(published in the Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual 2014)
The Israelites were in the wilderness just six weeks when they started living in the past. Hungry and cranky, realizing they don’t know where they’re going or how they’ll get there or how long it will take, with no established religion or government, no social safety net, and no leftovers—they complain. “If only we had died in Egypt where we sat around and ate as much as we wanted!” (Ah, flawed memories!) But God again listens to their cries and provides abundance they could never have imagined.
This is the central wilderness experience, the first of many lessons in the making of a people. God said, “I will be your God,” called them “my people,” then had to teach them what that means—they had to work the visioning process and discern a mission statement (“Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Deut 6:5, Lev 19:18) seems pretty good!). They had to wander in order to discover that God would lead them if they would follow. They had to look back without rose-colored glasses so they could look forward with hope. They had to learn that God is love and discern who God was calling them to be. This first lesson is learning to rely on God’s goodness and abundance. It sounds cliché and naïve now, and I suspect then too—but alone out in the desert, the Israelites literally depended on God for their daily bread, their safety, their lives.
Even as they learned the stark truth that we’re all dependent on God despite our perceived independence, they learned of God’s faithfulness. They learned that hoarding doesn’t get us anywhere. They learned that God’s abundance comes along with justice—not whatever I want, but what we, the community, need. They learned to call on God to hold up God’s end of the covenant, and that God will. They started to learn what faithfulness looks like from our side. They learned that they were chosen to be a community of God’s people, a blessing to the world, not just ragtag wanderers. Most importantly, they learned that the journey from “if only” to “I AM” goes through a question: “what is it?”
They weren’t used to being provided for—it takes time to get slavery out of your system, time to turn from Pharaoh’s non-people into God’s people, time to figure out that God is not just another Pharaoh, time to learn trust and reliance, time to know providence—God will provide, even if we don’t recognize that providence at first.
What is it? (manna) turns out to be heavenly, good enough for 40 years of nourishment. The journey from “If only” to “my people,” from whiner to baker, involves lots of “what is it?” Throughout our whole journey God provides, though we may not see, understand or have words for it. God kneads us together, a community learning to trust, learning to look around and ahead rather than only back, learning to bake.