Exodus 16: 2-4, 9-21
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “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.”
Then the Lord said to Moses, “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.
Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’”
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.
Numbers 11: 4-6, 18-20
The rabble among [the Israelites] had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and 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.”
… Say to the people: Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat; for you have wailed in the hearing of the Lord, saying, ‘If only we had meat to eat! Surely it was better for us in Egypt.’ Therefore, the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. You shall eat not only one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you—because you have rejected the Lord who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt?’”
Welcome to another week of talking about bread. Last week we saw how God uses the multiplication of bread, and the feeding of people generally, time and time again to show the goodness which is offered to all people. Today, we see that same goodness shown to the Israelites in the wilderness. Next week will take us to Elijah being fed, not only in the wilderness, but in the depths of his own despair. Wisdom will set a table for us the week after that, and we will conclude our block of stomach centered texts with a very cryptic command from Jesus about what we must eat. Food is an image and a reality where we seem to meet God again and again.
It is fitting, then, that we discuss God’s gift of food on a communion Sunday. Though we celebrate communion with juice and bread that we bring to this table, it is a gift of God from beginning to end. The grain to make bread is watered by the rain which God brings, the vine is given the same gift, and even the paten and chalice are made from clay plucked from the earth God has placed us upon. The sacrament is not just its material components, but a spiritual exercise. We take the juice and the bread and find it somehow changed. While we will talk more in-depth about communion and its many facets in a few weeks, we must acknowledge today that some aspect of the meal we are preparing to share together is beyond the bounds of its earthly components.
It is not anything revolutionary to tie the gift of manna to the Eucharist. Jesus seems to do so in John 6 and Paul as well leans upon the idea that we in the Church eat our own form of manna in the eucharist. (1 Cor.10.) Strange though it may seem, there is something connecting the bread on this altar and in your packets, to the dusty and mysterious fragments of food that the Israelites collected long ago.
Looking back to that Israelite’s journey in the desert, we can only know so much. Forty years pass out in the land between the Red Sea and Canaan. Sometimes the people would come nearly into the promised land, only to turn completely around and lose decades of progress. Those forty years are recorded sporadically in the Torah, from Exodus to Deuteronomy. Sometimes the same story is told two or three times across those books, always with subtle differences that show different aspects of the interactions between God and God’s people. Our story for this morning, of God giving manna and quail, occurs elsewhere in both Exodus and Numbers. In Numbers the quail is given as a curse as much as it is a blessing. The greed of the Israelites is highlighted in their quest to obtain something they do not need.
Exodus, in talking about God’s gift of manna and quail, sees both gifts as a positive addition to the Israelite’s life. The people complain to God they are hungry, specifically they miss bread and meat, something they had very little of in their wanderings. God looks upon this request, not with anger, but with mercy. Even when this complaint could rightly be taken as an inability to see the good they have already been given, God is willing to give more to the Israelite’s than they previously had. God looks with compassion on our limited scope and feeds us good things alongside the bare necessities we need.
We need both tellings of this story. If we believed God only wants us to have more and more good things, then we would fall into the trap which the Prosperity Gospel has set time and again for people. This school of thought believes that material goods, wealth and status, define a person’s standing with God. This idea is contradicted throughout scripture, yet it is more popular than ever to believe God wants the faithful to be rich and that poverty is only ever the fault of the person going without. On the other side of things, if we believed God is always ready to turn against us, then our love cannot be complete. If we see God giving quail only out of spite, “until it comes out of [the Israelite’s] nostrils,” then we will doubt every good gift as a test. God becomes, not a benevolent God, but an exacting and capricious deity.
That balance, God as abundant in mercy and goodness and God as desiring us to be better, that is the life of faith in a nutshell. The goodness of God brings us to appreciate God as the source of life, light, and truth that God is. Yet, if we walk away from God’s goodness unchanged then we have not actually engaged with the same God who offered it to us in the first place. The mystery of our religion is that we constantly return, again and again, to the realization that God is good, and that we are not yet as good as God, and so we must turn more and more away from the things that are preventing us from being truly good. We do not despair at our lack of righteousness because God is good to forgive our sins, but we do not tolerate those failings in ourselves either, because the goodness of God motivates us onward toward righteousness.
I grew up in a church that had a lot of good going on with it. Yet, there was a prevalent teaching that was given again and again by one of the leaders for the youth group. “Nothing you ever do, will be good, because the best thing you could ever do,” and here I quote directly, “is like poopy, doo-doo rags to God.” The idea behind this comes from Isaiah 64, where Isaiah is trying to explain what happened to Judah to cause the Babylonian conquest. Isaiah sees God’s anger as the primary cause of the event and says that the people had transformed into something they did not use to be. Rather than being the light in the dark they were meant to be, they had become cruel and they abused one another. This transformation meant that, even their best deeds, now that they had fallen so far, “were like filthy cloths.”
I bring that teaching up because it never sat well with me. If God wanted to be with us, why would God continue to be so critical of the people God had saved? It seemed duplicitous to on one hand say nothing a person did was ever good enough and on the other hand claim to save them from that incredibly high standard. Yet, I believe that is often how we talk about God. We speak as though God sets a bar, we fail to meet it, and we are lucky that God cared enough to spare us, because we do not deserve one lick of kindness. It sounds scriptural, because it takes a lot from various spots of scripture and pieces them into a statement we can’t refute. These truths which we misrepresent are that we don’t earn salvation, we are sinners, and we are fortunate God chose to save us rather than start over.
Yet, that framing is one sided in presenting God’s approach to humanity. If God merely tolerates us, then it seems strange that God would have lifted a finger at all. If God is this exacting presence, waiting for a chance to flip over the hand we are seated on so we can fall into perdition, then God does not seem abundant in steadfast love. When we focus on our depravity and God’s judgement to too great and extent, suddenly I do not see the glory of Heaven, but merely the terror of any alternative. I do not see the goodness of God, but the terror of a judgment seat.
I bring up this judgment heavy vision of God because I nearly fell into that trap writing today’s sermon. You see I plan out my sermons a year in advance, so when I wrote down the scripture I would preach for this Sunday, I was expecting the text to carry me in a particular direction. The reason behind this, is that this story of God giving bread and quail, has always been told to me from the perspective of Numbers and not Exodus. I’ve always known God to give quail as punishment and bread as a gift. Even though I have read the two different accounts, not till I sat down to write this sermon did I know God gave quail as a gift anywhere in scripture.
I think of the passages, like Isaiah 64, like Exodus 16, that we have allowed to be conflated with the emphases that we or preachers or teachers we have known have put upon them. I like to use John 3:16 as a good proof of our general obliviousness to the full extent and meaning of a text, because its easily pulled up in our minds. Do you remember that that text is tied to the account of Moses putting up a metal sculpture of a serpent in the wilderness? (Numbers 21,) or that it in the larger context of Nicodemus asking what it means to be born again? Those are just surface level considerations as well. There is an awful lot about John 3 that reminds us to be watchful as much as it frees us to let go of our anxieties.
Tension is a word we always laughed at in seminary because it could be used to describe any discussion we ever have. There is a tension between any two extremes and finding the proper balance between them is never easy. It is important to remember that God is good to us when we don’t deserve it, as we see in our scripture today. It is also good to remember, God does in fact care what we do, and that we are expected to do better. To complain and find our needs filled is one thing, to find our needs fulfilled and continue to complain is another. Layers upon layers of depth emerge in our life of faith and I do not blame anyone for becoming exhausted along the way.
Life is, after all, a long journey. If we would like to style it as such, we could say it is a journey through the wilderness. We sometimes have reprieve by still waters or in the shade, but we often have to face difficult choices, difficult situations, uncertainty and fear and doubt. Like the Israelites we can feel like we are closer than ever to where we need to be. Our hearts grow stronger and more loving, our life more radiant in the things we are allowed to enjoy and blessings we can share with other, our faith clearer and more deeply felt than ever before. Then, in an instant, all seems to fall out from us. We slide backward in our development, and that promised land that seemed so close now feels thousands of miles away. We spin round the desert of this life, seeking the glory of something far beyond us.
We come today to one of those spots of relief. This table, set by human hands, but given in everyway to us by God. Represents a deep spiritual truth. God is the source of our life. God gives us what we need, and even sometimes what we want. God delights in giving us a reason to celebrate. We do not receive gifts so that we may become rich, in fact we are encouraged to resemble the poor more and more as life goes on. We take up the gifts God has given us, because they are what keeps us going. For the Israelites that was the heavenly bread that was manna and the physical sustenance that was quail.
This table of grace reminds us not only of God’s goodness, but of our own fallenness. Christ died because we could not accept his goodness, least of all could we tolerate his love. When presented with the opportunity to live in a new way, we chose to cling ever more tightly to what was. The blood of Christ was poured out for sinners, but it was also poured out by them. The body of Christ was broken for us all, but it was also we who broke it upon the cross. A tension is present in this table, we celebrate the truth of our freedom it represents, but we also mourn the burden, that we are the reason such a table ever had to be set.
Yet, God does not sit anxiously awaiting us to approach unworthily. God has prepared sustenance to carry us through this life. God has extended grace before we ever needed it. The blessing of God is greater than any anger God could ever feel, and the heavenly bread we partake of today is greater than any earthly food we could ever crave. As we walk through life, we must seek to rest in God, not so that we ever become stagnant, but so that we can better understand every aspect of this world we inhabit. There is abundant mercy in what God has given us and there is a lofty expectation for us to grow. We explore what this table means across the next few weeks, but today, we partake of it. As we lift chalice and paten, as we drink juice and eat bread. Today, we gather our own holy manna and find God’s abundant love prepared for us. – Amen.