Monday, September 26, 2005

bread in the wilderness (exodus 16)

The Bible describes our lives in all of their glory and humanity, when we’re experiencing the thrill of victory and agony of defeat. Sometimes we are on the mountain peak. Sometimes we are in the valley. In the valley we see the difficult climb that’s ahead of us. In the valley we are tired and discouraged. Israel knew about all of this. “Are you going to let us die in the wilderness?”, the people asked Moses, in the valley, in the desert.

Maybe some of us are here this morning and we are there. The Bible has a name for this place we find ourselves in: the wilderness. The wilderness is a place of desolation, chaos, danger, testing, scarcity. Moses spent time in the wilderness. John the Baptist spent time in the wilderness. Paul spent time in the wilderness. Jesus spent time in the wilderness. Every one of us has spent time in the wilderness, or we will.

I have been in the ministry for twenty-two years. I am in the middle of life. I have lived through wilderness times, I have walked with people through wilderness times, and I have listened to testimonies of how men and women have survived in wilderness. What I share with you are some lessons. Think of it as a survival kit, as you make it through the wilderness, on the way to the promised land, a survival kit put together by those who have walked the path ahead of you.

In the wilderness, people are especially open to listening to God, and in the wilderness God is especially interested in reaching out to his people. The people wonder, out loud, “how are we going to survive?” God says, “I will provide each day enough for that day”.

This is a first lesson. God says, in verse 4, I am going to rain bread from heaven for you. Gather enough for each day. In this way I will test you (verse 5), to see if you will follow my instruction. Life is a test. Almost every difficult stretch we face is about faith and trust. In Exodus 16, God provides manna in the wilderness for Israel. From this experience comes one of my favorite hymns:

Great is thy faithfulness, Great is thy faithfulness
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed thy hand has provided

Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.

God is teaching Israel and us to see his faithfulness each morning, he is teaching us to live by faith, teaching us to live “one day at a time”. Do you ever have difficulty living “one day at a time”? Do you ever find yourself worrying about what may or may not happen tomorrow? In the sermon on the mount, Jesus instructs his disciples to pray “give us this day our daily bread”, and in the language of the Message, to “give your entire attention to what God is doing right now and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow”.

When you are in the wilderness, the future can be pretty overwhelming. It helps to place the focus on what is at hand. We have a wonderful group of people in our congregation who are Stephen Ministers. They teach people in crisis to see life as a series of “small steps”. In the wilderness we put one foot in front of the other, we live life one day at a time, we take small steps.

And when we do this we discover that God is faithful. The manna is provided each day, enough for that day. God is teaching about his nature, which is providence: I will provide for you. Gather enough for each day, no more, no less. And so the people gathered. In Exodus 16. 18, Some gathered more than they needed and they had none left over. Others gathered less than they needed and they had enough.

This is really about moderation. What do we need to live, really? When I was a child we distinguished between what we wanted and what we needed. God promises to give us what we need, not what we want. God does not always promise abundance, but God does promise sufficiency. And this is what grace is all about: My grace is sufficient for you, God said to the apostle Paul, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.

Manna in the wilderness is about grace. Manna in the wilderness is about dependence on God. Manna in the wilderness is about providence.

Live one day at a time.

But God is not finished with Israel, or us yet. There is something else we need to learn, another lesson. God says, “don’t gather manna on the Sabbath” (verses 23, 26). There will be nothing to gather, nothing to harvest on the Sabbath. Life is not about continuous work, continuous consuming, continuous gathering. There is a time to stop, a time to rest, a time to depend on God.

For the most part I try to take a Sabbath each week. The biblical principle is six days of work and one day of rest. Now in the ministry this does not mean that I can finish all of the work in six days. Life goes on seven days a week, as does work. But there has to be a day a week where I do not gather manna, where I trust God to provide for me and for other people.

Some of you know what I am talking about. I have known business people who have made the decision not to open their businesses seven days a week, and this came from their own heritage and from the conviction that there should be a day of rest and a day of worship and that if we honored God in this way God would provide all that we needed. By observing the Sabbath they learned that God is faithful.

In the wilderness, Israel learned the principle of the Sabbath. And maybe this means that we need to rest as we are making it through the wilderness, that life has a pace to it, a rhythm of work and rest, labor and leisure. You can only keep going if you stop sometimes and allow body and soul to catch up with each other. “Consider the lilies of the field”, Jesus teaches. Verse 30 says it simply: so the people rested on the seventh day. One scholar has commented that it was not so much that Israel kept the Sabbath, but that the Sabbath kept Israel. On the Sabbath they were reminded that God had created the world and freed them from slavery. And one of the forms of slavery they had been freed from was working seven days a week.

Live one day at a time.

Observe the Sabbath rest.

There is another lesson in the wilderness. The Lord commanded the people that an omer of manna should be kept in a jar, and that the jar should be placed before God and all of the people. The Message translates an omer as “two quarts”. They were to place the jar of manna alongside the covenant. In this way they would remember that God had sustained them, day by day, through the wilderness.

It helps for us to have physical reminders of the good times in our lives. We will pass through wilderness times on the way to the promised land, and yes, we may find ourselves in the wilderness again for some reason. The journey is not only linear. Sometimes we discover ourselves in a place in life, a season in life, that we had not counted on. It helps to remember that God provides. The manna represented the grace of God, the covenant the law: in the Old Testament both law and gospel were present.

I have shared with some of you that I have in my desk an old cigar box filled with physical reminders of good times: family pictures, thank you notes, concert tickets, restaurant receipts from memorable evenings, mementos from various events in the lives of our children, worship bulletins, coins from Israel and Bolivia, postcards from Ireland and England, seashells and photographs, letters from my grandmother. It is my jar of manna. And when the occasional time comes and I need to remember the goodness of God in my life, there are physical reminders.

If you are in the wilderness, I invite you to remember the good things. Life has been good in the past, and life will be good in the future. This too shall pass!

Live one day at a time.

Observe the Sabbath rest.

Remember the good things.

One more lesson: In the wilderness we grow stronger. In the wilderness you don’t need to know a lot, but what you do need to know is essential. In the wilderness we grow stronger.

Of course, in the moment no one wants to hear this, and in the moment it is never appropriate to say this:

“we grow stronger through adversity”,
“God is testing us”,
“it will develop character”.

But in hindsight, there is a truth here. Not that the growth merits the pain; it does not. But in the wilderness we do grow stronger.

We discover strengths we not aware of;
we are sent friends who were unknown to us;
we become a part of the prayers of other people.

The shallow words that we employed to make sense of life no longer hold up. The trivial pursuits that filled our schedules are not that important anymore.

In the wilderness God’s voice becomes clear. C.S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasure but shouts to us in our pain”. When you are hiking you begin to pay attention to your body, the aching muscles, the blistered heels. And in the wilderness we are also more attentive to the spirit. In the wilderness God has our attention.

In the wilderness we grow stronger. Some of the Jewish teachers have looked back and pointed to the wilderness, not the monarchy, as the high point of Israel’s history. In the wilderness they depended daily upon God’s provisions. In the wilderness they learned to “trust and obey”. The rabbis called the wilderness “the school of the soul”.

All of this was written from the vantage point of the promised land. Sometimes people look back on the wilderness times in their lives and admit that it was there that they were closest to God.

The people had taken a great risk. They had followed Moses. They had left Pharoah. They had done the right thing. They had come to the sea, and put their feet in the waters, they had taken a great risk, because they were headed where? To the promised land? Only they are in the wilderness. What went wrong?

Maybe you have been there. Maybe you are there now, this morning. You have trusted God. You have tried to do the right thing. And yet you find yourself in a dangerous, scary, chaotic place. That’s why we need to know how to survive in the wilderness.

We are going to make it to the promised land, but on the way we are going to pass through the wilderness. And yet it is true that God’s people have been there before us, and they have left instructions on how to survive. You are never alone in the wilderness. In the valley of the shadow, there are the words “Thou Art With Me”. And in the wilderness there is One

who walks before us to guide us,

who walks behind us to watch over us,

who walks alongside us to befriend us.

There is an old spiritual, “I am bound for the promised land”. It was written no doubt by someone whose feet were planted firmly in the wilderness. Do you remember those words of hope?

I am bound for the promised land, I am bound for the promised land
O who will come and go with me, I am bound for the promised land.

This gives us hope, and it also helps us to make sense of what happens in this life. Someone has said,

Not everything that is broken in this life will be fixed in this life.”

The journey is one that goes on forever, a reminder of the unfinished nature of life. Everyone of us is on this journey, a journey that extends beyond horizons that we can see and terrain that we can map…even into the life to come. We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

In the meantime:

Live one day at a time.
Observe the Sabbath rest.
Remember the good things and the good times.
Know that it is in the wilderness that we grow stronger.

I have some good news: We are going to make it to the promised land.

I have some bad news: On the way we are going to pass through the wilderness.

But then, I have some more good news: In this life and in the life to come, God is faithful.


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