Lessons from the Wilderness – 2017/08/20

See the bottom of this post for Daniel Patrick’s sermon from last week (8/13).

Psalm 105:1-11
John 6:51
Exodus 16:1-18


Languages are really hard to understand.  This is especially true when we are little kids.  We don’t always hear things correctly, so sometimes we develop really odd thoughts in our minds about what words mean.  I have a friend who misheard the word “Amen,” in church as “All men,” like as if at the end of the prayer, people were supposed to say that this should be true for “all men.”  I’ve sat in church with her since, in college; here she was, a woman in her early-20s, who said “all men” at the end of prayers.  Oh sure, she knew it was wrong, but she couldn’t help it.

I, for one, liked to come up with imaginary reasons that certain words existed.  I have like a million of these, but I’ll give you my favorites.  For example, I assumed the word “basement” was a combination of “base” and “cement.”  You know, it’s the “cement base” at the bottom of your house.  It’s clever, but it’s wrong.  The “ment” has nothing to do with cement – which makes sense, if you think about it, because basements have been around a lot longer than cement has.

I also used to think that the word “sandals” was a shortened version of the words “sand holes.”  You know – there are all those pictures of Jesus walking around in sandals; there’s sand around, there are holes in them.  You wear them at the beach and your toes get sandy – from all the holes in the shoes.  It just made sense; they’re like shoes, only they have “sand holes.”

Today in church, we will talk about manna – the substance that the Israelites ate in the wilderness when there was nothing else around to eat.  There are many possible derivations for the word “manna.”  One suggestion is that it comes from the question, “man hu?” which is Hebrew for, “What is it?”  Another is that it’s related to the Arabic phrase, “man hu,” which means, “this is plant lice.”  Or maybe it’s related to the Egyptian “mennu,” which means “food.”

Whatever the origin of the word – one of these, a combination, or something else entirely – manna is very instructive in our understanding of how God interacts with us.

As you may remember, we’re slowly working our way through the Old Testament.  We’ve already covered Creation, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph… and now we’re on to Moses, whom we’ve talked about a couple of times already.  The first Sunday we discussed him, we talked about his remarkable early life:  being saved from the purge of Hebrew children and raised in the house of Pharaoh; his disgrace and fleeing the country; his calling from God to return to Egypt and free his people.  Then, we talked about the actual act of the Exodus – the removal of the people from Egypt.  This week, we find ourselves on their wanderings.

Of course, one of the things that happens on a journey is hunger.  I’ve made a lot of long drives in my life, and it’s hard not to get hungry when you travel.  I read something a couple of years ago that said that the average American gains 8 pounds PER WEEK while on vacation – that’s over a pound a day.  But of course, car ride snacks, eating out too much, grilling if you’re outside… all of those things cause us to take in a few more calories than we normally would if we were at home.

The Hebrews found themselves in a very different situation in Moses’ time, though.  They weren’t leaving home and going on a fun trip; they were headed out to start a new life, and this wasn’t going to be easy.   Particularly difficult, of course, was food.  They were limited to what they could carry, and there was only so much food to go around.  You can’t exactly expect your livestock to stay well-fed as you traipse across the desert.  So they needed food.  That’s when the grumbling began.

Perhaps you’ve heard that ol’ chestnut that the Israelites spend most of the Old Testament complaining.  It’s not true; but it is true that a lot of the Moses story is spent with complaints.

In fact, we already saw some of that in my last sermon two weeks ago.  We read about the Israelites seeing the Egyptian army pursuing them, and then their getting mad that Moses had dragged them away from their homes, when they could just as easily have died in Egypt, in the comfort of their homes.  Here’s the second instance, when the people start complaining that they don’t have enough to eat.

Let’s keep in mind that, while that first complaint about being killed by Pharaoh at home seems a little snotty or mean, this second one is a very legitimate complaint.  Thousands of people, not enough food; that’s a big deal.  So Moses prays about it, and God answers his prayers.  The Israelites get two meals a day.  First, and you may not have caught this, quails come to the camp in the evening.  Presumably, they are dead and ready to be cooked.  Then, in the morning, manna is found on the ground.

Our passage describes manna as being like coriander – small, round, and white.  It covers the ground, and there’s plenty for everyone.  It’s said to taste, if you read on in chapter 16, “like wafers made with honey.”  Sounds pretty good, honestly:  gamey bird for supper and a sweet, sugary breakfast and/or lunch each day.

The Israelites are instructed to collect how much they need for a day, every day of the week… except on the Sabbath.  They are to gather two times as much on Friday morning, so they will have enough for Saturday and so they don’t have to do the work of gathering, so they can rest.  Moses specifically tells them – don’t take more than you need, because you can’t save it for tomorrow, as it will rot.  And, with the exception of the Sabbath day, when God seems to protect the manna from going bad, that’s exactly what happens.  Some people, (perhaps understandably) greedy and hungry on that first day, try to take more than they need, just in case God does come through for them tomorrow.

And what happens?  Their manna rots, gets infested by worms, all that fun stuff.  So the people who gathered extra, have nothing extra.  Shooting for more than they needed didn’t actually buy them anything in the long run.  And that’s where I’d like to take our message this morning, because I think it’s really relevant in our culture today.  There are three big themes I think we need to pull out from this text that relate to each and every one of us, not just in helping us echo the story of our ancestors in the faith, but in how we live our lives.

The first thing I think this text teaches us is that we need to know what “enough” is.  We live in a culture that is constantly telling us that we need the latest thing – the newest car, the fanciest computer, the best phone, the most beautiful house.  Our culture tells us we need more because that’s what is best for the economy, and the economy governs us more than any of us would probably like to admit.

The reality, though, is that we often have more than we need, and even more than we want.  I know that Carissa and I did a little de-cluttering this year.  Carissa has a friend who posted on Facebook to have people rid themselves of items during May.  One item on the first, two on the second, three on the third, all the way up to 31 items on the 31st.  That ends up being 496 items by the end of the month.  If that sounds like a lot, just know that we did it easily.  So easily, in fact, that we started over again in June.  Of course, things got busy and we gave up around the 20-somethingth of the month. That still ends up being around 750 things we got rid of… and we don’t miss any of them.  In fact, I’d never name half the stuff we got rid of, and I’d be lucky to name a quarter of it.  Of course, the truth is, we’ve acquired more things since then, too.  We’re trying to be better, but it’s hard when you keep feeling this pressure to acquire.

God asks us, though, to fight against that.  We’re supposed to realize that God is enough.  As Americans in 2017, we’re hardly going hungry.  There are people in other parts of the world with the problems the Israelites have at the beginning of the story – not enough.  However, more often than not, we’re the Israelites in the next part – too much.  We need to recognize that.

The second lesson in this text is honoring the Sabbath.  Now, that’s going to look different for all of us.  I don’t find myself being a strict person who believes that there’s only one right way to honor the Sabbath.  I don’t think a specific set of rules is what’s going to make us honor God by resting.  But I do think it’s something we need to do.

South Dakotans are hard workers.  I told you all after our youth mission trip to Denver that, when we were sorting donated items, we were asked to get through one large box; we got through three-and-a-half.  The folks there were very impressed.  But the dark side to that work is that we make an idol of it.  We believe that we’re better people if we work more, if we work harder, if every second of our lives is devoted to being “productive.”  We believe laziness to be the cardinal sin.  Yet, there is a balance between laziness and busy-ness.  We have to find a way to rest.  That’s how we honor God by taking God’s commandments seriously, it’s how we honor the people around us by ensuring that we’re taking care of our needs, and it’s how we honor ourselves as created beings, remembering that our worth cannot be measured in dollars or productivity, but that we are valuable by virtue of existing.  We have worth because we are made in the image of God.

Third and finally, this text reminds us that God will provide.  We have a great deal of need.  Sometimes, we can’t even see exactly what it is we need.  The Israelites spend this passage (and later ones) complaining, usually because they don’t understand.  They told Moses they would rather have died at home; instead, God gave them freedom.  They complained to Moses that they would die of starvation; instead, God gave them manna from the wilderness.  Later, they will complain that God has abandoned them; God will bring them Ten Commandments to order their society.  They will complain about the food they do have; yet God keeps them strong and healthy.

How often do we doubt God?  How often do we assume that we know what’s best, instead of following what God has in store for us?  How often do we complain about today, not realizing that God has already prepared us for tomorrow?

Like the Israelites in this story, we are thick-headed, stubborn, and try to survive on our own.  But at the end of the day, just like the Israelites, we need to remember that God is here for us.  We need to remember that God is already enough, and we don’t need more, no matter how much our society tells us we do; we need rest to honor God, no matter how much we think we need to work; we need to remember that God is looking out for us, no matter how much we think we’ve got it all figured out.  So let us remember the stories of our ancestors, not just as tales about where we’ve come from, but as living, breathing stories that help teach us to serve God better.  Amen.