Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 20, 2020
Exodus 16:2-15 Commentary
This text is about grumbling and grace. To preach it powerfully, we need to hold those two opposites in dynamic tension. On the one hand, it is easy to be so tough on Israel’s ungrateful grumbling that we miss how completely human their complaints were. If we do that, we won’t see ourselves in them. On the other hand, it is easy to underestimate how gracious God was to them, in spite of their egregious sin. For God to give them exactly what they were grumbling about is a display of grace that should boggle our minds. That combination of understandable grumbling and incomprehensible grace points us to Jesus.
The first verse of Exodus 16 locates this episode in time and space. It is exactly one month after Israel’s exodus from Egypt (though some scholars think it was a month and a half). At any rate, they have been out in the desert for a long time. After living for years in the well-watered area of Goshen, they are now in a place where water was limited to the surprising miracle (like the one at Marah) and the expected oasis (like the one at Elim which they have just left). They are now headed further into the desert of Sin (no pun intended) away from the Promised Land, in fact, as far from it as they can get. They have been wandering for a long time and they are a long way from anywhere. Now their water crisis has become a food crisis.
Here’s their reaction. “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.” That word “grumbled” is repeated 7 times in 5 verses. That was the overwhelming, unanimous response of Israel to that place in time and space. What do they say in their grumbling? “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt. There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
Do they cry out to God for food? Do they confess their faith in the God who has delivered them from slavery and thirst in the past? Do they ask Moses and Aaron to intercede for them? No, they don’t say a word to God—not a prayer, not a confession of faith, not a reference to God’s promises. Instead, they express their desire to have died in Egypt along with Pharaoh’s people; “if only God hadn’t passed over us!” And they reject the leadership of Moses and Aaron, blaming them for their situation. They completely turn their backs on the God who has done miraculous things for them.
You would think that that their recent experiences of God gracious power would have resulted in a stronger faith than that. Well, if you think that, then perhaps you have never walked in their sandals. In our congregations, most people have never had a completely bare pantry or empty refrigerator. Most of us live close to stores or food pantries, or at least know family and friends who will lend us a few days’ worth of food to tide us over. Most us have never felt the grumbling of a completely empty stomach or heard a mother crying because she can’t feed her children or felt the helpless rage of a father who can’t provide for his family. Israel was completely out of food and they were many days and many miles away from any supplies. Their grumbling was understandable, because their “present anxiety distorted the memory of the recent past (New Interpreters Bible).”
Does that make their grumbling acceptable? No. As that quote from the NIB says, their grumbling was a distortion of reality. Yes, their hunger was real, but so was God’s past record and future promises. Yes, Egypt had been a place with plenty of food, but it was also a place filled with oppression and death. They should have known that God was bigger than any obstacle or problem they could ever face. They had seen that over and over. Rather than blaming their human leaders and forgetting their divine Redeemer, they should have cried out to God in faithful, hopeful desperation.
That would be one way to preach on this text—wag a finger of blame at Israel and at the small faith of today’s believers. We could preach a sermon on the sin of grumbling. The Apostle Paul did in I Corinthians 10:10 and John Calvin often chided his congregation about how grumbling was a rejection of the gracious providence of God. Preaching against grumbling might do our people a lot of moral good.
But that’s not where our text goes, because that’s not what God does in our text. You would think that God would give them a good tongue lashing for their towering ingratitude and nasty grumbling and invisible faith. But he doesn’t do that. Oh yes, he acknowledges that he has heard their incessant grumbling, and he isn’t happy about it. But instead of chiding them, he provides for them. “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.”
That is incomprehensible grace. After all God had done for them, he might have said, “I’m done! You can go back to Egypt. I will not pass over you the next time; I will pass through you as I did with those cruel Egyptians. I will leave you to die out here just as you say.” Instead, God gives them exactly what they need, even though they don’t have the faith to ask for it. I heard a preacher say yesterday, “It all depends on you. God will provide, but it all depends on your faith.” Well, not here. Here God by his grace gives to people who don’t have the faith to ask for his blessing.
There’s more to it than that, of course. God doesn’t give bread and meat and then just disappear into the desert. No, God has more in mind. He wants this experience of grace to do something deeply spiritual to Israel, just as he does with us. “In this way, I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions.” From the beginning of his creation of human beings and from the beginning of his covenant of grace, God has wanted people to love and obey him freely, so that he can have a real relationship with us, not a pre-programmed, robotic response. That has always required that there be a test, commands to be obey (or disobeyed). Think of how God tested Adam and Eve with that tree.
Here, God tests his people with simple instructions about how to collect and share the bread from heaven. Each day they are to gather the manna for that day. Don’t take more than a day’s supply. (“Give us this day our daily bread.”) Share if you have more than you need. On the sixth day, collect twice as much as on other days. It will last for the Sabbath, even though the surplus on other days will rot and be eaten by worms. Simple instructions, with profound intentions.
In this provision of and instructions about the bread and meat, God wants to teach his people the most important lesson in life. Your God is Yahweh who has delivered you from Egypt, and all the glory is his and his alone. “In the evening you will know that it was Yahweh who brought you out of Egypt and in the morning you will see the glory of Yahweh….” In the parting of the Red Sea and the defeat of Pharaoh, Yahweh gained the glory (Exodus 14:17,18) that has been stolen by all the false gods of the world. Until we know who the one true God is and give him the glory, we cannot live the kind of trusting and obedient lives God desires for us.
That’s all God has ever wanted, but our small faith and our forgetful ingratitude and our constant grumbling rob us of that life and God of his glory. Thus, from time to time, God gives us a special revelation of his glory, as he did for Israel before he actually gave the manna and the quail. Moses called the grumblers together before the Lord; “come before the Lord, for he has heard your grumbling.” They might have expected some sort of plague such as they had seen in Egypt a few weeks ago. Instead, “they looked toward the desert (away from Egypt?), and there was the glory of the Lord appearing in the cloud.”
We have seen the glory of the Lord many times, but we have often said what Israel said when they first saw God provision from heaven. “What is it?” We have seen the glory, but we haven’t recognized it. So finally, God revealed his glory for all the world to see and explained what they were seeing. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” That’s what God gave Israel in the desert and what he gives us in our deserts.
It was not accidental that Jesus identified himself with this story. After miraculously feeding 5000 people in a deserted place, Jesus referred to this story and made a claim that astonished and repulsed his questioners. “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty (John 6:35).” That led many Jews to “grumble about him,” and many of his own followers stopped following. Even some his most faithful disciples grumbled about the difficulty of his sayings. But when he asked them if they too wanted to leave, they answered for all true believers. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68)
Indeed! Use this text about understandable grumbling and incomprehensible grace to call people to the Holy One of God who alone can give us the provisions that can transform even the desert into a place of abundance.
In my remarks above, I said that most of our congregants can’t relate to the kind of hunger that moved Israel to grumble. But that won’t be the case for many Christians around the world. Food insecurity, if not outright starvation, is a reality for millions, even in places of abundance like the US and Canada. Medical experts tell us that humans can live for 3- 4 days without water and up to three weeks without food. Around this world, many people are near the end of their three weeks. Do they even have the strength to grumble? Let us pray for the Bread of Life to come to them and feed them, through those who take his words in Matthew 25:34-40 as words of eternal life.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!