January 31, 2021. Exodus 16; Colossians 1:15-23; John 6:22-40
As a child, I loved the Bible story about the bread from heaven called manna. Children intuitively see both the generosity of God and the stubbornness of the Israelites. maybe the children’s Bible helped to solidify the image of God’s bounty and the complaining, ungrateful people.
Yes, it did not take long for ancient Israel to not only forget how much they had suffered as slaves in Egypt, but to actually longed back to their horrible situation.
The story of God caring for the Israelites in the wilderness gives us a wonderful insight in who God truly is: God is the Almighty, the Creator, our Father, our parent, whom we can trust to generously and abundantly provide.
There are two assertions that provide the spine of God’s storyline, as Israel tells it: “God brought us out of Egypt and God brought us into the Promised Land”. These were the defining moments of Israel’s existence before God.
There is a significant time in between these two events. A lot of things happened between the Exodus out of Egypt and the entry into the Promised Land. The time after God brought them out of Egypt and brought them into the Promised Land was a long and eventful 40 years.
We know that this was a time of uncertainty, hardship, challenges and danger. Israel was tested whether they would unconditionally trust God. And as we know, Israel time and again failed the test. Israel complained constantly. In this chapter alone, the word complains appears more than 8 times. OT scholar, Brevard Childs points out that “complain is not a casual gripe, but in fact unbelief which has called into question God’s very election of a people”.
At the same time, however, the time in the wilderness was a time when God sustained them and cared for them in extraordinary ways. God showered unto them generous attention, a willingness and capacity to overturn dangerous and life threatening circumstances for Israel. God fed and provided Israel with what she needed, in a context where none seemed available.
God in this chapter provides bread in a wondrous way. The verb “eat” in Exodus 6:8 means literally “to be satisfied” or “satiated”. It points to God’s extravagant generosity. God gives abundantly beyond Israel’s need. God is the God who performs in situations of hazardous scarcity in order to generate abundance. God meets their request for food, not to satisfy their grumblings but in order that Israel may learn who God is through this gracious act of sustenance.
Evidence of God’s generous sustenance is spread throughout the chapter: “Gather as much of it as each of you needs. Some gather more, some less … but those who gathered more had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage.”
This had a purpose for Israel to learn an important lesson: When some disobeyed and kept a part for the next day, it immediately spoiled, bred worms and stank! Israel was taught that this bread came “morning by morning’ in God’s time, according to God’s plan. It could not be stored “just in case…”.
There was one exception to the rule: On the sixth day God provides food for two days and this time the food would not become foul and there were no worms in it.
The Sabbath Day is not a day to go hungry and mourn. Rather Israel is to eat, for today is God’s special day! But not everyone obeyed and enjoyed the sabbath day of course – some were out hunting for manna. “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments?” You see God gives them a double portion of bread; what God demands is a different way of life. A life that is rid of anxiety, because of a deep-rooted trust in a caring God who is sure to provide enough.
The theological essence is the same for us as it was for Israel. God is the Giver of abundant life. God generates a world of blessing where none seemed possible. The gifts of life bear witness to God’s capacity to bring life and fruitfulness out of circumstances of chaos and conditions of barrenness.
This is what God does from the beginning – God takes the formlessness of chaos and turns them into a life enhancing order. God transforms a situation of chaos and scarcity into one of productivity, well-being and fruitfulness. God transforms scenes of hopelessness into occasion of life, possibility and joy!
Israel’s test was to believe in God, to trust God’s generosity and to embrace God’s loving care. This is our test too!
These transformative actions of God are taken up in the New Testament in the person of Jesus, the Son of God. The Gospel of Mark presents Jesus as the Son of God who has authority. In Chapter 6 Jesus and his disciples went to a deserted place. Notice how many times there is a reference to a deserted place – three times!
The people were like a sheep without a shepherd. Jesus had compassion with them and he taught them many things. The hour was late and people were hungry. The Disciples wanted to send them away but Jesus said to them: “You give them something to eat”. All they had were five loaves of bread and two fish. Certainly not enough to feed all of them.
And then Jesus took the bread and fish, he looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave it to his disciples to serve the crowd. They did so and then something astonishing happened: Everyone was fed and they had 12 baskets full of leftovers. This after 5000 men, not counting women and children, had eaten.
This story, on the face of it is about a wonderous feeding. The narrative, however is more dense than a simple account of feeding. You see, the way Mark is writing about Jesus taking the bread and fish, looking up, blessing and breaking the loaves of bread, and giving it to his Disciples, deliberately uses the language of communion – He took, blessed, broke and gave it. Communion. We are therefore included in this compassionate action of Jesus.
You see, Jesus when he saw the crowd, he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. They had no shepherd to lead, to feed or to comfort them. There was no one to do what God had done in the OT. Remember that God, in the OT had intervened in situations of uncertainty, hardship, challenges and dangers and transformed these situations into one of wellbeing and divine care. God, in the OT showered unto Israel generous attention, a willingness and capacity to overturn dangerous and life threatening circumstances. God fed Israel, and provide a source of adequate food in a context where none seemed available.
And now, Jesus is doing exactly what God in the OT did for Israel. Jesus has compassion on the people, he is attentive to their need and he provides them with life-giving nourishment. Life-giving in the form of bread and fish, but also life-giving in the sense of communion with the body of Christ.
The Mark narrative ends with a statement of the abundance of God’s life-giving gift – there is more than enough for all and with enough to spare. This is who God is! This is what God does – God intervenes in situations that are life threatening, where there is no hope, no joy, situations of scarcity and oppression and transforms them into an oasis, full of life, a hopeful and joyous place.
Colossians reaffirms that Jesus in fact is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and earth were created. He himself is before all things and in him all things hold together. In him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.
This ancient hymn shows that what God did for Israel, God in Jesus Christ, does for all. God is present in Jesus!
- God creates and in Christ God is still the One who can transform any circumstance of chaos into an ordered context of fruitfulness, blessing, prosperity and well-being (Isaiah 45:18-19).
- God promises and in Christ is still the One who can move decisively against every situation of barrenness and transform it into a circumstance of well-being, joy and possibility. The promise of God counters any situation of despair, whether in the barrenness of ancient families or in the exhaustion of technological societies that believe there are no gifts to be given (Psalm 113:7-9).
- God delivers and in Christ is still the God who can disrupt any circumstance of social bondage and exploitation, overthrow ruthless orderings of public life, and authorize new circumstances of dancing freedom, dignity, and justice (Isaiah 61:1-2).
- God who commands and in Christ is still the God who can bring any circumstance under a sovereign decree, insisting on holiness and justice, thereby creating a livable order. An order where righteousness is guaranteed and community is made possible. God who commands leads us to refuse to accept any situation of autonomy wherein might makes right and greedy brutality is accepted (Psalm 119:43-48).
- God who guides and tests is in Christ still the God who can transform any circumstance of deathly abandonment and threat into a place of nourishment and life. God who guides and tests leads us to refuse to accept circumstances of wretchedness that bring death circumstances that deny the possibility of a good and meaningful life in the most unlikely situations (Isaiah 35:1-2, 5-7).
God is indeed able to turn the worst situation into a lifegiving one. God lovingly provides ordered life in the midst of deathly chaos, possibility for a future in the midst of despair, dancing freedom instead of oppression, obedience in viable community instead of absolutizing autonomy and nourishment and care instead of wretched abandonment.
The Bible is full of evidence that this is what God does. The test for people of faith is whether we really believe that God is still able and willing to do this in our time. Amen.