Sermon for Evensong & Benediction – Easter 5 Sunday 22 April 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Exodus 16.4 The Lord said to Moses, Behold I will rain bread from heaven for you.
Geography or theology? Exodus, the journey of the Hebrews out of Egypt, through the wilderness to the promised land, can be an interesting geography lesson. We learn that the desert they went through wasn’t a barren desert of sand, but was what they called wilderness, a pasture suitable for sheep and goats, where you have to keep on the move to survive. But the practice of Christianity is not the pursuit of general knowledge. For you and me the Exodus is not a geographical journey; it is a journey which takes place within our hearts. This is the wilderness where we find ourselves quite often, a place where we are unsure of our relationship with God and keep moving on, where religion wears thin, it is the time we are tempted to give up and return to the safety square of Egypt, whatever Egypt means to you, the time before Christianity mattered to me, the day before God called me, the old life, where at least I was busy and comfortable.
The Exodus is a metaphor for our spiritual journey. The hardships the Hebrews face are the unexpected fears and setbacks of every human life. Their reaction shows us our reaction to hardship and loss: stress, withdrawal symptoms, denial of what’s happening, fear of the unknown. The story of the manna, the food from heaven, illustrates all this. What was manna? That’s what manna means, the word means “What is it?” Set to one side your learned speculation that this manna was a sweet substance exuded by insects which feed on the tamarisk tree in May and June. I love that sort of footnote, but it’s just one more distraction from the truth which stares us in the face, the lesson we refuse to learn, and which the early writers and hearers of this traditional story were keen to proclaim. God wants a relationship with us, as much as we want to get to know him. From his side, there is total generosity, the commitment to his people shown in the creation stories, the rainbow, and then so many signs in Egypt, and now in the food, the nourishment, the full life he prepares for everyone each day. Every day, all the year round. God’s generosity takes effect when we accept and trust what he does. But in the wilderness, when life gets difficult, the Hebrews did not trust God totally, and nor do we. They tried to store this stuff for the next day, and of course it went rotten. So you and I cannot depend on some sort of spiritual reservoir we fill up in the good times, when we are at our best. That never quite works. Each day contains a new challenge. Each day God gives us precisely what we need, as much as we can eat, as it says later in the chapter we heard, all that you and I need for our journey.
The Hebrews work out their relationship with God slowly and painfully. Like us they are often found murmuring, which is another word for grumbling. They deceive themselves, as we do, and idolatry takes hold. They feel sorry for themselves, blaming God, wishing they had died in their slavery. They shout, they scream, they manipulate their leaders. God shouts back. Moses loses his temper with the people, and so it goes on, chapter after chapter. The point of the story for you and for me is that this stormy relationship between God and mankind, between God and us, can only be sorted out once and for all in the wilderness, where there is nowhere to hide our very mixed motives, where we see that our lives, our spiritual selves, are at risk of destruction, and we are prepared to accept God’s unconditional love instead of trying to cope on our own. God leads us out of the slavery of idolatry towards repentance and conversion, and the wilderness can become a garden again, and our wandering can cease. Now we begin to see why the stories of the Exodus are read in church in Holy Week and Easter. It is the same lesson for us as for the Hebrews in Sinai. How do we use our freedom, our free will, because that’s what God in his wisdom has given us? That is the question for us today. The Hebrews were freed from slavery in Egypt, but struggled to adapt to the freedom God gave them. You and I, forgiven and raised to a new life, an Easter life, also have to learn to use our freedom well. It’s the same challenge for us, day after day, as the manna falls from heaven. Do we test God again and again, or trust God once and for all? Reading about Jesus’ life in the Gospels, I think we see a man who used his freedom, not wilfully as in the Exodus, but in complete harmony with the divine will, trusting to God’s protection and guidance. God sends us bread from heaven. This is the offer of the Body of Christ, Christ’s own life, the consecrated wafer of unleavened bread we see raised at Benediction tonight. But the manna from heaven is also nothing less than an Easter life, awaking to the day of Resurrection, the divine life itself, that harmony between God and his Creation, offered to each one of us.