Ever been on one of those long road trips? You know the ones that I am talking about. The ones that include 14 hours of driving in the car, some 800 miles, and a car full of family in a tight space.
Regardless of the length of the trip, or where you are going, there always seems to be that one long stretch where you are “in the middle of nowhere.” This is the part of the journey where things get a little crazy. There are no exits around, and the nearest one is a good 20 miles away. The gas gauge is indicating that you should have stopped for gas at the last exit, but you thought you had enough to go a few extra miles. Now, you’re not so sure. You start to wonder if you have enough to get to the next exit. So, you start to slow down to conserve fuel, and are hoping for the best. Meanwhile, the kids are fighting, and your spouse is desperately needing to stop at that bathroom you promised was right around the corner … five miles ago.
Did I mention that everyone is hungry?
No one is happy. Everyone is complaining. To make matters worse, you are on the receiving end of everyone’s complaints. This great vacation to the “promised land” is so far turning out to be a journey to the “wilderness” of despair and family feuds.
The same could be said of the trip Moses and the congregation of Israel are on.
Since God rescued them out of slavery in Egypt, Moses and the Israelites were on a road trip that we know as “The Exodus.” After leaving Egypt, they were on a long journey to the “promised land” of Canaan. It hasn’t been the most enjoyable of trips so far. After moving away from the Red Sea, Moses and the Israelites were on a mission to find water. They didn’t find any in Shur. After three more days of traveling, they couldn’t find any water and the people started to complain. They were thirsty, and God provided water out of a piece of wood in Marah. All this took place before they stopped at the oasis of Elim.
So, everyone’s happy, right? The caravan is full of water, and they start to head out. However, it isn’t long before the complaining resumes. They are hungry, and are wanting something to eat. This time the complaining is different. The people start to yearn for Egypt. They complain, saying, “if only we had stayed in Egypt, we would be fully fed.”
Listen to what they are really saying: they are preferring slavery to freedom, because they are hungry. The Israelites lost their grasp of reality and started to believe slavery, and what little they had to eat then, was better than what they had now. To quote John Wesley, who is the founder of the Methodist movement, and 18th century Presbyterian preacher Matthew Henry, “discontent magnifies what is past, vilifies what is present, without regard to truth or reason.”
The people weren’t complaining to Moses, however, he was the immediate focus of their attention. They were angry at God. Israel was angry that God would bring them out of Egypt, only to take them on this long journey with no food or water. As far as they saw it, there was no end in sight to their suffering.
Perhaps we have felt like the congregation of Israel at times. Things look so dark, so scary, that we are unsure where God is, or if God is really there for us. Maybe we complain, just like the congregation of Israel did. Maybe we do something else, like walk away from God. In the midst of complaining and actions, there is a question that the Israelites have, and maybe we do as well today. Will God provide in our hour of need? And, if God does, what does it mean that God does provide?
These are important questions for us to wrestle with in our time together this morning. Before we do that, we have to look at the nature of Israel’s complaints. During the journey to the “promised land,” Israel has a history of complaining, especially in times of difficulty. We struggle with this. We wonder “how could Israel complain? Look at what God did for them!” We don’t like complaining, whether it is done to or about us, or even when we do it ourselves. Because we don’t like complaining, we assume God cannot hear our complaints and frustrations. That is not the God we see throughout Scripture, and the God we know in the depths of our hearts. In our text, God doesn’t respond to the complaints in anger, but God responds to their deepest needs. God is able to hear our complaints. Richard Foster writes, “We should feel perfectly free to complain to God, or argue with God or yell at God.” God desires all of us, and not just some of us. All of us includes all of our emotions, and not just what we think God can handle. We are right to complain to God, because there are times that we need to give that over to God, so God can work in the midst of those situations.
With that, let’s unravel this passage. Israel complains and God hears their complaints. God provides for Israel. This idea of God’s provision of bread and meat – manna and quail – for Israel has a lot to say to us.
It says, first, that God will provide in our times of deepest struggle. For Israel, this was their time of deepest need. They were in the wilderness. There was nothing around them. They were alone, and without provisions. It was a dark time for them, both physically and spiritually. We can relate. We’ve all had moments in our lives where things are dark. In the deepest parts of our soul, we are dry, and there is nothing there, we believe, that can sustain our desire to grow in relationship with God. We feel alone. Worst of all, we believe God is not there. We believe God has abandoned us, and left us in this wilderness to suffer.
Hear these words of comfort: God never leaves in our time of need. He provides what we need, when we need it, even in the deepest moments of our need. When Israel felt they were abandoned and bound to starvation, God provided food and water. It wasn’t just here, in Scripture, that God provided in someone’s time of wilderness. God also provided for Jesus in his time of wilderness, and provided substance for him during those 40 days. In the wilderness that our souls sometime experience, God is in the act of providing. God provides comfort in our struggles. He provides healing when we are hurting. When all seems lost, God is there, wrapping his arms around us, saying, “I love you.”
These provisions from God often comes in the most natural of ways. When Israel was hungry, God gave them a gift out of the naturalness of creation. Manna and quail were natural to Israel’s location in Sinai. The bread, manna, came from a tamarisk tree. When the fruit is punctured, this yellowish-white ball comes out. It has a sweet taste, and is baked into a bread. The ball quickly decays, and ants soon come after it. You need the quail to take care of the ants. Quail come from other parts of Africa or the Mediterranean, and are often so tired from flying that they can be easily caught. This was an ordinary occurrence in Sinai, and God provided this gift to sustain Israel.
Often, we struggle to see God’s provision in the ordinary acts of life. We think God can only work in big and mighty ways, so we blind ourselves to see God’s works in the naturalness of life. When we are hungry, and can find just enough food in the house to make a meal, that is God’s provision. When we are alone, and a friend calls or comes by, that is God’s provision. When we are hurting, and someone is there to comfort us, that is God’s provision. We have a hard time attributing these occurrences back to God. We want to say it was “luck” or just the “compassion of others.” We believe God would ever do something so ordinary, because God only does the “big things” in our lives. My friends, time and time again God uses the ordinary things in life to bring about the kingdom and to care for his children.
When our eyes are opened to God in the ordinary, we can see how God works in the extraordinary. These are God’s provisions in those miraculous moments that stand against all understanding. God often miraculously provided to the people of Israel, such as in the parting of the Red Sea. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, God provided healing to those who were sick and sight to the blind.
We can see this throughout our lives, and even in our world today. The rain that hit Texas this week can be attributed to God’s miraculous provision in desperate times. God’s miracles exist through the technological advancements in the medical fields. It can be seen in the providing of money to someone who has lost their job. We can go on and on. God is still in the business of providing miracles, and doing the extraordinary.
A question remains: why would God do any of this? Why does God provide in times of wilderness? Why does God provide through the ordinary and the extraordinary? God provides so that we will know that He is God. The provisions of manna and quail, the provisions of the things in our lives, are all to show us who God is. God is the God of love, and the creator and provider of all things. In providing, God points us back to Him. God shows us that he is the person who is worthy of our worship and our affection. God is the author of the things and provisions in our lives.
God provides in ways that shows us that God is continually acting in our lives.
My friends, God is at work in all of our lives. When we are lost in the wilderness, suffering through a crisis, God is at work. When we are going about our lives, God is there with us and providing us our “daily bread,” so that we may be able to live and survive, but also reflect and grow in relationship with Him. And, when the extraordinary things in life happen, it is God who is the author of our provisions.
Let us never lose sight of the fact that it is God who provides. Let us seek God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and give thanks to God for the many ways God has blessed us and provided for us throughout our times in the wilderness and in the normality of our lives.