.
May we do exactly that as we receive anew of God's provision today at the Lord's Table. Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.