The manna was a test. Of course, it was a mercy as well. God had led the Israelites into the wilderness of Sinai, a dangerous and desolate place of rocky hills and almost no vegetation. There was no food to be had at all. They had no idea where they were headed. They had only brought what they could gather in a night and carry on their backs. And here in the desert, God was faithful to His promises, and sent them a mysterious food that supplied what they really needed.
But it was a test. Because every morning the manna came with the dew, with twice as much on Fridays so they could rest on the Sabbath. There was no need to work for it and when kept overnight, it rotted in the pail. So the Israelites had to trust God that He would send more of it the next day. They had to rely on His promise that it was enough to keep them in good health and full strength. They had to be patient with the lack of variety.
And at first the Israelites failed the test rather extravagantly. They tried to store up more than they needed. They went out to look for it on the Sabbath. And above all, they grumbled about it. They pined for the fleshpots, the leeks and the garlic back by the Nile. And if you’ve ever lived on rations, or tried to lose weight with meal-replacement shakes, or if you’ve just been poor and reduced to macaroni and cheese and ramen noodles, well you would have a little sympathy for the Israelites. You could understand how much of a trial it can be to eat the same thing over and over again.
But at some point in those forty years that they lived on manna, things changed for the Israelites. They began to see this food as something more than convenient nutrition. When Moses glossed the event in his great farewell sermon that is the Book of Deuteronomy, he explained it this way:
“He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.”
The manna was a blessing because it came from God’s hand. To live day by day, expecting it in faith was to learn to trust in His goodness. Eating this mysterious bread opened the way to understanding this mysterious God.
The Israelites learned to love manna. The Psalms praise it as the bread of angels, the great food that fell in abundance. When the Ark of the Covenant would eventually be built to enshrine their great national treasures, it contained a pot of that manna, the bread of heaven. The rabbis would preserve old legends about it for centuries, and the longer ago it was, the grander the stories became.
There’s a bit of natural sentiment in that, like a long married couple looking back fondly on those shoe-leather chops in their first one-bedroom apartment. But there’s also gratitude in having faced the test and emerged from it wiser and stronger. The manna was for them like a relic of boot camp or the diploma framed on the wall. God freely chose Israel to be His people. There was no merit in it. It was all grace all the way from one side. But Israel also had to grow into that vocation, and living on manna was the test.
Jesus is also testing the crowd when he meets them by the lake in our Gospel lesson. He had feed them abundantly the day before. And now they are hungry again, and ready for another spectacle. They mention the manna to Jesus. Maybe he too could furnish the mysterious food, like clockwork every morning. No, Jesus tells them, God is doing something new now. The true bread from heaven is here, not just to feed you for a day, but—as in the old words of administration—to “preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.” “Do not labor,” He tells them, “for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you.”
This is also a test, you see. “What do you really want from me?” Jesus is asking them. You can only receive the true abundance of God when you have learned to desire it rightly. It can be easy to pursue religion for the wrong reasons—to seek from Christ mere “food that perishes.” When I was serving in my last parish, I gave a lift to a hitchhiker once, a local character who made the rounds of all the churches. Noticing my clerical collar, he gave me a running catalogue of what every congregation in the county served at coffee hour. We Episcopalians were pretty far down his list, especially because no one seemed to have cigarettes to borrow. What exactly was the man looking for in the house of God? I wondered.
But to take it a bit deeper, how much more impure are that old man’s motives than coming to church to make an appearance among the right sort of people, or to just keep alive a family tradition. If we value life with God primarily because we think it will keep the kids from going off the rails, or because it gives us a kind of buzz of inner peace, our motives are not quite in the right order. President Eisenhower famously once said that "our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is." Eisenhower may have just been tactful. But I think he was talking about religion as “food that perishes,” religion that was valuable because it kept American society together and helped us resist the Communists. It’s not much different from valuing religion because it helps inspire justice and peace and makes the world a better place. Archbishop William Temple, who was perhaps the greatest single architect of the British social welfare system was well aware of this danger, which could lurk behind the reforms he championed. He wrote in his great commentary on Saint John’s Gospel,
“Whenever we try to use our religion as a solution of our temporal problems, caring more for that than for God and His glory, we fall unto the same condemnation... If what is eternal is valued chiefly as a means to any temporal result, the true order is inverted, and it is likely that the eternal and the temporal goods will be missed alike.”
What do you seek from me? What do you really crave? That’s what Christ was asking the crowds that day. Do you seek God because there is no higher good than to know, to love, and to serve Him? Or do you seek Him because you’ll better off for the seeking? God gives generously, and he won’t put you to the test until after you have already known His goodness. But for each of us, in time, that test will come.
In a few moments, we will share in the baptism of a child. But before we do, I will ask several questions. They are traditionally called the scrutinies—the testing questions. They probe the intentions and desires—who and what are being sought in this moment when a new Christian is made. “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness?” “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?” “Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?”
These questions are directed to the child, through His parents and godparents. But consider them carefully for yourself. Why are you here today? Are you seeking God or a just a little more for yourself? Are you prepared to love and serve God for His own sake? Your honest answer just might make you a real disciple for the first time.