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.
Getting from here to there (and seeing God everywhere)
I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you left them…
Andy Bernard (The Office)
The Hebrews do not find themselves in the good old days. Neither their time held captive in the land of Egypt, nor their time in the wilderness proved to be moments that they could identify as ‘good.’ But as is true for most of our days, we tend to live so much in the future, or the past, that we miss the present.
It didn’t take long after the parting of the Red Sea for people of God to become overwhelmed by the next crisis. They yearned for the days that life was “easy…” and by easy I mean that the time in Egypt didn’t have to worry about where their meals were coming from, as they sat by the ‘fleshpots’ or stewpots, fed by the captors because a starving workforce is a unproductive work force . They begged to return to Egypt – as this text alone (not counting ever other ‘complaining’ text in the journey in the wilderness of Exodus) mentions Egypt far more than the promised land to which the people were travelling. “All they are talking about is what they left behind. That’s because they are scared, and when people are scared they will always trade in their freedom for security.” How many of us over the last few months have yearned for the days that life was “easy” (knowing that there’s parts of life that we don’t want to return to). How many of us have grown tired of the journey that we’re on, regardless of where we’re going?
I remember a particularly long vacation that we took when I was a youth. Days were spent all cooped up in a van, with my family, and my grandparents travelling cross country. With all the spills and smells and ‘are –we-there-yets,’ let alone the complaints, murmurings, and grumblings there were days we’d rather head home rather than what lay before us. Looking back, I think about the privilege of being able to travel, let alone the gift of being able to do so with my grandparents (both of whom are now gone).
The Hebrew children are in the midst of that long car ride, but “why does God always seem to take us on the hard roundabout way? Why [aren’t we just led onto Easy Street? Because the purpose of this journey, the purpose of your life, is to learn how to walk with God.” They’re learning what it means to be a person of faith, and to pay attention to the blessings in their midst, in spite of the current crisis which obscures their vision and their ability to be present. While their current crisis sees them without food, if you flip back in your Bible just a couple of chapters to the description of when they were leaving Egypt, they took with them livestock in great numbers, both flocks and herds (12:38). They had animals! They had food to eat! They were hungry because of a self-made problem of not wanting to dip into their reserves, and risk their net-worth going down. One wonders what other self-made problems might disappear if we paid more attention to the solutions before us.
But it highlights how much anxiety can wreak havoc. When we’re in a crisis our brains don’t operate as they would normally. We panic, and make poor decisions, and snap judgments. We miss what is happening around us – as this becomes a repeated pattern for the Hebrews – started in the chapter just before today’s text. First the water was too bitter…then there wasn’t enough to eat, and later there’s not enough water. When we’re operating out of our anxiety, it takes everything in our power just to function. We make light of the Hebrews, but how many of us have opened a full fridge to declare there is nothing to eat. We’ve missed seeing what’s right in front of us.
There’s an interesting method put forth to help ground ourselves in the present moment, rather than fear the future or romanticize the past. It’s called the 5-4-3-2-1 method.
5: Acknowledge FIVE things you see around you. Here the Hebrews would have looked around to see their animals, the blessing of the gathered community, etc.
4: Acknowledge FOUR things you can touch around you. The dust and dirt beneath your feet are as important as your hands, or whatever is close by that becomes something you can touch.
3: Acknowledge THREE things you hear. Again using this method and for the one that follows – animals make sounds and smells that are hard to ignore! In our own lives, in those moments of deep fear and crises, have you ever gone for a walk and listened to the song of the birds? Or turned up your favourite song?
2: Acknowledge TWO things you can smell. Likely the animals would have given off quite an undeniable smell, but there’s nothing like the smell of fresh baked banana bread that grounds us in the present moment (or the near future when you’re going to eat it).
1: Acknowledge ONE thing you can taste. This is the most difficult, especially for those that are hungry. But even God helped with this one.
When a crisis of basic needs leads the Hebrew children to a crisis of faith, God responds. Manna, “bread from heaven” is sent in the morning, and quail in the evenings. The Hebrews were okay with the quail. The manna however was new to them. They asked what is it (which is funny, because manna literally means ‘what is it.’) Moses says it’s the bread God gives, which really doesn’t answer the question. The Hebrews were given the choice of whether or not to trust in God. They had to choose to be nourished by the question, fed by the mystery of God. They had to trust, knowing that doubt is our gut reaction. God may feed us answers when even we don’t understand. God will lead us even when it seems we’re deep in the wilderness. I trust we’ll get through this pandemic as they did 100 years ago – but I doubt it’s going to be easy.
Practicing presence in the moment is what will sustain us. God sent manna and quails twice a day to remind the Hebrews to be present to the morning, and thankful in the evening. They were not allowed to gather more for it would spoil. They needed a daily reminder of the daily bread of God’s presence. In the day-to-day anxiety facing us all, I invite you to see, touch, hear, smell, and taste the tangible expressions of God’s grace all around you. To identify those experiences that ground us in this moment. When our past is too tempting to leave (even in spite of hardship) and our futures are too intangible to journey towards, practicing to see God in this moment helps avoid the if onlys…
When “if only ….” [become our constant refrain, we avoid what God is doing here and now. When we’re young, we think,] “If only I can get to college and move out of the house.” Then we think, “If only I can finish college and get a good job.” Then it is, “If only I could get a better job,” or “If only I could get married,” or “If only I could have children.” Soon we find ourselves thinking, “If only my children would move on to college and give us an empty nest.” Then it is, “If only my children would come back and see me,” or “If only they would bring the grandchildren more often.” “If only” focuses on the past we cannot change, or on the future which has not yet arrived, and misses what God is doing in the present.
The God of here and now invites each of us to enter into each moment, unafraid of what might find us there, be it the crisis of our current condition or the anxiety of the unknown, in order that we might see, touch, hear, smell, and taste of the goodness of God. For the people were fed by a question, what is it, urged to wonder alongside the God who feeds us and leads us and blesses us…even now. For into the mystery of this moment we are called, (as best captured by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke in response to a )
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. Perhaps you do carry within yourself the possibility of shaping and forming as a particularly happy and pure way of living…
But now? Live into everything…and don’t be surprised if God is in everything too…
 Barnes, Craig, Leaving Slavery Behind, from Sept 9, 2001, https://kbarchitecture.com/sites/default/files/sermon_bulletins/2001.09.09.Barnes_0.pdf
 Rilke, Rainer Maria, Letters to a Young Poet, p35.