When people have lived as slaves in a society that denies their value as human beings, it takes a long journey to emerge out of that dehumanising environment and to become free in spirit.
For the ancient Israelites it was a journey from an experience of abandonment to a new life of belonging and trust. The so-called god of their ancestors it would appear had abandoned them in that foreign land and had not proved to be a powerful god after all.
So when Moses came to them and asked them to follow him out of Egypt in the name of this God of their ancestors, only the desperate would have given it a go. But as slaves who had lived with fear daily in an empire of military might, the Hebrews were desperate.
By the time they reached the wilderness, with the threat of torture and death washed away in the bold escape, they had begun to experience this God of the ancestors as a God of deliverance and miracles.
Hopes had been raised, the future looked amazingly bright for an oppressed people. But then, reality set in. This wilderness was a desert It was as though they looked around and said, " OK were free. Now who brought the Kripsy Kremes? Were hungry!"
So the complaints followed. We can be so quick to judge. How untrusting they were! But I know that I, although I have the Scriptures and wise, holy people throughout the ages to inspire me, when faced with difficulties, I far too often find myself anxious rather than confident in the leading of God.
So here they were, escaped from the powerful Egyptian Empire, but how do they know at this point that God is a consistent God? What if the God of their ancestors is the kind of deity that does one-off dramatic miracles but doesnt travel with them in the ordinary day to day journey of life?
The Sinai Peninsular is a barren place, and not surprisingly, the people are finding it difficult to get adequate water and food.
If we just stop and ask ourselves for a moment what do most of us do when we face a difficult transition or threatening circumstances? Often, for many of us, we idealise the past and we complain bitterly to those responsible for the present. Isnt that right? We forget so easily that life in the past was challenging too, but we talk about "the good old days" as if they were so rosy. And we look around us and blame someone else for the situation we are in now.
Idealising the past is very common in people of faith, (have you noticed?), and thats exactly what the Israelites did. Life in Egypt had been oppressive, daily hardship, no opportunity to hope for a better future for their children no hope at all. Yet faced with no food in the desert, suddenly Egypt seemed not so bad after all.
In desperate straits in unknown, hostile territory, they could not let go of their anxiety. Yet the Holy One keeps coming to them with grace and patience. There is no reprimand, just a promise of food. This provision, despite the harshness of the desert, will be a sign to the people that the God of their ancestors is the kind of God who travels with them in the daily journey, who provides for needs, who can be trusted.
This new journey would not be about abandonment, it would be about belonging.
So as promised, in the evening quails appeared meat and protein, and in the morning the ground was covered in a "fine flaky substance as fine as frost on the ground." I love the name they gave this strange food: "Manna" from the Hebrew word Manhu, which roughly translated means "What the heck is that?!"
You know how you can read a passage or a story over and over again and each time hear something new in it? Well it happened to me as I read this passage. An unusual verse struck me with new depth of meaning.
Verse 10 says, "When Aaron gave out the instructions to the whole company of Israel, they turned to face the wilderness."
They turned to face the wilderness. Does that not strike you as odd? Theyre in the wilderness, what else can they look at? Where else had they been facing? theyd been looking backwards, towards Egypt.
In transition we sometimes not only idealise the past, we yearn for the familiarity of the past for our sense of identity in the past even if it was a harsh past. We allow grief over what we have left behind to prevent us from looking at the present with open eyes.
I used to work with Crisis Care as a Social Worker and many times helped women fleeing domestic violence. 4 out of 5 times they would go back into the violent household, back to the abusive and dangerous but familiar relationship because they didnt have a strong enough sense of self or identity to sustain them on their own. Often on the 5th or 6th attempt to get away they would dare to believe in themselves as individuals sufficiently and wouldnt go back.
Our sense of identity is so important to us that we are destabilised when too much changes. When we change our work, our home, our environment, dislocate from our families or friends, change our food, a lot of change at once can make us feel our very identity is under threat.
This utter disorientation happens to refugees and asylum seekers who have abandoned all connection with their previous life and identity in the hope of survival elsewhere.
I experienced this myself to some extent this year as I moved from Qld, left my position there, my friends and family, and moved into a community where even my diet was changed, and then the change of climate and city and then I broke my shoulder 8 days after arriving and couldnt drive a car for 4 months, - it all left me feeling strangely as though I was in an alien land and I had to recover a sense of who I was in this new circumstance. It took me quite a while, and I admit I dont do transitions very well.
So I was struck very much by this phrase that the Israelites, "turned to face the wilderness." I am in a better place now than I was a few months ago. I think at some point I decided to turn and face the wilderness.
The whole of verse 10 says, "They turned to face the wilderness. And there it was: the Glory of God visible in the Cloud." They couldnt see the sign of Gods presence by looking backwards. They needed to turn away from the past, even away from the immediate past and face their present circumstance full on and dare to see in this new place the presence of God.
I realised that such a challenge faces us at all transitions of life a house move, a retirement, a death of a partner facing widowhood and life on ones own, a move from ones own home to an aged hostel or nursing home thats a huge transition. In all these we have to renegotiate our identity, recognise the presence of God in new rhythms of life, in new people around us, and discover that the truth of who we are is not dependent upon what we did in the past.
What a powerful image - the whole company of Israel turning to face the wilderness and there seeing the Glory of God in front of them. Letting go of fears, grief and negativity, they were able to receive as a gift the provision of food for their hunger.
So the community now finds God provides for them in an on-going manner, and their adventure with God in this new phase of their lives, gets underway.
Our adventure with God is similar our physical and spiritual journey unfolds, as our needs keep changing and the challenges keep testing us to new limits.
The next thing that strikes me in the story is that the people are told to gather enough food for their household if you had a big family you were to gather more than if you had a small family. There was enough for everyone but none left over.
In fact, if you tried to gather a little more for later just in case God didnt come through and provide tomorrow, the manna would rot overnight. There would be manna for today only.
Remind you of anything? "Give us this day our daily bread." In other words the first instruction to the newly liberated people of God was "Do not hoard."
The fundamental lesson embedded in this ancient text speaks to us about a deep truth concerning community that it is possible to have too little and that it is possible to have too much. That both "too littleness" and "too muchness", that poverty and over-indulgence are both deadly in Gods new regime.
Under the old military regime, the empire thinking of Egypt, poverty and affluence were both normal. But in Gods community, the values have changed. Equality and justice start with everyone having enough but not too much food.
These early instructions to the people can be read as though under the heading: "How to be non-Egyptian."
Note that we are told, the manna wouldnt rot overnight on the 6th night so that the people could have the 7th day off free of gathering or working the first mention of a Sabbath in the Bible. Built into the fabric of their lives would be this pattern of work and rest to etch into the psyche of the people that life is about more than work, about more than getting.
Then later every 50 years there should be a Jubilee. In that year debts would be cancelled, land restored to its original owners and wealth redistributed - a radical proposal of how to prevent that deadly pattern of the rich getting richer and the poor get poorer. We dont know if Israel ever actually practiced the Jubilee in its entirety, but the vision was there.
Sabbath Economics, as Ched Myers calls it, is an expression of Gods passion for justice for every human being. It is love of neighbour in action. Sadly once the church gained power in the world, everything was turned upside down. The spiritual power of justice was lost. The church forgot how to be "non-Egyptian".
Renewing our understanding of the churchs mission requires us to recover the passion for equality and justice that were always meant to be expressed in the community of Gods people.
The physical and spiritual journey of the ancient Israelites speaks to us about letting go of the past, of facing the present where God is still to be found, of embracing a radical social vision, and of trusting that God will travel with us in the day to day of all our changing circumstances. Amen.