The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly of hunger.” Then the Lord said to Moses “I am going to rain bread from heaen for you.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites,” in the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” because he has heard your complaining against the Lord.
It’s interesting to read a Bible passage and then reflect on what struck you about the passage, or what sticks in your mind from reading it. In the Exodus passage from this morning, I can’t help but think about complaining. Complaining is mentioned 7 times in the first lesson. The Bible said the whole congregation was complaining. “Why didn’t God let us die in comfort in Egypt where we had lamb stew and all the bread we could eat? You’ve brought us out into this wilderness to starve us to death!” This is the accusation they hurled at Aaron and Moses. That is some seriously harsh criticism. They were seriously unhappy wandering in the wilderness.
Sometimes, when you look back at a situation it does not seem as bad as when you were in the middle of it. With a little time and space you can gloss over the rough parts and look with nostalgia at the past. The Israelites were saying they wished they were back in slavery. That sounds crazy, but in the strange, new territory of the wilderness in which they found themselves they longed for the past and the comforts of what was familiar and known. The Israelites complained that they preferred the trials and tribulations of the past rather than having to face the unknown of the future and the scarcity of the present. We can relate. Transitions and change are tough.
In Exodus chapter 16, the Israelites are beginning their second month of wilderness walking (16:1) following their deliverance from Egypt. The dangers of the wilderness are real – the Israelites have already faced thirst (chapter 15), now hunger, and later they will face attack (chapter 17). Their situation is truly stressful and life-threatening. They have left the place where they were assured food and shelter in the past. They are not able to meet their own needs in the present. They are hungry and they don’t see any way that things are going to get better. Of course they complained. We would too if we were in their shoes. Anyone who has ever led a group of people through an unfamiliar place is sure to have heard complaints from some or even many members of the group. Having recently led a mission trip in a foreign country with 42 teenagers, listening to complaints is a familiar experience for me. You might think of your last long car ride with small children. “I’m hungry!” complains one. “I’m thirsty!” chimes in another child. And the most annoying of all “Are we there yet?”
Moses, Aaron and God got an earful from the Israelites. For us as readers, it’s tempting to think of those complaining as whiners or to assume that the Israelites don’t have enough faith. What I appreciate in this Exodus story is the fact that even though the Israelites are complaining and seem to be full of doubts, God does not ignore them or turn a deaf ear on them. God listens and meets their needs. The Israelites in the wilderness complained to God. They didn’t complain that there was no God. They complained about God. In an unknown land and facing starvation, somehow they still believed that God was there to complain to. That is a powerful statement about the strength of their faith and an inspiration for us today.
Although a situation may be worthy of complaining about, complaints don’t always contain the best solution. It’s a good thing God does not follow human plans. In their whining, the Israelites declare it would have been better to have died in Egypt than be facing hunger in the wilderness, but clearly that would not be better for them. In their real fear for the future, the Israelites look back to Egypt as the way of life that sustained them, the good life where they “sat by the fleshpots and ate [their] fill of bread” (16:3). We must ask, was the old way of life truly sustaining? Maybe yes but more likely not. Even if it was good, isn’t there also a possibility for something new and equally as good in the future even though it is different? People fear what they do not know, and that is normal, but change is inevitable and the future can always hold hope and possibility.
In her commentary on Exodus, biblical scholar Elna Solvang states “To condemn the Israelites for complaining in Exodus 16 would be to introduce a judgment that the text itself does not make, sending the message that complaint has no place in life with God. This, of course, is not true.” She goes on to remind the reader of the laments in the Book of Psalms and how David’s complaints “give voice to the human experience of abandonment, suffering, fear, and danger. The laments call upon God to see, arise, and act (e.g., Psalm 10, 13, 89).” She also recalls how in the Book of Job, Job unleashes a long and detailed complaint against God’s treatment of the righteous and God’s mismanagement of the world. Finally, there is Jesus’ anguished cry of complaint from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; Psalm 22:1). Professor Solvang says that “At its core, complaint is a turning to God – not away – trusting that God the Almighty does not ignore, dismiss or punish those who call out in fear, anger, suffering, and need.” This way of looking at complaining is different than we’re used to but very valuable.
The fear of scarcity, the anxiety caused by the unknown and the longing to be back in an earlier time are not limited to the stories of Exodus. In the world today there are increasing numbers of people losing homes, jobs, health care, and pensions, losing dignity, property, and savings in the global economic crisis. When you think of all that’s going on, it’s okay to complain. It’s important and healthy to acknowledge the frustration felt with disappointment and loss. Many of us have been personally impacted and the church has been affected by these hard financial times. The world has seemed unfair, cold and harsh as people have faced significant losses. I say go ahead and gripe. It’s good for us to get it out but at the end of the day remember all the blessings as well.
Like the Israelites, we as a church are in a wilderness experience. We are in a major transition and time of change and we face the challenges of scarcity. Let’s be honest. It is difficult. But we have faith. We have strong leaders and we have each other. Exodus 16 offers the assurance that the wilderness of want is not a God-forsaken time or place. We remember what Moses instructed Aaron to say to the Israelites: “Draw near to the LORD, for God has heard your complaining” (16:9). They drew near to the Lord and to each other and they were provided for. Now is also our time to take this advice and draw near to the Lord and one another.
The wilderness of change can feel dangerous and frustrating, but it can also provide a space for discovering a new identity. For the Israelites, they had a particular identity when they lived in Egypt. Everything they did was for Pharaoh’s benefit. In the wilderness, their lives begin to be reordered. Their service no longer benefited Pharaoh but they lived as a community with integrity, honor, care and compassion for one another.
As a church in the midst of changes we have a chance to build a new identity. When I think of KUC and how our identity is shaped, I think of you, each one of you. You are the church. In the apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he states that each of us has different gifts. Paul wrote that Jesus “gave gifts to his people. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, all for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith, and promote the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” You have God given gifts that make you a unique and important part of this church body. How can you contribute to this community, in a way that helps to sustain it and encourage it to grow with your gifts and talents? I really want you to think about this question because as I said, you are the church. You matter here. It will take all of us drawing near to God and one another to be sustained through this time of change.
God recognized the Israelites’ need for sustenance and their desire for a life beyond scarcity and God responded with his wonder bread from heaven. In the mornings, the wilderness ground was covered with a “flaky substance, as fine as frost” (16:14). The manna supplied to the Israelites may offer hope to people today that we can unexpectedly discover that God has provided for us in new and fitting ways in changed and uncharted conditions. For example, just this morning when I arrived at church I was told that we did not have any bread for the 8:00 am communion service. We looked all over the church wondering what we could use for the communion bread, and then a member of the altar guild remembered the Episcopalians next door. He went over to their church and came back with a plate of fine, crispy wafers. Not exactly manna form heaven but we were provided for in a time of need.
At the end of the Exodus passage as the people “looked toward the wilderness…the glory of the LORD appeared” (16:10). Before now in the Old Testament God had appeared on mountaintops or to Moses and Aaron but God was not making regular appearances to the ordinary person. This moment is significant because everyone got to experience the Glory of being face to face with God. Also, God chose to reveal Godself to the people after they had been complaining. God did now show up as a reward for good behavior. God appeared when they were down and out, desperate and frankly not in a particularly good mood. I don’t especially enjoy visiting people when they’re cranky, but thank goodness God does. God is near and listening to those whom we might be tempted to call faithless: those who complain to God because they are hungry, anxious, in unfamiliar territory and without a clear plan for the future. There God is present. For them the glory of the LORD is revealed. God showed up for them and God shows up for us too.
We have been through at lot here at KUC during these years of transition. It was hard to have a minister of 37 years leave. Someone as special as Gil who was part of people’s lives for so long is dearly missed and that is okay. Our congregation is still feeling the grief from that loss. Now we have had to face Ben’s departure. This too has caused many of us to grieve. As a church we are facing significant changes. We have good reasons to complain or get discouraged, but at the end of the day there are just as many reasons to praise God as there are to complain. We have our faith. We have this wonderful church. We have our strong leadership and most importantly we have each other. God has not left us and God has provided for us by giving us this church and one another. You are a gift in one another’s lives. We are truly blessed. We are a community, a family and we can face challenges together and make it through. God has also provided for us by sharing Jesus’ message of hope with us. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are the ultimate message of hope. Jesus shows us that even after intense suffering and loss there is new life. Easter is months away but the Easter message is as important today as on Easter morning. As Christians we are a people who believe in light beyond darkness, hope beyond despair and life beyond death.
In the wilderness, let us find strength through our faith in Jesus and courage to move forward with the gifts each person has to offer. As Aaron said, now is the time to “Draw near to God.” What does it mean to draw nearer to God? Find what is life-giving to you about your faith and explore that, engage more in it. Ask yourself, what about my faith helps me to thrive and not just survive? Our faith will not flourish on its own, it needs our tending and time and so does our church. The church is not one person. It is each of us, sharing ourselves and our faith with one another. Draw nearer to one another as a family of faith. Pray together, complain together, cry, laugh and sing together. God hears us. God is with us now, has been and always will be.
I want to leave you with a reminder of Paul’s words to the Ephesians in chapter 4 as translated in the Message. He says, “While I am locked up here, a prisoner, I want you to get out there and walk, better yet, run on the road God called you to travel. Do this with humility and discipline, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love. You were all called to travel on the same road, so stay together. You are united in faith through the God of all of us who works through all and is present in all. ” I pray that this may be so. Amen.