Summary: Ordinary Proper 13 - Just as Augustine writes about the perils of the journey on the way to the City of God - the Israelites also took their eyes off the prize. But God accompanied them and fed them - just as He does for us.
Augustine of Hippo – or simply, St. Augustine – is one of the great thinkers with which the Church has been blessed. His influence on Christian thought has been profound. Since Martin Luther was first an Augustinian monk – St. Augustine’s influence even touches us today as 21st century Lutherans.
St. Augustine wrote a book called, "The City of God". In that book, Augustine paints a picture of two cities – a ‘City of Man’ and a ‘City of God’. He describes the ‘City of Man’ as that whole realm of thinking that places its trust in political systems and in false religions. Its inhabitants are those who have put their trust in these things. The ‘City of God’ is populated by people who cleave to the hope offered in the New Jerusalem – that city that we all look forward to moving toward in heaven. Its inhabitants are those that cling to the virtues and values of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Now, these two cities were not meant to represent actual places, but simply two ways that people engage life.
Augustine makes a sharp contrast between the inhabitants of the two cities. In effect, Augustine challenges us to think about which city we inhabit. He lifts up a vision of eternal peace and blessedness as he contemplates the ‘City of God’. Augustine shows how throughout history God has been marching his people toward his city. He points out that God’s plan is so wonderful, so magnificent, and so grand – that the minor setbacks and challenges that we face in everyday life, pale in comparison to what awaits us in the ‘City of God’.
So listen, friends, what does Augustine’s ‘City of God’ have to do with the wandering Israelites and with manna from heaven? More importantly, what does it have to do with us today? Let’s begin with the wandering Israelites in the desert. We know from the scriptures that God had freed these people from slavery in Egypt. He had done incredible and miraculous things to free the people that He loved. Through Moses, God led the people out of slavery and through the desert and on to the Promised Land. By doing this, God placed his people on the journey toward the ‘City of God’.
But along the way, the people found reasons to cling to the ‘City of Man’. They built a golden calf to take them back to pagan worship. They complained against God time and again. “We have no food – we had plenty in Egypt. We prefer to be there - or dead - rather than put up with the struggles of this journey.” Did you get it? They were on their way to the ‘City of God’ but claimed that slavery in Egypt was better – that being dead was better.
So again, God intervened. He sent manna – a kind of honey bread - from heaven. He sent layers of quail to give them meat. (Numbers: 2 cubits deep a day’s walk from the camp) But even this wasn’t enough for the people – they complained again – “We are sick of this food. We were better off in Egypt.”
Do you think that the people lifting up their needs to Him bothered God? No - God wants us to lift our petitions and our needs to Him. The problem was that the people did not trust God. They preferred to put their trust in false religion; in creature comforts; in things of this world. The people preferred the vision of the ‘City of Man’ and allowed it to overshadow the vision of the ‘City of God’. Not even manna from heaven – not even quail 3 feet deep in any direction - helped them to remain on the road to the ‘City of God’.
One day after Jesus had fed thousands of people with a few loaves of bread and a few fish, He and his disciples crossed the lake to serve another community. But the crowds that had been fed followed Him. When they found Jesus, He said to them: “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (John 6.26-27)
Clearly, the people to whom Jesus was talking had missed the point. They had gotten so overwhelmed with the journey that they missed the destination. What about us today? Do we let the ‘City of Man’ override the vision of God’s City? Has the journey become all about me, and my choices along the way, rather than the destination? I have to tell you that falling into this trap is all too easy.