Exodus 16:2 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.
3 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
4 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.
5 On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.”
6 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, 7 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?” 8 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.”
9 Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has
heard your complaining.’” 10 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. 11 The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12 “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.’”
Early on in The Lord of the Rings, the four main characters find themselves in the house of
someone named Tom Bombadil. They’ve just started what will end up being an epic journey, but
at this point in the story they already feel like they’ve gone a long way. These characters are not
adventurers or heroes. They’re just simple hobbits, little people who’ve hardly left their own
neighborhoods before, much less gone on any grand adventures. But they have a task to
accomplish and an enemy who wants to keep them from accomplishing it, and the enemy is
chasing them on horseback. So they cut through the old forest, where they get stuck in the
brambles and find themselves walking in circles. They’re scared and tired and hungry. And
eventually, because this is that kind of story, an old willow tree begins to attack them. And that’s
when Tom Bombadil comes to their rescue.
Tom is as old as their world and he cares for the trees and the other creatures. He sings to
the Willow so that it leaves them alone, and he leads them along a narrow path to his little
cottage in the woods. And in the house of Tom Bombadil they wash themselves and they sleep on
downy cushions; they tell him stories of their journey so far, and, of course, they eat from Tom
Bombadil’s table. They drink honey flavored drinks that warm their bellies and smear fresh butter
on warm bread. They had been tired and scared and hungry, but in Tom Bombadil’s house, they
rest and wash and eat. Their journey is far from over, but for that moment, they are given respite.
They find a table in the wilderness. They are refreshed, restored, sustained just when they’d
thought they could not go on any longer.
I’ve found that such tables in the wilderness are some of the sweetest, the most
meaningful moments in my own life. The friend who brought a cup of coffee to library at the end
of an all-nighter, the envelope with a check that I found on my desk a couple of weeks before we
moved to Durham, the birthday dinner at my favorite restaurant last year, surrounded by friends
2 weeks after we’d first learned about James’ heart: there is something so special about those
moments not because they made everything OK, but because they gave me hope when things
weren’t OK. Maybe you also have had times in your life when you did not know how you were
going to go on, you were so scared, so tired, so hungry, but someone set a table for you in the
wilderness? I don’t think any of us would be here if such tables hadn’t been set for us.
In our Scripture this morning, the Israelites are also scared and tired and hungry. They’ve
seen wonders and miracles and walked through the sea and come to the other side unscathed, but
the other side, it turns out, is the wilderness and the wilderness is hard. They begin to grumble at
Moses: “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.” Freedom, it turns out, is not a finished accomplishment. The Israelites
would not be free if the LORD hadn’t won their freedom from Pharaoh, but now they have to
learn how to walk in freedom, how to live as free people.
It’s easy to chastise the Israelites for their response. For being the chosen people, the
Israelites seem to be grumbling about something more often than not, and from our cushioned
seats it’s easy to say, “Oh they’re just like children, thanking God one minute, forgetting what God
just did for them the next.” But imagine that you are there with them. Imagine that as a church, we
went on a hiking trip on the Appalachian Trail. And after a few hours it becomes clear that I don’t
really know where we are. And we’ve run out of food, and the sun starts going down. Even today,
with GPS technology and detailed trail maps, that would be a scary situation. You would be pretty
annoyed with whoever brought you out there into the wilderness without a plan for getting food.
Even when we’re not in the wilderness, all of us have a point we reach where we get a little
“hangry.” The Israelites respond how any of us would in that situation.
In that moment, faced with the open ended, unfamiliar wilderness, the Israelites begin to
fantasize about Egypt. In the unknown, they comfort themselves with the memory of what they do
know. Having read the beginning of the story, we know that the Israelites weren’t lounging around
pots of meat with all the bread they could eat. But when it’s unclear how they will survive, they
romanticize the past and despair the future. “Even slavery was better than starving out here,” they
say, forgetting that maybe, just maybe, there are other options, “Maybe death and freedom are just
two extremes that are actually the same thing in the end, so living under Pharaoh is a reasonable
center. No it’s not ideal, but it’s practical. If you become too extreme in your desire for freedom,
you’re just going to end up at the other extreme of death. So why not compromise with Egypt?”
The Israelites have just stepped into their freedom, but they look with nostalgia on their
bondage because they are afraid and hungry. Hunger and fear both have a way of giving us tunnel
vision, so that we fixate upon the thing that is scaring us or the food we’re not able to eat, and this
fixation paralyzes us in the present. All the Israelites can see is death or Egypt: those are the only
options. Any talk of a Promised Land just sounds like utopian fantasy in that place, so why keep
We do the same things. Faced with unknown futures we look back on a pristine past. The
good ol’ days. The romance of medieval Europe with it’s knights and castles and a cathedral at the
heart of every city. The spiritual energy of the Protestant Reformation, the family values of
America in the 1950’s. Those were the good old days, and the flip side of this is that by
comparison these must be the End Times. The youths are out of control (those darn millennials),
the culture is becoming more and more pagan, the world is going to hell in a handbasket...Let it
But the past wasn’t so pristine, and the future isn’t so hopeless. The eras we look back
upon were just as checkered as our own, filled with conquest and crusade and slavery and
segregation. It also turns out that complaining about the next generation is a practice at least as old
as the written word, and as long as there have been Christians, there have been people saying we
are living in the End Times (and really there are other eras that had a much better case than our
own). When we take this stance, that the past was good and these are the End Times, we grumble
like the Israelites, who looked back on their pots of meat in Egypt and look upon their freedom as
death. It might sound wise, but really we’re just hangry.
The problem with looking back to Egypt with rose colored glasses and looking toward the
horizon and seeing no way forward, is that this kind of vision makes it impossible to move. It
leaves us stuck in the middle, when God’s plan all along was to move us toward the Promised
Land, a place overflowing with milk and honey, where everyone has what they need, where slaves
find freedom and the stranger is treated as an honored guest. You can’t get to the Promised Land
if you don’t think such a place is possible to begin with.
And so God needs to teach the Israelites that such a place is possible. God needs to whet
their appetites for a land of milk and honey so that they’ll stop slobbering over Egyptian fleshpots.
In their hunger, their fear, their need, God doesn’t chastise them, doesn’t say “Stop grumbling!
Did you not see that whole thing with the water and wind! What more do you want from me?!”
No, God feeds them. In the evening the LORD sends quails upon the camp (and because they
don’t have the food laws yet, I assume they were wrapped in bacon and jalapeno), and in the
morning, the dew dries as a flaky substance, manna from heaven.
God doesn’t feed the Israelites so that they can be comfortable where they are. God feeds
them so that they will get moving. Their bodies need the food to keep traveling, but at the same
time they need to know that beyond the harshness of the world as it is, there is an abundance that
is not entirely out of reach. When they cannot imagine a land of milk and honey as anything more
than utopian fantasy, God brings them an appetizer where they are. “If I can feed you in the
wilderness, just wait till we get where we’re going.”
So these sweet moments, when tables have been set for us in the wilderness, are important
because they open up possibilities for the future, that fear can be met with courage, that weariness
will find rest, that hunger can be fed. And that we don’t have to make cynical compromises with
the ruling class to find such possibilities. By God’s grace, we can feed each other now.
This is one of the reasons why the Lord’s Supper is such an important thing that we do
together. We continue to feed each other manna, so that on a regular basis we remember that it is
ultimately God who sustains us, not Pharaoh, and that just as God can bring manna in the
wilderness and resurrection from a Cross, God’s Spirit can open up new possibilities for us to care
for one another here.
So my friends, if you find yourself stuck in the middle, longing for a past that never was in
fear of a future that is inevitably bleak; if you look around our world and see nothing but a desert
waste and it makes you a little panicky; if you are hungry, for food or for housing or for health or
justice; if you’re tired; I hope someone sets a table for you in that wilderness and says “It doesn’t
have to be this way. A better world is possible, a world overflowing with milk and honey.” I hope
we will set such tables for each other, that we will look for ways to set them for our neighbors, so
that in the wilderness we might be able to imagine together a world beyond it. This is the will of
our Lord, who sets us free and gives us an appetite for yet more freedom and feeds us so that we’ll
have the strength to chase that desire. Amen.
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