It truly was astounding, though we might not catch it at first. You can be sure the first century Jews standing around Jesus would have heard the radical idea in his words. In the gospel, many had run after Jesus; they saw him with so little feed the 5,000+ so well that there was so much left over… They’d arrived breathless to ask for more bread. And he promised a way to “never go hungry” and “never be thirsty.”
Now the appeal of that is probably hard for us to imagine in 21st century America. Unless you’ve lived on the street, had to dumpster-dive for dinner, it’s generally like this: if we want food we go to the fridge. And we relate hunger and thirst to the mouth-watering anticipation of a bacon-laden brunch at Blue’s Egg; food and drink is flavor and savor and friends. Very infrequently do we relate hunger and thirst with life and death. Not often would we even consider what it’d be like to never have to eat or drink again – because food for us isn’t a “have to”, it’s a “want to”. It’s hard for us to catch the flavor of Jesus’ words… But this morning the people of Israel in Exodus provide us a chance to shift our frame of reference, to consider Gods’ promise to provide in the best way. This morning, let’s step out of this air conditioned comfort from our padded pews and onto the sere and searing desert sand in the Wilderness of Sin.
It is a wind and sun blasted landscape. 45 days out of Egypt, the sons of Israel find that the hot sand sticks between their toes in a new and annoying way now. Before their eyes: the canted ridges of red rock shimmer, mirage mountains in the midday heat. On their skin: sweat beads because temperatures rise as they ascend from the seaside plain to the brittle, cracked plateau. And in their heads: for as far as they can see, of what little they can see, there’s nothing to see except dead, dry desert – the Wilderness of Sin. Its Arabic name means something like “thorn” – like maybe it was a big bother. And from Exodus you heard how it was a thorn in Israel’s side. A temptation: the daunting sight of wilderness through which they’d wander carrying and pulling all their stuff, wondering how they’d last, gambling that God would provide – and maybe, as they feared these things, it was just about lunchtime…
You heard where Israel found themselves: as one, grumbling against Moses and Aaron with this accusation, “You brought us out here to kill us off by hunger!” And with this twisted perspective: “It was great in Egypt! Princes we were… with the pots of meat and the artisan bread! But now…now we wander this wilderness, hungry and thirsty! No end in sight, no plan on paper, always on the road and always one foot in the grave!”
“To never hunger, never thirst…not even in this Wilderness of Sin” – that’s exactly what they wanted. But it’s also what they thought impossible, because it was hard to see how they could depend on God to provide. And it shouldn’t have been! Think about what God did for Israel; what they’d seen. Piles on piles of frogs, hail-blasted crops, bloody rivers, death on a “firstborn-wide” scale – all before they even got on the road. Then they trailed their fingers in standing walls of water, poked at the shapes moving in the briny shadows, felt the salt-spray on their faces. They walked in God’s providence: that dry way
through the sea…and they watched as he pulled that providence to wash Egypt’s army into the deep. How could they complain?
Just like we can. Just like we do. Not by some logical calculation of all we have or don’t have… No! As we enter these “wilderness” moments in the sinful world we might fret and fear, but it’s often like Israel. Maybe for you see fewer creature comforts out there. Maybe the stock market threatens to swallow your finances like sand dunes in the desert. You are alone because someone has died or left you. You have poor health with wealth. No wealth but health. No health, no wealth, but family. Whatever the struggle, most of us would have to say that God has provided us with so many blessings, even if there are tough patches. Instead, we allow all the sin we see or do to cloud over how God has specially provided for us. Just like he did for Israel, in this specific way…
Even after they complained, God promised to bring bread from heaven and to rain down meat from the sky. But v.4 gives the purpose. God said, “[By giving Israel bread], I will test them and see whether they will follow my commands.” That may seem like a bad word, test, but it’s also very special. Think about it from the father perspective. Dads, you test or prove your children. You give the responsibility of driving your car to your daughter so that she can show you how much she loves you by taking care of that car. When she makes her first drive to school and back you may not say it but you’re proud – she’s tested and approved. And when your son crashes the truck in a parking lot, you take the time to help him understand about careful driving and paying for damages – discipline and instruction. Here’s the thing though – Bobby down the street who wears his hat with that weird flat brim way – he does not get to touch your car – and you wouldn’t spend time disciplining him – he’s not your child. Just what Moses will say in his good-bye speech to Israel later on – after all their wandering – “as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you…” God tests his children – reminds us that we depend on his providence – most often with abundant blessings, sometimes with difficulties. He allows us to show our love for him in obedience to his commands and in trust that he will continue to lovingly provide for us. To paraphrase it, God gives us the opportunity to exercise the special relationship we have with him. Which is why he makes special promises, like those astounding words Jesus spoke in the gospel, “To never hunger, never thirst…”
When we’re tempted to grumble for whatever reason; when we give in… Sometimes it’s for simple frustration or fear, but very often, the underlying cause is that we’ve forgotten the astounding place we have with God, the kind that corresponds to astounding promises from him. It’s pictured well in v.10 as Israel gathers before the Lord. Suddenly the weight of the world shifts and every head turns… behold, in the wilderness, the glory of the Lord – that glowing, rolling, pillared cloud that passed between them and Pharaoh, that pressed Egypt’s army into Red Sea mud, that led them through the dark night and was the guidepost during the day. You can almost hear Israel realize: “Oh yes, that’s where we are… Not just the wilderness but the place where God is leading in all of his glory…”
I imagine a collective gulp from Israel. Because it ought to be scary to grumble against the Lord, then to turn and find him pillared there…waiting. It’s a reminder of what Moses and God himself said – that he hears our grumbling – he knows it. And what’s worse, you look to the end of our section, Israel’s actions are a reminder of what it’s like if our relationship with God is defined by how well we keep his commands – Israel couldn’t even pass the test for a week. Our sin should be the kind of thing that ends whatever relationship we have with God, or defines that relationship as fiery and painful. And yet that’s not why he appears with his glory to Israel. It’s always, every time, for the purpose of confirming the
saving love he’d promised them. For Israel, this time he fed them in the wilderness with bread from heaven. For us, he has sent the best food of all – the Bread of Life.
When we come running breathless from this wilderness and we fall at Jesus’ feet, of what does he remind us? That we don’t need to run after anything in this life – not even miraculous intervention by God himself – some bread from heaven. Jesus is the true bread from heaven – the food God’s supplied to keep us alive. If we’re worried about the validity of that kind of claim, “On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” In case we wonder about having that Father’s approval for ourselves – the work the Father loves is simply “to believe in [this] one he has sent.” And who is he? The one who “gives life to the world”, the “bread of life”, the one whose perfect life and payment for sin leaves nothing on the table, and supplies everything so that we will not ever be in need when it comes to a relationship with God – to never hunger, never thirst. It’s a glorious thing, really. Just like John said it in his first chapter, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”1
With Jesus, the truth is, that we live in the glory of the Lord. In OT Israel’s life, the glory of the Lord was a compelling thing. The word Moses uses for “glory” is a word that means something like “heavy” or “weighty”. You might think about it very physically – something that’s very massive (significant), it weighs on space and time and draws other things to itself – like our sun does with the planets in our solar system. You might say that when God sends his Son into the world and into our lives, the trajectory of everything we know changes. No longer do we revolve around the things that we might need in this sin-filled wilderness. Rather, our lives move around something much brighter, more glorious – an astounding promise as glorious as God is. Paul said it well: “[W]e do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary, light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.”2
Exodus 16 isn’t really then a story about food, but about the kind of relationship God’s people can cherish with him and the kind of providing he does for them. We don’t have to wander in that wilderness of Sin, but we do depend on his gracious providence in this sin-filled life. And by his grace, we aren’t lost or alone, but we get to walk in his glory now until we know glory without compare. And along the way, just as he did for Israel, the Lord has given us bread to eat – the Bread of Life, our Savior Jesus Christ – by whom we are enabled to never hunger, never thirst.