Sunday, March 15, 2015

In the Wilderness

A photo I took in Israel in 2010, in the desert
This weekend we are celebrating my fifty-second birthday a little bit early and both of my sons are home. This morning we are all going to sit in the pews together; a great gift. So I'm not in the pulpit. But I offer this sermon, preached three years ago on this Fourth Sunday in Lent at my former parish, St. Francis, Holden, on March 18, 2012. As most readers of this blog know, I love preaching on the appointed text from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and this sermon expresses as well as any why that is so. That appointed text is from the 21st chapter of the Book of Numbers, verses 4-9.


The most important books of the Hebrew Bible are the first five, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And the key event in the Torah is the Exodus story. It is the story of God’s liberating acts on behalf of a bunch of slaves who cry out to God for help. When they do, God hears, God sees and God acts by sending Moses to confront Pharaoh to tell him: “Let my people go!”  

The telling of this story each Passover is central not only to Jewish identity, but by extension to Christian identity as well, since the events of Holy Week that we will soon be remembering again are set in the liturgical context of Passover. And of course every celebration of the Holy Eucharist is a kind of “riff” on the Passover Seder meal.

The crossing of the Red Sea happens just a little over a third of the way into the Book of Exodus and the rest of the Torah (all the way to Deuteronomy) is about the journey over the course of the next four decades. If you sit down and read the Book of Exodus from beginning to end, it takes you basically through the first year of that forty-year journey through the Sinai Desert. That journey then continues into the Book of Leviticus where the details of the Torah are unpacked and then into the Book of Numbers. Finally you get to Deuteronomy which is set on the plains of Moab near the end of that fortieth year. They have almost made it to the land of milk and honey but before they go in, Moses has a few things to get off his chest and a lengthy sermon to deliver.

Think about that. Deuteronomy ends with God’s people almost there, but not quite—basically 39 years and eleven months and change into the journey. As a metaphor, this seems to suggest that the journey from slavery to freedom is a rather circuitous and arduous one. And yet gifts are given even in the wilderness: including daily bread, water, and the Torah—all of which are intended to form a people after God’s own heart, a people who live life one day at a time.

Today’s Old Testament lesson takes us into the heart of the fourth book of the Torah, the Book of Numbers, which in Hebrew is simply called “in the wilderness.” As it begins, the people are continuing to journey by stages toward the Promised Land and a census is taken on “the fifteenth day of the second month of the second year after Moses led the Israelites out from Egypt, and across the Red Sea, and into the wilderness.” So we haven’t gotten very far yet.

For us, parts of the Book of Numbers may be like watching too many slides of a friend’s trip to a part of the world you know little about. It can be a difficult book to follow because it sometimes reads like a travelogue: then we went from Etham to Phahiroth and from there it was a three-day journey to Migdol and then we went on to Etham and so on and so forth. But underneath the place names and the census figures—underneath all those “numbers”—there is a story. Numbers is brutally honest about the fact that the people did not do so well when they were tired and hot and hungry and thirsty. But through it all, God continued to provide. Very briefly, that is the background for the first reading we heard today.  

From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. But the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food."

Don’t you love it how they say "there is no food" when in fact there is food? They sound like the kid who comes home from college and looks in the refrigerator and the cupboard, but not finding what they want, what they crave, they say: “isn’t there anything to eat in this house?”

But there is food! It’s miracle food - whatchamacallit bread that at first seemed really cool. But cream of whatchamacallit three times a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year for nearly four decades gets old pretty fast. So there is no food—or rather what food there is, is detestable. And there is no water. We are going to die. Why did you bring us out here to die, Moses?

Moses is the leader. But as you recall, he wasn’t exactly looking for this job. He was out minding his own business, taking care of his father-in-law’s flock, when God came looking for him at a burning bush. And when Moses resisted, God insisted all the more. God made him do this, even though Moses knew he was not equipped for such a hard job. And let’s be honest: surely he must be feeling as tired and cranky out there in the Sinai as anyone. Surely he, who has probably given up more than anyone else as a former prince of Egypt, must miss not only the leeks and melons and cucumbers of Egypt, but also the lamb kebabs and the stuffed grape leaves and the vintage wines.

The truth is that they are in the desert and while there are not leeks and melons, there is food enough and water enough. It’s just that it comes one day at a time, and it isn’t much. But it is enough. At least that’s how the story goes. Dayenu. God provides manna one day at a time and water from the flinty rock. Depending on their own state of mind, they either see those provisions in the wilderness as a miracle and gift, or as "no food at all." Oh my God, no food, no water, we are going to die! Why did Moses bring us out here to die? Were there not enough graves back in Egypt?

Now I don’t like what happens next in this story. It doesn’t fit very well with my image of God. So I’m not going to try to explain it to you. But what the narrator says is that God kind of loses it. God is so sick and tired of all this whining. When are we going to get there? Is there nothing to eat? Why did we have to go on this trip? And so…

…then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.

Yes, it’s a little over the top. What I do want to say is this: it’s a reminder that the wilderness is a very dangerous place. The poisonous serpents are a part of that world. Death really is a part of that world. It’s like at Creation where God orders the primordial chaos: the point is that there is primordial chaos that needs to be ordered. And it is true that when there is no food, when there is no water, when there is no divine protection, the serpents will get you and people will die. It’s just part of the world, part of the circle of life.

But what has happened in today’s story is that the people have seemingly forgotten and lost all perspective. So it is as if God is saying, “let’s see how this works if you are on your own.” And the truth is, not so well. Now that may not be enough of an explanation, but that’s the best I can do for today. What I do want you to notice though is what happens next. Clearly it works. Clearly it wakes the people up, who repent. They…

…came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people.

To my ear, this is the “good news”—the best news—in this strange text. Moses is no doubt upset with God for his own reasons. And he has every reason to feel defensive and vulnerable about these annoying people who keep blaming him for everything that goes wrong. Yet he keeps on interceding with God on their behalf. It is that line that I want us to notice with some joy and curiosity: Moses prayed for the people. Maybe even by name, and maybe even starting with the biggest loudmouths. Significant change never comes easily or quickly. God’s people have to keep discovering (and rediscovering) again and again and again that (a) God has their back and (b) that they really do need each other. They have to learn to stop thinking like slaves and start thinking like a neighborhood.

Moses didn’t lead them out into the Sinai to die. But it feels like that for a while to people who are scared. And in those moments, what Moses has to do is learn how to pray. To pray for them by name even when he may be secretly hoping the serpent will get them next. Moses prays for the people—and infinitely more than they can ask or imagine becomes possible. Moses prays for his people and God in turn equips Moses to do that work to which God had called Moses in the first place. 

It’s all pretty wild stuff: ancient totem poles, a God who sends serpents, so much magic in a desert halfway around the world that may seem far from our lives. And yet we gather around this strange old text, listening for good news as the journey continues by stages as we move through so many transitions in our own lives and once again through this Lenten Season, when we are trying with God’s help to orient and reorient ourselves to God and neighbor. Among other things we ask for grateful hearts that help us to be thankful for enough, rather than whining about what we lack. Among other things, as we prayed tonight in the opening collect, we know that Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: “Evermore give us this bread, O God…that he may live in us and we in him…”

When we get hungry and cranky and tired, we too are tempted to say: we’re tired. There is nothing to eat. We detest this miserable food. We are going to die.

But here’s the deal: the journey from slavery to freedom is not supposed to be easy. Sometimes along the way we are going to have to face down a few serpents. Always we must remember that real change, lasting change, will be met with some resistance. Over the centuries in Church and synagogue and in town politics and in businesses that are trying to change their culture, these dynamics play out over and over again. They play out in our personal lives too when we try to change old destructive patterns that enslave us to embrace the practices of people who are trying to embrace the freedom and life that Christ offers.

In the midst of such times, we can pray for one another by name. We can love God and tend to the neighborhood, and keeping journeying by stages, holding hands and putting one foot in front of the other as we make our way toward the Promised Land. We can come to the Table to receive the bread of life, trusting that it really is enough to sustain us, enough for us to remember that Christ lives is us, and we live in Christ.