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Wisdom from the Wilderness

Exodus 16.1-15

I went on a trail run the other day. And it was absolutely one of the worst experiences that I had had in nature in a long time.

Bryan Miller and I are training for a long trail run this Fall, so we have been doing occasional socially-distanced runs. We met the other day for one, out at Clinton Lake. It was, in short, a mess.

It started about halfway through, when we started to notice a bunch of tiny dots on our legs and feet. The dots were moving. Our guess is that they were seed ticks, or turkey mites…tiny larvae-stage ticks that are small enough to fit through the holes in shoes and socks. We probably picked them up through some weeds grown over the trail, and literally had hundreds if not thousands on our feet. We cleared off as many as we could, but they had done their work. I had more bites on me than I have ever had before, miserable itching for several days, and my feet still aren’t the same.

Next, the heat caught up with us. It was August in Kansas, after all. And we could feel the humidity rising from the ground the whole time. Even though we drank and rehydrated the whole time, we couldn’t stay ahead of the heat. We had to slow down to a walk a couple of times, and thankfully we had planned to find a water refill along the way. After a bit of rest, we were on our way again.

In fact, we were within a mile or two of the finish, when our last adventure struck. Or almost struck. Bryan and I keep a safe distance when we run, both for COVID, and just because you don’t want to be too close on a trail run…too many rocks and roots that you want to see far enough in advance. So, you would imagine my surprise when I found myself into Bryan, who had skidded to a stop and was backing straight into me on the trail. Right in the middle of the trail were two rattlesnakes, wrapped around each other. What we found out later was that they were two males, fighting over the right to mate with a female, who was likely just off the trail waiting for the victor. One of the males stopped just long enough to turn toward Bryan and me, rattle his warning, and hiss. Bryan was not sure how close he got, but it was too close for comfort.

By the time we backtracked up the trail, and took another trail back to the cars, we were done with Clinton for a while, and it took me a good week or two before I even stepped foot on another trail! Heat. Humidity. Spider webs. Ticks. Snakes.

As often as I preach about the beauty of nature. About its splendor. The awe it inspires. The inspiration that I find there. The rest of the story is this: God’s creation is amazing. And horrifying. All at the same time.

I have preached before about Annie Dillard, who makes this same point well. In her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she writes a chapter “The Horns of the Altar.” In it, she writes about the horrifying and dangerous realities of nature. Snakes. Parasites. We could have given her some good material for the chapter. I love a quote near the end of the chapter, “I am a frayed and nibbled survivor of a fallen world.”

Fallen indeed. Dillard names a truth about God’s creation that is found in the pages of Scripture. Alongside of the majesty and glory of Psalm 8 and other creation Psalms…next to the creative power of the early chapters of Genesis…beside the celebration of creation in Job and Isaiah and the Gospels…is an alternative description of God’s Creation. It is the description found in Ecclesiastes, as I talked about last Fall, which describes nature as a tiresome cycle of death and destruction. It is the description found in the Temptation narratives of the Gospels, where Jesus leaves the joy and commissioning of his baptism, only to enter the desert where he is assaulted and undermined by no less than Satan himself.

And it is the view of nature of today’s passage in Exodus. In Exodus 16 and in all of these passages, there is what I would call a “theology of wilderness.” Yes, people of faith have long found God’s voice echoed within Creation itself. And yet, they have also found nature to be a destructive, isolating, crippling force. In today’s passage, God’s people find themselves on the edge of what is called the wilderness of Sin. Chronologically and geographically, they have escaped slavery in Egypt, been ushered through the Red Sea as Pharaoh’s army was destroyed, camped at the beautiful oasis of Elim, but not yet made it to the mountain of Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God. Scholar Michael Chan says that they occupy the space “between liberation and covenant.” They are on the edge of wilderness.

As we talked about last week, the ancient Israelites were an agrarian society. They raised crops and sheep and grapes for wine. They knew what it was to walk through the fields and thank their Creator for the plants that he had created. In contrast, the desert was a foreign, dangerous, unknown place. The wilderness is a symbol for all that terrifies God’s people. It represents a complete lack of control. These Israelites even knew what it was to walk through someone else’s fields and toil for a harvest that they would never own. They knew slavery. It was dehumanizing and destructive, but at least it provided three squares. It wasn’t really control, but it was “controlled.”

This was different. This was wilderness. This was complete lack of control. They had lost any semblance of security. There were no fleshpots here. There were no fields to walk through, to wait for the harvest to come. This was sand. And rock. And oppressive heat. And rattlesnakes. And ticks and spiderwebs. (OK, maybe not that last part, but you get the point.) This was nature at its least beautiful and most death-dealing. It was in this wilderness of desperation. Of fear. For the people of God, in this time and place, the wilderness represented that which could destroy them, physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and socially. They feared that the creation that they had been taught to value and love, and the God who created it, would be their undoing. From this place, the Israelites cried out to Moses and Aaron, and deep down God and said, “would we not be better off in slavery? At least we knew where the next meal was coming from! Did you not simply bring us out here to die in the wilderness?”

The wilderness is a place of fear. Of destruction. Of chaos. And yet, it is in the wilderness where we find some of the greatest examples of hope and power in all of Scripture! It is through the wilderness that Jesus rejects the promises of Satan and the offers of the world. And it is in the wilderness that the people of God learn who God really is. Here in the wilderness, God grants the Israelites a three-fold gift:

First, and most obviously, God gives the Israelites the provision that they need. In the evening, they will be able to hunt quail in their camp. They will have meat to eat. And in the morning, when they wake up to find on the ground a fine substance, which the Israelites will eventually call manna. And this substance can be baked or boiled and turned into bread for their families. Sara Koeing says that it is in the wilderness that they learn that God is not only the God of deliverance, but also the God of provision God is the God of provision, even in the wilderness.

The second part of the gift, I believe is that the gift requires a bit of work. I learned in my chaplain training that in a crisis, it helps for people to have something to do. “Why don’t you write down family members to call? And you start your way down the list. And you keep an eye on Grandma. And you run to the cafeteria and get her some food….” God gave the Israelites a task, a vocation. Something to feel useful. An experience to have with their hands and their feet as they wandered into the morning dew and collected the manna. The familiar touch of dough on their fingers as they made bread. Of course, God could have managed to have the Israelites wake up to divinely-delivered fleshpots, just like Egypt. But part of the gift was the Israelites ability to wade in and touch it, to receive it, to co-create with their Creator a sustenance for themselves and their families.

Finally, this gift of manna came to the Israelites as a tool for teaching. The passage tells us that before the Sabbath, they could collect enough for two days, so that they would not need to work on the Sabbath itself. This was a gift. Remember, these were people who had always known slavery. Endless work. They had been trained by the Egyptians to use the land and use their own bodies as unending tools of work. Un-pausing hoarders of goods. Margin-free machines of Empire. On Day Seven of the first week of this gift of manna, many of the people didn’t know how to stop. They went out and collected more manna, because their muscle memory was one of accomplish, collect, hoard, and work. But, the final gift of God in this manna was that it spoiled…the fruit of their labor on the Day without Labor would not sustain them. God invited, gifted, required Sabbath. The third gift was that of rest and restoration.

In the wilderness, God became the God of the three-fold gift of provision, and vocation, and restoration.

People of God, today we stand with the Israelites in the wilderness. We find ourselves in the wildness of global pandemic. Economic collapse. Political chaos. It is not the wildness of the Israelites, but many days, it feels pretty close. We live today in what feels like a total lack of control. We feel unmoored…adrift from our physical church building, our physical schools, from our friends, from our families, from things that make us feel normal. It is hard. It is isolating. It is terrifying. It feels like we are in the desert. And like the Israelites, we cry out to God and our leaders, “just let us go back to the way things were! Were we not better off back then?!”

Like the Israelites, may we find that our desert is a time for trust. That our current wilderness is a time to watch God’s provision at work. For God continues to give us provision and sustenance! There is still manna for us, and we receive the provision that we need. I think about places in town that are serving as God’s hands and feet in the middle of COVID-19. LINK. Family Promise. Our own Deacons Fund. Many of you know that the church has a benevolence fund for those in the church family who are hurting financially. People in the church give to this fund every month, and if you are at a place where who simply cannot make ends meet, the generosity of the Deacons fund is there for you as members of our family. God is providing…maybe not enough to hoard, but enough manna for today.

God continues to give us vocation. Like those who waded into the dew to collect and bake the manna, many of you are working as nurses, first responders, teachers working to build healthy families and take care of children and youth who are afraid and isolated. Yours is a noble vocation, for sure. But I have heard beautiful stories of how many of you open up the church directory and pray through it…allow the Spirit to direct you to pick up the phone and call. Many of you find your way to the food pantry to help. Others of you gather in handfuls on Sunday morning to make worship happen for the rest of us, or record early so that others may worship God at home. Sunday school teachers are preparing and teaching lessons. Leaders are meeting…so many Zooms! You have vocation. Calling. Purpose. And it is a gift.

Finally, God continues to give us restoration. Some of us have found this time to be a slowing down, a sabbatical of pace and hurry. Others laugh when they hear of Netflix binging and baking bread endlessly…for they are busier than they have ever been! And yet, there are moments of pause, even among the busy. Time to walk the dog. Time to notice the flowers in our neighbor’s yard that we usually just drive by. Time for Sabbath stopping. Many of us are working harder to accomplish less. But God still grants the gift of time, as long as we slow down and allow the gift to penetrate our hurried and harried lives.

Even in our wilderness, God still gives us good gifts. Even when it feels like Creation itself is stacked against us, the Lord of Creation still gives us what we need.

Throughout Scripture, wilderness is the place where God shows up. Chooses to shine! Even in the barren and empty and silent times in our lives…especially in those times…God is there. Kathleen Norris writes about these empty times and empty spaces in her book Dakota. Norris used to live in New York City, but felt a calling to move to a parcel of family land in Western Dakota. A place where so many Americans see as desolate, barren wilderness. But here, Norris found God in new and amazing ways. She writes of her experiences in connection to that of the desert mothers and fathers, monks who left the cities in the early days of the church to spend time in the desert, in the wilderness. There they, like Norris, found wisdom. Found a new and fresh experience of God.

“The insight of one fourth-century monk, Evagrius, that in the desert, most of one’s troubles come from distracting ‘thoughts of one’s former life’ that don’t allow us to live in the present, reflects what I regard as the basic principle of desert survival: not only to know where you are but to learn to love what you find there. I live in an American desert, without company, without television, because I am trying to know where on earth I am….a healthy ascetic discipline asks you to rejoice in these gifts of deprivation, to learn from them, and to care less for amenities than for that which refreshes from a deeper source. Desert wisdom allows you to be at home, wherever you are. A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, ‘Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’”

For the wisdom of the wilderness…
…And for the gifts of a good God in that space…
Let us be thankful. Amen.



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