This sermon was preached on Sunday 2nd August. The Old Testament reading was Exodus 16:2-15
Our prime minister, David Cameron, caused something of a stir this week, when he referred to the number of migrants attempting to make the journey from Calais to the UK as a ‘swarm’. This use of language, comparing this group of people to insects – whether meant that way or not – was de-humanising and antagonistic. It was also sad. Perhaps, in his role as prime minister of the UK, he can little afford to show empathy here – his focus in his job, after all, is the country he governs. The same is not true for the rest of us, however. We are called to be empathetic, to put ourselves in the place of the outsider.
As Christians especially, we are called to remember that we ourselves are migrants. The New Testament reminds us several times that we are in the world, but not of the world (John 15:18-19, John 17:16) – that we are strangers and exiles upon earth (Hebrews 11:13-16, 1 Peter 2:11), and that our true home and place of citizenship is heaven, and not our earthly dwellings (Philippians 3:20). If we are tempted to buy into the immigration ‘us versus them’ mentality fed to us by some politicians and the media, we would do well to remember that we are ‘them’. As Christians, this land is not our land – our land is not yet. We are pilgrims, passing through the wilderness, on our own exodus to the promised land.
As I’ve just hinted, this wasn’t a new idea that the writers of the New Testament came up with – it’s a concept that is rooted within the very beginnings of our faith – the very beginnings of the Jewish people and the emergence of their relationship with God.
The book of Exodus opens with Pharaoh, greatly concerned about the number of Israelites – the ‘swarm’, if you like, living in Egypt. The Egyptians, it is said, “came to dread” the Israelites as the migrant population grew, and, in their fear, enslaved them. We know the next part of the story, I am sure – that Moses is born, and following in the footsteps of his nomadic ancestor, Abraham, resumes the journey to find a place his people can call home. He leads God’s chosen people away from slavery and oppression toward the Promised Land – a journey that will take the people forty years to complete.
And that is where we find them in our Old Testament reading today. The Israelites, starting a relationship with their God, and their God starting a relationship with them. Their migrant journey a physical symbol of that relationship. The journey starts well, a few chapters earlier – the Israelites have taken bread, gold and silver and livestock with them, they have witnessed the miracles of the parting of the red sea, the pillars of cloud and fire to guide them, not to mention they are now a free people, journeying towards a land of milk and honey. There must have been a real celebratory atmosphere – the book of Exodus even records the party they had with singing, dancing… and tambourines.
Today, however, we meet them two and a half months into their migration, and the atmosphere is very different. Their food has run out – they did not envision they would be travelling this long (and still there are 39 years, 9 and a half months left to go). They are starving, and just about ready to turn their back on Moses – and on God – and return to slavery and oppression in Egypt. “It would have been better if we had died there”, they rage. They feel abandoned, lost, and sure they will die of starvation, never finding a home. In that atmosphere, you can be sure mutinous murmurings were stirring amongst the people. “You have done us wrong”, they tell Moses angrily, and, in turn, Moses tells God.
The text goes on:
Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, “Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.” ’
You can almost hear the intake of breath amongst the Israelites as they look and the glory of the Lord appears in the cloud. They do not know God yet – they are only a few months into their relationship with him. How will he react to them? Will God chastise them for their insubordination? Will he berate them for their lack of preparation? Will he kill them then and there, taking their claims of being better off dead literally?
God does none of those things. Instead, he says, “I have heard you. I am going to rain bread from heaven for you. At twilight, you shall eat meat, and in the morning, you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.”
God reacted to their complaint. We do not know whether God was waiting for them to ask for help, or whether he was going to rain bread down that evening anyway, or even whether their need for food had not occurred to him – we do know, however, that God says to them “I have heard you. This is what I will do.”
The Israelites had railed at Moses – and at God – and God responded to their need, not to the format of their complaint. In this forming of their relationship, God shows the nature of the relationship. It is about substance over form; meaning over ritual. Their prayer – for that is what the complaint was – was base, and crude, and formed in anger, but God responded.
We sometimes think that we cannot approach God as we don’t have the right words, or even appropriate words. We sometimes say to ourselves, “I’m not in the right frame of mind to pray – I’m too confused, too tired, too angry”. Here, in Exodus, the Israelites show us, in the forming of their relationship with God, that ‘right words’ are not important. God hears their angry complaint, their wishing they were dead, and he responds to their need. He was not concerned with them approaching him in the right way; he simply wanted to hear from them.
Is that not the case in any relationship? Isn’t a loud, angry, argument that leads to resolution better than mutual seething silence? I wonder what would have happened had the Israelites, instead of railing at Moses and God, sat in despairing, hungry, silence, ending their migration there – accepting their fate and waiting to die of starvation? If they had refused to talk to God, could he have talked to them? Would they have heard him?
And what about us now? If we only talk to those around us when we’re happy or peaceful, then what kind of relationship do we have with them? If we only pray when we’re happy, or peaceful, then where is God in our hurts, or anger and our complaints? Do we keep part of ourselves and our emotions away from God? The Israelites here in Exodus – and elsewhere throughout the Old Testament, in the Psalms especially – show us it’s ok to be angry toward God – that he is big enough to cope with that anger, and that he responds to us in our need in it, not just patting us on the head and saying ‘there, there’.
They told God they wished he’d killed them. He saw their need, and gave them bread. Their daily bread.
My challenge for you this week is this: be honest with God – pray in the way the Israelites prayed – if you are angry with him, tell him. If you feel he has let you down, tell him. If you are hungry for more, tell him. Don’t just save your best side for him, waiting for when you feel more acceptable to him. Complain, shout, rail, swear if you need to.
You don’t need special words, or the right time, or the right place.
Instead, you just need to try to join the migrating Israelites on their journey developing their real, truthful relationship with God.