|Union University Church|
By Reverend Laurie DeMott
September 18, 2011
wasn’t much to look at but after being scared out of their wits that
they were going to be murdered by Pharaoh’s army, almost dying of
thirst at Marah, and then trudging for days upon days through a hot, remote,
and rugged wilderness, that little spot of green at Elim was a balm to their
weary souls. The Hebrews were so excited to see trees that someone counted
them – “70!”, they proclaimed with enthusiasm. “Look
at that, 70 palm trees!” I counted the trees at the edge of my lawn
and got to 70 before I had even made it ¾ of the way around the yard,
and that was just the trees bordering the grass. There must be 5 times that
many trees in just ¼ acre of land most anywhere in Allegany County.
But this wasn’t Allegany County – it was the Sinai Peninsula where the land rolls on for miles in a palette of burnt brown and iron red. The Sinai Peninsula looks like a triangle that long ago in some paleolithic cataclysm was ripped away from Africa on its western side and from Asia on the east to remain hanging on by a seam along the north. There the peninsula merges with the Syrian Desert in a boundary that no one has even bothered to plot accurately since who will argue over the ownership of sand? Moses was no more interested in the desert than we are today so he led the Hebrews southward instead, into the arid plains and mountains where the days are just as dry and just as hot as the desert but at least no sand gets in your food, when you are lucky enough to find food. Pictures of the Sinai Peninsula show long rocky valleys squeezed between sandstone mountains with such little vegetation that you can understand why it was important that God left the burning bush unconsumed. There just aren’t that many bushes in Sinai to go around wasting one on a phone call to Moses. Some species have managed to adapt to the rigorous climate but their beauty is only skin deep. The Sodom Apple tree, for example, produces lovely purple and white flowers but its sap is highly toxic especially if you get it in your eyes. Give a bouquet to your wife and you will literally ensure that “love is blind.” Another common plant, the Sakaraan, bursts into purple flowers after a rare rainfall but it is likewise poisonous... unless you are goat, in which case eating it will only make you intoxicated which may have at least provided a little entertainment for the Hebrew children on their long journey. The Hebrews must have certainly felt as if they had entered an alien and dangerous land and it is no wonder that the sight of that small cluster of familiar palm trees as they approached Elim was worth rejoicing over.
“70!” they proclaimed with joy. “70 gorgeous wonderful delightful palm trees! Drive in those tent pegs nice and solid, boys, because it’s going to be a long time before we want to leave this spectacular place!”
It wasn’t really that spectacular, Moses tried to point out. It’s just that they hadn’t seen green for so long and after all they’d been through, their standards were admittedly really quite low.
“This isn’t the end of the journey,” he insisted. “God has even better things in store for you than seventy twiggy palm trees and a stale pool of water.”
But the Hebrews couldn’t imagine anything better at that moment. There were tired; they were scared; and after their years of slavery and a harrowing escape over the Red Sea, the Hebrews couldn’t imagine anything better than 70 palm trees. It was something familiar in a very unfamiliar world and there were okay with expecting nothing more than that.
Think of all of the things we settle for because we really don’t expect much better or just because its familiar, or because we can’t even imagine anything different.
Brian Childs, a pastoral counselor, says, “I have found that many of my counselees resist change, almost at all costs, and thereby remain in their depression, or in their troubled relationships, or in their addiction simply because it is familiar and change brings newness and hence the unfamiliar. The paradox is further mystifying in that so many of these counselees admit that ...they don’t want to live in pain, but at the same time they admit that they have made friends with their misery, almost as if to say "it may be misery but at least it is my misery." 1
“Yeah, Moses? Maybe seventy palm trees isn’t much but at least they are palm trees,” the people said. “At least their sap won’t make me go blind or make my goats high. You keep saying that a better life lies up ahead but right now it’s all too strange and frightening and we’ve decided to just stay put with what we know.” You’d think that the miracle of the ten plagues would have convinced them that God knew what God was up to, and if that hadn’t done it, the escape over the Red Sea should have been a persuasive demonstration of God’s creativity, but we human beings are slow to trust and reluctant to give up control, even when it would keep us hunkered down at an isolated tiny oasis instead of moving us closer to the Promised Land. Better my way than God’s way, we say, because at least I’ll be calling the shots. It may be misery, but at least it’s my misery.
Nevertheless, with a lot of urging and pep talks, Moses somehow got the people going again. They drank their fill, and loaded up their water bags, and headed back into the wilderness looking over their shoulders at the disappearing spot of green like Lot’s wife.
And at night the Hebrews dreamed of scrawny palm trees while Moses dreamed of milk and honey. And during the day, while Moses strode on before them, their feet dragged and they gnawed at their fear and they looked back toward Egypt more often than they looked forward toward the mountain of God, until finally one hot day they stopped in their tracks and proclaimed in no uncertain terms their mistrust of Moses and God and this whole freedom march to who knows where.
“Better that we had died in Egypt with full stomachs than out here in this god-forsaken wilderness with nothing to eat!” they shouted. And they sat down in the dust and refused to go a step farther.
But the wilderness wasn’t God-forsaken at all, and if the Hebrews needed any indication that God really was with them, they should have gotten it here when God pulled Moses aside immediately to talk over the situation. God had been right there at their elbows listening to their grumbling empty stomachs and watching their desperate eyes as they scanned the horizon for life and before Moses even had time to get down on his knees to pray, God was already coming up with a way to feed the people. Now granted, God’s plan was unlike anything they had expected. Probably they were praying for God to give Moses a map to another tiny oasis boasting 70 palm trees, maybe even 80 this time. Or maybe they were hoping God would nudge a caravan of Bedouin traders into their path, carrying a good supply of couscous or better yet, a ride back to Egypt. Not a single one of the Hebrews imagined manna. Even after Moses explained God’s plan to them and even on that first morning when they saw the fine white powder lying all over the ground, they still didn’t know what they were seeing and they asked Moses what the heck the stuff was and he hemmed and hawed because he didn’t really know either and he finally said, “It’s manna,” which in Hebrew literally means, “What is it?” This manna that was going to keep them alive for 40 years didn’t even have a name – it was God’s “what-chya-ma-call-it”. It was a food that could come only from a divine imagination.
No wonder the Hebrews had been reluctant to leave the palm trees of Elim because the future blessing that God had in mind for them was something that they had no words for, something they had never seen, never experienced, and could not even imagine. And that’s always the way with God. That’s always the way with God. Who could have imagined that a mighty Pharaoh could be brought down by a stuttering shepherd? If you had decided to free the slaves from Egypt, you probably would have chosen to do it with a steel jawed general flanked by thirty battalions of soldiers carrying grenade launchers. Only a divine imagination could come up with Moses and a plague of frogs. And only God would have thought it easier to part a sea than to find a back road out of Egypt. Only God could imagine that a boy with a slingshot could kill a giant or a few priests blowing a few trumpets could break down the walls of Jericho. And who among us could ever, could ever have imagined the resurrection?
The divine imagination is so beyond our comprehension that we don’t even have language for it. It is no wonder that we hesitate to put our trust in it. We face situations that feel impossible and we hear the promise that God can save us and even bring us to a new place of goodness and blessing, but we can’t conceive of what that new place might look like or how the road God calls us to is going to get us there, and so we instead remain hunkered down in our misery, afraid to move. But just because you can’t imagine a better tomorrow doesn’t mean that God can’t imagine it. Faith is the willingness to admit that God can see farther than you can. Faith is the willingness to say that God is more creative than you are. Faith is the ability to admit that God’s solutions to your problems and the blessings that await you in your future may be so different from anything you can conceive that even if you were to get a glimpse of it, the most you could say is “What is it?”
“Manna,” Moses said.
Tony Snow, White House Press Secretary under George Bush, died of colon cancer in 2008, but before he died, he reflected on the blessings he felt he had received even in the midst of fighting cancer.
“The moment you enter the Valley of the Shadow of Death, things change. You discover that Christianity is not something doughy, passive, pious, and soft. Faith … draws you into a world shorn of fearful caution. The life of belief teems with thrills, boldness, danger, shocks, reversals, triumphs, and epiphanies. Think of Paul, traipsing though the known world and contemplating trips to what must have seemed the antipodes (Spain), shaking the dust from his sandals, worrying not about the morrow, but only about the moment.
“There’s nothing wilder,” Snow concludes, “than a life of humble virtue – for it is through selflessness and service that God wrings from our bodies and spirits the most we ever could give, the most we ever could offer, and the most we ever could do.”
In the wilderness, the Hebrews had to learn that faith is not just following – faith is following when you have no idea where the road is going to lead. Faith is trusting that if you put your life in the hands of God, God will get you to the place you most need to be even if it is by a route you never could have imagined.
The Hebrews looked at the flaky white stuff in their hands and finally took it home and ate it. For forty years they ate it. When they woke in the morning and their bodies ached from the walking and the rigors of the journey, they ate manna. When their babies were born and their young people married, they ate manna. When the sun burned their eyes and the heat sapped their strength, they ate manna. When they grieved at the bedside of their loved ones dying, they ate manna. When they were everything God had hoped them to be, they ate manna. When they grumbled and bickered and doubted and were the least that God had hoped them to be, they ate manna. Every day of that long journey, they ate manna, never really knowing what it was but finally coming to believe at least that it was the one thing that would keep them alive and bring the people at last to the blessing of the Promised Land.
When you are walking in the wilderness, may you find the manna that God provides and trust that God will get you to the place you most need to be even if it by a means that you can not even begin to imagine. God only knows how you will get there, but let the trust that God does know be good enough to pick yourself up and follow.
1. Brian Childs, www.goodpreacher.com