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Sermon VI: The Lord provides manna in the wilderness; Text: Exodus 16: 2-15

Surprise Party in the Wilderness

The Rev. Dr. Ross M. Wright
The Church of the Good Shepherd
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2017
Text: Exodus 16:2-15

I can think of at least two good reasons for turning our attention to the story of the manna that the Lord provided in the wilderness. The first reason is that this passage was vitally important to Jesus. Our Lord returned to his passage throughout his life. At the beginning of his ministry, when tempted by Satan to turn stones to bread, he quoted the words that Moses used to summarize the meaning of this episode in Israel’s life: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”[1] Later, when Jesus fed five thousand people, he gave new meaning to the manna:

“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died … I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”[2]

Again, Jesus alludes to manna in the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us today our daily bread.” Lord, give us what we need to live for another day. Jesus teaches us that God can be trusted to provide for our daily needs as he provided the manna – day by day.

So, clearly our Lord knew this passage about the manna thoroughly. He heard sermons on it from the rabbis, just as we are hearing a sermon on it this morning. He meditated on it often. He lived by it. And this morning, he invites us to live by it, too.

But there is another reason for turning our attention to this account of God’s miraculous provision of manna in the wilderness. Like Israel, we are tempted to murmur against the Lord. To grumble. To doubt his goodness. We easily become discontent with our lot. Who is God for us in those moments when we feel anger, disappointment at God?

When our story opens, the Lord has just delivered the Israelites from the Egyptian charioteers by miraculously parting the waters of the Red Sea. The Lord is a liberating God. He hears the cry of his people when they are in bondage, and he intervenes.

But three days later, they discover that their food supplies have run out. The unleavened bread that they brought with them from Passover has been eaten. So, they murmur against 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 starve the whole congregation to death!”

Do you hear the bitterness in that compliant? They are essentially saying: The Lord is about to kill us in in this wilderness. He might as well have done it back in Egypt. At least there, we could have died on a full stomach. Moses perceives that this murmuring is an act of faithlessness. An act of rebellion against the Lord. By murmuring, they are testing the Lord. In Dt., They put Yahweh to the test, saying, “Is Yahweh among us or not?”

Like the Israelites, we have been liberated from oppression by a mighty act of God: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Like the Israelites, we are tempted to murmur against God. When we pray, and are disappointed. When we join a church, and then become disillusioned because the church has let us down. Much of adult life is about managing disappointments: things rarely turn out the way we expect. In these moments, we may find ourselves thinking: We had it better in Egypt. Is God for us or against us? When we murmur against God, we put God to the test.

And how does God respond? Let’s return to our text.

The Lord said to Moses, “I have heard the murmurings of the Israelites; say to them, ‘Between dusk and dark 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’.”

The Lord reassures Moses that he hears the murmuring of the people – just as previously, when they were in Egypt, their cry of oppression went up to him. He is about to intervene miraculously by providing quail in the evening and manna in the morning. But notice that this gift from the Lord is also a test:

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. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.’

So, the Israelites test the Lord by their murmuring. The Lord responds by providing for them – and turns it around, so that it is they who are being tested, rather than the Lord. The test: will they accept the gift and enjoy the gift as it is intended by God? Or will they seek to hoard it, control it, use it on their own terms?

The first thing that the Israelites say when they see the flaky substance on the ground is: “What is it?” The two Hebrew words: Man hu, a variation of the Hebrew phrase: What is it? Later in chapter 16, there is a description of the manna: “It was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.”[3]

So, what is this mysterious substance? There seems to be an irresistible temptation to find a natural explanation for the manna. Interpreters have offered any number of theories. Here is one theory that I find plausible. In the Sinai Peninsula, there is a natural phenomenon that seems to correspond closely to what is described in Exodus. The tamarisk tree is abundant in the region, and under certain conditions, the fruit of that tree produces “a yellowish-white flake or bud.” It is “rich in carbohydrates and sugar” and sweet to the taste. Natives in the region still collect it and bake it into a kind of bread, which they call “manna.” This flaky substance appears in the cool of the morning, but as the temperature increases, it disintegrates.[4]

But even if that theory, or something like it, were true, the manna is still a miracle. Even if the substance were some natural substance from a tamarisk tree, it would be a miracle if it produced six days a week, and then ceased production on the seventh – and then, to make up for the seventh day, it produced double on the sixth day. Likewise, with the quail. It is certainly plausible that a bevy of quail might appear in the evening. But every evening – for forty years?

What are we to take from this miraculous account? The God who created all things also sustains all things. Normally, he does this thorough the natural process that can be observed in the natural world. But the Lord is free to override these natural processes. He is not a slave to his own creation. And when the Lord does intervene miraculously, the miracle corresponds in some way to the natural processes of creation. God did not open the heavens and lower a buffet line. As we have seen several times in Exodus, God often works through a combination of what we would call natural and supernatural forces. The miraculous or supernatural aspect is clear by a surprising feature of the manna. The Lord commands the Israelites to gather only what they need for their household: an omer per person per day. But when they gather it, some take more than they need, others gather less. The surprise is that when it comes time to measure the manna by the omer, they discover that the one who gathered too much ended up with just what was needed, and the person who did not gather enough was not short. Each ended up with just the amount needed.

The purpose of this miracle is to teach the Israelites that the manna could not be hoarded. If they tried to store up manna for several days, it spoiled. The bread came “morning by morning.” It came “in God’s time, according to his plan.” It could not be stored as a hedge against the future. And if you came too late, “it vanished in the heat of the sun.”[5]

What is the manna? It is food, to be sure – but it is more than that. By providing food, God reveals his goodness and his generosity. To use a New Testament word, manna is the grace of God, which is revealed fully in our Lord Jesus Christ. And what is grace? Grace is the reality of God’s presence. Grace is the assurance of pardon: release from the accusation of our sins. Grace comes when God enables us to use our gifts to serve others as Christ serves us. Grace comes to us like someone rising from the dead.[6]

We must look for it every day. Every day is a new beginning. Every day is a new occasion to come to God with our needs, asking: Lord, “give us this day our daily bread.” And we may ask not only for our needs, but for the needs of others. The Lord sent manna and quail, because the Israelites had not eaten for three days. Whenever we read Exodus 16, we need to remember that an alarming percentage of the world’s population does not have enough to eat. If you worried about food recently, you probably worried about eating too much rather than too little. As we reflect on this passage this morning, there are high school students in Richmond and fellow Anglicans in Sub Sahara Africa who don’t know where their next meal will come from. It may be that God is calling us to be the answer to their prayer for daily bread. It is the Lord, the giver of life and of grace, who provides; we may be the instruments he uses to provide food for the hungry. I hope that you will keep this in mind as we think about how to offer tangible support to those who are suffering so terribly from the recent hurricanes.

Jerry Garcia of the Grateful sang: “I need a miracle every day.” He was right. We do need a miracle every day. The problem is that in the song, the miracle refers to a woman, to a relationship: “I need a woman ’bout twice my height. Statuesque, raven-tressed, a goddess of the night.” What we need, what the world needs, is the grace of God: like manna, that comes as a miracle – every day.

[1] Deut. 8.3.
[2] John 6.59, 51.
[3] Ex. 16.30
[4] Terrence E. Fretheim, Exodus: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 1991), 182.
[5] Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974), 289.
[6] Karl Barth, “Erklärung des Epheserbrief,” Lectures delivered in Göttingen, winter semester, 1921/1922; my translation.