When I was a little kid and heard the stories of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, two images came to mind: The first was that their journey looked a lot like the mountains of Pennsylvania which many of us Northerners always called “the wilderness.” In my mind’s eye I pictured pine trees, cool streams, and lots of woodland critters running around.
Therefore, when I heard that the Israelites were in the “wilderness” I wondered what the fuss was all about. Surely, they could find something to eat in the wilderness. In fact, there was an old T.V. commercial featuring Euell Gibbons who was the spokesperson for Grape Nuts Cereal. His famous line was “Did you ever eat a pine tree? Well, some parts are edible.” So I figured the Israelites were just not very resourceful as they made their way through the wilderness. Too bad they didn’t have Euell Gibbons with them. They would have done just fine without any help from God.
The second image that came to mind when I heard the word “wilderness” was the rainforests of Africa. Again, I couldn’t figure out why the Israelites were having such a problem. Surely, they could have found a coconut or two. I also remember hearing that some tribes in Africa ate things like grasshoppers and ants, which sounded pretty gross, but I figured if you were desperate enough you’d eat just about anything!
As I got older, I realized that the wilderness talked about in the Bible didn’t look like either of these places. It’s a hot, dry dessert with lots of sand. There is some vegetation, but not much. The critters you stumble upon are lizards and rabbits as well as more dangerous predators such as wolves, jackals and poisonous snakes. The wilderness is not a vacation spot. It is certainly not somewhere we would want to camp out for 40 years!
This is the setting of our First Lesson from Exodus. After the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, after God had parted the Red Sea and saved them from a surprise attack by Pharaoh’s army, after they began their desert trek, a funny thing happened….They developed spiritual amnesia. They forgot all the wonderful things God had done for them. They downplayed their enslavement. Their perspective was distorted, and they began to remember Egypt as the “good old days.”
Exodus 16 puts it this way: “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 God in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
The Israelites developed spiritual amnesia. They completely lost their perspective and their trust that God would sustain them in the wilderness. They went so far as to say it would have been better if God had let them die in Egypt rather than lead them into the wilderness. Their whining and complaining is legendary, It is mentioned in a number or places where the wilderness story is told.
But before we judge the Israelites too harshly, let us remember a time in our lives when we, too, wandered in the wilderness. (We may feel like that time is now.) Let us remember a time in our lives when life was harsh and dry and cruel. Maybe it was an economic crisis due to the loss of a job or a serious illness. Maybe it was a traumatic life event that shook us to the core and left us with all kinds of fears and questions. Maybe it was a trust that was betrayed, a dream that all but dried up, or a bad choice we made that led us down a dark and dangerous path.
Whatever the case may be, all of us have faced times where we, too, wandered in the wilderness. We’ve faced times where life was hot, exhausting, dry and unproductive; times when it took all of our strength to simply make it through another day. As we remember these wilderness times, we need to ask ourselves “How did we behave during these desert times? What were our thoughts and feelings when we found ourselves wandering in the wilderness?”
Chances are we may have remained strong for a while. But as our wilderness wandering lingered, we most likely experienced many of the same things the Israelites did. Chances are we began to develop spiritual amnesia. We began to gripe and complain. We began to loose faith and doubt that God would sustain us. It’s human nature. It happens to all of us when we face desert times. We might remember “the good old days” and fantasize about how good life was “way back then.” We might go to our spiritual leaders and mentors, such as our parents and pastor, and complain just like the Israelites did.
As we complain I think it’s natural for us to want some sort of sign that God is faithful, that things are going to be O.K., that the desert time of our lives are not going to last forever. More times than not, I believe God gives us the sign we are looking for. However, it’s usually not in the form we expect it to take.
Think about the Israelites for a moment. They were used to pretty big signs: The 10 plagues, the parting of the Red Sea. They were used to God doing big, flashy things. But this time, God did something completely different; something a lot more subtler, something that would teach them how to trust God day by day rather than though some miraculous act of deliverance.
As the story continues God says to Moses “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.” Then God says further “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; “Say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.'”
That evening quails appeared and covered the camp. Everyone had enough to eat. The next morning a fine flaky substance appeared on the ground. The Israelites said “What is it?” which is essentially the Hebrew word for “manna.” They gathered this fine bread and everyone had enough to eat.
The interesting part of the story is what happens in the days that follow. The Israelites are told to take enough food to last them the day. What do you think they did They tried to hoard it. They tried to gather extra manna and store it in jars.
Guess what happened? All the food they tried to save up for the next day spoiled. The manna got all wormy and was not fit for human consumption. The only day they were allowed to gather a double-portion of manna was on Friday so that they could rest on the Saturday, the Sabbath. Any other day they tried to gather more, it spoiled.
What do you think God was trying to teach them out there in the wilderness? What lesson did they need to learn? Is this a lesson that we need to learn as well? Well, I believe God was trying to teach them to learn to have the faith that trusts God to provide what we need for today. On rare occasions, God provides miraculous signs and moves in big ways. However, most of the time, God prefers manna. God prefers small signs that give us enough strength to make it through this day and this day only.
You see, I’m convinced that faith in God has very little to do with expecting big, miraculous things to happen in our lives. Faith in God means that we trust God to provide what we need to get though today. Then, when tomorrow comes, God will do the same thing again, and again, and again.
The most important lesson we can learn from our first lesson is the importance of trusting God step by step, hour by hour, day by day. No one likes to wander in the desert. No one like the wilderness times in our lives. But instead of expecting God to deliver us with some big, miraculous show of force, perhaps we can learn to keep our eyes focused on the manna and quail that will get us through this day. Perhaps we can learn to trust God’s care for us on a day-to-day basis. This is one of the most challenging life lessons we can ever learn. As the Israelites continue their wilderness journey, it’s a lesson they would have to learn again and again and again.
This same life lesson is taught in our gospel as well. The previous day, those who had gathered around Jesus saw the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. Now, on day two, they approach Jesus looking for the exact same thing. What he gives them instead was not another miraculous feeding. He gives them himself as the Bread of Life. “I am the Bread of Life,” Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
If we hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people today, perhaps it’s the life lesson that faith is step by step, not leaps and bounds. Faith is trusting that God will provide what we need to make it through today. nothing more and nothing less. Therefore, when we find ourselves in the midst of dry, desert times in life. I hope we will keep our eyes focused on the manna instead of searching for a miracle. I hope we can trust that God will provide for us with not everything we want, but everything we need. As the old song proclaims: “Day by day your mercies, Lord, attend me, bringing trouble to my anxious soul”
Friends in Christ, my prayer for all of us is that we would have the kind of faith that trusts God to provide the manna we need for today. And then, do the same thing tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that! Amen
Copyright ©2018 by David Eck