Meditation on Exodus 16: 2-4, 9-15
Merritt Island Presbyterian Church
Aug. 5, 2018
2 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3 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.”
4 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….
9 Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” 10 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. 11 The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12 “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.’”
13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 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. 15 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.”
One of our members brought her two-week-old baby and her 7-year-old daughter to visit me at the church this week. I was blessed to be at the hospital with her, her husband, and family when the baby was born. On Thursday, she shared her surprise that she was able to function on so little sleep. But how happy she is! She is in love with her baby, she says, and always wants to be close to him.
I held the little guy, being careful to support his head and neck and keep him securely cradled in my arms, marveling—as you can’t help but do this—at the vulnerability, helplessness and adaptability of human beings in our first weeks of life. So much for this child is altogether new! What a different life he has now than when he lived within the secure confines of his mother’s womb. What a different life his family has now, focused on meeting the needs of their youngest member—truly a blessing from the Lord, who is filling their home with more love and joy.
One of the hardest things for new parents is that babies cannot express their needs or desires with words. They can only cry if they are hungry or tired, hurting or lonely, too cold, too wet, too warm. Sometimes it is difficult to figure out what they want—or really need.
This little guy wants to eat all the time, his mother says, but doesn’t know when he has had enough. He eats till he overflows through the mouth and nose. The good news is that he is growing in every way, learning to adapt to this new life and world, learning to trust in those who love and care for him.
In the 16th chapter of Exodus, it’s been a month and a half since Israel fled from their captivity in Egypt. God’s people behave, in some ways, like a newborn, says biblical scholar Dean McDonald, and God is like the young parents, trying to work out a feeding schedule that will meet the child’s desires and needs. But this passage is not just about food for God’s people in a situation of scarcity. It is about God’s desire to live in relationship with us—and for us to live by faith. It is also encouragement for those who struggle in their walk with the Lord. Our God who never turns his back on his children, no matter how unfaithful. Isaiah 49:15 says, “Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you!”
While the wilderness life is a new beginning, full of possibilities, it is strange, frightening, and disorienting for the Israelites to leave the place in which they have lived all their lives, in spite of the cruelty they have endured. Israel has been in Egypt for generations, since their ancestor Joseph was second in command to one of the pharaohs and brought his family there to live during a great famine. Now the city dwellers are refugees, taking on a nomadic existence with thousands of other refugees. They are just 6 weeks into their relationship with 83-year-old Moses, who hears the voice of God but needs his younger brother, 81-year-old Aaron, to speak for him.
The people are continually anxious, even after their miraculous crossing of the Red Sea on dry land and the drowning of the Egyptian armies behind them.
But who wouldn’t feel traumatized after just narrowly escaping genocide, after years of fear and abuse? And it isn’t just their own wellbeing they are worried about. Their families are with them.
We know their relationship with Moses and Aaron is in deep trouble when our reading begins with, “the whole congregation of the Israelites” complaining against them in the wilderness. Does that word “congregation” jump off the page at you? It does for me. This is a worshiping community, united by their faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, their ancestor who wrestled with an angel and was given a new name, “Israel.” Have they have forgotten God’s merciful rescue and kindly provision in the past? Or maybe they just think it can’t happen again. They create a false, hopeless narrative that spreads to every person– thousands of people– in this congregation. Bad news travels quickly, even when it doesn’t make any sense. Why would Moses be attempting to kill them when he risked his own life to intercede on their behalf with the Pharaoh and remains faithful to God’s call to help His people, despite the dangers? The whole congregation sinks into despair. “If only we had died,” they say, “by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.”
The story doesn’t end there because our God is loving and merciful. He never stops reaching out to His children, though they often turn away and choose fear and despair rather than looking for God’s blessings and evidence of His tender care for human beings. Because when you believe God wants to bless you, you will see His blessings and loving hand in your life.
True to His promise to His people who cry out for meat and bread, God sends quails in the evening to “cover the camp;” and in the morning, when the dew lifts, a fine, flaky substance—like frost on the ground–appears. The people ask one another, “What is it?” They don’t ask Moses, which is more evidence of their distrust. The Hebrew word for “What is it?” is manna! Moses overhears them and says, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” Israel decides to call it manna—“What is it?” rather than “Bread from heaven.” They have to gather it each morning, 6 days a week and twice as much the day before the Sabbath, to keep and eat on the Lord’s Day and not work. Baked, boiled or raw, they eat their fill of this food (Exodus 16:31) that is “like coriander seed,” in shape and size, but it’s white and tastes like “wafers made with honey.” Does that sound like cookies to you? It does to me!
Moses doesn’t want Israel to forget God’s amazing provision, so he tells Aaron to put some in a jar and “place it before the Lord, to be kept throughout your generations.” Remarkably, the manna never breeds worms or becomes foul like the manna some Israelites attempt to hoard, not trusting that God will provide enough for everyone, every day. The Israelites eat manna for 40 years says Exodus 16:35, “until they came to a habitable land; they ate manna, until they came to the border of the land of Canaan.”
I wish I could say that manna was enough for the Israelites to have faith. Spiritually, they remained like newborn infants, continuing to cry out for God to feed them, instead of trusting in His love. And they soon tired of manna and wanted the food they remembered from Egypt, in the good old days, when they lived as slaves.
In John’s gospel, Jesus puts himself into the Exodus story. He has just fed a multitude with a few loaves and fish –and everyone is filled! But then the crowd follows him everywhere because they want more material blessings.
Jesus has something better in mind. He invites those who want to follow him to do the work of God! What is that work? To believe in the one whom God has sent!
Jesus says to all of us, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
Trust in the one who is with you always. Do you feel you are on a wilderness journey? Are you worried that you may have lost your way? Well, the wilderness isn’t a bad place to be. If you lose yourself, let go of your own expectations for yourself, past disappointments and broken dreams, then, it is much easier for the Spirit to do its work in you—so you can become all that God wants you to be.
In the wilderness, the glory of God is revealed and you have no choice but to trust in his loving provision—his spiritual manna for every day. Human beings, we like to think we are independent. We don’t want to need anyone for anything. But that’s not Christian. For we all need Jesus. And we need each other to grow up in every way in Him. To no longer be spiritual infants who are more interested in having our desires met, rather than having loving relationships with the Lord and in the Body of Christ.
In a few moments, we will celebrate communion at the Lord’s Table. Jesus invites us all to come to Him for the food that endures–that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. I hope you will all come in faith to the one who is “the bread of life.” By faith, our hearts and minds will be transformed.
By faith, we will work for the food that endures for eternal life, the food that cannot be earned but is a GIFT to those who believe in the Son of God.
“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” Jesus says. “And whoever believes in me, will never be thirsty.”
Let us pray.
Holy One, Come to us now in our wilderness. Encourage anyone who feels lost that they are in a good place, that they are right where the Lord wants them, right where His Spirit can do his healing, transforming work. Thank you for the gift of eternal life through believing in Your Son and His suffering work on the cross so that we may be forgiven for all our sins. Feed our souls with spiritual food that we will no longer behave as infants, crying out for our needs and desires to be met. Help us to grow up in every way, and especially to grow in loving relationship with you and one another. In Christ we pray. Amen.