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Feasting in the Desert

by Pastor Dave Cartwright on May 11, 2020

I have an Italian mother, so, despite being a grown man, there is one question that comes up frequently in our conversations, “Are you eating ok?” In recent weeks, my response has changed from the usual “I’m eating fine.” Now it is, “Ma, I’m eating better than I ever have in my life. The first 18 years of my life I ate at your table, while amazing, Italian food is not known for being health conscientious. After that, my eating habits haven’t changed much since college. But, in quarantine, I haven’t had fried chicken, anything from a drive-thru, or a pub burger and fries in weeks.”

There was a time in Israel’s history, the people of God, where they found themselves wandering in a wilderness for 40 years. Not self-quarantining for 40 days or whatever we are at, but 40 years. At the start of this journey, the Israelites sounded similar to my friend Jared whenever I suggest a restaurant for us to go to… they were complaining about the menu. “It would have been better to die in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill us all with hunger.” (Ex. 16:3) In response, God provides the people with manna and quail from heaven, daily, for 40 years. Certainly, Israel’s time in the wilderness, wandering, with limited supplies, unsettled, no sense of normalcy, and the question of “how long until this is over?” is an appropriate lens for us to use in our current circumstances.

At the end of their wandering, right before they enter into the Promised Land, God does not pose the question of “What did you get out of this experience?” He straight-up tells them what they were supposed to take away from this time. “He (God) humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD.” (Deut. 8:3)  

This humbling is a stripping away of their ability to sustain themselves. It is the complete removal of normalcy, comfort, security, and the agency to meet their basic needs which drives them to a daily dependence on God. Again, I think the wilderness episode is a helpful lens for us as we continue in this pandemic. And while I am still able to go to the grocery store and buy food, I think of the humbling that has come with the removal of so many other ways I sustain my soul. I’m an extrovert that wants people to think highly of him. People’s admiration is food for my soul that I often use to sustain myself. That’s one of my places of nourishment where I feed my identity in unhealthy and ungodly ways. Whatever yours are, I’m sure they too have been disrupted in this wilderness. And we are left with God’s Word. This is what is to be our sustenance and bring us nourishment. It is His Word which we are to allow to speak into our identity over every other voice. It is what sustains life.

Now, if you were to ask me about God’s Word three months ago before all of this happened, I would have told you all of that. We know that. We get that. Yet we don’t always live it. In fact, we rarely do. I think God very intentionally uses the word “understand” rather than “know.” Understanding is not simply having the right answer but taking personal ownership of it, believing it, and actually living it. 

And as always, it is easier to do it while in the desert. But one day, this will end. Life will go back to a new normal when the other ways we nourish and sustain our souls are once again more readily available. At that time we’ll know the right answer, but we’ll see how much we understand. Spoiler alert, none of us are going to do it perfectly. Hopefully, we will have grown in this season, hopefully, we are moving in the right direction, and continue to grow even after this season in dependency on God’s Word. But none of us will ever be in a place this side of eternity where we can say we 100 percent sustain our souls and identity with the Word of God. And that’s ok.

In his gospel writings, Matthew establishes Jesus as a “New Israel.” Jesus’ genealogy traces back to Abraham, just like Israel. As a child He spends time and is called out of Egypt, a new Exodus. As He is baptized under the water just as the Israelites passed through the Red Sea. And then, in Matthew 4, Jesus enters into the wilderness and has nothing to eat for 40 days. And the tempter comes, goes right after Jesus’ identity by stating, “If you are the Son of God.” And this attack on His identity goes straight after sustenance and nourishment. “Make some bread for yourself. Meet your own needs, take whatever you can to nourish your soul and identity.” And what is Jesus’ response, Deuteronomy 8:3. “Man shall not live on bread alone but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” Jesus is the new Israel. He completes the test and the temptation that Israel and we fail.

So, to channel my Italian mother, how are you eating these days? What sources of nourishment for your soul and identity that you put above God’s Word has He opened your eyes to in this season? How are you growing in your understanding of the truth that we live on God’s Word? And remember, the goal is not perfection, it is growth. It is God’s invitation to you to find fuller, more satisfying, healthier, and lasting food in relationship with Him. And when we fall short, we look to our Savior, who went before us, triumphant where we have failed. As our hands and knees are on the harsh, dry sand of the desert ground, with thirsty and hungry souls we lift our head up and see Him standing there with His handout saying to us, “Get up, let’s try again, together.”

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