The Wilderness

This sermon was originally preached via podcast and Facebook Live at Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California on September 20, 2020. To listen to the full recording, visit our podcast, “Mission Hills United Methodist Church” or search ‘Mission Hills United Methodist Church’ wherever you get your podcasts. If you would like to donate to the ministries of Mission Hills UMC, you can make a secure online gift here. 

Exodus 16:2-15

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.

There is so much we can learn from this text, so many lessons that God teaches through this journey, this Exodus. The theme I want us to focus on today though, is hunger. And so of course I have to ask you, where is the least opportune place or situation you’ve been hungry in? 

Where is the least opportune place or situation you’ve been hungry in? 

I remember a lot of instances of this, but I think the worst had to be when I was hungry during a standardized testing day, which is basically hours of silence. My stomach wouldn’t stop growling and I couldn’t focus on anything besides the hunger.

In Exodus today, we read a story of this congregation, a gathering of Israelites, who were all journeying along, and they were hungry too. 

Now, we might imagine a physical hunger, the feelings you all mentioned, when you’re sitting in a meeting or a classroom or maybe even in church and all you can focus on is how hungry you are. This hunger the Israelites expressed though was a spiritual hunger. It had more to do with a need for God to speak to them, which for them was just as debilitating as an intense physical hunger. Because they felt spiritually hungry, they had a hard time trusting and following God. God felt distant to them, and when something feels distant, it can be hard to listen. 

It’s hard to hold to our faith when we are spiritually hungry. We might forget the teachings we’ve previously had no trouble remembering. Perhaps we’ve treated people unfairly when we’re in the wilderness, because we ourselves feel lost, alone, or without guidance. 

Right now might be an example of a season you feel spiritually hungry. I think for a lot of us, our spiritual lives have been forced to change at an alarming rate, because a lot of the ways we’ve felt spiritually filled before are now no longer there. I’ve thought about that in the circles that I’m a part of, that so much of our regularity and normalcy has been taken from us in the midst of COVID, so when we aren’t the best versions of ourselves, it’s no wonder why. 

So like the Israelites in the wilderness, we may be searching, wondering, seeking, and we may be feeling a spiritual hunger. The text says that they complained, but an even better descriptor is that they actually were crying out, crying out to God for help, for God to show them the way.

Feeling these ways in the wilderness is normal, and we see here that the Israelites felt that in their day. But the good news is that God speaks to us, even in the wilderness. 

When the Israelites were complaining or crying out to Moses about the hunger they were feeling, God didn’t scold them for feeling this way, or even for “complaining”. God showed mercy, and through that mercy, God responded to the people, giving them the bread of heaven, the food that fulfills that spiritual hunger. God wasn’t focused on the attitude by which they were crying out to God, but that they were crying out to God in the first place.

Sometimes it can feel difficult to ask for what we need. We might be scared that we’re being too much, that our needs just aren’t that important, that someone else’s needs should take priority. But these Israelites are a great example and reminder that our needs are important. They’re a reminder that we should cry out to God, that there’s power in that. And that God will respond. Maybe not in the way we think, but God will respond. I truly believe that. 

When we ask God for that bread of heaven, that manna, that spiritual food, God provides. When we cry out to God for guidance, for strength, for accompaniment, God provides. We serve a God whose being is big enough to handle all of us. God is big enough to handle our questions, our doubts, our concerns, our rants, and even our complaints. 

And so the first step is recognizing that we are hungry in the first place. I’d encourage you to take inventory of your spiritual life. How are you doing? What needs are being fulfilled? What needs aren’t? Have you talked to God about it yet? 

Part of this story that always amazes me, is that it’s not just a one-sided interaction. It’s not just the Israelites crying out to God. It’s also about God’s deep desire for relationship, God’s desire to provide them with that spiritual food. So God wants just as badly to hear from us, to provide for us, as we want to be provided for by God. 

What has been your manna, your bread of heaven the last six months? What has fulfilled your soul and spirit, even though it feels like you’re in the wilderness? How have you noticed God even in the wilderness?

How have you noticed God even in the wilderness?

While the story doesn’t stop at the end of our text today, the final verse we read says this: 

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.

When we are hungry, God provides. When we cry out, God hears us. When we share what we need, God listens. Friends, may today be an encouragement of God’s providence and God’s dedication to the relationship God has with us. 

You are not too much for God. 

Your problems and worries and concerns are important to God. 

You matter to God. 

God wants you to cry out to God in the wilderness. 

May we carry that with us today, as a reminder of hope and God’s fervent grace.

Let us pray: 

Good and Faithful God, who brought us out of the land of Egypt, you have fed us when we were hungry, and cared for us as we journey through the wilderness. Nourish us, so we may do your will in the world. We ask these things in your good and precious name, through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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