There was this series of commercials a while ago—they might still be playing—put out for Snickers, the candy bar. Y’all remember these? It had some character being ornery and angry, complaining about everything, and then one of the other characters in the commercial would hand them a Snickers. They’d take a bite, and suddenly transform back into a regular person. Now, the fact that they’re pushing a candy bar as a legitimate cure for low blood sugar aside, the commercials really get at something true.
We get angry when we’re hungry. We get snippy, and short-sighted, and short-tempered with each other when we’re hungry. Y’all know the word, “hangry.” Well, in today’s Exodus reading we hear about just that kind of thing happening. The Israelites, wandering in the desert, running out of food, are hangry. And they take out their frustration on Moses.
But they’re just so dramatic about it, right? Always going straight from “this is unpleasant” to “why do you want to kill us Moses?” They conjure up these images of Egypt as a paradise, where they got plenty to eat in the form of bread and “fleshpots”—whatever that is. They erase all the really awful reality of having to be slaves to the Egyptians, set to hard labor, subjected to genocidal tyrants. But sure, they remembered the food.
I would venture a guess that nostalgia—that misremembered glorification of a nonexistent past—isn’t unique to the Israelites. We all tend to remember the past as being better than it actually was, and when the present gets tough, the past looks even better. The Israelites, you’ll remember, are wandering in the desert. They have been on the road for something like two months, and supplies are getting low. Moses doesn’t seem to be getting them where they need to be quickly enough. So of course they’ll want to complain about food.
So then there’s this reaction from God. God hears the complaints and promises food: quails in the evening, bread in the morning. Moses tells the people what’s going to happen, and gives them instructions on how God wants them to collect this food—no more than you actually need. And God describes it in a particular way—“in that way I will test them.”
Test. When we hear about God testing, I think we get a picture of some kind of pass-fail quiz. Like they’re getting ready for their end-of-the-quarter finals, and failure means they don’t get to be God’s people anymore. That God, who already knows the outcome, is setting them up for failure to remind them of how awful and worthless they are. Or something bad like that. But in one of the commentaries I listened to, a different perspective was taken.
First, let’s get out of the mindset where God is the kind of all-knowing Teflon deity who spends all of Exodus mildly annoyed with having to put up with the Israelites, and instead take it on the text’s original terms. God just freed this people from four hundred years of slavery. They had suffered hard labor, abuse, even attempted genocide. They were traumatized, so God—ever the loving parent—knows they are not in a place to flip a switch and just trust God with their whole being. So that’s what the test is for.
God is extending loving care for this abused and traumatized people, and feeling out how far their trust will go. Will they believe that God really will provide food for them every single day? Or are they not ready yet to trust that God will do what God says? The test, far from a pass-fail examination, is instead an evaluation, a check-in, a diagnostic test to gauge where the Israelites were and adjust the formation God wants for them accordingly.
Because God listens. Notice that the text says that God “heard their grumbling” four different times. God heard the place where the Israelites were feeling neglected, how they were feeling a tug back to the familiar brokenness of Egypt, how they were slipping back to the familiar misery they knew rather than the uncertainty of what could be, and moved to show them that God would provide, and that God is trustworthy. We may wonder: how is God hearing our grumbling? How is God hearing where we aren’t ready to trust in God’s provision yet?
With six months of this pandemic under our belt, and an unknown stretch ahead of us, it’s been tempting I’m sure to grumble—or maybe we should say mourn or grieve—about the days when we could meet in person, where we could eat our fill of the bread of communal worship in the sanctuary and ladles from the fleshpots of coffee hours and conversation together. These are very real griefs, just as real as the rumbling stomachs of the Israelites in the wilderness. And God hears our griefs; God hears our longing and yes, our complaining. But God doesn’t react with anger, or annoyance, or impatience. God, instead, provides for us.
God provides for us. Sometimes it may come from unexpected places, like bread from the sky—showing up in a sudden opportunity to sell fairstand pies at the farmer’s market, or in an idea to do a takeout Lutefisk supper, or an alternating-week confirmation class, or small groups gathering for quilting or prayer or Bible study. God provides us with phone calls and YouTube worship and notes of encouragement from our sisters and brothers. God provides us with porch visits from grandkids, thoughtful school administrators who make classrooms safe enough to attend with friends, caring health department officials who give guidance on best practices.
God provides for us.
And God provides for us so that we’ll know we are not alone wandering in this wilderness. God provides for us so that we’ll grow in trust, that even when we have to do things differently, even when the ministry looks like something as confusing as manna on the desert floor, God is still present and God is still watching over us. God invites us, in this, to deepen our trust. God is going to carry us through this time, and will give us exactly what we need.
So give space to the grumbling. God didn’t tell the Israelites to stop complaining; we are not called to bury the things that are bothering us in this time. It’s hard. We’re grieving. So grumble. Complain to God. Let God hear the things that are hard right now—the things we can’t do, the people we don’t get to see, the events missed, the normalcy that left us in March. Let God hear those things, and let God move you toward deeper trust by providing that manna from heaven. Let God respond to your worries and fears and complaints and griefs. Because, dear sisters and brothers, beloved siblings, God hears your grumbling, and responds with quails in the evening and bread in the morning.
God provides for us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.