The ancient story of a wilderness-wandering people invites us to ponder how God sustains us during shutdown. (Listen.)
Day after day, week after week, month after month, we have been walking in the wilderness of shutdown. School has changed. Work has changed. Church has changed; and so has everything else. Most of us are still spending time with too many family members and not enough friends; many of us are lonely, anxious, exhausted, overwhelmed. Babies are being born; children are growing; grandparents are ageing, all without loved ones attending every step. Significant milestones are passing by without our usual rituals: Birthdays. Graduations. Anniversaries. Even deaths.
We know we are incredibly lucky. We have politicians who care about public health, and we have the national wealth to buffer an extended shutdown. We all see the news; we all know things could be unimaginably worse. Yet still, we are wandering through the wilderness. It’s a hard dry time, and there’s no real end in sight.
This is why we are walking through the story of Exodus together. Because once upon a time, other people were journeying through a wilderness. If we pay attention to their story, we will better understand our story; and we will learn things about ourselves, and about God.
When we pay attention to their story, the first thing we notice is that God provides. The people are far from cities and towns. They are in a place where there is no food and no drink, and money and status have no value. They cannot buy themselves out of this situation: for where there is no bread or water, even an emperor must hunger and thirst. But in these conditions, God provides for every person every step of the way.
The people are trapped between Pharaoh’s army and the sea: they cry out: God provides. In a pillar of cloud, God stands between people and army; then God’s spirit separates the waters from dry land and leads the people safely into a new creation.
The people are hungry: they cry out: God provides. God rains down bread from heaven, and sends quail on the evening breeze.
The people are thirsty: they cry out: God provides. God sends forth water from a rock, gushing and flowing over dry desert sand.
On this wilderness journey, every step of the way, the people cry out: and God hears, and God generously provides.
I have said they cry out: but actually, the people grumble. Again and again, they ask, ‘Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt? It would have been better to serve the Egyptians that to die out here in the wilderness.’ They grumble and groan and mutter and kvetch, and each new miracle leads to a fresh complaint.
It’s enough to drive Moses mad: but God still listens, and God still provides: generously, abundantly, without quibble. And so we learn something about the nature of God: God listens patiently, and loves abundantly, and cares passionately for the people.
God provides what the context cannot: but God does not magically change the context. Pharaoh is still pharaoh, and the people still think and talk like slaves. For the people to be truly free, they need to keep walking away from Egypt, and away from the crumbs of empire which fall from the table. Like a little child who forgets that someone in the next room is still around, they need to keep asking if God is even with them; like a toddler or teen, they need to keep testing God’s trustworthiness and love.
And so they do. God tells the people to collect no more manna than they need: but they wonder. They take more, and discover that what they store up goes all wormy. God tells the people to rest, but they wonder. They keep on working, and discover that their labour on the seventh day leads to absolutely nothing. God promises to care for the people, but they wonder. They wail that they will die in the wilderness, and it would have been better to remain slaves. Even in the face of God’s steadfast protection and generous provision, in their fretful wondering they ask, ‘Is God even among us?’
And through all their wondering and testing and grumbling, they learn that God stays with them; and when all seems hopeless, and they all feel helpless, they seee that God graciously provides once again. When there is nothing to eat, God rains down food from the sky. When there is nothing to drink, God pours water from a rock. In a landscape of dryness and death, the people discover abundant life, for God sets a table in the desert: and the people are invited to sit at this table, and to trust in the generosity of their host.
So as we ponder our experience in this desert of COVID and shutdown, let us consider: In this wilderness of 2020, what do we hunger and thirst for? And how is God sustaining us? And what stories can we tell to remind each other of God’s faithfulness, and love? Ω
From here we moved into a time of congregational discussion; this is what emerged:
- Being forced to stay at home and not travel so much has led some people to reconnect with a faith community: and that has been surprising, enriching, nourishing, even healing.
- Someone noticed that to ‘drink from the rock’ requires an attitude of prayer: and this prayer is not about talking at God, but about being open to receiving what God has to offer.
- The pandemic / shutdown has prompted someone to make a long dreamed-of move, and this has unfolded in ways far easier than ever imagined.
- Several people named simple things which have nourished them in these days: long walks; little birds; nature; caring for and being cared for by the earth; and of course prayer.
- Someone has been sustained by dwelling richly in John 1 (MSG): where God is described as ‘generous inside and out, true from start to finish’; where people are made to be their true selves, God-begotten and not limited by flesh, blood, sex or gender; and where God ‘moved into the neighbourhood.’ Hearing these words was deeply sustaining for several of us this evening.
Sanctuary wrestled with Exodus 17:1-7 and other stories on 27 September 2020 (Year A Proper 21) © Sanctuary, 2020.
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