Grumbling in the Wilderness

A Sermon preached by the
Rev. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, September 27, 2017

Text: Exodus 16:2-15

As we all know, much of California is desert and semi-arid land that has been reclaimed through irrigation. The family farms and agribusinesses of the Central Valley are always vulnerable to the paucity of rainfall, the depth of the Sierra snowpack, and Colorado River water. Much of the nation’s produce is dependent on a complex water management system that makes the desert bloom.

Just east of San Diego is Anza Borrego State Park. Anza Borrego’s terrain is desert sand. Perhaps it was ocean floor at one time, but now the land is hot and dry. In the five years we lived on southern California, when I was a child, our family visited it once or maybe twice. My father would have happily taken us again, but it only took one trip for my mother to know that it was not a place she wanted to visit. She never handled heat well and she saw nothing in the vast expanse of sand and rock that was attractive to her. She had a major gripe against this little section of God’s universe, so we did not spend much time there.

This incident sticks in my mind because of what was lost through my mother’s grumbling about the desert. I think about what we missed by not spending more time there. Friends would come home from spring visits to the desert and tell us about the amazing wildflowers that forced their way up from the arid desert floor, providing unparalleled color spots. They would return with tales of the wild life they encountered. They shared magical photographs of the play of sun and cloud on rocks and sand. My mother just couldn’t see it, and, truth be told, I myself would choose the beach or a getaway by a mountain stream over the desert most of the time.

My family’s adventures in the desert pale mightily in comparison to the folk in this morning’s text. Theirs was a far more challenging encounter with the desert. They had fled into the desert in a dramatic escape from Egyptian slavery with high hopes of returning to that land promised them by God – a land of abundance, security, and peace, a land of freedom and possibility, a land flowing with milk and honey. They had followed their leader Moses into the wilderness – some expectantly, some hesitantly, some reluctantly. The circumstances of their leaving involved miraculous plagues that had disrupted life in Egypt and softened Pharaoh’s heart in order to obtain their release. They had seen the waters of the Red Sea part so that they could walk over on dry land and then they watched the sea close ranks over the army of Egypt. God and Moses had tried to reassure them that the journey would bring them home.

In the beginning, they were swept along by the power and majesty of God’s movement in their midst. The fiery pillar led them by day and the luminescent cloud by night. There was little time for reflection or complaint. They were caught up in the wonder of their exodus, the joy of their liberation, the promise of their future. No time really to consider the consequences of their escape or to contemplate the journey that lay ahead. They were free from slavery; they were headed home.

But the Exodus story tells a tale of very human folk. It didn’t take long before the people started to grumble and complain. “Who’s in charge here? Where are we going? How will this flock ever be fed and watered, wandering out here in the desert?” The muttering and grumbling was small at first, mostly the usual complainers – those who seemed to see the grim side of every situation; those who had trouble believing that God would invest leadership of the whole nation in a fool like Moses. What qualified him to lead anyway? Hadn’t he been raised in the Pharaoh’s court? Could they trust him? And then there was his disappearance after the murder of the overseer. Where had he been all those lost years and what had he been up to? Some say he worked as a shepherd. Hardly qualifications to lead the people. Really, should they believe that God had a hand in any of this?

Of course, Moses had had the courage to confront Pharaoh; then there were those plagues and the parting of the sea. But that was history! They had barely begun to journey on when the question began to ripple through the assembly, “What has he done for us lately?” Three days journey into the wilderness and the grumbling continued to grow. They couldn’t find any water and they were getting thirsty. They finally found an oasis only to discover that the water was bitter. “And the people complained against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” It all lay heavy on Moses’ shoulders. “He cried out to [God]; and [God] showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.” Not only did God take care of their thirst, She said, “If you will listen carefully to the voice of [God], and do what is right in [her] sight, and give heed to [her] commandments and keep all [her] statutes, I will not bring on you any of the diseases that I brought on the Egyptians; for I am [God] who heals you” (Exodus 15: 22-26). Overall, it seemed like a pretty good deal. If they behaved, God would take care of them. And sure enough, their next stop was the oasis at Elim where there were “twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees; and they camped there by the water” (Exodus 15: 27b).

This brings us to this morning’s text. “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.” Poor Moses is caught up in the people’s dissatisfaction. Perhaps his own faith has begun to slip. This journey has been long, hot, and arduous. This is clearly no easy people to lead. The job is clearly too big for one man, even with his brother’s help. The people don’t seem to want to take responsibility for their share of the covenant with God. They want to be taken care of – now! They seem to have no active memory of what it felt like to be a slave. They have lost their dream of the Promised Land. The past and the future fade in the sharp desire of the moment. Of course, food and water are essential to life, but has God not provided for them over and over and over again? Oh, people of little faith!

“If only we had died by the hand of the HOLY ONE in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” It is hard to keep hope alive when basic needs are threatened, but these folk seem so shortsighted, given their experience with God to date. What indeed can be done with such a people?


Moses doesn’t even have to plead on their behalf. God has heard their grumbling and says to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you…” and we get the wondrous story of manna in the wilderness, the magical bread that covers the desert floor like morning dew, “the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.” It wasn’t exactly what they expected, but it was sufficient for the needs of all the people.

As with the children of Israel, the crucial question we must ask ourselves over and over as we journey is, is God among us or not? If not, why not? Have we taken a wrong turn? Have we been too busy grumbling to hear the still small voice? How is it that we miss God who is ever present, regardless of our circumstances, and is ever ready to care for us?

In the same way that I probably overstated my mother’s objections to the desert, I may be overstating the Israelites’ grumbling about the wilderness. Theirs was a monumental and difficult journey. The text goes on to tell us that they spent 40 years wandering in this wilderness before they got home. That’s a long road to freedom. It doesn’t say if they went grumbling all the way. We can only imagine.

Still, is there good news in this ancient text for us as we journey? I am sure at moments it seems like we are wandering in a wilderness. Where are we going? Is God with us? Are we with God? What are we being asked to leave behind – some of which we treasure, some of which we have already begun to forget the pain it caused us? What are we journeying toward? Is there a “land of milk and honey” at the end of our journey?

What is needed here may be to discover new ways of being church, of journeying together, ways in which we trust and care for one another, in which we are the people of God, a royal priesthood, bearing witness again and again to how God has been good to us, cared for us, brought us out of bondage, and given us real hope for a redeemed future. Times have changed significantly; it makes me glad to see that this band of wilderness wanderers, gathered here this morning, are not so prone to grumbling, nor do you look to me or any other leader to take on your responsibilities. In fact, leadership these days may be a whole lot less about a powerful patriarch like Abraham or Moses or David and much more about communities of solidarity that have learned to live together and grow together and work together and witness together. Leadership for such a band may look highly unconventional, be grounded in relationships, and involve people who walk with you, side by side, rather than out in front.

Maybe that was a source of the grumbling going on in the wilderness. The Israelites didn’t have their priorities right. They put too much on Moses and failed to understand that this was THEIR journey. It was their bondage that was broken, their future that was promised, their opportunity to step out in the face of danger and daunting challenges, to find their way home. And God would be with them, every step of the way.

May we claim the journeys we are on as our own – even when they’re hard. May we continue to step up and step out, moving with God, who may not always seem so obviously present, but surely is. May we be willing to wait for a while when we need to, pausing to center ourselves and find where God is actively present in our lives and along our pathway, especially when we feel lonely or lost, confused or disconnected. May we let go of any grumbling we feel rise inside us and open ourselves to the beauty of the journey and even the beauty of the desert. May we care for one another, for our neighbors, for strangers and even those we label enemy. Indeed, may we care for all of God’s creation. And may our sense of God’s presence grow as we travel. May it sustain us and heal us, empower us and bring us to all the places we need to be – bitter and sweet, wet and dry, challenging and, in the end, flowing with milk and honey. Amen.


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