You might chuckle to hear what happened after the Hebrews passed through the sea on dry ground and saw Yahweh’s victory over the Egyptian army, or you might be embarrassed. They traveled three days without finding water, and on the third day they came to a place with water. But the water didn’t taste good, so the people started complaining to Moses about it. Moses cried out to the Lord about it, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood to throw into the water which made it taste good.
They continued on, but it got worse instead of better. A month and a half after leaving Egypt it reached a crisis point. This time it was the lack of food that brought on the complaints, and it is understandable. They were traveling through a pretty desolate area which could not have possibly supported such a large group of people. Plus they were on foot, so they worked up an appetite every day.
They said to Moses and Aaron, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
We all tend to have selective memory when we think about “the good old days.” For the Israelites, their memories of the good old days have filtered out the backbreaking work and unrealistic demands the Egyptians had for them. They remember having had enough to eat, and that is enough to make them yearn for those good old days as slaves in Egypt.
God now announces his plan for feeding the multitudes on this wilderness journey. There are several interesting elements to the plan. God says, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” Moses told the people, “In the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord.”
I don’t know about you, but when I hear it is going to rain bread from heaven, I am thinking about nice warm loaves right out of the oven, ready to eat. Krispy Kreme donuts, hot and ready first thing in the morning. Any wilderness journey would be bearable if you start the day out that way, plus you would work the calories off during the course of the day!
But when the people got up in the morning they looked and saw a fine flaky substance as fine as frost on the ground. They looked around at each other and at Moses and said, “Manna.” We hear the word manna and we think “bread from heaven.” Actually, in Hebrew, manna meant “What is it?” It wasn’t ready to eat and didn’t look like anything they were familiar with.
Moses replied, though I wonder if he was any more impressed than they were, “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” And he gave them the instructions to go out every morning and gather enough for the day, but not to try to save any of that for the next day because it would spoil. On the sixth day they were to gather enough for two days because there would be none provided on the Sabbath.
As with the Garden of Eden, you can just see the train wrecks getting ready to happen. Sure enough, some of them decided to hoard some for the next day just in case there wasn’t any. When they got up in the morning it had bred worms and become foul. Not only did that not work out for them, but I’ll bet they couldn’t put any manna in their mouths for the next few days. Others did not collect extra on the sixth day – probably especially those who had tried to keep some overnight on the other nights before – and went out on the Sabbath to gather some only to find that there was not any.
There are some important spiritual truths to call attention to here. Later on we are told that you don’t just pick the manna up off the ground and eat it as it is. Numbers says, “Now the manna was like coriander seed and its color was like the color of gum resin. The people went around and gathered it, ground it in mills or beat it in mortars, then boiled it in pots and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil.” So they had to go out every morning to gather the manna, then there was a several step process to use it to make something that was good to eat. Food wasn’t just dumped in their laps ready to eat – work was required, time was required, preparation was required.
A second point to make is that it is provided one day at a time. It is not like having a pantry and a freezer full of food to choose from. It is not like having your choice of 50 fast food places or restaurants. One day at a time food for your basic needs is provided. Terence Fretheim reflects, “The will of God for Israel is a ‘discipline of dailyness.’ One’s prayers are to ask only for daily bread. There is to be no hoarding of God’s creation, no building of larger and larger barns, no anxieties about what they are to eat on the morrow.” (Interpretation, Exodus, p. 186)
A third point is that God rests on the seventh day and we are to rest as well. That doesn’t just happen – it has to be planned for in various ways. In the food area, it means collecting extra manna the day before and trusting that it will not spoil.
The way manna is given is to instill in the people: awareness of God’s grace every single day and thanksgiving for the gift of sustenance; a work ethic to do what must be done every day in order for your family to eat; and a vivid weekly lesson about observance of Sabbath rest.
But this story and the continuing story of the wilderness journey shows also the truth about human nature and sinfulness. That we tend to be complainers, unsatisfied with what we have. That we are quick to blame our leaders and God, who is the source of all our blessings, when we don’t think we are getting what we deserve. That we don’t listen to the instructions that are given for our welfare and well being.
Before long it is reported that a rabble, a particularly dissatisfied group among the people, have started a wave of complaining that has spread among the people. Their memories of the good old days are getting even better. They said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”
They had come to the point of despising the sameness of this miraculous food which was provided for them every single morning in a place which could not have possibly sustained them with food. They wanted more, better, different.
Be careful what you pray for. God said he was going to send them so many quails they could eat them for a month till it came out of their nostrils and they never wanted to see another one. And that is exactly what happened.
I’m not sure we have evolved too far from these spiritual ancestors. The hoarding instinct may be at an all time high, taking away from many of us any inkling of what it means to have to depend on God for our needs every single day. The eating out instinct takes away the aspect of planning, working, and preparing in order to have daily bread. Eating too much causes many health problems. Treating all seven days the same has robbed us of both rest and reverence.
Grumbling and complaining, being tired of what we have been given, the insatiable desire for more creates barriers in our relationship with God and with our neighbors. The fact that it has always kept happening eventually led God to drastic action. Since we are incapable of being obedient enough and faithful enough to earn salvation, and since he loved the world so much, he sent his Son. He sent him not for condemnation but for salvation. He said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will not hunger, and he who believes in me will never thirst.” He broke bread and blessed it and all ate and were satisfied, and there was bread left over. He gave them the bread and said, “Take, eat, this is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Spiritually, we hunger and thirst for God, but frequently we are looking in all the wrong places. We fear that all the things we have done wrong have created too deep a chasm and that God could never love us or forgive us that much. God is not far, God is near. Jesus is “Immanuel,” God with us, the Word made flesh who pitched his tent and lived among us. If God in the Old Testament stuck with the Israelites through all their grumbling, complaining, rebellion and disobedience, how much more confident we can be that the God revealed in the New Testament through his Son Jesus Christ will never leave us or forsake us. Living in the light means seeing clearly the amazing grace and unconditional love of God for sinners such as us through Jesus Christ.
We are singing two more great hymns of the faith illustrating today’s theme, but I want to close the sermon with quoting a portion of the first hymn we sang:
“All who hunger, gather gladly; holy manna is our bread. Come from wilderness and wandering. Here, in truth, we will be fed. You that yearn for days of fullness, all around us is our food. Taste and see the grace eternal. Taste and see that God is good.
All who hunger, sing together; Jesus Christ is living bread. Come from loneliness and longing. Here, in peace, we have been led. Blest are those who from this table live their days in gratitude. Taste and see the grace eternal. Taste and see that God is good.” (Sylvia Dunstan)
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
September 21, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church