Sermon from January 19: Bread of Heaven

Bread of Heaven
Epiphany II (O. T. 2); January 19, 2020
Exodus 16:1-21

I was looking through some things the other day and I happened across a note from February 1988; a member of the church I was serving (in Arizona) had written to my mother to express her appreciation for my sermon the previous Sunday. I remember that day: the House of Representatives of Arizona had just impeached the Governor, and the prospect of his trial and removal from office was tearing us apart. I don’t remember what I preached about, except that I remember calling upon the faithful to pray for the Senate, to pray for the Governor, and to pray for the people of Arizona.

I don’t know why my Mother kept that note, except that she kept nearly everything, but I know why I’m keeping it now that it has come to me: it is manna. It is bread from heaven. What I’m about to say is not meant to elicit anything from you – please don’t take it that way – but to tell you something of what God does for me. Much of the time I feel as though I’m wasting my life, as though I am not doing anything worthwhile, and there are often those who volunteer to point that out to me, sometimes forcefully. But once I preached a sermon that helped someone so much that she sent my mother a note to express her appreciation. God feeds me bread of heaven when I am choking on the ashes the world offers.

Last Sunday we read how God saved the Hebrew people from the Egyptians’ pursuit; they crossed the Red Sea and were free to start making their way to the Promised Land. After about six weeks they began to complain that they didn’t have enough to eat. Their memories are faulty: they remember “sitting by the fleshpots” when in fact they were working as slaves on the Pharaoh’s construction projects, but it is true that they ate. So they complain against Moses and Aaron; God responds by giving them “bread from heaven.”

When they saw it, they didn’t know what it was; they said (in Hebrew), “Man hu?” which means, “What is it?” From that question, “Man hu?” comes the word manna. One thing you can think whenever someone says the word “manna” is the question, “What is this stuff?” You and I may not recognize the bread of heaven when it comes. If you take time to think about it this afternoon – and this sounds like a good topic for your Sunday dinner conversation – you may realize that God has answered a need of yours in a way that you did not immediately recognize. “Man hu?” you said. What is this stuff?

I hope you and I can learn to express our need for bread from heaven in some way other than complaining about it. I wonder what God would have done if the people had begun to pray, “Lord, we’re hungry; please help us.” The Lord sometimes has strange ways of answering and the answers aren’t always immediate, but the Lord does respond to prayer. Sadly, every time the people of the Exodus have a need, they seem to express it by complaining, by accusing Moses of taking them into the wilderness to kill them, or by whining that they should have stayed in Egypt. I hope you and I find better, more positive ways to express our need than by whining. But whether whining or praying, God gives the bread of heaven.

Some connected thoughts. When the Devil tempted Jesus to turn the stones into bread, the Lord replied that a human being does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3). Sometimes what we need is something to eat, and that is what comes to us; but very often the manna that God gives is something you can’t put your hands on but what you really need. You think you need a particular job but what God gives you is a change of perspective. You think you need to win the lottery but what you receive is the encouragement to keep going. You get my drift.

I frankly don’t want to get into the question of what “really” happened in response to the people’s hunger. That God should provide enough honey-wafers to feed 600,000 people every day for forty years seems a bit far-fetched, but I’m willing to accept it. And I’m also willing to accept your skepticism, because I can’t see a literal-historical reading of this story as an article of faith. The story is what it is, and it shows God responding to human need. And I know that God does respond to human need, sometimes in surprising ways. Man hu? What is this stuff?

But there are also ordinary things that God provides, day after day, that feed us with the bread of life. God has given us the Bible, a compendium of sacred stories and thoughtful reflections, and holy poetry, all intended to feed our spirits with the presence of God. God has given us the ministry of preaching, wherein a flawed, human interpreter enters into the holy place and struggles to come out of it with a word from the Lord. God has given us the Sacraments, reminding us that everything spiritual is also material, that God saves through water, that God feeds our spirits with Christ just as bread and wine feed our bodies. God gives us prayer; God gives us wise writers and teachers and mentors who help us keep our focus. These things are so unsurprising that sometimes you may even find them boring. You may also find oatmeal boring, but I can hardly start a winter day without it.

The other side of God’s giving us all this is our duty to receive it obediently. Moses carefully gave the people instructions about the manna: collect just as much as you need for the day (except Fridays; there won’t be any on Saturday, so collect twice as much on Friday – verses 22 to 30). Some people didn’t listen; they thought they needed to have extra – whether they wanted a snack at midnight or they didn’t believe there really would be manna the next day, I don’t know. At any rate, they didn’t listen, it went foul, and Moses was angry. I didn’t keep reading, but if you read on in the story you’ll see that Moses was quite clear that there would be no manna on Saturday – the Sabbath – so don’t bother looking for it. Some folks went out looking anyway, so Moses got angry again.

Our duty is to receive obediently the bread of heaven that God gives us. God gives us the Bible; it does you no good if you don’t read it. God gives you preaching; it does you no good if you don’t pay attention. God gives you the Sacraments; they do you no good if you ignore your Baptism and you stay away from the Lord’s Supper. I would like to go into a rant right now about the Church’s failure to be obedient about the Lord’s Supper by making it so rare, but I’ll let that go for now. People give all sorts of excuses, including “It wouldn’t be special,” but the root of the problem still is disobedience. God provides the bread of heaven, but doesn’t force-feed it.

Here’s one more connected thought to finish with. Once Jesus was having a heated conversation with a crowd, and they said to them, “God gave our ancestors bread from heaven to eat. What work are you doing?” Jesus responded that the manna that Moses arranged for was not the true bread from heaven. “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Then he added, “I am the bread of life.” (John 6:30-35)

The reason the Bible feeds us is the Bible is the testimony to Jesus Christ. The word of the preacher is to point us to Jesus Christ. The Sacraments of God make us part of the life of Jesus Christ. These are all good in various ways, but they feed our need because they bring Jesus Christ to us. I don’t really need that note sent to my Mother to be my manna, because the Lord Jesus witnesses to me that my value is in the reality that I am part of his life. But the note helps.

Feed on Jesus Christ. Start reading the Gospels, if you haven’t, and get to know your Savior. Listen for testimony about Jesus in preaching. As you go about your day, look for and listen for signs of the presence and work of Jesus Christ in and around you. Take advantage of the Sacraments. A note: the Presbyterian Church publishes a wonderful guide for daily prayer, and every morning there is a prayer of thanksgiving for baptism. It helps me to remember that I am not my own Savior and that I depend on God by giving thanks, every morning, for my baptism.

That may be the take-away you and I need as confident, middle-class North Americans: as self-reliant as we think we are, if we are honest we realize that we depend on God for our lives. Day after day, as the people saw the manna, they knew they depended on God. So do you and I: we depend on God for the bread of heaven.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska


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