Turn around, look into the wilderness, and discern God’s sovereign presence.

A sermon for Proper 20: Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, Philippians 1:21- 30, Matthew 20:1-16

15 weeks ago we started at the beginning. We heard anew the creation story, ending with Adam and Eve wanting more, perhaps an expression of doubt, which God meets with consequences ~ but also grace. We followed Abram and Sarah into the wilderness, to an undisclosed location of unknown security, waiting for God’s promised heir. We heard of their efforts to hurry things along, surely an expression of misplaced doubt; for their divine heir by Sara arrives ~ in God’s time. We followed Isaac and Jacob with their own doubts about God’s calling, and how each was met with divine fidelity. We heard again the story of Joseph and the sons of Israel arrival in Egypt, where they grow and prosper. We heard how good times are followed by a crisis with a change in Pharaoh administrations the subsequent fall from grace resulting in harsh oppressive treatment. Israel cries out, and God answers with Moses leading Israel, out of bondage in repressive economic captivity toward freedom in a promised land. This time the destination is known, its security is assured, though ~ the route is a bit obscure. Last week, as Israel complains to Moses how he’s lead them to certain death, we witnessed how the latest in military technology designed and used to evoke fear and destroy Egypt’s enemies, is mired in mud, and swallowed up in divinely controlled watery chaos. In every story along the way, there is a divine promise, God’s people lose sight of and express their doubt and or fear, and God responds with signs of power and mercy.

Between last week’s tale, and this morning’s adventure, are Miriam’s and Moses’ songs celebrating God’s defeat of Pharaoh’s army. Three days later, with understandable anxiety, due to a shortage of water, Israel once again complains to Moses “Why have you brought us into the wilderness to die of thirst?” God provides sweet water at the springs of Marah. Two and a half months later, with understandable anxiety, due to a shortage of food, Israel, yet again, complains to Moses “Why have you brought us into the dessert to starve? At least in Egypt we had plenty of bread and meat to eat!” God responds, ~ this time with sweet sticky stuff – manna for breakfast, and quail for dinner. We don’t read this far, but there are also rules to follow; simple ones really: gather only what you need to eat, no less – no more, and the day before Sabbath, gather enough for two days, because Sabbath is a day of rest.

As with most, if not all, scriptures stories, there is more here than meets the eye. Part of it involves the miraculous, here it’s the appearance of manna and quail. Both are natural occurrences.  The fruit of the Tamarisk tree is punctured by plant lice; the sap forms yellow-white flakes that congeals in the cool of the night, and disintegrates in the heat of the day. Quail and other migratory birds, blown in from the Mediterranean Sea, can be so tired, they are easily caught by hand. (Fretheim) Neither of these negate God’s hand at work; both are examples of how God works in the ordinary and natural. (Brueggemann) (Fretheim) The significant bit is that God acts to take care of God’s people.

I mentioned earlier God’s actions in today’s story also includes a test, involving rules that involve Sabbath. And yes, you are correct, the Ten Commandments have not yet been given to Israel through Moses, we’ll read about that in a few weeks from now. But, if you recall, the creation story that begins in Genesis chapter 1 ends:

And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. (Gen, 2:2-3)

This morning’s reference to Sabbath (which is in verses just beyond what we read this morning) is a reference to the creation itself. The test is will Israel trust their creator God, will they honor the Sabbath?  (Portier-Young) (Brueggemann) Will Israel give up the old ways where bread comes only from work, fear and anxiety and fully accept the bread of life trusting only in God’s faithfulness? (Brueggemann) Will Israel see how Sabbath stands in opposition to Pharaoh’s oppressive economics and live accordingly? (Fretheim) Of course none of this would be necessary were it not for Israel’s tendency for revisionist history. (Hoezee)

In the first verse we read this morning Israel is longing for the meat and bread of Egypt. There is no mention of Pharaoh’s oppressive ways: (Hoezee) throwing baby boys in to the Nile, taking away means of quality brick production and threatening to withhold food if production drops. Perhaps their crisis of faith, brought on by suffering, (Fretheim) is a natural human response. Walter Brueggmann mentions how anxiety distorts memory of the recent past. (Brueggemann) And that, as Terence Fretheim notes, results in a lack of discernment which leads to: an inability to see, or denial of, God’s active presence. (Fretheim) Nevertheless Israel does what Israel does, fear and doubt prevail; but a significant point is God responds; but not simply to calm their complaining or satisfy their hunger. God provides manna and quail for them to eat so they will know, as Pharaoh’s drowned army pronounced, Yahweh is their God. (Hoezee) (Fretheim) Like the plagues thirst and hunger are intended to reveal that God is the singular source of freedom and life. (Harrelson) And there’s no better setting to get to know and to trust God (Portier-Young) than the wilderness, a place of death. (Hoezee)

The pivot in this story is verse 10. Prior to it, in distorted memory, “Israel associates glory (and the power to give life) with the splendor, wealth, prestige and extravagance of Egypt.” (Brueggemann)  At verse 10 the Spirit turns Israel around where: against all odds against all expectations (Hoezee) they do not see emptiness and death but a place of God’s sovereign splendor. (Brueggemann)

I don’t normally recommend evaluating reality by TV news, which makes its money by accentuating disaster and crises. However, the truth is that all of us, at some point in time, face a crisis, either individually, or as a community, or as a church. And although we might say we want God, or God’s representative, to fix it, we don’t completely act that way. We, as Israel did, complain, and often hedge our bets; remember Abraham, Sarah and Ishmael. And it really doesn’t matter if we believe God hardened hearts or otherwise brought the crisis, it’s here. What does matter ~ is our response. Do we allow the crisis to define us? Or do we learn from Israel’s experience and look to the natural and the ordinary to discern God’s actions and presence. Will we turn around, change our perspective, look into the places we’ve perceived to be wilderness, places of darkness, loneliness and death; and risk discovering the sovereign splendor of God?

Is it really all that important how we respond to crises, great or small? Is it really all that important to trust our creator God, and honor the Sabbath? God is all powerful, so we don’t really have to listen, ~ do we? Yes ~ we do; because not listening not trusting not honoring and not following the divine calling threatens … all God has done, (Fretheim) and is doing.

Life is life, and how we respond matters; it matters:
to us
to our family and friends,
to those who see us:
as leaders
as the Egypt, or Pharaoh of their lives.
It also matters to God, not simply because of a divine plan of universal redemption; it matters to God, because God loves us, love you.  And that will endure forever.

Works Cited

Brueggemann, Walter. The New Interpreter’s Bible. Ed. Leander E Keck. Vol. Exodus. Abbingdon Press, 2003.

Fretheim, Terence E. Interpretation A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING. Ed. Patrick D Miller, Jr. and Paul J. Achtemeier. Vol. Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Exodus 16. 21 9 2014. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php&gt;.

Portier-Young, Anathea. “Commentary on Exodus 3:1-15.” 21 9 2014. workingpreacher.org. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2136&gt;.