Each summer there is a day when the church fridge cries out to me to be purged of all that is unclean! Even though our food ministries have narrowed greatly this past year, there still is an accumulation of food items that are abandoned in our refrigerator. I saw this jar that was in the very back corner of a middle shelf. Pulling it out, I wondered, “What is it?” Lemon marmalade! What says “church supper” like a jar of lemon marmalade? It appears to be unopened but is, nonetheless, a bit sticky. The label assures me that it was “Cheerfully prepared for Horrocks Market.” When I checked the “best used by” date, it was clearly marked: March of 2017. Hmmm. That means it was sold years before 2017. It also told me that it had hidden in our fridge for years! What is it for? Who brought it in? How could we miss it? So many questions from a jar of specialty jam!
In Exodus 16, we read the familiar story of God sending daily food to the Israelites who are wandering through the wilderness. They are six weeks into their life of freedom from Egyptian captors but the setting is harsh and food is impossible to find for a nation of people. God sends an unknown food staple that is described as a flaky substance, almost as frost, that appears each morning. On the first manna morning, they mutter to each other, “What is it.” The question gives identity to the mystery food item which is named manna, meaning, “What is it?”
Poor Moses and Aaron get more than they bargained for when the food and water supply runs short in the desert. The Israelites grumble and the two brothers at the top of their ad hoc political order are held accountable. Suddenly the refugees look back on their life of slavery as luxuriant. A “Back-to Egypt Committee” forms and quickly gains momentum. In the rough conditions of their freedom, they wish to go back to slavery.
Many times we look in on these spiritual forebears and judge against them for their whining. Perhaps, now that we faced our own wilderness of COVID quarantine, we can be more generous of spirit. Remember the panic that erupted when grocery shelves were emptied of basic food items and bottled water? Remember how many of us gained weight this past year because food offered comfort in that frightening time? When our world is rocked, we become very concerned with where our next meal is coming from!
It’s instructive to see that God responds to this grumbling with compassion. Everyday there is a new supply of this “What is it” foodstuff and water flows freely even out of rocks! There is no need to hoard or overeat. God teaches these struggling believers to trust in divine provision. God teaches them (and us!) that blessings will come to us from the most unlikely circumstances. Their national identity is being reshaped from slave to free. But there’s nothing easy about letting go of a mindset of dependency even on an enslaving master. After all, they have been an enslaved people for 400 years! Slavery becomes an identity as much as it is a despised lived reality. In our world, we are now invited to take off the mask and walk into a sports arena with throngs of fans. But we greet that long-awaited permission with anxiety because we’re still not sure our world is safe. Much as we yearn for certain privileges, we carry with us a recent past history that emphasizes elusive but real threat. Accepting this new gift of freedom is challenging to accept. With the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were given the liberation for which they had fervently prayed. But it didn’t come in the packaging they expected. So they pined away for the familiar life of slavery.
The verb “to complain” that is used in this text means something like “to grumble” or “to express resentment.” The nation of God’s chosen people bring their gripes to Aaron and Moses but they also direct their discontentment toward God! Their gratitude evaporates in the face of hunger and they blame God for their misery when, in fact, God had orchestrated their escape. Instead of getting understandably angry with this throng of ingrates, God promises relief: Bread every morning and meat at night. Water will be ever-replenishing and their needs will be met. God understands the frustration and fears of these people who have forgotten their identity as God’s beloved children. It’s not an easy lesson to learn a new way of life so God takes us by the hand and leads us, step-by-step, into a new day.
God is the provider of every good and perfect gift. I wonder what those gifts are for you? I wonder if you’re able to live a doxological lifestyle when hardship confronts you? While we certainly don’t seek out suffering, our greatest spiritual growth happens in those times of testing. It can be in the isolation of the wilderness that we most nearly experience God’s presence!
Thomas Steagald assures us that God certainly had a plan to provide for the newly-freed nation but their whining against their liberator ruined the party! There is good news for the liberated captives but they can’t hear it. Suffering changes their worldview and they grab onto whatever seems sturdy. Clinging to faith in an unseen God when faced with hungry children and weary elders is a luxury! The Jews look around their makeshift camp and ask God about the promised blessings? Where are they? How can we live in this precarious situation indefinitely? When we are literally on the move each day, not knowing where we will pitch our tent at night, what is the source of our strength that will get us to the promised land? Rein Bos writes, “Life is no longer under the oppression of fear and anxiety but under the ‘regime’ of freedom. The place of shortage, threat, and death is re-described, rearranged, and even recreated by the Lord to a place of abundance, promise, and life. The place that was thought to be a place of death, thirst, and enemies can become the locus of the glory of the Lord; the wilderness turns out to be more brilliant than Egypt.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3)
When did you learn to prefer the new life of the wilderness to the old way of doing things? I talked with some of our young parents at our congregation’s celebration of Vacation Bible School last week. They are running from vacation sites to swim camps to family gatherings and finally back home. They have enough time to wash their clothes and check their mail before heading out again! They confessed to looking back with some yearning to the fearful times of the COVID quarantine when we were mandated to stay put in our houses. A virus cleared our calendars overnight! The quiet home life they experienced when our movement was restricted has taken on an air of “the good ol’ days.” How do we carry the lessons of the pandemic into a world that has already ramped back up to a proverbial treadmill pace? We know that the freedom we’ve experienced this summer from COVID restrictions are celebrated but we wonder what sort of daily pace we want to reclaim. What lessons do we learn from the past that grant us wisdom and balance in the present moment? The Jews are released from their chains but they eke out a living in an inhospitable land. They do not yet have any rules established for how to be a community of faith since the ten commandments have not yet been given. Their focus is on survival. They want to believe that God has a plan for their future but what is it? And when will they get there? Like fidgety children half an hour into a long journey, they cry out, “Are we almost there yet?”
One of the gifts of the global pandemic is that we’ve learned to be adaptable. We have had to sacrifice from our old ways of doing things. We reluctantly accepted the drive-by graduation celebration, the parking lot wedding, or the neighborhood picnic where everyone brings their own food and eats at a distance from each other. We prefer the grand celebrations of the past, the parties that take months to plan and a paycheck to fund! But in these creative responses to necessary social distancing, God has surprised us with joy! We discover that being together is what really matters, not the food or home décor or whatever other external element we fixated on in the past.
At a wonderful family reunion last weekend, we projected family pictures on an outdoor screen of past gatherings of our clan. My grandmother’s sister was beloved “Aunt Jean” to several generations. There were many pictures of Thanksgiving meals seated around her table. But, to accommodate the large group in her relatively small house, the table she had to use was the ping pong table in her unfinished basement. It was covered with a table cloth and folding chairs surrounded it. The Maytag washer and dryer functioned as a food service station. Anyone over 5’10 inches tall knew to protect their head from exposed pipes when they moved about. We pointed this out to our kids who have been raised in a Martha Stewart world with virtual pages of Pinterest suggestions. What we learned in the wilderness of COVID is that a front porch on a chilly afternoon is a cherished spot to sit with loved ones, masked and bundled, just because we can be together. Joy is always available if we are willing to see it.
In this story we meet the Israelites at a time when their relationship with God was finally deepening. There’s nothing like a crisis to bond folks together. This stage in the life of the Jews is akin to new parents learning to understand the needs of their newborn child. What does this cry mean? Is that gas—or the first smile? What is it? When I arrive at his house, my grandson immediately takes me on a tour of many different items. I find myself encouraging conversation by repeatedly saying, “What is it?” And then I give it a name. It is a red truck. It is a seatbelt. It is a UPS truck (the best possible gift!). We learn about life when we ask God, with an open spirit, “What is it?”
This passage invites us to reflect deeply about our own trust in God and our compassion toward others for whom life is difficult. It reminds us that we need not hoard the gifts God sends our way. About the time that we found every store lacking in TP, our congregation was told that a church member had purchased several cases of the precious commodity that we distributed liberally and at no charge. Our own experiences with scarcity and holy provision ought to have awakened in us a desire to serve those who live on the edge all the time, those whose support systems are weak and contingency plans non-existent. The times when we nervously ask, “What is it?”, God teaches us—again—that our needs will be met and companionship for every part of our journey is assured. In the New Testament Jesus is referred to in several passages as manna. We have met and we worship the One who feeds us and satisfies us in body, mind, and spirit. His answer to our prayers will far exceed our flimsy expectations. Do we believe this?