Despite almost being trapped with the Red (or Reed) Sea on one side of them and the approaching Egyptian army chariots advancing upon them on the other side, Moses and the people of Israel safely made it across the Sea. You can have your memory refreshed by watching these clips from the Dreamworks’ animated musical film Prince of Egypt:
In the verse just before this week’s reading it says that the Israelites have come to the wilderness of Sin and that they have been journeying for a month and half. If you have ever been on a road trip with children you are probably familiar with the cry: “Are we there yet?” Can you imagine the cries that would be coming from the mouths of the Israelite people, both old and young alike?
“The Israelites said to them[Moses and Aaron], ‘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.’” (Exodus 16:3).
They have been journeying for a while. Long journeys in difficult conditions often bring out the worst in people. This no doubt was the case for the newly liberated Israelites. They are insecure, anxious and hungry. This uncertainty of what lies ahead seems to have dulled the glow of their liberation. As they looked back at their time in Egypt they seemed to be looking through rose coloured lenses. They are not recalling the times of struggle, of domination, terror, and enslavement under Pharaoh. Instead their memory recalls full bellies at the end of the day. How readily we accept the security of slavery and oppression rather than pay the risk of stepping out into new life?!
This nostalgic longing for a misremembered history is a powerful and dangerous force. It is interesting how we rewrite history and reminisce about the glory days of the past. We can tell stories of how good it used to be and long to be back there. Maybe you can think of a time when you have done this or have heard someone else talking about the past in such a way?
One of the reasons we do this is because change is hard. Change is not something that just happens around us, it affects us. Changes can affect our behaviours and can change how people see us, and how we see ourselves. Changes can cut to the core of our identity, of who we are. Even planned and wanted changes like becoming a parent, retiring, or moving house can change our identity. Making changes to our identity can be challenging and often take time, even if the new identity is one we want and one that is good. Changing our identity means letting go of what we once were and grieving that loss. When a change is unplanned, not wanted, or the new identity is not clear or does not meet our expectations the grief can be much greater.
Can you think of a time when you had to adjust to a new identity, as someone’s husband or wife, as a single person when a relationship ended or someone died, a parent or an uncle, aunt, or grandparent, as someone with a particular medical condition? What other identity changes can you name either in your life or in the life of someone you know?
For the people of Israel although they have become free, they did not arrive straight away in the promised land. They are in what we might call transition. They are in a liminal space, that is, an in between space. They are in a space between leaving and having arrived. They know they are no longer slaves but who they are as a people is not yet clear. As the group, or congregation, journey through the wilderness, through the liminal space they are developing a new identity. It is an uncomfortable place to be and I believe the church in the West is in this space today.
The church has experienced a long period of Christendom, that is a long period in which Christianity was the dominant religion. All the church needed to do was put on a program and people would come. This is no longer the case. The church is not held in the same esteem it once was by society. Younger generations lack trust in societal institutions such as the church. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse findings have not help instil trust as it uncovered the truth of how the church abused its power and covered up abuse.
This has left many members of the church feeling uncertain and concerned for the future. How do you feel about the future of the church? Do you have concerns or fears? What are they?
This Covid-19 pandemic has also forced changes upon the church and society as a whole. These changes can leave us feeling out of control, insecure, anxious and concerned for the future. People are keen to return to what was, to the good old days of the past. People around the world have protested and complained about lockdowns even though they are intended for our own benefit and to seek a more healthy future. “This cost is too great”, they said: “the social costs and particularly the economic costs!” However the social and economic costs of Covid-19 spreading, people becoming sick and dying from Covid-19 is also huge.
The Israelites needed to learn to rely on God and trust God. God promised: “I will rain down bread from heaven for you each day” (Exodus 16:4). The people are to ensure they gather only enough for that day except on the 6th day when they can gather twice as much so they can rest on the 7th day. This is the test God gives them. God’s test is not so much a matter of determining if they can follow instructions but if they will truly trust that the heavenly bread will also be daily bread, that God will continue to provide for them what they need. Not everyone does pass the test: “some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul.” (Exodus 16:20)
We too need to learn not to horde wealth and material goods so that all have enough. We can imitate Pharaoh, and refuse to hear the cries of the oppressed and poor, or we can imitate God, and acknowledge and respond to complaints that are borne of hunger, lack, and crippling anxiety. Repeatedly we are told that God heard their complaining
“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.’” (Exodus 16:6-9)
The complaining of the Israelites is a symptom of their lack of trust in their God. They need to learn that they can trust God to give them want they need, both bread and regular rest. “On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, and they found none.” (Exodus 16:27).
We too need to learn to rest. To find our identity outside of the work that we do and the business of our lives or the business of our church. Do you find one of these harder to learn that the other? What has been your experience in learning these lessons?
This is where I start on something that some people might disagree with me. But as someone with a theology and science (and teaching) degree this is something I am able to educate people about. As a society there is another change that we are all facing, Global Climate Change. This too has a big cost. Seeking to turn around and stop the damage we are currently doing to our environment and its life that it supports, will have a massive impact on our economy but so will doing nothing. It will have an impact on the comfortable consumer lifestyle we have come to expect during the last couple of generation or so Invariably it will impact on our greed. For the sake of our planet and all living creatures we need to learn not to take more than we need and to give our land rest. We are at the point where humanity’s biggest question with regard climate change is not whether we have enough scientific understanding, or whether we have enough technology to address the issue, but rather, are we willing to pay the cost today, or leave it for our children to pay in the future? Can we face the cost needed not only to preserve our natural environment, but also for the sake of our ongoing human society? And the longer we delay serious action, the bigger the cost will become.
Not only do the Israelite people need to learn to trust God, they also need to learn that God is with them. They were not travelling alone, and neither do we. We need to trust that God continues to gift us that we can have abundant life. God gifts us with scientific breakthroughs, technology and scientific minds to work on understanding the Covid-19 virus, how to prevent its spread, and work towards treatments and a vaccine. God gifts us with the technology and scientific minds to enable us to develop and use sustainable green energy. The God of the wilderness is a gift-giving, life-sustaining, and prayer-hearing God. Will we use the gifts God gives us in wise and life-giving ways?
Rev Tammy Hollands