Proper 13 • Exodus 16:2–15 • August 5, 2012
By Bruce M. Hartung
It is an easy homiletical move to criticize and condemn the wandering children of Israel for their murmuring against Moses and Aaron, and for their less-than-robust confidence that Yahweh would, in fact, provide. The next homiletical move would then be to identify this same murmuring against religious leadership and lack of confidence by the twenty-first century hearer in the provision of Yahweh, criticize and condemn this, remind the hearer of Yahweh’s providence and care, and announce the forgiveness that is in Jesus Christ who atoned on our behalf for all our murmuring and lack of confidence. Trust in Yahweh’s gracious care is the theme; the children of Israel are examples of how fallen people fall short of such unambivalent trust, and we of the twenty-first century are like the children of Israel. Yahweh’s ultimate provision for us is the person and work of the Christ.
There is more work to do, though, than these relatively obvious homiletical moves and conclusions. Perhaps the first step is to engage more empathically with the situation of the children of Israel. Following J. H. C. Fritz, the preacher can dig more deeply into the “book of the flock” to better understand not only the human existential situations of the text but also the connections to similar existential situations of the hearer.
If screens are available, a picture or two of a contemporary refugee camp or of people fleeing from violence or repression could be used. If not, such pictures should be verbally created. These are people who have been uprooted from the homes that they have known for much of or even all of their lives, just like the children of Israel. They are either on the march (if they are fleeing and on the road) or temporarily placed in a camp. When and where will they be able to call another place “home”? Even with the promise that “someday” there will come a better day, the conditions of the present are stunning and—at least from time to time—dismaying. Trust in Yahweh is tough! Add hunger to these difficult scenes and some weather-related concerns.
All this is to build appreciation for the situation of the children of Israel. In doing so, the preacher will also communicate that he is appreciative of the difficult circumstances of many of his hearers as they struggle with the realities of their own lives and the provision that Yahweh provides in them. Therefore, rather than beginning with a “look at how sinful the children of Israel were after all Yahweh did for them,” the preacher begins with a search for at least a bit of empathy for them. Murmuring is a cry of pain and a plea for help, often disguised as anger, criticism, or complaint. It is a part of the human response to difficult conditions and is a reaching out for help and surcease.
Yahweh heard the murmuring, and, rather than turning away from it or condemning it, he responded. This is consistent throughout Exodus including the deliverance from Egypt and the wandering in the desert. This is the gospel: Yahweh hears our pain, anxiety, complaint, and murmuring now through the ears of his Christ. Yahweh’s response continues to be turning toward our cries, inclining his ear to us, and responding with the presence of Christ and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
There are lots of times in the lives of the twenty-first century hearer that Yahweh’s response is not as clear and obvious as it was for the children of Israel. The preacher will need to reflect this reality as well. Yet there is one thing that does remain: Yahweh turns toward our murmuring as he hears our cries, offering us his presence in the person of his Christ, in the word spoken and the Eucharist received, and in the body of Christ which is the community of those who are Christ’s followers.
- Understanding more deeply the situation of the children of Israel;
- Connecting their situation to ours as we and others face uncertainty, pain, and wondering about the presence and provision of God;
- Considering the God, Yahweh, who inclines his ear toward us and hears our murmuring.
- Announcing the provision of Yahweh in the person and work of his Christ who now is present at our side and whose Spirit is active in the lives of his followers.
 J. H. C. Fritz, Pastoral Theology (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2003), 8.