Scripture readings: Exodus 16:2-15 and Philippians 1:21-30
Imagine for a moment that you’re going to be taking a trip to a country you’ve never visited before. What are some of the things you might do to get ready? Will you need a passport? How do you know what to pack and what not to pack? What kind of currency will you need? If you’re anything like me you’ll read a few books on the country and learn about its customs, its weather, the exchange rate, where to stay and more. We plan, we prepare for journeys like this.
In a sense all of us are on journey to a country we’ve never seen before: God’s country. Someday we’ll all be going there. So it makes sense to learn about that country now and to plan and prepare for the trip.
In both of our readings for this morning we meet people whose journeys to the promised land have been written down… and reflecting on their thoughts and experiences may prove helpful to us on our journeys.
Recently we remembered as a nation the anniversary of 9/11. And I was remembering how, in the days immediately following 9/11, people flocked to the churches, to grieve, to support each other, to comfort each other. And for just a few weeks everything else toned down. The news toned down, the entertainment industry toned down. For a few weeks nobody cared what the Kardashians were doing. For a moment ultimate reality made itself known, and we saw clearly just how uncertain life can be, and how precarious even our nation’s security can be. Just for a moment. But within a few months the nation went back to denying reality and chasing after things that don’t satisfy. It’s amazing how quickly the mood of a nation can change.
We see a similar kind of incredibly fast national mood change in today’s reading from Exodus. Here we see the nation of Israel – who had been suffering under slavery in Egypt for nearly 400 years – free at last! They had crossed the Red Sea, they were safe on the other side, and the entire nation was dancing and singing and rejoicing in God and in being God’s people. And then we turn the page and in the very next chapter – not even two months later – the nation’s mood has changed completely! Suddenly all of Israel was complaining and griping and accusing Moses and Aaron of bringing them into the wilderness so they could die of starvation.
So God decides to test the people to see if they will listen to what he tells them. He sends them food: quail at night and bread in the morning, and they are to collect only what they need for one day: no more, no less. On the sixth day they are collect twice the amount because the seventh day is the Sabbath and no work is done on the Sabbath. This is a lesson in learning to trust God to provide – which is something the people will need to be able to do if they’re going to enter the Promised Land.
That night, in the camp of the nation of Israel, the quail arrive and the people have meat to eat. And in the morning, when the dew fades, it leaves behind some white flaky stuff the Israelites have never seen before. So they look at it and they say, in Hebrew, “man-na?” – which translated means, “what is it?” And that became its name. “Oh look! More what-is-it on the ground!”
The people trusted God and did what He told them to do. But if we keep reading past verse 15 we discover that not everybody listened to God. Some people collected more manna than they needed – tried to hoard the stuff – and it went bad and became filled with maggots and started to smell. Then other people decided to ignore the warning about the seventh day and didn’t bother to collect twice the amount on the sixth day – and they went out on the morning of the seventh day and discovered there’s no manna! At which point God gets angry and asks, (Exodus 16:28-30 ) “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions? The LORD has given you the Sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days… do not leave your place on the seventh day.” So finally all the people got the message and rested on the seventh day.
So looking at what the Israelites went through, here are a couple of things they learned on their journey to the Promised Land that might be helpful to us on ours:
- The first is to trust God to provide for us day by day. A little while ago I was talking to some friends, and I was worried about something, and at one point my friend spoke up and said, “you know, God gives you today’s manna today and tomorrow’s manna tomorrow.” Wise words! We need to trust God for daily needs one day at a time. That doesn’t mean we don’t plan ahead… but it does mean ‘don’t borrow trouble from the future’.
- The second is to observe the Sabbath. I could preach an entire sermon on the meaning and value of the Sabbath but for now let me say this. The Sabbath is not meant to be a burden or a bunch of rules to follow. It’s meant to be a foretaste of the Promised Land. It’s a time of rest, when our work is done. It’s time spent with God and family and the people we love. And isn’t that what we think of when we think of heaven – work done, surrounded by those we love? The Sabbath is a day when we say to the world “you will not demand that we be available 24/7”; when it’s appropriate to turn off the cell phone and turn off TV and share a meal and conversation with friends.
So these wilderness experiences were designed to prepare the people of Israel for the Promised Land they were about to inherit. Which is also Paul’s theme in our reading from Philippians.
In Philippians, Paul is writing from prison to the believers who met at a home church in Philippi, a city in what is now Greece. Paul is writing to bring them up to date on his circumstances, to encourage the people, and to encourage unity among believers. Today’s passage picks up where Paul has just told the Philippians that he is not sure yet what his fate will be. He is hoping to be released from prison and come to visit them; but if not he is rejoicing that many of his guards are coming to faith in Christ; and whatever happens, “to live is Christ and to die is gain”. Paul does not have a death wish when he says this; just the opposite: he speaks from a heart full of hope. He’s just having a hard time deciding which is better. Here’s how Paul sees his options
- If he lives – While he stays on earth Paul has work to do that will bear fruit for God’s kingdom. He will come to visit the Philippians and he is in a position to help meet their needs, to teach, and to share a joyful faith… a faith that has the flavor of anticipation: of knowing what’s coming but just not quite seeing it yet.
- If he is convicted and dies – the next life is even better, and it includes meeting Jesus face to face… the fulfillment of faith. Anticipation satisfied.
Having reviewed his possible fates, Paul says it is better to depart but he senses God is calling him to stay for a while. And whatever happens he asks just one thing of the Philippians. He says, (v. 27) “Lead your lives worthy of the gospel of Christ… standing fast in the Spirit as one soul, striving for the faith of the Gospel, and not being intimidated by opposition.”
That’s actually more than one thing; Paul has a gift for putting a a great deal in one sentence! Pulling it apart, there are actually four things that Paul is asking:
- ‘Lead lives worthy of the gospel’ – the Greek word for lives here is politeusthe… it’s the word we get our word politics Paul is talking about public lives, that is, our lives as citizens. The Philippians (and we also) are citizens of God’s kingdom. Therefore their lives (and ours) need to reflect that citizenship. And the Gospel can be understood as the equivalent of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
This is similar to what Paul says in II Cor 5:20 – “we are ambassadors for Christ”. As citizens of heaven, the way we live represents God’s kingdom to those who do not yet believe. Therefore it is incumbent upon us to live as citizens of God’s country, subjects of our King.
- ‘Standing fast in the Spirit’ – it’s not in our own power that we stand. It is not in our own power that we live as citizens of heaven, but in God’s power, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
- ‘As one soul striving for the faith of the Gospel’. This could also be translated ‘being of one heart’ or ‘being of one mind’. Unity in the faith of the Gospel is absolutely essential. It is how opposition is to be confronted. Does this mean all Christians must always agree about everything? No. What it means is our number one priority as a church is proclaiming the good news of the coming of God’s kingdom and Jesus as its king, and we are united in that. All other things are secondary to that primary cause. In the words of the theologian Charles Simeon, speaking of the Gospel he said, “All [people] should have one object, and unite in their efforts to accomplish it… Christians should see the smallest symptom of disunion as they would see the beginnings of a fire in the house where they live…”
- Paul says in v 29-30 that some members of the church are called to suffer for Jesus. Paul is one of them. For those called to suffer for the faith, this is a gift and an honor. Paul is not saying that people should want to suffer or should go out of their way to be persecuted. But think of it in terms of our military veterans. We honor those who serve; but isn’t it true that we give the greater honor to those who are wounded while serving? Those who love their country enough to sacrifice… literally… a part of themselves? Or even their whole selves? This is Paul’s meaning. We honor those who suffer for the faith.
I’ve often thought the church should have a holiday like Memorial Day when we remember the men and women who have suffered and in some cases given all they had for the sake of the Gospel.
So to sum up then, for our journey, six things for our consideration as we head towards the Promised Land:
- Manna is given for each day. We get today’s manna today and tomorrow’s manna tomorrow. Trust God to provide.
- Take days off to rest and enjoy the company of our loved ones. The Sabbath is worth observing.
- We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and we need to live lives that reflect our citizenship.
- The unity of believers in the Gospel is one of the greatest gifts we can give the world – and each other.
- Remember and honor those who have sacrificed and suffered for the faith.
- We stand not in our own strength but in God’s.
Lord, this life you’ve given us is a good life. You have created a beautiful world for us to live in and you have given us a life-journey that is never boring. But it scares us sometimes to think about the end of it. Calm our fears, O Lord. In the hour of our need, provide for us caring friends and gentle hands and a sure knowledge of your presence. Thank you that you provide all we need, even more than we know to ask, and you are with us every moment of our lives, in this world and the next. AMEN.
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 9/21/14