Sunday, July 6, 2014

Are We There Yet? (Exodus 16:2-8,13-15,31; 17:1-7)

The whole Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. The Israelites said to them, “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt. There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread. Instead, you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I’m going to make bread rain down from the sky for you. The people will go out each day and gather just enough for that day. In this way, I’ll test them to see whether or not they follow my Instruction. On the sixth day, when they measure out what they have collected, it will be twice as much as they collected on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “This evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt. And in the morning you will see the Lord’s glorious presence, because your complaints against the Lord have been heard. Who are we? Why blame us?” Moses continued, “The Lord will give you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning because the Lord heard the complaints you made against him. Who are we? Your complaints aren’t against us but against the Lord.”

13 In the evening a flock of quail flew down and covered the camp. And in the morning there was a layer of dew all around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the desert surface were thin flakes, as thin as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” They didn’t know what it was. Moses said to them, “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. 31 The Israelite people called it manna. It was like coriander seed, white, and tasted like honey wafers.


The whole Israelite community broke camp and set out from the Sin desert to continue their journey, as the Lord commanded. They set up their camp at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people argued with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why are you arguing with me? Why are you testing the Lord?”

But the people were very thirsty for water there, and they complained to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do with this people? They are getting ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of Israel’s elders with you. Take in your hand the shepherd’s rod that you used to strike the Nile River, and go. I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.” Moses did so while Israel’s elders watched. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”


“Are we there yet?”  Four words that indicate the family road trip has gone on entirely too long for everyone in the car.  Four words that somehow make the trip longer – right up there with other phrases, such as “I’m hungry.”  “I have to go to the bathroom.”  “I don’t feel so good.”  And, alternately, “He’s touching me” or “He’s on my side.”  I am one of four kids, and when our family was on the road together, even when we drove our Suburban, someone was always on someone else’s side, someone was always touching someone else.


For some reason, however, the four words, “Are we there yet?” made an already long trip even longer.  If you have to ask it, the answer is already painfully obvious.  Are we there yet?  Look around; no, we’re not.  This question was so unpopular in our car that my Dad banned its use.  We were not allowed to ask, “Are we there yet?” so I started asking, instead, “How much longer?”


If you’re just joining us today, today is the second message in a three-part series on “Reaching for the Promise: An Exodus Journey Toward God’s Preferred Future.”  We are re-tracing the journey of the Hebrew people from slavery and bondage in Egypt toward the promised land.  Last week we took off our shoes and stood with Moses on holy ground, as he encountered God in a burning bush, who called him to lead the people somewhere better than where they were.  Next week, we’ll overlook the promised land and see about moving into it.


But today, we find ourselves between those two places.  We find ourselves somewhere between “where we’ve been” and “where we’re going.”  It’s the wilderness, somewhere on the road, making a journey together – no longer where we used to be, not yet where we’ll end up.  God is calling, always calling us toward a preferred future.  Will we reach it?  How long will the trip take?  Well, that’s sort of up to us.  May we pray.


One of the most significant road trips my family took was when I was three.  We moved from Oklahoma to New York.  Mom drove the car – an Olds Cutlass, at the time – while Dad drove the moving truck.  There were three kids in the family at the time – and at each stop, we rotated which kid rode in the truck with Dad.


One of my sisters was riding in the truck, which left me and my other sister in the back of the car.  HotWheels cars were one of my favorite toys as a kid (Ashley jokes that cars are still my favorite toy, my taste in toys is just more expensive now than ever), and, apparently bored, I began to throw cars at my sister on the other side of the car.  Mom told me to stop throwing cars at my sister, which I did; I began throwing them at the back of Mom’s head, instead!  Dad was following behind in the truck, and he thought there must have been something wrong with the car with as quickly as Mom pulled over and hauled me out of the backseat to administer some “roadside discipline.”


Asking “Are we there yet?” only makes the trip seem to take longer.  A bad attitude and bad behavior actually does lengthen the trip.


So it was for the Hebrew people on their journey toward God’s preferred future, freed from the shackles of their past, moving toward the promised land.  A sometimes difficult journey through the wilderness, certainly, but it should have been a time of rejoicing, right?  Look at where they had been!  Look at what was promised ahead of them.  Not there yet, but pointed in the right direction, closer today than they were yesterday, closer tomorrow than they are today.


But instead of rejoicing, the story finds them grumbling and complaining so much I’m surprised it doesn’t say anything about Moses asking them if they wanted some cheese to go with their whine.


First, they’re hungry.  Starving, apparently to death, and they complain against Moses.  Back in Egypt, they had food, but out here?  None.  Now it’s true that it’s difficult to hear God over the rumbling of an empty stomach – anyone who has ever skipped breakfast before church and then sat through an unusually long sermon can attest to that.


Without food, the people’s chance at survival is slim.  God knows that, and provides for their need with quail and manna – a flaky, light, sweet, bread that literally came down from heaven in the nightly dewfall, and remained in the morning when the dew had evaporated.  Each day, there was enough for that day and that day only.  Some tried to hoard it and store up jars of it, but it became rancid and worm-infested when they did.


Why only a one-day supply at a time?  Because each day was an opportunity to trust God to provide.  Each day was an opportunity for God to demonstrate God’s faithfulness, and each day was a day to exercise faith that God would come through, and sure enough, God did and God does.  Years later, Jesus would teach us to pray for daily bread.  The message is clear – our desire for and dependence on God should be as daily and basic as our hunger for food.  God had already proven faithful in providing, God was still faithful, and God was simply putting it to the people, “How’s your faith?  Do you trust me?”


Apparently, they didn’t.  Only one chapter later, they’re thirsty, and it’s déjà vu all over again as they whine and complain about their thirst, once again ready to overthrow Moses, elect a new leader, and head back to Egypt.  First they accused Moses of bringing them out in the wilderness to starve, now they’re sure they’re going to die of thirst.  Sure, God provided yesterday for them, but that was then; what about today?


When we forget the lesson of daily trusting in God’s faithful provision, each new challenge becomes a crisis.  For whatever reason, our memories glaze over all the countless ways that God has already been exceedingly good and faithful to this very moment, and instead of an opportunity to lean more fully into God’s presence, we are filled with worry and anxiety, we become angry and quarrelsome, we whine and complain against God and each other.


Perhaps that’s human nature, but as the people of God, we are called to something better.  Though the people quarreled and complained against God and each other, though they voiced aloud, “Is God even among us or not?” the reality is that God had never left them.  It’s just that for all their negativity, they failed to discern what God was doing in their midst and on their behalf.


Friends, God is always faithful!  God always makes good on God’s promises!  If God calls and leads us in a direction, do we really think God is going to abandon us when we’re only partway there?  No!  If God calls us to it, God will see us through it!   Our faith grows with each challenge when we remember the ways God has been faithful in every previous challenge; and we lean on the lessons learned in times past, not merely for nostalgia’s sake, but as the living testimony for all that God has already done, the evidence, if you will, that God provided then, so God will certainly provide now and in the days ahead.


Perhaps the people were fearful about what lay ahead of them, and so they began to long for a return to what was behind them.  The further they get away from their past, the more nostalgic they become about it.  They view their past through increasingly rose-colored glasses, such that as they tell about their time in Egypt, they remember having food aplenty – apparently they were the best-fed slaves in the history of the world – sitting around the fondue pot all night stuffing themselves silly, amazing they could even get up the next morning and get any work done!  They make their time in Egypt sounds increasingly like a 4th of July backyard cookout, instead of centuries of hard, forced, labor at the cruel hands of a brutal regime – if that’s not selective memory, I don’t know what is!


It is both disturbing and destructive for a community, particularly a community of faith, to express such a strong preference for its past that it is unable to discern God in the present, or trust God into the future, especially when “what was” is so much less than “what can be.”  We build on the past, which is something altogether from longing to live there.  For people of faith, the past can be a priceless treasure of what God has done before, giving us the confidence that God will do it again.


I love the way Oswald Chambers put it: "It is of no use to pray for the old days; stand square where you are and make the present better than any past has been. Base all on your relationship to God and go forward, and presently you will find that what is emerging is infinitely better than the past ever was. The present excels the past because we have the wealth of the past to go on" (Shade of His Hand).


We don’t know what the future holds, but we do know that God holds the future.  People of God, God hasn’t left us yet; why would we think for even one second that God is going to leave us now?


God has already been faithful.  God will continue to be faithful, because God is faithful.  I know the national calendar says this is Independence Day weekend, but for the people of faith, we are called to respond to God’s faithfulness with daily dependence on God, and daily interdependence with each other – you know, that love of God and neighbor thing we talk about all the time.


And are we there yet?  No.  But hopefully, we are on the way.  Closer today than we were yesterday.  Closer tomorrow than we are today.  Growing in our faith, learning the lesson of daily dependence on God and interdependence with each other.  The longer it takes to learn and apply those lessons, the longer the journey takes.  How long it takes to get where we’re going is ultimately up to us.


Just ask the Hebrew people as they wandered in the wilderness, moving from “where they had been” to “where they were yet to be.”  They grumbled the whole way, and every complaint and quarrel indicated they hadn’t yet learned the lessons of daily dependence on God and interdependence with each other.  They weren’t there yet.  They were so slow to get there that a journey that should have taken a few weeks lasted over forty years; whoever said that “Getting there is half the fun” obviously wasn’t on that particular trip!


The journey took so long because instead of learning from the past, they kept trying to go back there.  They forgot about God’s faithfulness in the past, making it impossible to lean into God’s faithfulness for the future.


God has a preferred future for us.  God is calling us toward it.  God is faithfully providing what we need as we move toward it.  Are we there yet?  Not quite.  But the more fully we trust God, the closer we’ll be.


God is faithful.  Exceedingly faithful.  Always has been.  Always will be.  God has brought us this far, and God’s not done with us, yet.  We’re no longer “where we’ve been.”  We’re not yet “where we will be.”  The constant in that is God’s faithful presence; what do you say we trust God, and see where this thing can go?

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