This was not done in secret or while they were sleeping. They all not only witnessed it, but participated in it. And when the deliverance had been accomplished, they all celebrated together.
Here I would say, let’s fast-forward to another stage in their deliverance… but really, no such technology is necessary. We need not fast-forward, but simply turn a page or two to a place called the Wilderness of Sin.
Now, when we read what happened there, we might think it’s called Sin because the people sinned in that place. But of course, that’s just a not-so-happy coïncidence that works only in English. This wilderness is called Sin because it was named after an ancient god—the god, in fact, of the moon. And here in this wilderness named after the dry and cratered moon, something happened that I imagine must’ve hit Moses and Aaron like a slap across the face. That’s because just a few weeks removed from a deliverance the likes of which the world had never seen before, Moses and Aaron had gone from heroes to villains.
Whether they thought God unfaithful or weak, I don’t know. But the people began to complain that the God who parted the sea for them would not provide for them once they were free: We wish God had just killed us back there, where at least we would’ve died with full stomachs sitting by the fleshpots of Egypt. But no, instead, you two have brought us out here into this desert where we’ll all slowly starve to death. [Ex. 16:3]
On the surface, this is a story about food. But at its core, it’s a story about faith. Israel had every reason to trust God, and yet when God’s presence wasn’t obvious for a brief period, they went almost directly from, I will sing out to God, who has triumphed gloriously—the horse and rider thrown into the sea! [Ex. 15:1] to, What has God done for me lately?
God’s patience is shown when God responds by feeding them manna from heaven. Not as much as they can hoard, but just enough for each day—except for Friday. On Friday they received a double portion so that they wouldn’t have to gather it on the Sabbath.
When we read this story, it’s probably Jesus’ intention that we remember the prayer that he taught us—the one in which we pray that God will feed us. And not just that God will feed us, but that God would make sure that we’re provided with enough food to keep us fed every day. And not just that God would give us enough for every day, but that God would feed us this much and no more on a daily basis. In other words, God is the One who provides, and when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we’re asking God to keep us from feeling entitled to more than we need.
This isn’t to say we’ll never have enough to put something aside. Clearly, we do sometimes. But that’s not what we’ve been promised. True blessing comes in looking to our loving Parent to provide for us—not with a windfall, but with just enough.
However great our abundance, however full our bank accounts and refrigerators, our true happiness still depends on praying for our daily bread. Think about it this way: To have millions of dollars and huge houses and fancy cars sounds wonderful. But if having those things allows us complete independence from our family and friends, then our isolation would make us no happier than the poorest of beggars—perhaps less happy, if that beggar is blest with people in their life whom they love and who share with them their meagre blessings. So what’s the point of all the gifts in the world without the ability to thank the Giver, or to know the Creator’s presence, or to feel God’s love?✝
I think the story of the manna in the wilderness is especially moving during the wilderness periods in our lives—times when we’re on the move and cannot necessarily see where the road is leading. In the direst of straits, we might even use a metaphor that’s much bleaker, and talk about times when we can’t yet see the light at the end of the tunnel. And for many church people—people for whom the well-being of their faith community is as important as the health of their biological family—the period between settled pastors is like time spent in the wilderness.
And, of course, the landscape of each congregation’s wilderness is different. Some are smooth and some are rough. Some are crossed by short, direct routes, others by longer and curvier paths. I came here expecting a bit more smoothness and a bit less curviness than I’ve found. And I think many of you were hoping for a smoother and straighter interim pastor. And the fact that we’ve hit some rough spots has naturally caused anxiety. And anxiety causes murmuring.
But I think there’s at least one message in this passage for us. And that is that just as there was bread in the wilderness, there’s also bread in the interim. As we remember where we’ve been, we’re provided for in the present and are called upon to trust in an unseen future. God is still with us, and just as we can view the present as a period of preparation for things to come, it’s also a time of action, of intentional reflection, and even change.
For those for whom the interim is difficult, please know that God is at work. The interim will end, but there’s work to be done first. Discord only makes that work harder. And for those who are comfortable with the interim, don’t make the interim or its pastor your Egyptian fleshpot. We’re all sojourning together, but sojourns are by definition temporary.
And just as there’s a spiritual message in today’s passage from Exodus, there’s also a more literal one. I mentioned earlier that this story is, on its surface, a story about food. And while we’re theologizing and looking for a deeper meaning, we must also remember that God cares about our physical lives just as much as God cares about our spiritual lives.
In the wilderness of Sinai, God’s providence was direct. The bread is said to have literally fallen from heaven. But in our wilderness, God’s care for us is almost always indirect. But that doesn’t make it any less real. Martin Luther said that when God provides us with bread, it’s through the hands of the baker; and when God provides us with milk, it’s through the hands of the milkmaid. Thus, we depend on others to do the work of God for us, just as they depend on us to do God’s work for them.*
On a daily basis, we should pause and give thanks to God not only for our blessings, but to give serious thought to how they reached us. Think about how often our bakers and milkmaids and farmers and others are people who struggle to feed their own children and who can’t afford much of a roof over their heads. And yet, they don’t just make our lives more pleasant, in many cases, they make our lives possible. It’s God’s work. But it’s also God’s will that it be accomplished through others.
But even more importantly—especially this morning—is the thought that we, too, are needed. God has work for us to do, and if we don’t do it, it might not get done. While Harvey and Irma and the Mexican earthquakes are all on my mind right now, my brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico—a place I lived for three years—are first and foremost in my thoughts.
Perhaps God will magically turn their electricity back on and direct fresh water from the sky directly into their water pipes. Perhaps all the illnesses on the island will be supernaturally healed and jobs restored. Or perhaps others are being called upon to help them through their wilderness. And if God is acting for them through others, then we need to pray that we be included among the number of those who are sending manna.
Citizenship usually doesn’t matter, since as Christians, our citizenship is in heaven. But in Matthew 10, Jesus instructed his disciples to minister to those who shared their nationality. You received without payment; give without payment, he told them. [Matt. 10:81 Pastors in our church usually call on our members to look beyond nationality, but today, our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico need us. We, too, have received freely from the hand of God—even though our blessings came to us through others. I think we’re being called upon to share those blessings with others… outside our country, certainly, but most especially with the people of Puerto Rico
—©2017 Sam L. Greening, Jr.
✝Adapted from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.20.44
*For a better explanation, read this blog entry on Crossway.