This is the text of the message I preached at Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 24th September 2017, the sixteenth Sunday of Pentecost in Year A.
Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30
Last week we heard the story of Israel crossing the Red Sea and how God delivered them visibly and audibly from the Egyptians. The waters rose into great walls as Israel crossed the gulf: the waters fell in and drowned the Egyptian army and all its horses. We heard how God is so mighty as to be able to part the seas at a word, and of how creation withdraws in awe when the people of God walking in the presence of God pass by. Today’s story jumps forward several weeks and we are now one calendar/lunar month after the exodus event. We find Israel tired and hungry, and “are we there yet?” is all they can say. Four weeks after leaving the dead eldest sons of Egypt behind in Egypt, four weeks after leaving the dead armies of Egypt behind in the sea, all The LORD and Moses hears is a multitude of sulking. The LORD tells Moses that relief is coming in the form of meat and bread, and that it will come every day for as long as it is needed. The actual words of God are that this chosen people can trust in the provision the LORD.
That is a strong message. God hears the sigh of desperation and God responds immediately with grace and provision. There is no indication in this passage that God is dismayed by the people’s attitude, only a recognition that there is a need which the people require God to meet. In other places God gets annoyed and angry with their stubbornness, but on this occasion God simply answers the need. There is a legitimate claim on God’s provision, and God fills that need to the very top.
Moses and Aaron on the other hand are upset by the whinging. Perhaps they are also tired and hungry and so they are not in the mood to hear it. “Why don’t you tell God” they say in desperation, “it’s not our job to feed you”. Of course, this also means “are you prepared to tell God?” And of course, the Israelites are more than ready to tell The LORD in no uncertain terms what they think about The LORD’s lordship.
Nonetheless The LORD provides; however, with that provision comes a test of obedience. Will Israel obey God and gather only a day’s supply, or will they hoard the manna in case it is a “once off” event. Will Israel trust God’s promise to send the quail and the manna tomorrow? God is revealing something about Godself in this miracle: that God is faithful, generous, and dependable. God will not allow the exodus people to die of starvation or dehydration; this is a sign that God is with them and that the God who is with them is like this. God will also not dump a vast supply on the people and then walk away: God rations the provision because God intends to walk with the people each step of the day and each day of the way.
Listening to today’s Psalm we hear a call toward the gathered worshippers that they tell the story of God, and especially the story of what God has done in the presence and history of the Israelites. God has always and every time been faithful to the covenant made with the ancestors: God has fulfilled the promise to make a nation and set aside a homeland for the people of Abraham via Isaac and Jacob. The psalmist speaks in Psalm 105:37-42 of the chosen ones being lead out with joy, while the Egyptians were happy to see the back of them. There doesn’t appear to be a great deal of joy in today’s story from Exodus 16, it’s a real festival of complaint that Moses and Aaron must deal with, but we know that joy came with the provision of food and water and with the sign that this provision came from the glorious God who is shown to be more than guide and protector, God is provider and counsellor. Psalm 105 is a great song about the glory and goodness of God from Adam to Joshua, there isn’t a negative word in it. We read the Israelite story in parallel in Psalm 106; and today’s reading from Exodus is spoken of in Psalm 106:13-15 and in Psalm 78:17-20. In these verses, the psalmist leaves us in no doubt that Israel behaved with rudeness and petulance toward the Lord.
In the light of these passages and the history of experience they talk about we might listen to Exodus 16:9 and ask what it means to draw near to the Lord because God has heard your complaining.
In Biblical language, the phrase “seek the Lord” meant to pray, so to draw near probably has a similar meaning. But how do we pray, how do we respond when God lets us down?
Perhaps in our day, in our church, we would never entertain such thoughts. How can God let us down? Is it sinful to even ask such a question? If that is your view then you are welcome to it, there is no condemnation from me, but I offer you congratulations that your life as a Christian has never, ever seen trouble. I have felt let down by God on many occasions, and whilst in hindsight I see that God was there all along, and that much of my trouble was my own doing, and the rest of my trouble was the doing of other, fallible human persons, so that God is in no way to blame, I confess that in the moment I shook my fist at the heavens and let God know exactly what I thought about the distinct lack of quality in the Fathering going on.
Last week I spoke of crossing the sea and of how my journeys by various modes of ship and aircraft had always been successful: I was never drowned nor had I ever fallen from a great height. I also said that life across the seas had not always been so fantastically wondrous.
In 2002, following a previous visit for a World Methodist Evangelism Conference at which I was one of the Uniting Church in Australia’s delegates, I emigrated to the United Kingdom. Through ancestry I have the Right of Abode in the UK, so basically, I have a lifelong visa. I don’t hold a UK passport, and I can’t claim Social Security, but otherwise I have access to an undisturbed life with all the rights of employment, property, voting, and emergency services. God was not the one who decided that I should move to Britain to live, even as it was God’s plan and provision which got me to England in 2001 for that conference. After six months in England I was broke, homeless, hungry, lonely, and stuck. “How could you let this happen to me?” I asked God. “How could you let this happen to him?” asked my parents. My dad tells me he had some serious words to say to God around that time, “small-f father to big-f Father, dad to God”.
Of course, God was not to blame for my plight. It was me who had moved to the other side of the world. God found me a roof, a bed, and a meal every night, and while I was technically homeless I was never out in the Hertfordshire cold. Whilst I was lonely I was never away from church on a Sunday, and whilst the congregations did not help me in the way that I would have liked, and that my mum would have liked, and maybe even how God would have liked, I was never actually destitute. Whilst I was hungry I was never starving: I lived in a B+B so there was always cereal, juice and tea in the morning, and there were pub counter meals at night for around the same price as a burger meal at McDonalds. I didn’t like my life, but I was alive, and God did not let me die or let me want to die.
Even when I told God that I could do a better job of looking after myself than God had done, God never actually let me try it alone. Even when I told God, “you are God and ‘thy will be done’, but you’re not very good at doing thy will”, God did not send a wrath-load of lightning or flood or a hoard of Amalekite armies to end my life. Like the roughest of sea crossings, I made it safely to the other end, even though I had sweated, and puked for much of the journey.
Paul wrote to a local church in Philippians 1:21-25 that he felt hard-pressed at times in continuing his life on earth when the promise of the reward of faith was so appealing. But the work of the gospel itself and the joy he found in serving God compelled him to keep going. Paul was prepared to remain where God had put him because he was confident that God was with him. In other letters Paul writes of his troubles, of mistreatment and verbal abuse, imprisonment and beatings, near drownings, and the wearing work of travelling even when the path was good and the sea was calm. Paul did not have an easy life, but he had a strong faith in God and a rock-solid confidence that he would be provided for in the grace of God. That confidence extended to the work of faith among the people he was preaching to: “God is faithful to me in how God is blessing you” says Paul. Paul knew that his work was not in vain; the Church was growing in number and in depth as more people put their trust in Jesus for salvation and then went on increasing and deepening faith. So, one of the signs of God’s faithfulness to Paul was the resilience of the Philippians themselves. This is a blessing that Moses and Aaron did not have as leaders.
So, what about me? I am a Supply Ministry Agent and am not your minister in the fullest sense, and I am certainly not a Paul or a Moses to you. But you are my family in Christ, brothers and sisters, and for the next four months I have the privilege of leading you. So, are you, the people God has given me to, a resilient people? Are you, the people God has given me to, a whinging people? However long my stay in Morwell and Yallourn is I know that I shall be hard at work with you and for you, but will my work be joyful like Paul’s was, or irritating and draining like Moses’?
What about yourselves? Are you each a joy to your brothers and sisters in this congregation, or are you a drain? Is the Morwell congregation a joy, or a burden, to the Yallourn Parish? Are the people of Moe-Newborough, Yallourn North, and Narracan congregations a joy, or a strain, for you?
How would God describe you? I am sure that God would describe you in gracious terms, but would there be a need for grace in that God would need to say harsh things in a nice way, or would God smile and relax when your name is mentioned? “Ah Morwell, yes they’re an easy bunch to be with.” What do you say of each other, and what do others say of you.
You don’t need the Bible or a minister to tell you that life is hard. But it’s always good to be reminded that during a hard life, even a hard but obedient life, God is incredibly faithful and you will make it across the sea to the place Paul longed for.