11th Sunday after Pentecost – Trust God
August 5, 2018

11th Sunday after Pentecost – Trust God

Passage: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

If you’re at all familiar with the big picture of the Bible – of that overarching story of God and God’s relationship with humanity throughout time – then you know how essential the story of the exodus is in scripture. That’s when God heard the cries of the Israelites who were enslaved in Israel and set them free from their bondage to pharaoh, leading them through the wilderness and finally bringing them to the promised land.

On one hand, it’s an historical story, in that it recalls the real heritage of the Israelites. But on the other hand, it’s a universal story of redemption. It speaks to everyone’s experience of suffering in this broken world and of God’s deep compassion when he hears our cry. It’s the story of all the ways God delivers us from sin and death – both through the mission of Christ and in each moment of healing throughout our days. And, ultimately, the exodus is a story of hope – of that day when we will finally cross the river of our own death to find our place in the Promised Land where we will dwell with God forever.

And in that story, it is the years of wandering in the desert that most resonate with our day-to-day life as followers of Jesus. God in Christ has defeated the powers of sin and death (God has taken pharaoh down!); our sins are forgiven; we have been baptized (we’ve crossed through the Red Sea). But now we’re in those forty long years in the desert – this big, long gap between baptism and heaven. And it does often feel like wandering: we just keep putting one foot in front of the other without any real clarity or confidence of where we’re headed or why we’re behaving the way we do. Some days we might feel faithful, but often we question if God is with us at all. Such is the wilderness of our lives.

And so when we read the stories of the exodus, and if we’re at all in touch with our own emotions, it’s not really difficult to relate to these people. The way they act, their vulnerability to fear and anxiety, their presumptuousness – it’s just straight-up humanity!

And in today’s story what are they doing? They’re complaining.

See what I mean? This is very easy to relate to. This is something we all excel at. This is the great human past-time. Forget baseball – complaining is where it’s at! Every time we’re uncomfortable; every time we don’t get our own way; every time we observe something that has nothing to do with us (!) it’s time to complain. When we come home from work we complain about our boss, our co-workers, our clients; when we meet with our friends we complain about our spouses, our parents, our children; when we come home from church we complain about the sermon or the music or how unfriendly the people were; when we get on Facebook we complain about politics.

There’s no end to it. As soon as something deviates in the smallest way from how we think it should be, our knee-jerk reaction is to start complaining. And even if we have the self-control to bite our tongues, we usually just start chewing the cud! – gnawing over it again and again.

As babies the only way we knew to get the attention we needed was to cry. And for most of us, we’ve never stopped. It’s just taken on different forms.

And so the Israelites are in the wilderness and they’re complaining – wishing they were still slave in Egypt, secure in their hope for another meal.

And how does God respond to their complaining? They get what they want. At twilight their camp is inundated with quail – enough meat for everyone. And in the morning the ground is covered with manna – “the bread of heaven.” The quail was common enough in that region. The manna had never been seen on earth before. Later in the story, it’s described as being like coriander seed. It was white and tasted like wafers with honey (Exodus 16:31). It was a foreshadowing of the Promised Land that flowed with milk and honey. And throughout the many years in the wilderness, God never stopped providing them with this food.

But with the manna came also God’s instructions: for five days gather no more than you need for that day; and then on the sixth day gather twice what you need so that you may rest on the seventh day. It says quite plainly that these instructions were a test – a test to see that, if in the presence of God’s daily provision, would they learn to trust that God would provide again tomorrow? And the answer turned out to be “no.” They gathered more than they needed (just to be safe) and the next day it’s all gone rotten: foul and filled with worms.

But, you know, their fear makes sense. I don’t begrudge them that.

Years ago I belonged to a small, inner-city church. And I befriended an older woman there who was raising her three grandchildren on her own. They were living way below the poverty line. So wanting to give her a break and her kids a treat, I took the kids out for a day at the beach. And I remember I bought Twinkies for all of them. And when I pulled them out of the bag they were thrilled! They never got Twinkies at home. But then a surprising thing happened. None of them opened the package and ate the Twinkies. Without a word, they all squirreled them away to save for later. Who knew how long it’d be before another Twinkie came there way? Best to hold on to them for a while.

And so these Israelites, vulnerable in the desert, take hold of the miracle (they gather up the manna ) and they hoard it for tomorrow, just in case it turns out to be a one-off event. And in doing so, they fail the test. Because the test here was an elemental question of faith: Will you trust that God will still be God tomorrow? that tomorrow God will continue to care for you?

These years in the desert were the beginning of Israel’s relationship with God. And the invitation for them was simply to begin to trust that the God who had saved them once would continue to save them, day after day, year after year.

And so for us, the invitation is the same. In the face of hardship, in the face uncertainty, in the face of not having everything as secure and pleasant as we would prefer, what are we going to do? The childish response is simply to encounter the fear and start complaining. And for many of us, we never really get past that.

But God is inviting us to grow up, to mature into our true nature as children made in the likeness of God. So although it’s very easy to relate to the Israelites and their fear – the real invitation here is to set our eyes on God and the character of God and to determine that that is the path we will choose instead.

And what does the path of God look like here in the face of the fearful, complaining Israelites? God blesses them.

And so for us, as we encounter the brokenness of this world in all its many forms, the easiest, most natural response is to complain about it, and to complain about those who are at fault and to complain about all the other complainers.

But as children of God we’re invited to set that whole cycle of fear and complaining aside and to walk, instead, in the path of mercy and compassion.

Now fear is usually rooted in some sense that there are overwhelming circumstances beyond our control that do not care one iota about our own well-being. I remember being awoken early one morning (4:31am to be precise) by a massive earthquake. I was on the sixth of my building and everything in my room was being violently thrown around (including myself!) and at the core of my horror and fear was this recognition that the earthquake did not care whether I lived or died. It was going to what it was going to do and my well-being had no part in the equation. And it’s that same kind of fear that can saturate all of our days. It might not be so exaggerated as with an earthquake, but it’s always there, this constant threat that right outside the door are external forces, waiting to undo us. And in our fear our eyes turn inward – away from God, away from our neighbor, convinced of the threat. And in our fear we behave badly.

The invitation of faith, however, is to begin to learn and trust that, as God is with us today, so God will be with us tomorrow. The conditions might be less pleasant than we prefer. There might be legitimate suffering. We might still be in the desert. But we aren’t in the desert alone. God is with us – in all things – and as God is our refuge and provider, so this same God will become our standard for a better and truer way of being human. The invitation of faith is a choice: to turn away from the fear of our own insecurity, and to look instead to the flourishing and well-being of our neighbor, even if that neighbor is also our enemy.

This is what it looks like to grow up as a Christian.

This is what we mean by faith.

Faith is learning to trust that God will be us in all things. And (!) faith is learning to partner with God by behaving like God – with mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. In our childishness we complain about each other. In our godlikeness we bless each another.

Who is it in your family who’s hurt you? Bless them.

Who is it in the church who annoys you? Bless them.

Who is it in this world who is tearing down all that you believe is good? Bless them.

Seek their good, and in so doing, become your own, true, good self.

“I therefore … beg you,” writes Paul, “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace….until all of us come to the unity of the faith… to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:1-3, 13).

For this Christ in whom we are becoming, is the true bread (the true manna) which comes down from heaven. He is the bread of life. And in him we will never be hungry again (John 6:33,35).