From time to time, when my two brothers and I get together, we sometimes re-tell the stories of our growing up. Unfortunately, though, this doesn’t always go all that well. Frequently the story that one of us is telling is vehemently denied by one or both of the other brothers. That, of course, makes for a happy reunion, but it happens because memory is sometimes both selective and creative. This is often very evident at funerals. It turns out that mean, nasty and miserable people never die. Everyone is always the salt of the earth. They’re the kind of people who would give you the very shirt off their back; they’d stay up all night with a sick dog. They’d carry an old lady across the street even if she was screaming that she did not want to go.
Only forty-five days have elapsed since the Israelites have escaped from Egypt. Life in Egypt was frightful and miserable. The people were sorely oppressed. They had been slaves who had been treated horribly. They had endured the horrific slaughter of their male children in a racially motivated program of ethnic cleansing. There was nothing good about life in Egypt. Nothing at all. That was why God rescued them. God had determined that they had reached the limit of their ability to cope with the awful misery of living in Egypt. And so God delivered them from the Egyptians with awesome signs and wonders. The glory of God only increased from the moment that Moses’ curiosity was aroused by the burning bush until whole people of God passed miraculously through the Red Sea. And then, amazingly, it kept increasing.
But now, apparently, things have gone quite sour. Whatever supplies and provisions that the Israelites managed to bring with them when they escaped from Egypt are now running dangerously low, and fear is settling into the camp. Fear does that. It settles. It comes down and it settles into all of the empty places that it can find. And then it spreads, and it spreads maliciously, until it creates dread.
And when the fear settled, the people forgot all of the amazing things that God had already done in their midst. God had been powerfully present in bringing them out of Egypt with awesome miracles, signs and wonders, but now all of that was lost in their minds as the fear settled into their hearts.
And look how they have turned against Moses! You murderer! You’ve brought us all out here into the wilderness to kill us with hunger! This is profound, and terribly mysterious. More than 40 years have passed since Moses earned the moniker of murderer. And I strongly doubt that there’s even one soul in the whole desert who knows that Moses is a murderer. Moses would have had to have told them, and we’ve got no evidence of that. That’s not usually something that one shares freely. But I’ll bet that that accusation cut to the very core of Moses’ being. It was the perfect accusation. And while it was a terrible thing for the people to say, no one in the desert could have realized just how terrible and deeply cutting that it was. Let us not forget that the powers of evil dwell in deserted places, and will wreak their havoc whenever and wherever they can. I am sure that each one of us here this morning has been the victim of someone’s seemingly unknowing innocent comment. That is not the evil doings of the speaker, but rather, it is the evil doings of the powers of evil. The speaker is not to blame.
Suddenly, the people of God are remembering Egypt as if it had been a paradise. And here’s where memory becomes both selective and creative. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots and ate our fill of bread.” Here is a memory of savory beef stew and tasty bread, apparently enjoyed during hours and hours of leisure and relaxation. There is no misery in this memory. They’ve forgotten the harsh task-masters who beat them into submission. They’ve forgotten arriving at their homes in the evenings completely exhausted, aching from their hard labor and nursing wounds from their beatings. They’ve made hell into a paradise, which is exactly what hell wants to be.
The tragedy here is that God’s people have forgotten God’s promise, or worse, they have come to believe that it was a lie, and this is a perfect set-up for disaster, in their lives, and in our own. God has promised to bring his people to a good place: a good land, a broad land, and a land flowing with milk and honey. God has no plans to abandon them in the desert. God has already given proof of that. They’re out of Egypt. They’ve been delivered. They are on their way to glorious fulfillment. They’ve begun the journey, and that journey, so far has been absolutely wonderful. The glory of God has been bursting out all over the place.
How has our own journey been? Without the selective and creative memory, I’m guessing that it is just as good right now as God’s people had it. Now, of course, that may seem a bit uncomplimentary at the moment, God’s people are wandering around in a desert, they’re hungry, and they are quite afraid that they have become the victims of a mass murderer.
But like us, they’ve got the promise of God. They’ve been delivered, and so have we. They’ve begun a journey to a new land, we’ve begun a journey to eternal life. And all along the way, like them, we’ve seen the glory of God. Let us not forget that. And let us not forget it when times get tough, or when fear settles into our camp.
I am totally convinced that it was part of God’s sovereign purpose for the people of Israel to get a little bit hungry. That sounds cruel at first, but they really need to have their memory repaired. For a people who have been so marvelously blessed by God, the threat of hunger and death should never have been a problem. There should have been more faith in evidence than that. There should have been more trust in God’s ultimate promise. There should have been a holy sense of anticipation to see what God would do next. After all, they’d just experienced a whole string of things that God had been doing next, one right after the other. And this is where a healed memory and trust in God’s promises come together. I like to think of it as the joy of the journey. We look back, and we celebrate God’s acts of glory in our past, we give thanks for where we are now, and then we eagerly anticipate what it is that God will next. But without that sense of God’s acts in the past, thankfulness for the moment, and godly anticipation for what God will do next, our faith will falter and fear will settle into our camp.
And so to cure his people’s lack of faith, God will do something next to build up that weakening faith. And what God does will be nothing less than an affirmation of the original promise. It is more proof that God is truly bringing them into the land that he has promised them. God will fed them in the wilderness through yet another act of glory. Here’s how it is introduced in verses six and seven. “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord…”
And that evening, quail settled upon that panicked camp and the people ate their fill and were satisfied. And in the morning, the glory of the Lord appeared in the form of a fine, flaky substance. And the people said, “Manna?” What is it? And it was good to eat. It was bread from heaven, and it, too, satisfied hunger. There was a test though, to see if people would really have faith in God, and not try to gather tomorrow’s bread today. But of course some people lacked faith, and they got greedy, and they tried to amass riches in bread. But by morning, those of little faith and great greed discovered that the extra bread that they had gathered had bred worms and grown foul. I think that’s kind of funny. I don’t think the punishment for greed and lack of faith came with the worms and with the foul smell. I’m
pretty sure it came that morning when folks tried to sneak out of their tents carrying a bucket of steaming, fetid wormy slime, reeking literally to high heaven, trying to scout out a place to dump it. It must have been quite comical to observe. If only all lessons in faith came to us this easily.
We live in an uncertain world, there is no question about that. It grows more and more uncertain each day, more and more resembling that stinking bucket of wormy slime that our forebears were trying to hide. But rest assured in this: as it was in the desert with the people of Israel, so it is also now. All falls within the sovereign purposes of God. As this world spirals out of control, we have a promise, this day, of living in the glory and awesome power of God. God’s people have always lived in the glory of God, God’s people have always received their daily bread, and the faithful among God’s people have learned to trust in God’s promise. There is no reason to believe that God has abandoned us in the wilderness. Our future, however uncertain, is assured. We are on a joyful journey to the Promised Land, and God will sustain us until we get there. And so we need to ask ourselves, first of all, do our memories need to be straightened out? And secondly, do we really believe that God is with us, here in this moment? And finally, can we develop a sense of Godly anticipation, in terms of what God is about to do next? If we can do these things, we will indeed experience the joy of the journey.