For the fall quarter, we are using the Cokesbury Adult Bible Study for Fall 2019. It follows the Standard Lesson Quarterly, based on the International Sunday School Lessons (ISSL)/Uniform Series.
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Faithful During Uncertainty
Fall Quarter: Responding to God’s Grace
Sunday school lesson for the week of September 15, 2019
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Lesson Scripture: Exodus 16
Key Verse: Exodus 16: 15
“When the Israelites saw it they said to each other, ‘What is this?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread the Lord has given you to eat.’”
This lesson helps us to remember the many experiences of God’s redemptive love and care and to realize if we fail to recall and embrace these experiences we can easily become a people of complaining doubt.
After their escape from Egypt and their experience of lacking water, the oasis of Elim proved a welcomed sight. Consisting of 12 wells of water and 70 palm trees, it was an inviting place to rest. However, the life of faith is a journey and the Israelites are now leaving Elim and moving into the Desert of Sin.
Historical and theological reflection introducing the narrative
Israel lived in bondage for 400 years. One would think the Israelites too overjoyed and rich in faith after God led them through the Red Sea into freedom. However, their journey was quickly becoming as much a journey of doubt and mistrust as it was of believing and faith. In this narrative, the Israelites are only removed from the Exodus about two and a half months. The escape through the sea should be fresh on their minds. However, they quickly became a nation of complainers. As the water supply dwindled and the water found at Marah proved undrinkable, they complained to Moses. God has proved faithful to the people of covenant, but they are proving themselves to be unfaithful. This story serves as a mirror into which we can see ourselves in our walk of faith with the Lord. God has expressed and revealed love and care for us all of our lives. There have been some occasions when the Lord’s love was more easily recognized. On other occasions our eyes were opened to God’s care later as we looked back in retrospect. Whether we immediately acknowledge the care and love of God or we recognize it later, we are tempted to quickly forget and complain. Keeping a personal journal of faith is a helpful tool in our spiritual formation. One of the benefits of a journal is that it consists of the many experiences of God’s redemption. It is helpful to record what God has done that we might never forget that we are the benefactors of grace. To forget is to open the door to a grumbling, complaining spirit.
Theological and experiential reflection upon Exodus 16
Only two and a half months have transpired since the most redemptive moment in Israelite history has occurred. The people should still be able to remember the sounds of pursuing chariots and the fearful cries of the Israelites. They should be able to remember Moses raising his rod as the waters were parted by God. They should be able to remember their first steps into freedom as the waters closed over the Egyptians. How can they so quickly forget? Yet, they grumbled at Marah concerning the lack of drinking water. Now the stage is set for them to trust God for their food, or once again neglect to remember the Exodus and complain. The whole company complains to and against Moses and Aaron. Perhaps they are afraid to complain to God since in their minds God might become angry at them. Therefore, as is often the case, they direct their anger towards God’s servants. These are the same two servants who were remarkably instrumental in the Exodus. God has used them mightily. Now they are the lightning rod for the fear and anger of the Israelites.
In the first lesson of the fall, the story of Lot in Sodom, we realized that fear leads to irrational thinking. It also can lead to impulsive thinking and behavior. The Israelites are afraid of starving and their first inclination is not to remember God’s past love and trust, but instead they immediately cast blame towards the most convenient and safest individuals. After all, what can Moses and Aaron do to them? They could say to the two, “You led us from Egypt out here! Therefore, it’s your fault!” Yes, they were used by God to lead Israel out of 400 years of bondage into freedom. However, the people have quickly ignored this moving truth and scapegoated the two brothers. Notice, it isn’t just one or two people complaining. The text clearly reveals it was the “whole company.” This is a lack of faith on the part of the entire community.
How easily do we believe it is to forget the expressions of God’s grace? What is the nature of those moments when such forgetting occurs? How can we avoid neglecting the loving acts of God? Why do we tend to blame those in leadership in times when our faith is tested? Why is blame one of our initial responses in facing frightening situations?
In their fear, the Israelites begin to reframe their past. The bondage against which they cried to God now looks better. They choose to remember that they did have food, and now they conclude they will probably starve. They long for yesterday, a recreated, reimagined yesterday. One of the reasons we often long for the past is because we have already survived it. Everything looks better once we stand on the other side of the crisis. The Israelites lived and felt far differently in the years preceding the Exodus. In great distress they had called and cried to God for deliverance. Now they are a resentful people who believe yesterday was far better than their present and imagined future.
Have you heard others speak as though they long for yesterday? Have we longed for the past instead of facing the present? What are the consequences of attempting to live in the past instead of facing the uncertain future?
God speaks a word of grace. The Lord will feed them with manna. Israel does not deserve or merit any favor from God. In spite of their mighty deliverance by the Lord’s hand, for the second time, they have chosen to complain. Every redemptive act by God is an act of grace in scripture. If God reacted to their complaining and lack of faith they would suffer. However, the goodness and love of God supersedes Israel’s doubt and grumbling. Note, God promises bread for one day at a time. Later in the story of Elijah we read of his flight and stay at the brook called Cherith. God fed Elijah in the midst of a long famine through ravens bringing him bread. However, they brought only enough for one day. Each day Elijah had to trust the ravens would come. Such trust would build character and faith in Elijah, later allowing him to promise a starving widow and her son that the barrel of meal would not empty. There are crises in life that require we trust God one moment at a time. If we gaze too far ahead we can experience fear that strength will not be there for us. We can also become blind to what God is doing in the present. Thirdly, we will miss an opportunity to grow in faith and character.
Do we understand God’s presence and action in our life as a response to our goodness and piety, or as an act of loving grace? What are the consequences of believing our goodness leads to God’s goodness? How easily do we look toward to the future in times of difficulty in contrast to seeking God in the moment? What consequences have we recognized in our failure to see God’s grace at work in the “now?”
Though the Mosaic Law has not yet been given, we read here of the already established Sabbath. Genesis 1 records God created for six days and rested on the seventh, which was established as the Sabbath. The people are to gather a double portion of manna on the sixth day so they can rest and worship on the seventh. Many emphasize “not working” on the Sabbath. However, the emphasis is not just on not working; it is on not working in order to appreciate and be thankful. I visited the Wailing Wall in Israel an hour before the Sabbath began. It was a sacred moment as the sun was sinking low and the prayers at the wall were raised to God. A large crowd was waiting for the rabbinical students to emerge from a room near the wall dancing in joy. Sabbath is a joyful, thankful time. One is to reflect upon what God has done for his people and the world. God is worshiped as the Lord of all goodness and mercy. Thus, Israel is to collect manna for six days, but rest and be thankful on the seventh.
In what ways do the people of God observe the Sabbath? How do we personally observe this holy day? What is the emphasis on our keeping of the Sabbath?
Moses proclaims to grumbling Israel that another of God’s redemptive acts is coming. The text does not inform us what will happen in the evening that will remind them it was the Lord who brought them out of Egypt. Perhaps the text is alluding to the quail that will come at twilight. We will simply accept the narrative as is and be mindful of the truth undergirding the passage: God answers the prayers of grumbling Israel and feeds them with bread from heaven! The glory of the Lord would be witnessed in the gift of the manna.
The word glory refers to the “character and nature of God.” God’s loving, merciful character would be witnessed in the bread that came each day. The next morning, they would not just see bread on the ground, they would spiritually see the glory of the Lord in their midst. The pure in heart, according to Jesus, could see God in their midst. Those who could see “beneath the manna,” who could recognize that though they are fed, “it is God who is doing the feeding,” are those who see the glory of God. God not only fed them through grace, he allowed a people who quickly overlooked the spiritual in life to see the divine glory. Again, the very fact that God would reveal to us the divine nature is a remarkable, awe-inspiring gift of grace. Moses offers a word of chastisement. Since God had heard their grumbling and responds with goodness, “Who are we that you should grumble against us?”
What is the nature of our perception on any given day? Do we see that which God has created without seeing the divine nature in and through that creation? Are we regularly overwhelmed in response to God’s revelation of the divine heart in Christ? What are the gifts in our life that can reveal God’s love and mercy? Do we see the divine nature regularly? If not, why not?
The people had grumbled that they ate bread and meat in Egypt. Now God will answer their prayer fully and send them quail for meat. However, later in the narrative they will realize that on occasion we do not consider the consequences related to what we ask. The bread came each day, but what would they do with the leftover quail?
Aaron speaks to the people on behalf of Moses. The community is called together and reminded that God has indeed heard their grumbling. It is stunning truth that the creator of the cosmos hears the cries of the suffering. As the perfect revelation of God’s nature, Jesus traveled to the tomb of his dear friend Lazarus and wept with Mary and Martha. The language of the narrative reveals that Jesus sobbed deeply. Even knowing Lazarus was to be resurrected, he felt the deep pain and sorrow of Mary and Martha. He was deeply touched. John’s Gospel was written to share the gospel especially with the Greeks. However, on the surface he made a mistake in recording Jesus wept, for the Greeks believed gods would not feel the pain of the human. However, John is revealing a startling truth that needs to be heard and remembered: God is touched by our suffering! God understood the fear in the cries of Israel and responded with manna and quail. As Aaron spoke, the glory of the Lord appeared in a cloud. The fear of the Israelites and their corresponding grumbling revealed they had assumed God has abandoned them. However, once again God responds to their mistrust with a revelation of his merciful nature. This revelation will occur in the manna, now in a cloud, and later in the quail. That evening, following the appearance of the cloud, quail came and “covered the camp.” In the morning a layer of “dew” surrounded the encampment. The dew would evaporate in the morning sun and white flakes would cover the ground. These flakes were the manna.
When we consider our relationship with the Lord, do we envision a distant God who is too busy to hear our prayers? Do we seriously believe God not only hears our prayers, but feels the fear and pain of our hearts? How has God revealed that our creator identifies with our circumstances and chooses to feel our pain?
When the dew evaporated the people did not understand the remaining flakes as food. They had never witnessed such bread! God’s care does not always initially appear in a manner recognizable to us. Sometimes we have to wait for the “evaporation” before we see God’s new expression of love and mercy. It is not accidental that the resurrected Christ was unrecognizable. Had he appeared in the same manner as he lived prior to his death and resurrection we would have been tempted to say, “That is the way he always looks!” “He only comes to us this way!” Instead, the risen Lord appeared in a manner that reminds us God can come to us looking any way, in any manner, at any time, and anywhere.
My mother died at age 46. Her sudden death was painful. I longed for some expression that God was present with me, had not forgotten me in my grief. I did not see a vision, nor did the earth shake or sky open. I received so many cards and calls I struggled to remember everyone who responded. There was God! God had come in cards, letters, calls, hugs, faces, and numerous words of comfort. We must give the dew time to evaporate, then we will see the beautiful expression of that “bread from heaven.”
In what new and unexpected ways has God’s love appeared to us? Are we tempted to narrowly define the manner in which God works? If so, what are those narrow ways?
In life we move through one crisis into another, experiencing beautiful, meaningful life in the journey. Crises always present us with a sense of uncertainty. We know what happened yesterday, and how we survived, but we are unsure of today or tomorrow. Thus, we live by faith. Our faith is in God, who is rich in mercy and responds to our human struggle with grace. As we move from crisis to crisis it is our prayer to become stronger in faith and character, to become more like Jesus. I love a statement I read years ago: I have seen my yesterdays, and therefore, I am not afraid of today and tomorrow, for the same God is present in all. To that I say Amen.
Almighty God, remind us of your unchangeable loving nature. You are indeed the same yesterday, today, and forever. Teach us to look with our adversity and see your glory at work. Remind us we are never forsaken, and that our journey leads only upward and higher in the high calling of Christ. In Jesus name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.