5 August 2018

So you want to go back to Egypt?

[RCL]: Exodus 16:2-4,9-15; Psalm 78:23-29; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

To any ordinary member of his kingdom, King David would have looked like a man who had enough. And yet, King David was not content. He wanted things that were not his to have. He wanted Bathsheba, although she was married to someone else. He wanted the appearance of innocence, although he was guilty. You may recall the account of the day the prophet Nathan, told David a story about a man who did something very wrong, and David wanted the moral righteousness to condemn the evildoer in Nathan’s story but found out that — actually — he was the man.

God gave so much to David. More than you or I will ever see or know. But David was not content with that abundance, he wanted even more, and he was prepared to use his power and riches to get it. Let me ask you this question: how do we know what is enough?

In our Gospel reading today, from chapter six in the book of John, Jesus says that the reason the people follow him was that he can feed them more bread, and added that he has more to offer. He wants them to find contentment in him.

What is enough?

Before we come back to that question, let’s imagine the long journey you may have made when going somewhere for a holiday. It sounds like this:

Are we there yet? I’m hungry! I’m thirsty! I feel carsick. He’s bothering me! I don’t want to go camping! Why couldn’t you just leave me at home with my friends? When are we going to get there?

Sound familiar?

Perhaps there are families who do long distance drives in perfect tranquility. Perhaps there are families able to have nothing but peace and quiet and harmony all the way. Perhaps there are actually some families that have never had to say: “…if I have to stop the car, you are going to be in serious trouble”.

Anyway, this reminds me of another journey, from a long time ago, that was far more serious than any family holiday journey. It’s the journey of the Israelites, recently delivered from slavery in Egypt. But the soundtrack is similar:

When are we going to get there? I’m hot. I’m tired. I’m thirsty! I’m hungry! Why did I even have to come along on this stupid idea of a walk into the desert? Why didn’t you just leave us back in Egypt?ing

In other words, the Israelites are whining. The Hebrew word is sometimes translated “murmur,” but it’s the same thing. And we all know how it sounds.

The Israelites have by this time, been out of Egypt for all of two months, so it is still fresh for them — how they had been They have been delivered from a truly bad situation, an unjust situation, a miserable situation. They were slaves in Egypt. Without dignity, without self-determination, treated as property, they cried out to God. God heard them, delivered them from the Egyptians, brought them in safety to freedom. And now they are in that middle place, the wilderness: no longer in bondage to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, not yet in the promised land. They are fairly new to freedom and they are finding it a challenge.

The people are hungry, and they turn on Moses and Aaron, who are probably hot and tired and hungry too, and wishing that the pillar of smoke by day and the pillar of fire by night, were not leading them along such a seemingly roundabout route. I am sure they asked themselves more than once: ‘really, is that where we should be heading?”

The people whinge, but more than the annoying whining, it’s the irrational comment that is stunning. “Moses, did you bring us out here to starve us to death? If only we were back in Egypt! Sure, we were slaves there, abused, no better than pieces of property to the Egyptians, but at least they fed us! You don’t love us. Why did we even have to go on this crazy idea of a trip?”

Freedom is a challenge.

For one thing, instead of just being told what to do all the time, they have to learn a new skill. They have got ‘complaining’ down to a fine skill, but now they have to learn to trust. Yes, that’s right, they need to learn to really trust God.

They have to learn to open their eyes and hearts and learn a new way of being in the world. They have to learn how to live with contentment.

Now, they were right to be discontent with their old situation. We are never supposed to be content with injustice, with inhumane treatment of anyone. We are never supposed to be content with abuse, cooperation with evil. Here, they were free, but they were also so far away from contentment. They seemed to carry their discontentment with them, almost proud of it, showing it to each other, bragging about how they were more discontented than their neighbours.

Even though they were constantly on the move — tent up, tent down — over and over — different place every day, moving one, new mountains or valleys — they had perfected the knack of making sure that one thing they always packed up very carefully and took with them, was their discontentment.

We can do that too, right? dwelling within it like it’s a shelter like it’s a tent. We can change our setting, our campsite, our entire surroundings and situation, and still be drag around the same old same old grumbles of discontent. It can wake us up at night and leave us wondering why things still look bleak and miserable.

When I was a cub and a scout, our old canvas tents were terrible things. They smelled musty. Lean against them when raining, at that’s where the wet gets in. Rainwater would always find the low point, usually under your sleeping bag, and rain at night would always drip from the top of that tent.

Imagine going camping with one of those tents today? You can if you want to because it is your free choice, but here is the good news: you can get brilliant tents these days, that don’t leak, that don’t smell musty, that are easier to set up and take down, and are lighter weight.

It’s up to you which kind of tent you want to use as your dwelling. Contentment or discontentment? Ooh, did you see that pun, yet?

We aren’t so different from the Israelites. Sometimes we stay in a bad place because it’s easier to stay with the devil we know? Sometimes we settle for less than we could be doing because, well, it’s not great, but it’s tough to make a change, and, truth be told, complaining about it is easier than changing.

The Israelites had been brought through a huge change. And it was time to learn a new skill. Trust in God.

To feed them, God gave the Israelites the gift of manna, a fine flaky substance that appeared on the ground every morning. It was so peculiar, new, wondrous, that the people ask, “What is it?” — in Hebrew, that sounds a bit like “Manna?” and before you know it, this new food has a name.

The food is wondrous because it appears overnight while they are asleep, in this barren place, out of nowhere – or solely out of the abundance of God – and it is wondrous because it costs them nothing — no work, no slave labour, just grace. God says, “here it is, kids, enjoy”.

It is also wondrous because it has special properties to make sure everyone gets enough. Just enough. They have to collect it each day. There’s exactly enough to go around. No more, no less. If they try to hoard it for the next day, it rots. The exception is on the Sabbath when the people aren’t supposed to do any work. On the day before the Sabbath, they can collect enough for the Sabbath too, and it will last.

Like all new things, it takes some practice. Some people hoard until they discover that their secret stash has just gone mouldy. Some people don’t collect enough for the Sabbath, and when the Sabbath comes, there’s no manna for them. They soon figure it out.

Trust in me — says God, trust me—and follow my instructions — even if you don’t get them at first, they’re trustworthy, too. Trust, listen to me and obey, and you can dwell in contentment. Let’s zoom forward to the first century AD.

We discover that in Jesus, God took the life of contentment one step further.

Jesus was not just someone who gave physical bread, although feeding hungry people is one of the commands Jesus gives and one of the things his ministry on earth was about.

He wasn’t content to just make sure people had full bellies and their physical needs met; Jesus came to be bread of life — the source for spiritual contentment as well, the source of joy and contentment in any situation, in plenty and in want, in easy times and in times of struggle and challenge.

The lesson here is clear: don’t be content with physical stuff. Don’t seek contentment with things that are here today and gone tomorrow. Seek God’s kingdom. Seek the food that endures for eternal life.

Jesus offers himself, and walking with Jesus, feasting with Jesus, eating the bread he gives us, we can know contentment wherever we find ourselves. What is the bread that Jesus gives us? It is Jesus himself. You may feel you are in the desert, the provisions seem scarce, the journey seems aimless and log, but Jesus wants us to know that he will be our sustenance and guide if we let him. We can experience and we can live in content. We can know what is enough, who is enough. Lets us pray …