Gathering of the Manna, Rijksmuseum
Exodus 16:2-4,12-15, John 6:24-35
We started last week by examining why the Eucharist is not more fruitful in our lives. And I believe there is another key that is made available to us in the readings today. If we are to live fully as the sons and daughters of God, if our spiritual lives are to grow, there is a truth we have to discover in our faith. And that truth is the goodness of God. Most of us would say we believe that God is good. But do we really believe it? That God is always good in our lives. Sometimes things can go wrong, even very wrong in our lives. But all spirituality flows out of this truth of the goodness of God. When we find this, it will become a rock on which we can build our lives. And then, we can trust God. It is the beginning of faith. Our lives can begin to change. But it is something we have to discover for ourselves. And it involves a journey. We see this illustrated well in the first reading.
Israel has started walking on their journey from Egypt. As we meet them today, it has been forty-five days since they left Egypt. And it has been eventful. Let me recount something of what has happened so far. They left Egypt after a great display of God’s power on their behalf, when the ten plagues swept the land and the Egyptians practically begged them to go. They were the victors. God was good. The feeling was amazing. But it didn’t last too long. They were out only a few days, maybe a week, when Pharoah started chasing them again. They realise he is after them and they panic. They start complaining, rebelling against Moses. This was flawed from the start. We could have served the Egyptians but now we are going to die in the wilderness. They have already forgotten, just how they were rescued and the God who is going before them – who hasn’t disappeared. And here, comes the defining event of Israel’s life. God splits the sea into two and delivers them from Pharoah, who is drowned in the same sea. There would never be a work of God as great as this, bar the Resurrection, before or after. They come out, realising what has happened – and they sing and dance for joy. But then, the pattern continues. They run out of water and complain again. Several days later, having had the water they needed, they complain that they don’t have meat. It was better in Egypt. It was better to be in bondage, in our routine than here where life is uncertain. Once again God provides.
There is miraculous bread that rains from heaven, every day, for forty years. Bread in the morning and quails in the evening. When the people first see it, they do not even know what it is, so that it becomes known as ‘what is it’ – manna hu? And the first appearance of the bread is in the context of bitter complaining of Israel. This manna, like all the other miracles, including the parting of the Red Sea were a sign that God was taking care of them. The food was a sign that they will have what they needed to reach the promised land. It was God who guaranteed their freedom.
But the first generation of Israel which would witness the manna would die in the wilderness without entering the promised Land. They would eat the manna for forty years, the very food which was to help them enter the promised land – and they would perish in the wilderness. They would see the miracles but never understand the meaning. And they would never be able to enter into the freedom that God wanted to give them. It is important that we realise that Israel were no better or worse than us. These are written for our understanding. But how is it, that those who witnessed such great miracles could complain about relatively smaller things? And wanting to go back to Egypt for that? To walk in the desert and run out of water is a scary thing. It is a serious problem, but not when you know the God who destroyed Pharoah for you is with you.
I would like to suggest that maybe it was that having gone through so much, they had expected their problems to be over by now. And it wasn’t. They had come out of Egypt and expected to go straight into the promised land. Except, after a few days, they were still in the desert. Their good life hadn’t yet happened. They were miserable in Egypt, but they knew their way around their misery. Where they could get meat and water. What they needed to do to stay alive. Now that seeming control was gone. Each time there is a crisis, their primal fears kick in and it becomes a trigger for rebellion. We are going to die and nobody cares. The root of their complaint comes in a similar crisis that happens later – ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’ (Ex 17:7). But he was, very physically. There was a pillar of fire and cloud that went with them. It was more a question of God’s goodness and his plan for them. Their salvation was not happening according to their timetable, and they are not sure what God is doing.
This is similar for us. We can be sure of God’s goodness one moment, but things don’t go according to plan and we begin to doubt. Is God really with us, in this? Sometimes a sickness lasts far longer than we hoped. A financial problem, a difficult job. These are hard. And it becomes hard to believe that God is there with us then and doing something for our good. Trust can only be built slowly, with time. And for untrusting Israel – and us – God gives the same remedy. They are to fetch only the amount of manna they need every day. This small exercise was forcing them, to learn through experience, that God took care of their daily problems – and he would turn up tomorrow. To us, Israel’s heirs, God gives the same exercise. We are taught to pray, Give us today, our daily bread. God will give us enough grace today, to go through whatever we need to. He is there with us today. We can be sure he will turn up tomorrow as we need him, for a future we do not know, but he does (I am reminded of this post by the singer Nightbirde, who conveys the same through her experience, far better than I ever will!)
When we go through difficulty, we can be at two extremes. We can confine God to church, not believing that God might be interested in our everyday lives and problems. We pursue all other means for its solving. On the other hand, we can bring this to our prayer, but make immediate relief the test of God’s goodness and presence in our lives. But God is aware of our situation. If he takes longer, there is something he is working, for our good (Rom 8:28). Conversion is where we progressively hand the reigns of our life over to God. We present our problems to him in our prayers but know that God is working in his time. As we walk with him, God gives us the true manna from heaven – the Eucharist. It is the pillar of fire, the infallible sign of his presence with us. And if we know he is good, we can have joy in the journey. We can reach our promised land.