The sermon I preached today in preaching class, titled “Painting Pictures of Egypt”.
Text: Exodus 16:1-10
The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt. In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.”
So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we, that you should grumble against us?” Moses also said, “You will know that it was the Lord when he gives you meat to eat in the evening and all the bread you want in the morning, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we? You are not grumbling against us, but against the Lord.”
Then Moses told Aaron, “Say to the entire Israelite community, ‘Come before the Lord, for he has heard your grumbling.'”
While Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked toward the desert, and there was the glory of the Lord appearing in the cloud.
I have to start out today with a confession. I am a music junkie. Maybe even the kind of music junkie that needs an intervention. Not only do I own more music than I will probably ever be able to listen to, but I am also one of those obnoxious people that likes to listen to songs on repeat… you know, the same song over and over and over again. Songs have the power to quickly draw me into the deepest parts of my soul and express that which my words and thoughts fail to communicate.
Most recently, my heart, my mind, and my whole being have been captivated by a song written by Sara Groves titled “Painting Pictures of Egypt.” I really love the way the song captures the heart of the Israelite people, and in turn the heart of each of us as we step out on a journey of receiving the promises of God. And I must confess: for about the past week and a half or so, I have been listening to this song on repeat. As we spend some time today hanging out with these Israelite people, I hope that the lyrics of this song will help to give us even more of a window into the hearts of those who, like the Israelites, still cling to the nostalgia of a life of slavery.
In today’s text, we meet a people who have just recently crossed over the Red Sea, rescued from slavery in the land of Egypt. Now, the Israelites had been in Egypt for a long time. They had lived in Egypt for 430 years, and at least 400 of those years were spent in slavery. Generation upon generation, these people had lived and died in the land of their enslavement. THey never knew anything different. That is, until this Moses guy came along, bearing a promise of freedom and a message for Pharaoh to “Let my people go!” But not only did Moses speak this promise into the lives of the Israelites, he proactively sought the promise, taking risks on behalf of the people, challenging the authority of the man in charge, and then boldly leading the Israelites across the Red Sea, saving them from the oppression of the Egyptians. The Israelite community was on its way to receiving the great and glorious promise of God. And as they are on their way, they find themselves here… in the desert.
I can only imagine that the desert is a terrifying place to find oneself. It’s not at all familiar. It doesn’t have any of the comforts of “home.” And who really knows how long this journey through the wilderness is going to take? In “Painting Pictures of Egypt,” Sara Groves captures the sentiment like this:
The past is so tangible, I know it by heart
Familiar things are never easy to discard
I was dying for some freedom, but now I hesitate to go
Caught between the promise and the things I know
These people, who had lived in slavery for generations, now find themselves in a wilderness that is terrifying and uncomfortable. But they’re going to have to travel through it in order to receive the promise of God. They are, quite literally, caught between the promise of God and the things they have known for so long. Perhaps it’s this discomfort and fear that lies at the root of their grumbling in today’s text. The Israelites have had a long journey already, and they seem to be aware that there is much more that remains as they chase after the promise of God for freedom. In the midst of their discomfort and fear, the Israelites speak words that might seem ridiculous to most of us: “Why didn’t God let us die in comfort in Egypt where we had lamb stew and all the bread we could eat? You’ve brought us out into this wilderness to starve us to death, the whole company of Israel!” My first reaction when reading these words was “are you serious!?” Have these people completely forgotten already that in Egypt they were slaves!? They were slaves! And they want to go back! Listen to the words of Sara Groves, as she captures perfectly the heart of these people:
I’ve been painting pictures of Egypt, leaving out what it lacked
The future seems so hard and I want to go back
When you’re in the desert, and you’re hungry, and you’re uncomfortable, and you don’t know what tomorrow might bring–even slavery seems better… or at least easier than going forward.
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? We’ve all been enslaved to something. We all, like the apostle Paul, have been given a thorn in our flesh–something that enslaves us, sometimes to the point of destruction. For some, that thorn is outwardly visible for the world to see: alcohol, greed, laziness–for others, it is something that we secretly hide away from the world, claiming to be free when we are really still bound by the chains of slavery. Maybe it’s pride, or lust, or an eating disorder, or an addiction to performance. Whatever it is, we’ve got it.
But even when we find ourselves in the oppression of slavery, in the thick gooey yuck of life’s messes, there is good news. By the grace of God, we are offered a promise of freedom–a promise that there is a way out of life’s messes, and a promise that even when we long to return to those very things that were destroying us, there is a road to freedom–and that is a promise that God keeps. He kept that promise for the Israelites, even when they continually grumbled about going back to the comfort of their life in Egypt. He kept that promise by providing exactly what they would need each day to satisfy their hungers and longings. And he continues to keep that promise for us through the person of Jesus Christ, who, being God himself, entered into our messy human existence to bring redemption, and grace, and beauty.
As we embark on the journey to receiving God’s promised freedom, He calls us to one thing: to trust in His provision as He leads us. And that, my friends, as many of you are probably thinking right now, is an easy thing to say, but a very difficult thing to do. It seems so much easier to stay in the comfort of what we have always known. When we’re facing the unknown of the wilderness, going back to slavery seems so much easier, even if we know that there is freedom on the other side. Like the Israelites, we grumble. We complain about our discomfort. We lament about the difficulties and dryness of the desert. Fortunately for us, God hears our grumbling and provides for our needs. In today’s text, Moses sent Aaron to reassure the Israelite community, to go before them and say: “Come before the Lord, for he has heard your grumbling.” Come near to God. He hears your complaints.
With that promise…the promise that God hears our grumbling and gives us what we need, the question that burns within me is: how? How in the world do we step forward into God’s promise of freedom without getting stuck in the nostalgia and longing for what seemed so comfortable? How do I trust God to provide when the way out of this mess seems too long and difficult and messy?
First, we have to allow our hindsight to be 20/20. You know, they always say that hindsight is 20/20, but it can be really easy to look at the past only in light of our present circumstances. Isn’t that what was going on with the Israelites in today’s text? They were so hungry, that they were blinded to the fact that they had just experienced a miraculous rescue as they walked across the Red Sea on dry land! Didn’t God just bring them out of slavery!? And now they are grumbling that they are hungry. I challenge you: remember the past in its entirety–remember what God has already done to bring you out of oppression and slavery. Remember that He’s already made a way out of your mess by sending Jesus into our world.
With that, we must remember that the journey to freedom is gonna be long. It’s gonna be difficult. And you’re probably gonna feel like grumbling. It’s okay. God hears our grumbling and promises to provide what we need. The Israelites were assured not once, but three times in today’s text that God has heard their grumbling. God hears our complaints, and he responds by satisfying our hunger with what we need. Manna and quail may not be the tastiest of foods, and it may not have been what the Israelites thought they wanted, but it got them to the Promised Land. It nourished them for the journey to freedom. What is the manna that will feed you as you seek God’s promise of freedom? If you allow anything to become a new slave master, are you really experiencing freedom? What manna is God providing to really satisfy the hunger that remains in your soul?
Finally, we must have the courage to look forward. The last verse of today’s text says that while Aaron was speaking to the Israelites, “they looked toward the desert, and there was the glory of the Lord appearing in the cloud.” When the Israelites took their eyes off of their present hunger long enough to look forward, they saw with clarity the glory of God. So look forward to the promised freedom. Look forward to the adventure that God has planned for you.
In “Painting Pictures of Egypt,” Sara Groves reminds us that in seeking the promise of freedom, we must have the will and trust to press forward on the journey. She reminds us that
The places that used to fit [us] cannot hold the things [we]’ve learned
And those roads were closed of to [us] while [our] back was turned
Often times it seems easier to return to the very thing that has been destroying us. It was comfortable there. It was what we knew. The road ahead looks difficult, is unknown, and poses threats to “the way things have always been.” But God has promised us something that is far greater. Brothers and sisters, take hold of the hand that is pulling you from your slavery to freedom.
P.S. Here’s the song cited in the sermon, for your enjoyment and edification.