Always Enough, Never Alone

by Rev. L. John Gable

Always Enough, Never Alone by Rev. L. John Gable
January 29, 2017

I want you to think for a moment about what you would do to prepare before going on a long trip.  I don’t mean a weekend jaunt or even a two week summer vacation, but a long trip with an extended stay.  What kinds of questions would you be asking?  What would you do to prepare?  What kinds of things would you take with you?  How would you travel?  Where would you stay?  What would you eat?  Add to your consideration the variables that you don’t really know where you’ll be going, what you’ll be doing or how long you’ll be gone.

Given that Shackleton and his crew didn’t know what to take on their first expedition to the Antarctic either, listen to the list of supplies those 19th century explorers took with them.  “Each sailing vessel carried an auxiliary steam engine and a twelve day supply of coal for the entire projected two or three year voyage.  Instead of additional coal…each ship made room for a 1,200 volume library, a hand-organ playing fifty tunes, china place settings for officers and men, cut-glass wine goblets, and sterling silver flatware…the expedition carried no special clothing for the Arctic, only the uniforms of Her Majesty’s navy.”

When God delivered the Children of Israel from their bondage of slavery in Egypt and sent them on their way to the Promised Land they surely didn’t know what to take with them either.  Their “exodus” was rather rapid, so we are told they took with them only the bare necessities: unleavened bread, as well as jewelry of silver and gold which the Egyptians literally gave them as ransom to get them out of town, the flocks and herds which belonged to them, the clothes on their backs and whatever else they could carry.  Of course they didn’t think they’d be gone very long.  Their plan was to exit Egypt and head ENE into the Promised Land of Canaan, at most a couple of weeks; but as we know, their journey turned out to be far longer…forty years in all.

Some have described the life of faith in this way, as a long journey, “a long obedience in the same direction”.  Some have even suggested that the journey is our home.  We are all pilgrims making our way through this world as we journey toward our heavenly home.

So that is where we pick up the story this morning in Exodus 16.  The Children of Israel are two and a half months out of Egypt and have been camped at an oasis, but now it is time to move on and immediately they begin to complain, first about the lack of food and then the lack of water; understandably so, they are in the desert wilderness where there is little of either.

The passage we read from Exodus highlights beautifully the theme we have been talking about during the past couple of weeks, a theme woven throughout all of Scripture: we cry out to God from our need, God hears our cries, and answers by sending a Deliverer, a Rescuer, a Savior, or in this case, a provision, to help us on our way.

When we have spoken about this recurring theme of deliverance recently we can almost make it sound like it is a one-time, isolated action, when in reality each of these seemingly isolated incidents is a demonstration of God’s continual, on-going care and provision.  Perhaps we can think of it in this way.  Promises of love and commitment and faithfulness are made by every bride and groom on their wedding day, but the promises they make are not for that day alone; they are commitments which are intended for the entirety of their life together.  Or when a child is born, the parents mark the time and date of the birth, but the act of delivery is merely the starting point of a lifetime of care giving, loving and nurture.  Even those who can mark the day of their coming to faith also recognize that that was simply the beginning point in a life-long journey of walking with God.  So, God’s mighty act of deliverance is not merely “transactional” – a one time, one and done event; it is “transformational”, it is an indicator of our on-going relationship with God and a demonstration of His promise of continued care and love and provision.

So the Children of Israel cry out and even go so far as to remember fondly “the good old days” when they were slaves in Egypt.  We too have a tendency toward selective memory and revisionist history particularly when our present circumstances get tough, don’t we?  But by this point God has already shown His willingness to walk alongside His people.  He has already opened a path for them through the Red Sea; led them by the pillar of cloud and fire; even kept them from taking the short route to Canaan which would have led them directly in to battle with the Philistines, a battle they surely would have lost.  So God has already demonstrated His commitment to be with them for the long haul whether they realized it or not; yet still they complain and cry out for food to eat and water to drink.  And, again and again we hear in this passage that God “hears their cry.”

To satisfy their desire for meat to eat, God sends quail.  Apparently flocks of birds are still known to migrate over the Sinai Peninsula, and land for rest and nourishment.  That seemingly natural occurrence became the means of divine provision.  When God promised that every morning they would find bread to eat, He did so in another most unusual, yet seemingly natural, way. That very first morning, and every morning thereafter for the next 40 years, the people awoke to find “a fine flaky substance on the surface of the desert, as fine as frost on the ground.”  Naturally they asked the question you and I would ask, “What is it?” which in Hebrew is “Man hu?”  Their question became their answer; it is manna.  Apparently in the Sinai Peninsula still today there are two small insects that feed on the tamarisk trees and produce a “honey dew-like” secretion that is high in carbohydrates and sugar.  It congeals in the morning when it is cool and there is dew on the ground, but it melts in the heat of the day.  This seemingly natural occurrence became God’s daily provision for His people as they traveled through the wilderness, a provision which continued until they entered the Promised Land four decades later.   Add to this the testimony in Deuteronomy that “their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell for these forty years” (8:4), we can see that God’s mighty act of deliverance is not a one-time event, but rather is a demonstration of His on-going daily care, protection and provision.

When the people collected their daily allotment of manna they were given very specific instructions as to how much they should take, one portion per person per day, except on the day before the Sabbath when they could take a double portion.  If they took more it would rot.  Why this specific instruction?  Because the purpose of the forty year sojourn in the desert was to teach them to trust in the promises of God; to trust and obey.  This is the purpose of our life of faith as well, but that becomes rather difficult when we think we can provide quite adequately for ourselves, doesn’t it?  Jesus taught us to pray, as we prayed today, “Give us this day our daily bread”, which seems almost pointless when most of us could live for days, weeks, perhaps even months off of the food we’ve got in our pantries; yet learning to trust and obey is still a lesson of faith we need to learn today, and it seems the obeying part is grounded in the trusting part.

The story is told that when the liberation army moved through Europe at the end of World War II, the Allied troops discovered a small orphanage filled with children, most of whom were emaciated and malnourished after months without adequate food.  Immediately, supplies were brought in, but over the ensuing weeks doctors and nurses became concerned that the children’s health was not improving as rapidly as they thought it should.  After some investigation it was discovered that the children were not eating the food they were being given.  They ate only bits of it and hid the rest for another, more desperate, time.  Despite the assurances from the medical staff that there was plenty of food, the children continued their self-defeating attempts at self- preservation.  At long last, one of the nurses came up with a brilliant solution.  Each night as the children were being put to bed, each was given a piece of bread, not to eat, only to hold, as an assurance that there would be food to eat the next day.  Almost immediately the children’s health began to improve.

The Children of Israel had to learn that God was faithful to His promises, not only to deliver them once, but to provide for them daily.  We need to learn that same lesson of faith.

But some will ask, is that necessarily so?  There are many people around the globe, even in this neighborhood, who are food insecure.  How is God providing for their daily bread?  A crisis of food can lead to a crisis of faith.  We can answer that question for our neighbors in Mapleton-Fall Creek in this way.  Every day of the week one of the churches in this neighborhood offers a hot meal to anyone who comes asking…every day.  We serve on Monday, Wednesday and Friday; North Methodist on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday; and Trinity Episcopal on Sunday.  Beyond that we support the Mid-North Food Pantry and the Fresh Stop farm to church program.  Now you may say, “Yes, I know, but that is what we are doing.  What is God doing?”  Don’t confuse the two.  We are the Church, the Body of Christ on earth, His hands and feet called to do His ministry.  Our human actions are as much a work of the Divine as were the natural occurrence of quail and manna in the desert.

I’ve always loved the response of the woman who said, “I would never ask God why He isn’t doing something to feed the poor because I’m afraid He would ask the same of me.”

If lack of food can lead to a crisis of faith, then it seems that the inverse is also true, that an adequate provision of food can also lead to an encouragement of faith.  If when we feed our neighbors, downstairs or the UMOJA children in Kenya or wherever we serve, we also let them know “why” we do so and “Who” has instructed us to do so, these can become faith sharing opportunities.

In our Vision Renewal statement we have identified three objectives: Greater Faith, Deeper Relationships, and a Stronger Community.  Let’s apply those to what we have spoken about today.  Our neighbors have a need, so they “cry out” for help.  We, as God’s people by God’s prompting, hear their cry and respond by providing food, support, provisions, both physical and spiritual.  Greater Faith is encouraged, both in us and in them, as we grow in our confidence that God can use us to help provide for the needs of our neighbors.  Deeper Relationships are formed as we actually get to know one another and really listen to each other, only to discover that their needs and desires are often really no different than our needs and desires.  A Stronger Community is developed as we share resources with one another; us with them and them with us.  Many of our neighbors’ needs are met in very practical, one-time “transactional” kinds of ways: a hot meal, a bus ticket, a little help with a utility bill, a listening ear.  We do all of those.  But there are other issues which affect not only individuals or families but whole groups of people and the entire community which then call us into ministries of reconciliation and justice and advocacy, as we become a voice for “transformational” change.  All of this then is part of God’s provision for His people as we partner with God in the work of His Kingdom-building.

Friends, God hears us when we cry, not only once, but day in and day out.  He is faithful not only to act for our deliverance but also to provide for our well-being, so open your eyes to His daily provision.  “Great is Thy faithfulness, Great is Thy faithfulness; Morning by morning, new mercies I see. All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.  Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”  Great is God’s faithfulness.  All we have needed His hand has provided…always enough, never alone, and that, friends, is very good news.