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The Land BetweenFinding God in Difficult Transitions
By Jeff Manion
ZondervanCopyright © 2010 Jeff Manion
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSICK OF THIS
A shepherd named Moses is tending his sheep when he turns aside to see a bush that is ablaze yet not consumed with fire. Moses is an old man now. A Jew raised in the house of Pharaoh, Moses had fled to the backside of the desert after murdering an Egyptian who was oppressing one of his people. That was forty years ago. Since then he has been tending the flocks of his father-in-law in this desert. He knows the terrain, perhaps better than he wishes. But here he is faced with the most unusual sight - a bush burning but not consumed. He turns to look then covers his face as he hears God saying in effect, "I am Abraham's God. I am Isaac's God. I am Jacob's God. I chose them and called them and provided for them. Now I have chosen, called, and will provide for you" (see Exodus 3).
God reveals his plans to Moses and recruits him to deliver the children of promise from the land where for generations they have been enslaved. God says, "I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 3:8).
After generations of slavery in Egypt, the sons and daughters of Abraham will make their way toward Canaan, the land promised to their ancestors. They will be led out of Egypt by Moses, who reluctantly accepts his leadership charge, and God has said, "I will bring them out of Egypt and into a good and spacious land." But while "out of" the land of slavery and "into" the Land of Promise sounds like a short trip, nothing is mentioned about the amount of time the people will spend in the desert, the wilderness - the Land Between.
A Necessary Middle Space
A barren wilderness separates Egypt from Canaan, and here the Israelites will spend considerable time before moving to their new home. The desert is where they will receive the Ten Commandments - the core of their covenant with God. It is also where a portable worship tent, the tabernacle, will be built. The desert is not intended to be their final destination but rather a necessary middle space where they will be formed as a people and established in their connection to God.
But a desert, of course, is a hard place. Though Egypt was the land of slavery, suffering, and agony, it was also brimming with lush vegetation. The rich waters of the Nile caused Egypt to flourish agriculturally. Canaan, too, the people's future home, was notable for its prosperity; it was, as God described it, "the land flowing with milk and honey." But as the Israelites move from the lush, fertile home of their past to the lush, fertile home of their future, they pass through the wilderness. They are stuck in the middle, the desert, the undesired space between more desirable spaces. This middle space, the Land Between, will serve as a metaphor for the undesired transitions we, too, experience in life.
For the Israelites, their experience in the wasteland was not meant to be a waste. The Land Between was to be pivotal in their formation as a people - it was where they were to be transformed from the people of slavery into the people of God. And they needed transformation. Let us consider that as they exit Egypt, the Israelites are more fully acclimated to the world of Egyptian idolatry than they are formed by the character and presence of the God of Abraham. As we watch them exit Egypt and enter the desert, we should not imagine a neatly ordered multitude of mature followers. The Israelites are an unruly mob of recently released slaves who are prone to complaining, frequently resentful of Moses' leadership, and longing to return to Egypt with every conceivable hardship. The Israelites desperately need the spiritual formation of the desert to become the people of God. In their current condition, they do not yet know their God and are unprepared to enter the Land of Promise. The desert experience is intended to shape, mold, and refine them into a community of trust. Unfortunately, it will not be their finest hour.
For us the question remains as to whether the Land Between will be ours.
sick and tired of Manna Through the events of the exodus and the wilderness journey, God intends to manifest himself, to reveal his presence and his character. He demonstrates his great power through the plagues leveled against Egypt that lead to the exodus - the exit from slavery. He miraculously provides water in the desert, and he demonstrates his care by providing a daily food substance called "manna." It's as if he is saying, "I will be your God, and you will be my people. Watch me, know me, and learn to trust me."
The Israelites, to understate the case, struggled with trusting God, and in time the provision of manna was perceived as a loathsome curse. The people became sick of eating manna month after monotonous month. What exactly was this stuff? The Hebrew word manna actually means "What is it?" because that was the question the Israelites asked when manna appeared on the ground with the morning dew. According to Numbers 11, "manna was like coriander seed and looked like resin. The people went around gathering it, and then ground it in a hand mill or crushed it in a mortar. They cooked it in a pot or made it into cakes. And it tasted like something made with olive oil. When the dew settled on the camp at night, the manna also came down" (vv. 7-9).
The Israelites would collect these flakes in the morning, grind them up or crush them with a mortar and pestle, and then boil the mushy stuff in a pot. What comes to my mind is an oatmeal-like mush type of dish. This may be wildly inaccurate, but it is the image that has lodged in my brain since childhood. Manna cakes sound better to me from a texture standpoint, but I wouldn't want to eat them meal after tedious meal. A description in Exodus 16:31 compares the taste to that of wafers made with honey, which sounds appetizing. What seemed to be the issue over time, though, was not so much the taste as the frequency with which the people had to eat manna. The Israelites had been in the desert for nearly two years already. God provided manna for physical sustenance, but manna for breakfast, lunch, and dinner got old really fast.
Listen to the rising tide of complaint as waves of betrayed disappointment flood the camp, spreading from tent to tent - from family to family: "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost.... Now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!" (Numbers 11:4-6). Do you hear the Israelites' deep longing for the food of Egypt? This is about more than the actual food. Sure, the manna is getting to them, but they are angry and bitter about their weary existence in the Land Between.
So what comes next? What do the people do - after witnessing the powerful hand of God demonstrated through the plagues of Egypt, after seeing the waters of the Red Sea part, after being delivered from the armies of Pharaoh, after experiencing God's provision of water in the desert? Not what you think they would. The Israelites succumb to a spirit of complaint, despising God's provision and rejecting his goodness. They actually long for Egypt where they were enslaved!
It's easy to point the finger at the Israelites here. Their attitude toward God gets pretty ugly and ungrateful. But let's consider our reactions for a moment. We, too, can get pretty ugly in our responses to God's provision. I would venture to say most of us are not unacquainted with complaint. It's different when we read about it. When we encounter rebellion like this in Scripture, it's easy to place ourselves above the people involved, to view ourselves as superior. We think, "These people are idiots. I would never react like that."
As we walk through this book together, let's try a different approach. Let's try placing ourselves among the characters and admit what is true: "Given the right set of circumstances, I might have complained too." For the story to work its intended transformation in our lives, we need to see ourselves as prone to the same weaknesses, capable of the same failings, and tempted by the same sins. It is imperative to associate with the characters in the story even when they are misbehaving, rather than placing ourselves above them. What are some ways you can identify with the Israelites' spirit of complaint? When was the last time you felt sick and tired?
An Experiment I have personally never had to subsist on very limited food choices for any length of time, so a few years ago, when I was preparing to preach a sermon on the Israelites and manna, I decided to try it out for myself - nothing heroic, just a four-day visit to the wilderness of consuming a single menu item. I vowed to dine only on toffee chocolate chip power bars from Tuesday morning to Friday evening. Secretly, I thought this was brilliant. I would have an existential connection with the text that would provide insight and energy for the upcoming sermon.
Here is a record of what happened:
Day 1: Tuesday
Toffee chocolate chip power bar for breakfast. I'm not a huge breakfast person anyway, so this was no big deal.
Toffee chocolate chip power bar for lunch. Not a problem. The experiment was under way.
But arriving home from the office that evening, my wife, Chris, and daughter, Sarah, were cooking. The aroma of the Asian vegetable stir-fry filled the house. I dutifully cut my power bar into five pieces, arranged them neatly on a plate, and took my place at the table. This was not going to be a challenge. I am a disciplined man.
Day 2: Wednesday Toffee chocolate chip power bar for breakfast.
I arrived midday at the church offices for our weekly senior staff meeting. We have a ritual of bringing our lunches and eating together before we discuss church business. As I walked into the conference room, I sensed a powerful presence. Boxes of pizza beckoned from the conference table, leftovers from the meeting that preceded ours. "Help yourself," someone offered. I cheerfully declined as I surveyed the boxes, mentally noting the ingredients - mushrooms, sausage, pepperoni.
That evening, I arrived home for "dinner," and thankfully the house was empty. At least that night my resolve would not have to compete with a family dining experience. I chewed on my toffee chocolate chip power bar as I sat down to read the newspaper. An advertisement from Taco Bell fell from the pages. Retrieving the colorful ad, I surveyed the pictures on the coupons. I was beginning to cultivate a rich fantasy life.
Day 3: Thursday Toffee chocolate chip power bar for breakfast and lunch.
As I drove back to the office after a lunchtime jog, I was struck by the fragrance of the Chinese buffet I passed on Cascade Road.
Thursday evening the kids had friends over, and dinner was being served outside on our deck. A delicious pasta salad waited on the table. Burgers and bratwurst sizzled on the grill. Surrounded by this bounty of texture and flavor, smitten by the options, I unwrapped my unappetizing meal from its lousy wrapper. I was starting to rethink this experiment. Seated behind a lovely plate of food, Sarah, who was taking great delight in my misery, needled: "Come on, Dad, join us. You can just tell the congregation you cracked after three days." To my dearly beloved firstborn child, I whispered, "Get thee behind me, Satan."
Confession time: I cheated. Not a total breakdown of my resolve, but I covertly sneaked four lovely potato chips and illicitly tasted a delectable forkful of pasta salad. I was cracking.
Day 4: Friday Friday was going to be an easy day because I knew the finish line was in sight. My fast would end that evening. For breakfast I crumbled two nauseating power bars into a bowl and soaked them with warm milk in an attempt to trick them into thinking they were cereal.
At lunch I opened one last oppressive wrapper and forced down a final toffee chocolate chip power bar.
Friday evening, having endured my four-day wilderness experiment, Chris and I shared a glorious picnic beside a stream near our home. We devoured crisp crackers, imported cheese, and thinly sliced salami. I wish I could report that the post - power bar picnic was the most delicious meal of my life, but truthfully, this meal was simply not as good as one more toffee chocolate chip power bar would have been bad. I have never eaten another.
* * *
Now you might be thinking, at least in the wilderness the children of the exodus didn't have the competing aromas of vegetable stir-fry or the sound of sizzling hamburgers. Fortunately, they didn't endure the experience of piping hot pizza being delivered to their neighbors as they dished up yet another spoonful of boiled manna mush for their kids. But the former slaves did have their memories - memories of the food that flourished in abundance in the lush Nile Delta. In their complaint, these memories are itemized in a grocery list of foods they used to find available in abundance: "We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost - also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic" (Numbers 11:5).
Active memories conjure up visions of meals past, and as a parade of ingredients passes through their minds, they recall the flavor, the aroma, the texture - but mostly the variety. "Now all we have is this manna!" they cry. Bland sameness meal after meal. Boil it, broil it, bake it, or sauté it, the joy has evaporated from the dining experience.
During my four-day experiment, I learned some things about my relationship with food. I discovered that I enjoy asking the question "What's for dinner?" when I am likely to experience some level of surprise at the answer. During the power bar experience, I lost the joy of anticipating food. I also lost the pleasure of eating. I was hungry and ate, but eating became a joyless function. I gained new appreciation for the Israelites' complaint: "We have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!" (Numbers 11:6).
I'm Sick of This!
Let's go back to considering our own lives. As you journey through the Land Between, what is wearing you out? What is eroding your energy and draining your joy? Consider the frustrated complaint spreading from tent to tent in the wilderness: "We're sick of this!" As you hear the voices swell into a choir of the discontented, is it possible that your own voice is rising with theirs? "I'm sick of this!" As we grow sick of our situation, weary of the Land Between, where might frustration be morphing into the spirit of complaint and taking up residence in your heart?
"I'm sick of living in my in-laws' basement."
"I'm sick of being asked what line of work I'm in and fumbling for an answer."
"I'm sick of enduring wave after wave of medical tests without a clear diagnosis."
"I'm sick of waiting for this depression to lift."
"I'm sick of visiting a mother in a nursing home who repeatedly asks who I am."
"I'm sick of this manna!"
We may think that nothing grows in the desert. But make no mistake: the Land Between is fertile ground for complaint. At face value, complaining doesn't seem like much of a crime - surely it must fall into the misdemeanor category. But as we read a little further in the story of the Israelites, we see that God takes the business of complaining very seriously. To God the Israelites' complaints amount to a rejection of him. He says, "You have rejected the Lord, who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, 'Why did we ever leave Egypt?'" (Numbers 11:20).
God's evaluation of the situation constitutes a critical development in the narrative. Apparently the Israelites were not merely griping about the food; they were complaining against God. They were not simply rejecting the food; they were rejecting their God. Their complaint about manna accompanied with their longing for Egypt implied, "God, we were better off in Egypt. We were better off without you." Something in their complaint bordered on cosmic treason.
Excerpted from The Land Between by Jeff Manion Copyright © 2010 by Jeff Manion . Excerpted by permission.
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