By Victor Lee Austin
It had been one month, just one month, since the Israelites had been delivered from their 400 years in Egypt, years which began as a refuge and peace but turned into oppression and bondage. At this time Moses is how old? Can we say 40? Then for at least 40 years, until just last month when they escaped, it was Pharaoh’s policy to kill the male Hebrew children upon birth (the policy failed of complete success because of lax surveillance technology — and the courageous hearts of the midwives).
The Hebrews were slaves who made bricks for public works projects. They were worked to death, oppression upon oppression. And just one month ago, the final plague that the Lord brought upon Egypt was finally too much: and they were let go. Yet almost at once Pharaoh sent his chariots racing after them. God delivered the Israelites from the chariots and their horsemen, opening the sea as on dry land for them to cross, then closing in the sea over their enemies. Free at last, they were; thank God Almighty, free at last!
Then Moses led them into the wilderness, and it took (wait for it) three days for the people to begin murmuring against Moses: they were thirsty and there was no water fit to drink. Moses, instructed by God, fixed the situation, but it was a lesson not learned. What then happened was manna, today’s lesson from the 16th chapter of Exodus.
The provision of manna comes early in the story of the Exodus (Israel leaving Egypt), and it comes about as a result of murmuring. It says something universal about the human heart, that almost immediately after liberation there was murmuring — widespread, universal murmuring. With quick-onset amnesia about how bad things had been, the people say: we should have stayed in Egypt.
What stunning forgetfulness! Decades if not centuries of oppression, including an effort at infanticide that aimed at genocide; inhuman working burdens; slavery; all of it just one month in their past — but now, complaints! The water tastes bad! We don’t have food!
The point about the manna is not that God heard their murmuring and provided food; the point is, rather, that God took their murmuring as the occasion to shape them into his people, a people that would remember him. They had experienced God as their liberator. They will become God’s people when they trust him and remember him.
So how do you learn to trust God? It starts with your belly. Trust God to give you the food you need. That’s today’s first lesson, although to understand it deeply, read the entire chapter, including the verses our lectionary omits. Later today, read chapter 16 from its beginning straight through to the end. There are two things to see.
The first is, the people must learn to trust God daily. God is going to give them manna every morning. What is manna? Precisely! “Manna” means “what is it?” — like the old joke, “who’s on first?” “No, what’s on first; who’s on second.” Manna is “what?” — and whatever it was, it was God’s daily gift of the food they would need.
Now manna had unusual properties. If you took a lot of it, you’d have no excess. If you tried to hoard it from one day to the next, it would go foul overnight and turn inedible. You had to trust that every morning God would give you again what you needed.
But you could get used to that, and forget God. So God does a second thing about manna. On top of daily trust in God, the people also had to learn to shape their lives in the godly pattern: six days of work, one day of rest. So, on the sixth day they were to gather twice as much, and keep half of it for the sabbath. On the night between the sixth and the seventh day (unlike any other night), the manna would not go bad and, furthermore, if the people went out in the morning of the sabbath, they would not find any manna to gather.
So manna was about two things: God shaping his people (1) to trust him day by day and (2) to follow him in such a way as to remember who God is, working for six days and resting on the seventh.
Now a word from Saint John. Jesus says: Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. Jesus teaches in the manner of a good rabbi: Don’t read it as ______ but rather read it as ______. The scripture says “he gave you bread from heaven.” Don’t take the “he” as Moses but as “my Father.” And don’t take the word as past tense (vocalizations, you may know, are not in the Hebrew text, so you can read many words in different ways) — don’t take it as “gave,” Jesus says, but as “gives.” What he means is that he himself is fulfilling the scripture: that in his own teaching Jesus is giving the true bread from heaven.
And that means, just as God through Moses was forming the Hebrew people, the forgetful, murmuring, slow-to-get-it people, so God through Jesus is forming us into a people. It’s happening now.
You and I don’t go outside every morning, with our murmuring hearts, looking for manna. But we do pray that God give us our daily bread. You and I don’t stay in on Saturday morning, expecting God not to give us work. But we do pray that our lives be shaped into a godly pattern, a pattern that reminds us what God is like in himself.
That’s why we’re here this morning.
It’s not, as they say, brain surgery. Christianity is actually rather simple. But we so quickly forget and turn to our own versions of murmuring. Jesus has a simple plan for us. (1) Trust in God every day. (2) Partake of the Eucharist every week. God knows we are just like those Hebrew people, which is to say like all people: we forget. A man was dead as a doornail on Friday but alive on Sunday — the most extraordinary and the central event of human history, but we tend to go on in our petty ways as if it never happened.
That’s why, holding the bread he was giving to us, he said: Do this in memory of me. He knew! At the Last Supper, about to give his life for us, Jesus knew what dimwits we would be! He knew we would forget (and murmur)! So he said: “Do this so that you remember me.” And so we have to remember, every week, once again.
Christianity is about being shaped — shaped in your mind, in your heart, in your habits, in your friends, in the things you love and the work you do: shaped in the double pattern of creation and redemption. Creation: God gives us everything. Daily manna, daily whatever it is, daily bread. Give us this day our daily bread. And redemption, which is creation done over again: Death on Friday, life on Sunday, the silent emptiness of the sabbath in between. The day and the week make us into Christian people. It is still happening: Do not say that Moses gave the bread, and do not say that Jesus gave the bread, but say: our heavenly Father gives us the bread.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is theologian in residence for the Diocese of Dallas and Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.