I have to admit, every time I read through this part of the book of Exodus, I am just amazed at the behavior of the Israelites. If there was ever a group of people who should know from first hand experience that when God promises to do something, He will do it, it should be the Israelites.
Consider this: just one month earlier, they had found themselves in quite the predicament. After all the plagues that afflicted the Egyptians, after the final plague of death, they were finally released from Egypt and were beginning their treck to the promised land. It should have been clear to them even then that their freedom was not a result of their own work or effort, it was all the work of God. But now, Pharoh has changed his mind and he has sent his forces out to intercept the Israelites. And it appears they’re trapped. They are outnumbered by the Egyptian army. And on the other side is the Red Sea. There’s no way for them to cross it.
Remember, God promised to deliver them to that Promised Land. They had His Word on it. And it was His mighty acts that allowed them to get this far. Yet, what do they do when it appears that it’s going to take an act of God to save them? They approach Moses and say: “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than die in the wilderness.” (Ex. 14:12) They don’t trust that God follows through.
So what happens? God, through His servant Moses, parts the Red Sea, and the Israelites are able to pass on dry land. They see the water of the sea surrounding them, but they’re dry. It’s clear to them this isn’t Moses doing, this certainly isn’t their doing. It’s all God’s doing. And once they make it across, God causes a confusion in the pursuing Egyptian ranks, and they are swallowed up by the sea and every last one of them drown. The lesson they saw first hand was this: God would provide a way for them to make it to where He promised to deliver them. Even though when they first arrived at the Red Sea they couldn’t see a way out, God provides one for them.
Now, just one month removed from that, there’s another obstacle. The people are getting hungry. There’s no Sheetz or Giant stores along the way to buy food. There’s no source of food period. Now remember, it wasn’t that long ago they saw God’s mighty hand to first deliver them out of Egypt, and then allow them to pass through on the Red Sea. One would think that having seen that, they would simply trust that even though it doesn’t look like there’s any way they’ll eat, that God will somehow provide food for them. Yet, what do they do? They approach Moses and Aaron and say:
“Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:2b-3)
There is a lot to their statement here. First of all, they’re longing for the meat pots they remember in their former life in Egypt. But what they have forgotten is this: they were slaves. Slaves very rarely, if ever, were given meat. If they were so fortunate to have ever eaten any meat at all, it would have been on their best day, not an every day occurrence. And even then, it still was with the shackles and chains of slavery. Slavery they cried out to God to be freed from. At this point, they’re willing to trade their freedom for the shackles and chains of slavery over a piece of meat!
We do have to be careful here and clearly state this: the sin of the Israelites isn’t in their hunger. The sin at play here is this: they refuse to trust in God for all things. They are allowing their current situation to be their god if you will. They are allowing themselves and their concerns and worries to be their god.
At this point, its easy for us, especially knowing the end of the story, to sit back and simply say “What is wrong with you people? How could you have gone through that crossing of the Red Sea and still have any doubt at all that God will provide for all of your needs?” After all, that is what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, right? In explaining this petition of the prayer, Martin Luther puts it this way in the Small Catechism:
“Give us this day our daily bread. What does this mean? God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving. What is meant by daily bread? Daily bread includes everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.” 4th Petition of The Lord’s Prayer, Luther’s Small Catechism.
So with that in mind, before we do get too hard on the Israelites for their grumbling, we have to admit, there’s a lot of them in us, isn’t there? The fact is, we grumble. We complain. We worry. We doubt. We’ve seen first hand in the accounts of the Bible how God provides for the needs of His people time and again. We pray all the time “Give us this day our daily bread”, but then, we complain what we have isn’t good enough. Sure, I have food on the table, but it’s not what my neighbor is eating all the time. I don’t have as nice of a house or car as that person has. I’ve lost my job, and I don’t know how we are going to pay for a roof over our heads, put clothes on our backs, and put food on the table next month, let alone pay for all the other stuff we’ve become accustomed to!
Honestly, if we take a look at ourselves, we find that all too often, we are just like those Israelites in the desert, and those Jews in the Gospel lesson, following Jesus around, expecting Him to provide for our wants as long as we do the right thing.
And to be perfectly honest, it would make perfect sense if God were to have said to those Israelites in the text: “How dare you doubt me! How in the world can you doubt that I will provide food for you after what I did at the Red Sea? Since you don’t believe in me well enough, then forget it. You can just starve to death out there in the desert and I’ll find someone else who can do a better job than you!” No.
What does God do? He provides bread in the form of manna in the morning. There’s no reason for it to be there. All the Israelites have to do is go out and gather it off the ground. It’s there. And then, in the evening, quail appear in the camp. There’s no reason for it to show up, yet it’s there. It’s going to be clear that this is all God’s doing. It wasn’t Moses work. It certainly wasn’t their work of being “good enough” or having enough faith to make it happen. God provides the manna and the quail simply because that’s who He is. He delivers on His promises. He is sustaining their lives out there in the desert because He is going to be faithful, even when we are faithless.
And that’s the way it is with us yet today. We certainly don’t deserve any of the things God provides for us in this life. Especially the forgiveness and eternal life that our ours because of what Jesus Christ has done for us at the cross. And yet, St. Paul tells us in His letter to the Romans “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5;8) Notice that verse doesn’t say “When we were good enough” or “When we had stopped complaining” or “When we had been sincere enough.” The simple fact is this: God provides for our needs for this life, our daily bread, each day. Sometimes in ways we don’t expect. But more importantly, God provides our bread for eternal life, and that bread is His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ feeds us through His Word that points to Him as our Savior from sin, death, and the power of the devil. It is through Him we see that salvation is not a matter of what we do for God, because we’ll never be good enough. We see that because of what Christ does for us through His life, death, and resurrection, we have food that lasts forever. We have the means to live eternally because He provides it for us, just as God provided that food in the desert for the Israelites.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where a lot of people get this completely wrong. They are like the Jews in the gospel text who look to Jesus as the source of free food. They are only concerned with their comfort in this life. So they teach that “If you do enough good stuff, then God will give you what you want, God will make you healthy and wealthy and if you aren’t, well you must not believe hard enough, or be praying hard enough, or doing whatever it is you have to do in order for God to bless you.” This is the stuff of what we call “Prosperity Theology”. It sounds good to people like the grumbling Israelites in the desert and the grumbling Jews in the Gospel lesson. “give me stuff for right now!’ Give me something to eat right now! Give me what I want when I want it or I won’t believe you anymore!” It’s a faith that looks at right here, right now, and looks beyond what the miracles actually point to. It sounds “practical.” It sounds comfortable. Yet it’s a faith that seeks comfort for this life only, and is based on a standard that no one can ever meet.
So it is a good thing that out there in the wilderness, God shows His mercy and love for His people by providing for their needs of food. And it’s a good thing for you and me that He doesn’t provide for our needs today based out of our sincerity or good behavior. But more importantly is this: God doesn’t just provide for our needs in this life, He provides what we need for eternal life, and that is forgiveness of our sins which is solely dependent upon the work of His Son, Jesus Christ. For just as God provides bread for His people of old in the wilderness, He provides bread for eternal life in His Son.
And what’s even more amazing is this: God doesn’t just provide this once. He continues to shower the Bread of Life on us richly and daily. Through the preaching of His Word, and in the administration of the Sacraments, the Holy Spirit works through these means to feed our hungry souls with that Bread of Life, to hear the good news that we are forgiven, that we are set free, that there is a better day coming, that this time in this wilderness of a sinful, fallen, world will come to an end and He will deliver us in His time to a land flowing with milk and honey, a land where we will never be hungry or thirsty or in want ever again. A land that is ours all because of what the Bread of Life has done for us with His life, death, and resurrection. Thanks be to God we have been fed with that bread that endures to eternal life, this day, and may He continue to feed us with that Bread until we reach that promised destination in Christ. Amen.