An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Bread in the Wilderness

A sermon on Exodus 16:2-15 by Nathan Nettleton
Having passed through the Red Sea last week, this week’s readings from the book of Exodus take us into the wilderness wanderings, a period of forty years where the people of Israel were in the wilderness, no longer in the land of slavery, but not yet in the promised land either. The wilderness is a powerful metaphor, one that pretty much everyone relates to at some level. Speaking of a time of your life as “something of a wilderness experience” is a common and instantly recognisable description. What is it like being in the wilderness? How do we survive in the wilderness? What does it all mean? And where is God when we are wandering in the wilderness?

The metaphorical wilderness is what the social psychologists and anthropologists call a “liminal space”. That is to say it is a betwixt and between space, a place that is neither one thing nor the other. The old has been left behind, but the new has not yet been found. And so it is an unsettled place, a place of wandering, and wondering, and waiting. The circumstances that lead us into the wilderness can vary considerably. We can flee into the wilderness. We can be driven into the wilderness. We can stumble into the wilderness. We can venture deliberately into the wilderness. In many many traditional societies, young men and sometimes young women were required to venture into the wilderness as part of the rites of initiation into adulthood. No longer children, but not yet fully fledged adults, they spent this betwixt and between time in the wilderness to find themselves, to find their truth, to find God, before they were allowed to return and be welcomed back as adults. Although our society has tragically lost its initiation customs, many people will tell you that some literal wilderness experience, perhaps a major bushwalking expedition or a white water rafting trip or something, marked their discovery of themselves as no longer a child but now an adult ready for adult responsibilities.

The people of Israel have escaped into the wilderness. They are fleeing from cruel slavery and oppression, and they have staged a mass break-out and fled into the wilderness on the promise of a new homeland flowing with milk and honey. Often though we can find ourselves in the wilderness unwillingly. We have neither ventured forth in hope, nor fled some terrible past. The past was comfortable and desirable. We had no wish to leave. But something has gone wrong. A loved one has died unexpectedly. Or a scandal has rocked a small community. Or we’ve been injured or retrenched or bankrupted or heartbroken. The old has gone and, though yearned for, can never be recovered. But there is no promised land in sight yet. If there are brighter days ahead, we can’t yet see them, and it is hard even to imagine them. Like the Israelites wandering in the desert, we can see only the forbidding barrenness of what we are trudging through now, and the only alternative we can call to mind is the one we have left behind. Even the land of slavery began to look good. If only we were back there where our slave drivers made sure we were well fed. From out here in the wilderness, the bread of slavery looks like croissants with jam and cream.

But there is no going back. It is of the nature of these liminal experiences that the break with the old is irrevocable. The young adult cannot return to being accepted as a child. The bereaved cannot resurrect their loved ones. The community cannot return to the innocence it enjoyed before the shattering news was made known. If there is a way out of the wilderness, it is only by passing through to the other side, never by going back.

So although the question of how we might get back out of the wilderness inevitably arises in our minds, the real question is how will we survive in the wilderness until we find out way through to the other side. The wilderness, by definition, seems harsh and inhospitable. It feels unsafe, and barren, and devoid of the necessities of life. And to make it worse, we usually find ourselves somewhat at odds with one another in the early stages of a wilderness experience. Some of the people begin to grumble against Moses and Aaron and blame them, while others are already to push on right away. No one is necessarily right or wrong, they’re all just dealing with it differently. Rowland Croucher tells us that the responses to the recent questionnaire are all over the shop. The person sitting next to you probably sees our present situation very differently from you. Some think we are going too fast, some think we are going too slow. Some think we are wallowing, while others think we are sweeping things under the carpet in our haste. Some think they can already see the promised land, but some others think they can too but they are not looking in the same direction. That can happen even when you are in your own personal wilderness. One part of you is going this way, and another part that. Different feelings and perspectives come into conflict within you. Even if I want to try to flee my own personal wilderness, I can’t even achieve a consensus within myself about which way to run!

So how does one survive in the wilderness? And where is God?

One of the great paradoxes is that God is often most clearly and strongly with us in our wilderness experiences, but it is usually only afterwards that we can see that. The liminal experience of being betwixt and between is actually one that breaks down our defences and makes us more open to God, but we can’t always see it at the time. You can see some clues as to why in the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness. As harsh as their experience of slavery had been, they tended to associate the presence of God with the wealth and splendour and power of Egypt. When the king is on his throne and everything is carefully ordered and under control, we imagine we are seeing the blessings of God. And yet the Exodus story calls us to recognise that not only is God one who can and will overthrow such impressive structures, but that God is then encountered in the wilderness, and God will feed us in the wilderness.

The wilderness place will not destroy us, because God is there. The wilderness place will not see us starve, because God is there and God will provide. The wilderness place may well deprive us of things we thought we needed to survive, but God is there and God will provide us with what we really need, and God will reform us and reshape us in the wilderness for the new life that lies ahead of us, the life to which God is calling us. To a people who thought they were about to starve in the wilderness, God provided quail at night, and manna bread in the morning. It was not what they expected. In fact the word “manna” comes from their expression “What is it?” The bread God provided from heaven was not anything they recognised or anticipated, but it was what they needed and it was God’s gracious gift in their time of need.

And this bread taught them new lessons about surviving in the wilderness. It taught them that they could not prosper by hoarding. If they collected more than a day’s worth of the manna, it went putrid on them. Give us “this day” our daily bread. Samara told our home group this week that the New Testament scholar Ched Myers says that wealth is like that. It goes off if you hoard it. He compares it to blood or water. If it keeps moving it stays healthy, but if it banks up in one spot it goes stagnant and poisons us. In the wilderness we learn to rely on God one day at a time, and to make sure that everyone is receiving their share.

Here at this table, we receive the bread of heaven. The early Christians frequently drew on the image of the manna in the wilderness when describing the Eucharist. We may look here and think “what is it?”. We may not recognise it as anything that can sustain us in the wilderness. But here is bread and wine and a body gathered around the table, and here is God meeting us and offering himself to us as the bread of heaven to sustain us in the wilderness. Whatever your wilderness; whatever your response to the wilderness, God is here. God knows your need. God will be with you. God will feed you and see you through. You won’t be the same when you emerge. We are all changed in the wilderness, but if we will feed on the gifts of God and respond to the call of God, we will be changed for the better. For God is God, and the wilderness is God’s home. Blessed be God for ever.


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