Rev. Katherine Todd
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 the Lord 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.”
Then the Lord said 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. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”
Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “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.’”
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
The Israelites have escaped the prison of their temporary home in Egypt. They have become free! And that means change, A LOT of change.
Though they were enslaved, oppressed, and beaten down, they did have food to eat.
Food fueled the Egyptian labor-force.
And these Israelites do not remember what it is like to be free. They have acclimated. They have adapted. They have their comforts, their routines, their simple pleasure – all of which have been uprooted with this run for freedom.
The new generations only know enslavement, so they’ve not gotten to exercise their muscles of self-will, of self-determination, and perhaps of self-respect. Instead of plotting their own journey, they’ve been going along, following the orders of another.
And so this unimagined freedom now calls on them to grow in ways they may have become weak. They must forage their own food, build their own dwellings, set their own course. And if they fail to do so, they will be hungry, they will be thirsty, …they may starve.
And these are precisely their complaints to Moses as they journey through the wilderness. There is no water. They are thirsty! The water is bitter. They are thirsty! This miss meat. They are hungry!
And they start to reminisce back to their days of enslavement in Egypt. THERE they at least had meat. Better to die a slave, eating meat, than to starve a free soul, they complain.
And it strikes me, that as we venture into the unknown territory of freedom, we encounter risks, unknowns, fears, and discomforts. But if we do not venture into freedom, we will surely die, never having lived. For what is living, if it is not freedom?!
And I think of our journey as a church of God.
We see the path by which we came. Those who came before built this gorgeous sanctuary at a time when churches were busting at the seams in America. The wars had ceased, the people had returned to faith and family, and babies were being born. There was a faith in the church, a faith in organizations, a faith in institutions. And so we came to this point: education rooms were built to teach the children, youth, and adults about Jesus. And this large and lovely sanctuary replaced our beautiful first sanctuary – now the fellowship hall.
We can see the path by which we came. Just as the Israelites came to Egypt at a critical time – to survive famine and to thrive amidst it all – we came to this place because the times demanded it.
But just as the Israelite’s situation continued to evolve until they were enslaved to the Egyptians, we too have continued to change until we have become enslaved to our own building. It’s simply far too big and aged and exquisite for our small band to easily maintain. And so we are compelled to look toward a different future. We must change or face our eventual death.
Like the Israelites, we sit at the brink – our food in hand, dressed, shoes on, ready to go. We have been researching and preparing, praying and discerning in order to envision the pathway forward for our blessed congregation.
And we do not see the path ahead. We can only see what came before.
And we are uncomfortable. For in stepping out into the unknown – in negotiating with potential renters and partners in mission and ministry – we lose our sense of control. We cannot predict next moves. We do not yet know where our provision, our water, our food, our provision will come from. And we grow anxious.
And we too start to grumble and complain: If we could just keep doing what we’ve always done, at least we’d be comfortable, but now God, have you brought us out here, that we may perish in the wilderness? …In the places of discomfort and unknown?
God are you bringing us out in order to smite us more quickly?
God, if we’d just kept going as we were, we would die, but at least we’d die singing our favorite hymns…
Does this feel at all relevant? Does it touch on some of our experiences?
Transitions are extraordinarily difficult, especially for some of us. It often comes down to how we’re wired. Uncertainties can feel intolerably risky. Loss of control can feel like a death.
Transitions are hard.
…And yet God calls us out.
God calls us out of darkness and into the light.
God is calling us out of death and into life.
And that life together will be different.
It will take time to build up and tear down.
It will take planning and starting. …Stopping and revising and starting again. …Over and over.
Like the Israelites, we will reach places where we cannot see a path forward, where death feels imminent. But when its God doing the calling, God doing the inviting, God doing the freeing, God provides. But not before we complain. And not always before our discomforts and fear.
And so we have choices – to trust or to doubt. Is God leading us? And if God is, can we trust God?
We have choices – to trust one another or to doubt. Do we believe that where two or more are gathered in God’s name that God is there too?
We have choices – do we believe that God is using ALL things for good? Even our individual and collective mistakes?
We have choices – do we believe that God will continue to direct and redirect us as we take faithful steps? Are we tuning our ears to hear that still small voice saying, “This is the way. Walk in it.”
And so, as we follow God out of the land of the familiar, the land of comfort, and the land of our eventual or sudden death,…will we trust? Will we trust God and one another?
Will we trust God for our provision – even when we cannot yet see it on the horizon?
Will we trust God to meet our needs – providing familiar comforts, even as we journey outside the lines of our narrow worlds?
Do we believe that God is doing a work among us?
For if we do, then the invitation is to follow.
The Israelites were blessed, in order to BE a blessing! They were to be a city on a hill, a light in the darkness. THROUGH THEM, the whole world would be blessed! That was God’s plan. But they couldn’t do it enslaved in Egypt.
They had to step out.
They had to journey through wilderness.
And God would indeed bless them and make them a blessing!
Will we continue to step out?
Will we continue to release control?
Will we choose trust?
We cannot follow God if we refuse to move.
We cannot follow God if we refuse to grow, to be changed.
We cannot follow God if we are enslaved…to sin, to fear, to dissension, … or even to our building.
We cannot follow God if we’re intent on being the Leader and not the follower.
We cannot hold the reigns of control AND follow God.
But for those who follow,
Who venture into the unknown,
Who choose radical trust and work to build a new way of life,
There is miracle and wonder, halleluia’s and praise the Lord’s,
There is hard-won peace, provision, milk & honey…
THIS is the legacy of God’s children.
Will we follow God boldly into the wilderness unknown?