How to Live in the Wilderness

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The Israelites—the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekah, of Jacob and Leah, and Rachel, and Zilpah, and Bilah—have been wandering through the wilderness for a long time. It’s been about a month and a half. And they are hungry.

And in their hunger, it’s almost like they’ve forgotten…

You see, a month-and-a-half ago or so, the Israelites were living in slavery in Egypt. And the Egyptians were ruthless; they laid heavier and heavier work on the Israelites; they worked the Israelites until they couldn’t work anymore.

And the Israelites groaned; they cried out for salvation. The Israelites groaned; they cried out for deliverance.

So God called Moses and Aaron and said, “I have heard the cries of the people. I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt, to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, ‘Let my people go.’”

But Pharaoh refused to let the people go. So the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent plagues to Egypt: frogs and flies and locusts; pestilence and darkness and death.

And the Israelites walked away from Egypt. The Israelites walked away from slavery.

And when the Egyptians came after them, the Israelites walked through the sea… and Pharaoh’s armies drowned.

And, in their joy, the people sang,

I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. (Exodus 15:1-2)

But now…

The Israelites—the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekah, of Jacob and Leah, and Rachel, and Zilpah, and Bilah—have been wandering through the wilderness for a long time. It’s been about a month and a half. And they are hungry.

So they misremember. They start saying,

Remember the good ole days? In Egypt? When the summers were endlessly gold? When the fields were a patchwork of clover, all over? And the winters were never too cold?

We could sit there and stuff ourselves on the splendor of Egyptian cuisine. Moses should have let us die in Egypt, instead of dragging us out here, to the wilderness, where we are hungry.

We’ve been in the wilderness for a long time. And I know, we’re hungry.

Nineteen months ago or so, in March of 2020, we put our programs on hiatus and moved our worship services online. Since then, we’ve been reimagining everything that we do again and again: Sunday School and confirmation, worship and music, committee meetings and congregational meetings. All of it.

And we are all hungry for the good ole days before COVID.

But the truth is that we’ve been in the wilderness for longer than that.

Last week, I told you that I’ve seen the numbers and I’ve done the math. I know what attendance has been. I know how many baptisms and confirmations and new members there have been. I know the trends. I know the stories. I know the truth.

And on my computer, I have this issue of a magazine from nineteen-thirteen.

There’s an article in that magazine that talks about the good ole days, when things were better. And it says that now… well… now there are picture shows and pool halls, band concerts and ball games, Sunday drives and lakeshore visits and long walks in the countryside, all taking people away from church. And soon, those kids—those kids who should be in worship and Sunday School and Bible study—are gonna be leaving the pool hall and dancing at the armory, these libertine men and scarlet women, and ragtime, shameless music…

… … …the point is that we’ve been in the wilderness for a long time, we’ve been hungry for a long time, and people have been reminiscing about the good ole days for a long time. There were probably scrolls floating around the church a couple of decades after the resurrection, remembering the good ole days.

But here’s the thing:

The good ole days—whether they were nineteen months ago, or nineteen years ago, or nineteen centuries ago—came at a price.

In the last nineteen months or so, we’ve learned that whole parts of our world are hanging by the thinnest of threads. There are too many people who are one bad hiccup in the global supply chain away from being laid off; who are one missed paycheck away from being homeless; who are one bad cough away from bankruptcy and destitution.

And COVID pointed a spotlight on all of that. But all of that was true before COVID. All of that—all of that and more—was the price of living in the world-as-it-was… in the world-as-it-is. And we all paid that price. Some of us paid it through our flesh and some of  us paid it through our souls. But we all paid it, one way or another.

And the hard truth is that the good ole days—whether they were nineteen months ago, or nineteen years ago, or nineteen centuries ago—have always come at a price. And we’ve always had to pay it, one way or another.

And in this moment when the Israelites are misremembering the good ole days, they’re forgetting that the price was slavery under the Egyptians.

It was heavier and heavier work. It was working until they couldn’t work anymore. It was working until they groaned and cried out for salvation. It was working until they groaned and cried out for deliverance.

And in the middle of all of this misremembering, God is going to show the Israelites how to live in the wilderness…

God tells Moses, and Moses tells Aaron, and Aaron tells the people, “In the evening, quails will cover the camp, and the people will have meat. And in the morning, a fine flaky bread will cover the ground, and everyone can collect enough. And everyone will have enough; but if anyone collects more than enough, the extra they have will melt away.”

And God tells Moses, and Moses tells Aaron, and Aaron tells the people, “Everyone will have enough for today. And tomorrow, there will be enough for tomorrow. And Tuesday… well… you get the idea.”

And I know it seems strange, but that is how to live in the wilderness: trust God… and there will be enough for today; trust God… and there will be enough for tomorrow; and the only price is…

Well, there’s a trick here. The Israelites never quite get it. We certainly haven’t gotten it. But there’s a trick here.

We can long for the good ole days in Egypt. We can long for the days when we were at the mercy of the Egyptians, when we had heavier and heavier work laid on us, when we worked until we couldn’t work anymore. We can long for the days when we could eat our fill, as long as we paid the price, as long as we were at the mercy of the ruthless.

Or we can trust God. We can take enough for today, today. And we can take enough for tomorrow, tomorrow. And we can take enough for Tuesday, on Tuesday. And, because we take enough, everyone can have enough.

And the price is… being at the mercy of the merciful. The price is putting our hope for today in the hands of the one who calls the worlds into being, and provides food for the sparrows and clothes for the flowers, and gives all good gifts, and provides for our salvation and our deliverance.

The price is the stuff that we do not need, the burdens that we cannot bear, the things that are weighing us down.

I know. That’s hard to imagine.

It’s easy to imagine Egypt. It’s easy to envision Egypt. We have plenty of examples of Egypt. History is absolutely littered with Egypts.

It’s harder to imagine living—thriving—in the wilderness. But…

A long time ago, a missionary came from Europe to the United States. He landed out east, and he was supposed to go to the Pacific Northwest, but he ended up in St. Louis. And he became a pastor there. But he remained—in every sense fo the word that matters—a missionary.

Not long after he settled in St. Louis, there were three cholera epidemics and two major fires. About a fifth of the population died. A lot of kids were left without parents.

So this missionary went to his people and said, “I think we should start an orphanage.”

And the people said, “Pastor, we don’t have what we need to start an orphanage.”

And the missionary said, “We have exactly what we need to start an orphanage. We have an orphan. And we have us.”

And he believed—he really believed—that there would be enough for today: there would be enough people to serve and enough resources to serve them. And he believed that tomorrow, there would be enough for tomorrow. And he believed that Tuesday… well… you get the idea.

And the thing is, there was. Today, that thing that started in a church with one orphan is an organization that serves about fourteen hundred children every year. And it takes work—people have to go out and gather resources, people have to go out and gather children, just like the Israelites had to go out and gather manna—but there is enough for today.

And tomorrow, there will be enough for tomorrow. And Tuesday, there will be enough fro Tuesday.

The thing about the wilderness is that it’s between things.

The Israelites are wandering through the wilderness between Egypt and a land flowing with milk and honey.

And we are wandering through the wilderness between Christ and his kingdom.

And believe me when I tell you that I get it. I understand when we are hungry and we misremember the good ole days. I understand when we are hungry and we try to build whole new Egypts, and hold onto the little bit we’ve got, and accept the idea of being at the mercy of the ruthless, and roll with the world-as-it-is.

And I understand that because I get hungry, too. I get hungry for satisfaction and security and certainty; I get hungry for power and privilege and prestige; I get hungry for all of the things that this world promises but cannot provide.

But I also have faith… I try to also have faith… I pray to also have faith…

…that today, God will provide enough for today; and tomorrow, God will provide enough for tomorrow; and Tuesday… well… you get the idea…

…and that, one day, in the fullness of time, we will step out of the wilderness and into God’s kingdom, a land flowing with milk and honey, a land of extravagant abundance, a land where everyone has enough and more than enough…

…and that all of the people will sing, “The Lord is my strength and my might, and God has become my salvation.”

Amen.

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