First Reading Exodus 16:2-15
Second Reading Philippians 2:1-13
Gospel Reading Matthew 21:23-32
Sermon “Bread of Heaven”
This week we return to the saga of the ancient nation of Israel. From the stories of the first patriarchs, God has been actively forming and sheltering a people uniquely chosen. God has been faithful and patient even when they have not. God has renewed his covenant many times and wondrously prepared the way. When Jacob’s family sought supplies in the face of severe famine in Egypt, God had already put Joseph in place to provide for them. Now several hundred years later, that small tribe of 70 people has grown large in the rich, fertile lands of Egypt. So many, in fact, that the Egyptians feared and enslaved them. But God heard their cries and provided leadership in the person of Moses and liberation after the plagues brought on Egypt by Pharaoh’s stubborn heart. They were lead across the Red Sea in a miraculous way when the waters retreated before the people, but re-closed over the pursuing Egyptian army.
Now this large group of 12 tribes – some estimate over a million strong are in the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. They are no longer slaves, but they are no longer in the place they have been used to for over 300 years either. It’s a huge change and a risky one. If God were not with them, it would surely be a fatal disaster. Not surprisingly difficulties soon occur with a million people in a dessert wilderness. The supplies they brought with them from Egypt are running low and the Worry and Complaining starts to build. Cries of regret soon surface: “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
Change is nearly always a journey through the unknown wilderness. There is safety in what has always been. The unknown always carries risks. You might think that given the familiarity and power of this epic in the Christian tradition we might be better embracers of change. But we are just as much in need of daily reassurance as we have always been. The wilderness of uncertainty is a necessary part of the journey to the land of promise as every generation. Each and every one of us needs to discover or rediscover their reliance on God and draw near to the life-giving presence of the Lord: who is truly real food and real drink. Perhaps the hardest thing of all for religious people to accept (even if they firmly believe it) is that God’s provision is always gift. It’s a gift provided as its needed. But we want it now, right up front where we can see it and so rely on known resources, not faith. We are told to ask for ‘daily bread’, to be reliant on the Lord and not seek to be independent of God. Grace is the word, indeed all is Grace whether we choose to admit it or not. We’ve been talking a lot about grace lately, but that is because it is central to who and who’s we are.
God’s provision for Israel in the wilderness is an excellent case study in grace. First notice that God is not distant and uncaring. God sees and God hears. The people are not chastised for expressing very real needs to God. God knows they need food and water, so God acts in providing grace saying: “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions.  On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.” God also provided quail that would come into the camp each evening. Bread and meat and a few verses later Moses is told to strike a rock to provide fresh water as well.
Did you notice that God’s provision doesn’t come pre-packaged? It required some significant time and labor to take advantage of it. When the Israelites first saw God’s grace they exclaimed ‘What is it’? We learn more about it in Numbers 11 where it says: “The manna was like coriander seed and looked like resin.  The people went around gathering it, and then ground it in a hand mill or crushed it in a mortar. They cooked it in a pot or made it into loaves. And it tasted like something made with olive oil.  When the dew settled on the camp at night, the manna also came down.” Manna is a great expression of God’s grace. It was provided new each day. It could not be hoarded. If you tried to keep extra anytime but just before the Sabbath, it spoiled and stank and bred worms. Grace cannot be hoarded either. It is to be received with gladness and shared the same way. What we try to hoard exclusively for ourselves and keep for later goes rotten.
Matte of fact, Greed with respect to Manna turned out not to be possible as the story goes one to explain Exodus 16:16-18 NIV  … ‘Everyone is to gather as much as they need. Take an omer for each person you have in your tent.’  The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little.  And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed. This is not a rational situation, but it is a powerful lesson about grace.
Steve Garnaas-Holmes, a retired Methodist Minister who writes the “Unfolding light” blog puts it like this:
The word “Manna” in Hebrew sounds like “What is it?”It’s not a name, it’s a question.
There is no handle for grace. No tag, just a tug.
No logic, just wonder.
You can’t name it, understand, measure it.
You can only take it in. Like a kiss.
Grace comes to you. It leaves a taste in your mouth.
All you can do is receive it, and wonder.
And live the question.
What was the response to this grace? Did all the complaining stop? Well, unfortunately no, not for very long anyway. They are quite human after all, so we shouldn’t be surprised to read in Numbers 11:4-6 NIV  The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat!  We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.  But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna! ” God was known to his people in dramatic ways during the exodus – through parting seas; Daily food in the desert, Water from a rock, guidance by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night; and protection from their many foes. And still, they complained. People are just that way. We might like to claim we would have done better, but I doubt that is the case. We are just as prone to love certainty and comfort as they were – if not more so. God was forming a group of slaves into a people – a nation in fact, to take possession of the promised land, but day to day issues clouded their vision as it does ours as well.
The great lesson of Scripture is God’s “Nevertheless”. Nevertheless, in spite of their ill reception to the grace of Manna, God continued to supply it – everyday for 40 Years the Manna came each morning, excepting Sabbaths until they entered into the promised land. Nevertheless, in spite of journeying in the wilderness, they had water to drink. In that wilderness, as we will read in the weeks to come, they were lead to Mt Sinai and given the law – which they did not keep. Nevertheless – God was gracious, o yes, there were always consequences, but grace abounded. No wonder Paul looked back on these stories when he thought of his Savior, Jesus Christ. He wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 NIV  For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea.  They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.  They all ate the same spiritual food  and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.
Jesus himself declares in John 6:35 NIV after feeding the multitude with a little boys lunch, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” God’s grace provides both our Physical and Spiritual needs as well. To the woman at the well he offered living water. Not just physical water. God’s providence sustained his people daily, both physically and spiritually. They learned to trust their dependance on God. Out there in the wilderness – there was little other choice, but it was more than just the physical things. God used those to teach spiritual lessons as well. Through the Manna and the water, and the law, God revealed himself as gracious, loving and merciful. It all points to God’s truest work which is eternal life. Life here – full and abundant in fellowship with God and Neighbor – AND – life without end with God in eternity.
Jesus himself is the bread from heaven – the ultimate gift of God given in fulfillment of his promises to Israel so long ago. So the question before us now is: Having received so great a gift, How are we to respond? Paul gives us a great clue in the todays reading from Philippians 2:12-16 NIV —continue to work out (hear that as live out) your salvation with fear and trembling,  for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.  Do everything without grumbling or arguing,  so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky  as you hold firmly to the word of life.
Yes, we probably may grumble a little from time to time, but God’s grace is sure, even when we are not. Come to the table of Grace, set before you to strengthen you as you go out to live lives worthy of that grace as God gives you opportunity.