This is the second week of our 'Into the Wilderness' series, our look at the time the Israelite nation traveled through what the Bible calls 'The Wilderness' (Midbar). This wilderness was a hostile land that the Jews had to journey through to get from Egypt, where they had been in slavery, to the land God had promised to give them. And as you picture 'wilderness,' don't think 'desert.' Wilderness wasn't a sandy wasteland. Wilderness was rocky, rough, scrubby land... a land where you couldn't grow crops, but sheep and goats could generally find enough to eat to get by. Still, it wasn't a hospitable place, to be sure. Last week Barry talked about a time in the wilderness when the Israelites had difficulty finding fresh water. This week the issue will be finding food in this unforgiving landscape... finding enough food, by the way, for what many scholars believe may have been over a million people. Today's story is found in Exodus 16... and it's a pretty well-known story. It's the story of God sending the Jewish people manna. Let's turn to Exodus 16 (page ****) and look at this story together. (Welcome everyone and tell them to fasten your seatbelts!) 'Then the whole community of Israel set out from Elim (A-leem) and journeyed into the wilderness of Sin, between Elim and Mount Sinai. They arrived there on the fifteenth day of the second month, one month after leaving the land of Egypt.' Elim was an oasis. It was a place of fresh water and shade... the Israelites had stopped there to rest and catch their breath after their escape from Egypt. But the time had come for moving on from this oasis and heading toward the Promised Land, so off everyone went... straight into the Wilderness of Sin. And don't be confused by the name sin. 'Sin' here has nothing to do with what we think of when we hear that word. Plus, did you notice that it had only been a month, 4 weeks, since the nation had crossed the Red Sea and into freedom? Let's read verse 2 and 3. There, too, the whole community of Israel complained about Moses and Aaron. 3 ""If only the Lord had killed us back in Egypt,"" they moaned. ""There we sat around pots filled with meat and ate all the bread we wanted. But now you have brought us into this wilderness to starve us all to death."" The NLT translation of the Hebrew word (Loon) that gives us 'complained' here is a bit soft. The actual word means to be obstinate... it is a word with a core of rebellion in it. And since they were being obstinate, they did what complaining, rebellious people generally do... they began to exaggerate the difficulty of their circumstances. First off, they weren't really without food. They had huge herds of sheep, goats and cattle.... They had plenty of milk and yogurt and they even had meat if they really wanted it. But they were thinking back to the good old days of slavery in Egypt when they had 'pots filled with meat' and so much bread that they could stuff themselves... which is exactly what the Hebrew says here. And their big complaint was that Moses and Aaron's had ulterior motives; the people were saying that Moses and Aaron had led them out into the wilderness to starve them to death. We aren't told how Moses and Aaron heard about this exaggerated complaining, but we ARE told that God knew all about it and he responded in verse 4. Then the Lord said to Moses, ""Look, I'm going to rain down food from heaven for you. Each day the people can go out and pick up as much food as they need for that day. Now, the first word from God in our house Bibles is 'Look.' But a better translation of the Hebrew word Hinneh would be 'Behold!' or 'Take Note!' This word is used many times in the Old Testament, and it is always a signal that something is coming that you better pay attention to! And what needed attention here was that God was going to silence that multitude of complainers by literally 'raining down bread from the heavens.' What God meant by this exactly, we won't find out for a bit, but it's clear that God had heard enough, He was going to put an end to this complaining and, in the process, let everyone know who was in charge! Now, what we get over the course of the next few verses is Moses and Aaron telling the entire Israelite community what God said he was going to do, what the rules were going to be for gathering up this 'bread from heaven,' and then letting the people know that their complaint wasn't really with Moses and Aaron, it was with God. And then we read this in verse 10. 10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole community of Israel, they looked out toward the wilderness. There they could see the awesome glory of the Lord in the cloud.' Can I just say, this moment makes me scratch my head because anytime you read 'the glory of the Lord' anywhere in these passages about the Israelite's time in the wilderness, we are talking about the literal... the actual, physical presence of God... God literally showing himself during the daytime in a cloud that was unmistakably filled with His power; and at night, God showing himself to everyone as a cloud of fire. What this verse tells us is that all of these complaining people could see God, literally see God, in the distance! And they are complaining... And then look at what happens starting in verse 13. That evening vast numbers of quail flew in and covered the camp. Okay, there is their meat! And the next morning the area around the camp was wet with dew. 14 When the dew evaporated, a flaky substance as fine as frost blanketed the ground. 15 The Israelites were puzzled when they saw it. ""What is it?"" (Man-nah) they asked each other. They had no idea what it was. And Moses told them, ""It is the food the Lord has given you to eat. These are the Lord's instructions: Each household should gather as much as it needs. Pick up two quarts for each person in your tent."" What happens next is that some Israelites obeyed the instructions for gathering this 'manna,' while others didn't... which, to be honest, is always the case with people... some listen and obey and others think, 'Hey, those rules can't be for me.' But no matter what the people did with regards to how much they picked up each morning, look at what verses 17 and 18 say. So the people of Israel did as they were told. Some gathered a lot, some only a little. 18 But when they measured it out, everyone had just enough. Those who gathered a lot had nothing left over, and those who gathered only a little had enough. Each family had just what it needed. So, what it looks like is that there was also some added miraculous multiplying of food going on... everyone ended up with exactly what they needed no matter how much they had gathered. I'm thinking that everything about this story seems amazing... First, God's patience with this rebellious lot seems amazing... second, the food that comes out the heavens seems amazing... and third, the way the food divided itself out perfectly among 1 million people seems amazing. Yet, there is one more detail that makes this moment all-the-more remarkable. Verse 31 tells us this: The Israelites called the food manna. It was white like coriander seed, and it tasted like honey wafers. Honey was one of the only sweeteners in the ancient world. Sugar wasn't known in this part of the world yet, and almost all other forms of sweeteners came from insect secretions. Plus, there wasn't anything like bee-keeping yet either, so if you wanted honey you had to find a bee hive and deal with wild bees. Needless-to-say, anything with honey was a luxury... and the manna that God rained down on the Jews tasted like one of life's great luxuries! How like God!
I honestly don't know what God could have done that would have better told the Israelites that he was going to care for them as they traveled through this time in the wilderness. Quail and manna... he was giving them their daily bread! But I want to go back to verse 2 and 3 of this chapter... the 'everyone complaining' verses. Picture with me a large gathering of the Jewish people... a big crowd... and in the middle of the crowd a man is standing on a large rock, a ringleader of sorts, and he is calling out something like, 'These two men, Moses and his brother Aaron, look at what they've got us into! Here we are out in this 'wilderness' with nothing to eat and it won't be long until we all starve to death! Those two are saying that that God over there in that cloud told them to bring us out here! Why on earth would we believe them and that God? What has that God ever done for us?' And the people yell out, 'Yes! Yes! What has he ever done for us!' And then, for just a second, everything gets quiets and from somewhere in the back of the crowd a voice calls out, 'Well, he did make that bitter water drinkable last week.' And the man on the rock say, 'Ok... yes, he did give us drinkable water last week, but what else has he ever done for us? And another voice says, 'He parted the Red sea for us, and we crossed over on dry land last month.' And then another voice calls out of the crowd, 'And he drowned the Egyptian army.' And the man on the rock says, 'Ok, he gave us water and he parted the Red Sea and he destroyed the Egyptian army. But what else has he ever done for us?' And then another voice says, He spared us from all of the plagues that he brought on the Egyptians. That was pretty amazing!' And another voice says, 'He helped us prosper and grow as a people in Egypt even though the Egyptians were doing everything they could to hold us down.' And another voice adds, 'He caused the Egyptians to give us all of their wealth as we left Egypt and now we all have heaps of gold and silver and such' And I can see the ringleader going, 'Ok, He gave us clean water and he split the Red Sea and he destroyed the Egyptian army and he saved us from all of the terrible plagues and he helped us prosper even though we were slaves and he enriched us as we left Egypt... but what else has he ever done for us... it's clear that he brought us out here because he wants us to starve to death. It would have been better if he'd killed us back in Egypt. At least we would have died with full stomachs! Why did we ever trust this God?' And everyone gets all worked up and shouts out, 'Yes, Yes! Why would we trust him! Let's go back to Egypt!'
Now, I know this sounds ridiculous, but we must never forget that this complaining... this obstinance was only a month after these same people saw God part the Red Sea! If there was ever a people that had reason to trust that 1) God was with them and 2) that God was going to keep his promise to lead them into the Promised Land and 3) God was not going to leave them in the wilderness to starve to death, it was this crowd. But it seems they had very short memories; their faith only lasted until they started missing those 'big pots of meat.' Something else that is telling to me is that no one in this story is that no one ever stopped and asked God, the one in the cloud right over there, to help them when they started wondering about food. No prayers... no nothing... just complaining. Nothing happens other than God hears the whining and he acts. Now, we know that subsequent generations of Jews have looked back on this event... this sending of manna... as one of God's greatest miracles... a great miracle of care and provision. But I can't help but feel that these people missed a huge opportunity to see God's care in a completely different light. Can you imagine how differently this story would read if rather than complaining that they'd rather be back under slavery in Egypt than out in this wilderness, they'd gathered up, thanked God for all that he'd done for them to bring them to this place of freedom, a difficult place for sure, but still a place where God was present, and then said, 'We trust you even though things seem pretty grim right now. We are asking to once again see your hand of deliverance.' I am confident that had they done this, that that very evening quail would still have come and blanketed the encampment and the next morning manna would have covered the ground... but what a different tone this entire story would have had.
And boy, does this speak to me. We often speak of being in the wilderness as a picture of being uncertain and unsure of what is happening; or the wilderness is the feeling that things are out of kilter or that we feel alone and hopeless. Your wilderness may be a place where your soul feels lost and without direction. Your wilderness may be a place where you fear that all that you've worked so hard to accomplish is being taken away. Your wilderness may be a place where there seems to be no hope for a solution to an overwhelming situation... and when you are in this place your heart wants to cry out, but often you aren't sure you have the words. I know this because I know what it is to be in a wilderness. I know what it is to long for God to do something miraculous... to long for God to cover the ground of my life with exactly what I need to get through this rocky, unforgiving time. What this story has told me is that my memory is far too short... Yes, I may find myself in a place of despondence or confusion or even despair, but this story tells me two things that are still as true today as they were when God first rained manna onto the earth. First, God is still present. Often times, I wish he'd make himself as clear as he did with these Israelites, but his Glory, the awesome glory of the Lord is still within my soul's vision. The promise is that he will never leave us and that he will never forsake us, and it is a promise I know he is keeping. And secondly, probably the best thing that I can do if I am all worked up and worried about tomorrow is to stop and think honestly about my yesterdays. I am only where I am today, even if it is currently in a wilderness, because God has been moving in my life through the years to bring me to this place... a place where I can put my trust in the one who has done so much for me... so much that I have so quickly forgotten. My wife is a good one for me on this. When I am complaining... when I am obstinate and thinking that God has it out for me, and that he isn't interested in helping me find a way out of this wilderness, she is the one who says, 'But he did this for us and we should be thankful... and he did this for us and we should be thankful... and he did this for us and we should be thankful... and she reminds me of the times that he eventually blanketed us with his goodness in some way... and that should make me both thankful and trusting that he will do it again as I pass through today's wilderness.
If you read the rest of this chapter you will find that it ends with God telling Moses and Aaron to first, gather up a jar of manna and second, put that manna in a safe place. God wanted them to do this so that future generations could literally see the bread that God had sent down from heaven to provide for his people while they were in the wilderness. God wanted future generations to see it and be thankful for what God had done for them by feeding their ancestors in the wilderness. What we also know from history is that the concept of 'bread coming down from heaven' became a very important symbol to the Jewish people... it became one of the primary ways that Jews spoke generally about God's provision and his unwavering love for his people. When something good would happen, they would often say something like, 'That is a blessing like manna from heaven.' And so, I am not surprised at all that when Jesus was beginning his ministry and people were unsure about him... unsure if he'd really come from God or not, they tried to press him into doing something as amazing as sending manna from heaven. In John 6 some pretty cocky people said this to Jesus. ""Show us a miraculous sign if you want us to believe in you. What can you do? After all, our ancestors ate manna while they journeyed through the wilderness! The Scriptures say, 'Moses gave them bread from heaven to eat.' Jesus said, ""I tell you the truth, Moses didn't give you bread from heaven. My Father did. And now he offers you the true bread from heaven. 33 The true bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."" ""Sir,"" they said, ""give us that bread every day."" Jesus replied, ""I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again.' We know that these cocky people had no idea what Jesus was talking about. But we certainly do... we know that Jesus was saying that he, Jesus himself, is our spiritual bread... manna that came down from heaven, the food that can nourish our souls... Jesus is the one that can sustain us as we travel through the wildernesses of life. There is one hugely practical application for me in this story and it is this: the best way for me to hold on in faith and keep from complaining that God has abandoned me when I find myself in life's wilderness is to recount how God has been with me in the past and do my best to be thankful... thankful for Jesus and thankful for the times he has clearly moved into my life and led me through the times of wilderness. This isn't always easy in the moment, but what I have learned is that being thankful for the past encourages trust in the future. Truth is, I don't want to live my life complaining... oh, I know that sometimes it feels good to grouse about things, but deep down what I really want is to live a life of gratitude... I am just thankful that I have someone in my life who is always ready to point out what I am so quickly forgetting... ready to point out that God has provided in the past... He is present and he is still providing, no matter what the circumstances might look like in the moment.
But I know that it can be difficult to be thankful when things seem to be coming apart at the seams all around you. So, here is what I am going to do. I am going to pray for those of you who are in some sort of wilderness right now... I am going to pray for three things... first, that God will lead you out of this time of wilderness... that you will be delivered from this overwhelming time of life. Second, I am going to pray that as you wait for this deliverance you will clearly see that while even in this wilderness, God is present and that he is providing the kind of manna, the bread of heaven that you need to get through this day. And third, I am going to pray that the Holy Spirit calls to mind the times in the past when God has delivered you out of past wilderness wanderings...that the Holy Spirit will infuse your life with thanksgiving... thanksgiving that will give you the courage to move ahead in the knowledge that God has not left you or forsaken you. Pray.
We are now going to take communion together. Communion is a sacred time when followers of Jesus remember all that Jesus has done for us. We eat bread and we drink grape juice to remember and celebrate Jesus sacrificing his life for us... a sacrifice that he was willing to make because he knew that in giving his body and blood, he would make a relationship with God possible for everyone. (Call for the servers) I don't think that it is any coincidence that an early name of the celebration was the Eucharist... Eucharist is a word that comes straight from the Greek word eucharisteo, a word that simply means thanksgiving. Communion is a thanksgiving meal. My thought is that as we partake of the elements together, this would be a great time to start thinking about all of the times that God has been there for us in the past as a way to help build our confidence that God is with us in today's wilderness and that he will provide a way through this wilderness. The Bread today is a sweet bread... we are using this bread to remind us of manna... something that tasted like honey. And so, we invite anyone who is a follower of Jesus to share in this thanksgiving meal today as we remember the one who is our bread of life... the one who makes it possible for our souls to be full to overflowing.