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 with hunger.”
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.’”
13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 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. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?”[a] For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. ~ Exodus 16:2-15
Imagine with me, what it is like to be in the midst of such trauma, such incomprehensible change, such fear-mixed-with-relief-mixed-with-fear again, as the Israelites are experiencing in our story.
Imagine what it was like. Imagine a small family unit. Father. Mother. Brothers, sisters. Perhaps grandparents.
You are there. Your parents are slaves. Your father has been one of thousands of slaves conscripted to build pyramids and palaces for the king, the Pharaoh. The backbreaking work includes making the very bricks for construction. Because all the families of the slaves nevertheless are thriving, because babies continue to be born to the Israelite women, hale and healthy, treatment of them, and their families, grows steadily worse, more and more harsh.
One night your father returns from his grueling work oddly energized, not as exhausted as you are used to seeing him. He’s heard some news; it’s trickled through the ranks of workers until a friend whispered in his ear: there is a man, an Israelite, who has taken on the job of arguing with the Pharaoh for your people’s freedom. This man seems to have come from nowhere, Midianite wife and child in tow, a herder by all appearances. And yet, it was whispered, he had actually grown up in the royal palace. And now… it seems he has been appointed by God to bring every Israelite, every person descended from Jacob, out of slavery and in to freedom.
Your mother raises her eyebrows. Never one to assume the truth of gossip, she will bide her time and wait to become excited until there is hard evidence.
A week later she returns from the river, where she’d gone to beat out the laundry on rocks. She is shaking, weeping, laughing, panting. The laundry, unwashed, is thrown in the corner of the room. She speaks in a strange, strangled voice.
“The river has turned to blood.”
That night, as the supper your mother has cooked sits uneaten, you wrap yourselves in shawls and walk, as in a procession, with all the other Israelite families, to see this. You stand in the steaming dark, in a crowd of thousands, eerily silent as the red stream flows by, sinuous, sinister.
You can hear your mother muttering as you trudge home. Perhaps now it is time to take this Moses seriously.
The plagues come, and with each day—as frogs cover the streets, or locusts darken the air, as boils cover the bodies of people and livestock alike—there is a growing sense of excitement, of urgency, of fear. The Egyptians stay in their houses, terrified.
The Pharaoh goes back and forth, they say, one moment promising freedom, and in the next, his heart hardening. No.
There is one last plague, the tenth, the worst, the unimaginable one. A long night, in which a lamb is roasted in each Israelite household, its blood smeared on the doorposts. The dawn rises with the sounds of wailing and anguish. Every Egyptian family has lost a son, a grandson, a father. A plague of death.
The Pharaoh, grieving, deafeated, gives the word: Go. Every Israelite family gathers what they can carry and sets off… and almost immediately the Pharaoh regrets his decision and comes, enraged, charging after you with his entire army in chariots. Chaos. New fear. Everyone you know, running. Children and grandparents slung over the strong men’s shoulders like sacks.
Later you wonder if it was all a dream… did the sea really part? Did you truly see the bannerfish and the moray eels and the grouper floating in the walls of water, looking down quizzically at the thousands of people hurrying by? Did every Israelite just walk through? Did the sea crash down at last on the Egyptians, killing them? Were you met on the far shore by a pillar of smoke reaching to the heavens, turning by night into a pillar of fire, that the adults whispered was the presence of the Lord?
And then… after the music and dancing, after the celebration, six weeks roaming through the wilderness in search of the promised land, six weeks of dust in every mouth and exhaustion from the daily slog through sand, six weeks of wondering where the next potable water would come from, six weeks of remembering with piercing grief your own home—small and modest though it was—and the smell of something savory on the fire… And your stomach, agonized, clenching in on itself, empty, empty.
Are you with me so far?
Here you are—thousands upon thousands of you—and it finally sinks in. It becomes real, as the stomachs growl, and the eyes of children begin to grow dim, and the eyes of parents become wild with worry. There is no food.
“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
Who could ever blame you for complaining? Who could ever accuse you of laziness, or Moses of mismanagement? Here you are, impossible, but true. Free. But, maybe, dying.
But you know better than to underestimate this God of yours. You have seen what this God can do.
And God provides. Not a banquet. No magnificent pots of stewed meat and onions followed by cool, sweet melons. Instead, a grain, flaky, fine, every morning. Surprisingly filling. You wonder, what is it? But it doesn’t matter, because it is enough. And then, quail at the end of day, bread and meat for your sustenance.
All around our world today there are people who have been through the equivalent of the ten plagues and the escape through the sea. Our hearts are drawn to them today particularly, because it is the first Sunday in October, World Communion Sunday, whose whole purpose is to remind us of our connection to God’s people all around the world. Today we are singing hymns from three continents, including one from the Caribbean, the home of the U. S. territory Puerto Rico.
We are connected. We are connected as many children of the one God, as human beings living on this fragile planet together in these days when disaster seems unrelenting. We are connected through a God who says to those who have been through hell and back, “I will feed you. I will send you manna in the wilderness. I will send you bread from heaven, food for your journey.”
We can be manna to God’s people in need. Imagine with me what it could be like to be the ones to send bread, as if from heaven, or water, or diesel fuel, if that’s what manna looks like just now. We are so blessed, and we can be a blessing to others.
But before we do that, God will give us strength. God has sent bread for our journey, too. Imagine with me now that wilderness campsite, after the manna. You are settling in for the night with your family, you have been fed, you have enough, and now you are drowsy as you lean on your parents and begin to dream. There are still thousands of you, and the silence that falls is one of comfort, oneness. There is no fear, only reassurance that God is with you. You are warmed and comforted by the glow of God’s presence before you, a pillar of fire, your guardian throughout the long wilderness night.
Thanks be to God. Amen.