This week, we don’t have too much of a gap in between stories to fill in. Last week, we heard about how God called Moses from the midst of a bush that was on fire, but did not burn up. We heard about how Moses tried to wiggle out of this call to go back to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go, offering up many excuses as to why he could not do it, and we heard about how God did not let Moses off the hook, but promised to be with him, to help him and guide him. Then comes the part of the story that we remember from Sunday school classes and countless movies, from Charlton Heston’s Ten Commandments, and from more recent movies like the animated The Prince of Egypt: Moses goes to Pharaoh and tells him to let God’s people go. Pharaoh refuses, and God sends plagues: the Nile River turns to blood; frogs swarm up over the land of Egypt; swarms of gnats appear; then flies appear; then all of the livestock get sick and die; then people break out in boils; then God sends thunder and hail; then locusts swarm over everything; then God sends darkness that covers the whole land; and finally, God sends the angel of death to kill the firstborn children of Egypt. It is this last plague that finally makes Pharaoh relent and set the Israelites free, and it is this last plague that results in the observance of Passover: the Israelites are commanded to slaughter lambs and to smear their doorposts with the blood in order for the angel of death to pass over them. Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go free, and God leads the way out of Egypt by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Suddenly, though, Pharaoh changes his mind, and he leads an army to come after the troop of Israelites, just as they are camped by the sea, with no place to run. And God works another miracle through Moses: the sea is parted, and the Israelites pass through on dry ground. As they reach the other side, the waters come back down and drown the Egyptians who had gone in after the Israelites.
Now, after all of this, the Israelites begin their travels through the wilderness. Remember, though, that these are people who have never been in the wilderness before. They have been born slaves, grown up as slaves, and until recently, had expected to die as slaves. Freedom is a new experience for them, and living in the wilderness is also a new experience for them. Trust in this God who miraculously brought them out of Egypt is also a new experience, and that trust is very fragile at this point. And one day they discover that they have no food, and they don’t know where to get food in the wilderness. So they complain. It’s easy to condemn the Israelites for not trusting in God, but which one of us, given the same circumstances, would not complain? When we human beings find ourselves in a tough situation, our natural response is to think about when times were supposedly better and wish ourselves back there.
But the thing is, the times that we remember as being better are not always as rosy as we think they are. The freed Israelites remember that, when they were slaves in Egypt, they could eat their fill of bread. They remember with longing how easy it was to fill their stomachs, but they seem to forget the long days of work with no pay; the command from Pharaoh to first find the straw they needed to make bricks but to make the same amount of bricks in one day as they had when the straw was given to them; and of course, the command to kill all of their baby boys. No, they only remember the thing that they immediately don’t have in the here and now: food.
Nostalgia is a tricky thing. I’ve only been a pastor for about five years, but I was brought up in the church and have been around the church for all of my adult life. And the churches today are full of nostalgia. They say, and perhaps you have said this, too: “Oh, if only we were still living in the 1950s and the 1960s, when everybody went to church and our Sunday school rooms were full. But God, you have brought us into this wilderness where our churches have declined, we are getting older, we have no idea where our young people went, and we don’t know what to do!” Does this sound familiar? Like the Israelites, newly freed from Egypt, we as a church have been wandering in a wilderness that we feel we are not equipped for. The church has been trying to be church in the only way we know how, and we are befuddled when those tried and true methods are no longer working. And the only thing we can figure to do is complain to God about it.
But our God is a gracious God. In spite of their complaining, God provides manna to the Israelites in the wilderness. The word that is rendered “manna” in our English translations comes from the Hebrew phrase “man hu” which means, “What is it?” This bread from heaven that God rains down on the Israelites is not something that they have ever seen before, so they name it a “whatchamacallit”. And Moses tells them that it is bread for them to eat, and they are only to gather enough of what they need for their families. They discover that, if they take too much and hoard it, the bread goes bad. In this way, God is teaching the people that they are to depend on God and trust in God for their daily food, and to trust that what God gives them is enough.
Today, God continues to give us what we need to survive in this seeming wilderness that we find ourselves in. And the first and foremost thing that God gives us is Jesus. In our very short one line from the Gospel of John today, we hear Jesus reinterpreting this story of manna in Exodus by saying, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” Every time we receive communion, we are reminded that Jesus is present in the bread and the wine, and God gives us enough of Jesus to sustain us as we go about the work that God has called us to do. The body and blood of Jesus, in, with, and under the bread and the wine, brings us into relationship with Jesus and into relationship with one another. It reminds us that in everything we do in this world, Jesus is with us. And it reminds us that no matter how much the world changes, Jesus is still with us.
Having received Jesus in Holy Communion, and knowing that he is with us, we have been freed from fear, and we are free to go into the world as it has become, using the gifts which God has given us. Those gifts may not always be apparent to us, and, when we look around and ask ourselves what gifts God has given us to reach out to the world, we may lift something up and say, “What is it?” As an example, the intern over at Trinity-Steelton has the gift of martial arts. He lifted it up to the light and said, “What is it?” And another person said, “How about this—wrestling church!” And he now has a group of kids who are coming and learning about a principle demonstrated in a Bible story, and being put into practice as they learn to wrestle. We see various gifts among our different congregations being lifted up and used as we come together as the four churches of Steelton-Oberlin-Highspire to minister in our communities: the gift of music as we prepare for a couple of musical events; the gift of hospitality as we open our buildings to children’s programs and to homeless families; and so many more gifts that God has not yet revealed to us. God has given us what we need as we journey through this wilderness.
I talked to the kids in the children’s message today about what we want versus what we need. And I want to put this thought out there: we want hordes of kids in the Sunday school rooms again and we want to see our church buildings full on Sunday mornings. But maybe, just maybe, that’s not what we need. Because when we had those things that we wanted, we became complacent. We didn’t have to put forth a lot of effort to tell others about Jesus or even to care for others in our congregation, because we figured that things would always be the same and people would come regardless of what we did and said, because people always came to church. And maybe God looked and saw that all of these crowds of people were not good for deepening our faith. And perhaps God has sent us out into this wilderness because being in the wilderness is truly what we need to become creative, to start truly caring for those on the outside and those on the margins, to think about our faith, and to bring in those who are truly lost. Now I’m phrasing these ideas with “perhaps,” and “maybe,” because I don’t claim to know the mind of God. But it certainly seems like these ideas are fitting what’s going on in the world today.
One of the many musical artists that I grew up listening to in my family was Billy Joel. In the song, “Keeping the Faith,” he sings, “You can get just so much/From a good thing/You can linger too long/In your dreams/Say goodbye to the/Oldies but goodies/Cause the good ole days weren’t/Always good/And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” The Israelites learned this lesson as they spent forty years wandering through the wilderness. They learned that what God had in store for them was much better than anything they might have had in Egypt. And they learned that God would provide for them on their journey. We, too, as a church in 21st century North America, are learning that lesson. The good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow is not as bad as it seems. What God has in store for us is, while very different from what we’ve been used to, better than anything we might remember from when we grew up. And we can trust in God to give us what we need—not what we want, but what we need—for the journey through the wilderness. Amen.