When we start each day by counting our blessings, we can develop a sense of gratitude for all of the good things that surround us. Gratitude can be hard to maintain, especially when life grinds us down. When things are rough, when we face difficulties, when the people on whom we depend fail us—whenever the going gets tough, we face the temptation to give in and start complaining. We have to fight the urge to find someone to blame.
The ancient Israelites faced this dilemma in Exodus 16. We remember the Exodus story in its entirety. The central theme of Exodus comes up again and again throughout the Hebrew scriptures. One of the best summaries of this entire narrative, and, indeed, the Old Testament, is Exodus 23.9, “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt” (NIV).
I like the NIV better than the NRSV for this verse. The NRSV translates the Hebrew word, וְגֵ֖ר (gar), “resident alien,” instead of “foreigner.” Both are included in the definition, but it essentially means “stranger.” This concept comes up over and over in scripture, including in the New Testament. In Matthew 5.43-44, Jesus turns the phrase, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy” on its head. He says, “Love your enemies (i.e., the strangers) and pray for those who persecute you.”
Again and again, this concept comes up, but the metanarrative, or big picture, can make us miss the little things. Exodus 16 is about remembering the journey and noticing God at work all around us every, single day. It’s about seeing that God is here, active and present in our lives.
The whole congregation of Israelites were in the wilderness. Things were not going well. They had been on the road fleeing Egypt for about two and a half months. That’s both a long time to be on the run and too short to have forgotten everything God did to deliver them. Moses and Aaron must have had a face-plant moment when the whole congregation of Israelites started complaining.
It’s probably good that their complaints in 16.3 move so quickly to God’s response in 16.4 because if I were Moses, I would have probably said something like, “You’ve got to be kidding me! Have you forgotten everything God did to get us this far?!?”
First, God turned the Nile to blood (7.14-24). Then, there were plagues of frogs 7.25-8.15), gnats (8.16-19), and flies (8.20-32). The fifth plague was the death of all of Egypt’s livestock (9.1-7). As though those weren’t bad enough, God inflicted the Egyptians with festering boils (9.8-12). God sent hail (9.13-35).
I don’t know if the brainstorming session in heaven was coming up empty or what, but God went back to insects for plague number 8 and sent locusts (10.1-20). God turned the sky black (10.21-29) for plague 9. Finally, in the most horrific of all the plagues, God took the Egyptians’ firstborn sons (11.1-10).
That’s 10 plagues!
Pharoah finally gave in and let the Israelites go. Then, he changed his mind and pursued them to the Red Sea (14.5-9).
We all know how the story goes. Moses lifted his staff, stretched out his hand, and sea parted. The Israelites crossed on dry ground, and the Egyptians drowned when the waters collapsed on them.
Story of Deliverance
This is a story of deliverance and God fulfilling divine promises. The Exodus story has been applied to many oppressed peoples throughout the ages. Most notably, we see themes from the Exodus story in the African struggle for freedom from heel of American slavery.
Yet, in Exodus 16, two and a half months after seeing the 10 plagues and walking across the Red Sea on dry land, the Israelites went to Moses and Aaron and said, “If only we had died in Egypt where we had meat and bread. Now, we’re going to starve to death here. Woe is me!”
Again, it’s probably a good thing that God responded because Moses might have resorted to colorful metaphors and inappropriate language, and it would be a shame if the Bible had to carry a “Contains Explicit Content” warning sticker.
Blaming Moses and Aaron is more than a little bit ironic. Did Moses bring the plagues? Did Moses part the waters on his own? Moses and Aaron were God’s messengers. They weren’t God. John Wesley wrote about the complaining 16.3, “They so undervalue their deliverance, that they wish, they had died in Egypt… None talk more absurdly than murmurers.”[i]
By stepping away from the metanarrative—this big picture of the God who loves us, is present with us, hears our struggling, and delivers—we can see a microcosm of everything we face. Their complaints in 16.3 were absurd. God had just done all these things. There’s no way they were abandoned to die in the wilderness at that point.
But they couldn’t see it. Neither can we. We take a deep breath and forget the gift of the air we breathe into life. Here in Charlottesville, we can turn on a faucet and potable water comes out.
Beauty that Surrounds Us
When I was writing this, I looked out the window, and at that moment, a butterfly flew by. We cannot take for granted the beauty and the wonder that surrounds us.
In September, we’re going to focus in worship and in our mission projects on caring for God’s creation. Just recently I heard about a young person in our congregation who is passionate about cutting back vines and other invasive species. What a blessing this person is to our community! We should give thanks for that too.
Whether it is our health, the beauty all around us, or someone’s inspiring good works, there’s so much good in our world. We cannot forget it. Start each day by thinking of something good, and thank God for it. The more you do it, the easier it gets. Exercising the gratitude muscle is easy. You could even begin by thanking God for the people in your life, and when you do, pray for them to have a good day too.
Today, we conclude our month-long look at food insecurity, but our ministries to those who are hungry are just getting started. Do you remember “Dinner with Andrew,” the fundraiser Colleen Baber and the Domino’s on Fifth St organized in memory of Colleen’s son Andrew? I looked yesterday, and you have helped raise over $5k.
This month, we have talked about the freeze-drying program to help local food pantries, especially the one for UVA students. This ministry will take fruits and vegetables that might otherwise go to waste and freeze-dry them. The process retains the nutrients and keeps them preserved for a very long time. This week, Debra began to formalize our freeze-drying process with various teams who will begin taking turns. If you want to get involved, you can.
As Val told you about earlier, the Venable Backpack Program helps students facing food insecurity at Venable Elementary School, right around the corner from the church. Today, we will put bags together in Fellowship Hall after church.
When Israelites complained, God heard them. God was present, in the struggle with them. God knew they were hungry and had no plans to let them starve.
This story reminds us that there is always plenty of bread in the Bible. They complained and God said “I’ll give you bread from heaven.” In our lives, what manna from heaven are we missing today? What do we take for granted? Start with gratitude. Count your blessings. And, know that God is with us each and every day.