Sermon transcript, 02 August 2015
Need in the place of uncertainty by Fr. Dana
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15, Psalm 78:15-20, 23-25, Ephesians 4:1-16, John 6:24-35
What do you do when you have a need? What do you do when you have a problem? Arrrrrgh…? Well, some of us do. The Jews had a problem in today’s Old Testament reading: they didn’t have food. There were 600,000 or a million of them. This was a significant problem, and a real need: they weren’t making this up. However, rather than simply going to Moses and asking him, or asking the Lord to fulfil their need, they communicated their need through whingeing or whining and complaining. They even made a false accusation (read Exodus 16:3). God responded to their request, not in anger or even frustration, but He very simply responded with respect. However He also identified the real problem in their hearts: they didn’t trust Him. The real problem wasn’t that they didn’t have enough to eat, but that they didn’t trust God.
Our real problem is lack of trust
God met their need richly: He went above and beyond what they required, even beyond what they asked: He sent them manna from heaven and meat in the form of quail (Exodus 16:13-14). The quail not only covered the camp, but stayed still long enough to be caught by hand. I can’t even shoot a quail with a shotgun half the time, but they caught them with their hands: that was God.
He sent them manna from heaven and gave them quail, but He also gave them a lesson in trust. He gave them a test (read Exodus 16:16-20). They didn’t get it: He said gather an omer apiece; those who were really industrious and gathered a lot only had an omer, and those who only gathered a little had an omer: everybody had the same amount. Those who kept it overnight found that it stank and rotted or moulded. That was a lesson; but it wasn’t enough (read Exodus 16:21-24). It’s OK to gather too much when you are told to: it won’t rot. Read Exodus 16:25-30. Finally they get the idea that if you did what the Lord says, it works the way He indicates that it’s supposed to work. Our generation has that problem: God has given us instructions on how to live, and we don’t think that’s good enough, so we have to try our own ways. The whole world is trying their own ways in almost every area you can think of, and most of it is not working.
Do you remember where in the journey out of Egypt this incident happens? You might be surprised: it was right after they’d crossed the Red Sea. It wasn’t “Three years ago God led miraculously through the Red Sea, but I’ve forgotten about that.” Only a chapter earlier they were singing, dancing and partying, because they had just seen the army of Egyptians destroyed (read Exodus 15:1-6)– those whom they were deathly afraid were going to destroy them. Three days later they came to a place where there was water, but it was bitter and through a miracle God made it sweet (Exodus 15:22-25); and He made that a teaching moment (read Exodus 15:26). He gave them water; and immediately after this begins today’s reading: there was no water and no food, and they were complaining. They had very short memories. But we would never do that, would we? I would never complain – I wish that were true. But I am guilty of this as well, and I suspect, if we were honest with ourselves, most of us would also admit.
We as a church are in a similar place that the Jews were in: we’ve been in this church for 20 years and in London for 25 years, but at the end of this month we have to find a new place to meet, and so far we don’t see anything happening. It’s not as if we’re starving and have no water; but, like the Jews, we have a need and we don’t see any immediate provision for this to happen. We don’t have a big savings account or a huge income. How is this going to work? We can’t really see how God will provide; and whilst it doesn’t look risky as if some of us will die, but it does look risky. What if the transition to a new place is difficult? What if on the first Sunday of September we don’t have a new place that has everything we need? What if it takes a while? What if people say, “I really liked coming when you were here, but now I don’t know if I want to go to a different place?” What if they stop coming? What if they stop giving? What are we going to do? We could be afraid just as the Jews were: if we think about all the things that could go wrong, we could worry. But what is God telling us? We’re not in nearly as bad a position as the Jews were: their life was threatened; they had a tremendous need; but – Guess what? God provided. He didn’t provide in the way they thought He would: “What’s this stuff on the ground?”
Open your hand
God provided, and when He provided they still didn’t quite get it. When He gave them manna, they still didn’t trust Him to give manna for tomorrow, so they tried to gather extra; and that’s the part that stank. He’s telling them, “Look, I promised to provide, so you don’t have to do it in your own. You don’t have to store it away in the bank – remember the parable of the rich man: “I’m going to tear down these barns and build some that are really big, and save it for the rest of my life…” – No: “I provided for you today; I’ll provide for you tomorrow. Don’t worry about tomorrow.” They wanted to store some in case God didn’t come through, in case God lied to them. Are we tempted to do the same thing? We could say, “We’re going to freeze all spending: we’re not going to spend anything in the church; we need to save everything just in case… We don’t know what kind of down-payment we’re going to need; we don’t know what kind of rent we’re going to find; our rent might go up… We need to hoard it all, we need to hold it in, we’ve got to keep it just in case.” And God says, “Did I call you here? Have I provided for you for 25 years? Have I provided this place for 20 years? Did I bring you out here to kill you, and I’ve just waited for 20 years for you to get stronger because when you were weak it would have been too easy?” Is that the kind of God we serve? I don’t think so.
I’m preaching to myself, because in myself I’m thinking, “Yes, but we’ve got to be wise and keep a little for tomorrow…” I have to resist that temptation. The way you should picture: we have a bank account, the church has a bank account, and you probably have one. It has something in it: imagine that was all in your hand: “I’m going to hold on it, I’m not going to let go of it. I’ll pay that bill, but I’m not going to spend on that; there’s someone in need, but I’m not going to help then either. I’ve got to keep it, because I might need it tomorrow.” God is saying, “I’ll provide for tomorrow. Open your hand.” “No! – If I open my hand, my hand could then be empty, and I won’t have anything, and I won’t have any control over my life; I might lose it, I might not have enough, and you might not give me what I need.” “Open your hand.” “Mine!” “Open your hand.” “No!” “Open your hand.” I have to force myself to open my hand. And He may take some things away; He may take it all away. But whatever He takes away, He will put into my hand what I need for tomorrow. And what i have today may be as big as a golf ball, and when I open my hand it gives Him a chance to give me a beach ball – it may be made of gold for all I know. Whatever we need for tomorrow, He will provide – not just financially, but emotionally and spiritually. He doesn’t want anyone to be left behind in this transition: He’s the Good Shepherd; He takes care of His sheep.
God provides for all kinds of needs
And this applies far beyond St. Stephen’s building situation: it applies to each one of us in our personal lives; not just our finances but in other ways. Last week we prayed for people, and nearly everyone came forward, because everyone has needs: marriage needs, crises, physical needs, employment needs… all kinds of needs. Just like the Jews, we have needs; and God knows it; and they’re reasonable needs. He’s not saying, “Come on, buck up, you can do without that.” We prayed about all kinds of important things. And the message of today’s Old Testament reading is that God cares about every one of those needs, and God provides for every one of those needs, but God provides on His terms. “I want a steak!” “How about manna and quail?” “I want beef!” “Manna and quail.” “I want salad!” “Manna and quail.” Manna and quail are better for you than anything else you want. It was designed perfectly for that needs at that moment. And they went through forty years in the desert, and their shoes didn’t wear out. He takes care of all our needs, the way he wants to do it. Not only does the Lord say “I am the Lord who heals you”, but He also says “I am the Lord who provides” – “I will provide”. And just as He did for the Jews He will do for us; He will provide above and beyond all that we can ask or imagine. He will provide what we need, not necessarily what we want; but what we need will be much better than what we want.
Seek what pertains to eternal life
We see a little corollary to this in the Gospel reading: Jesus has just fed the 5000, and these people are following Him everywhere. He says, “You are following Me not because I am God but because I fed you. You’re willing to walk a long way for your next meal.” He doesn’t say, “That’s a bad thing”; He says, “Take that desire and have the same kind of intense desire – ignore the situation, keep going – in the things that keep you in eternal life. Yes, you’re hungry because I fed you, and it was awesome, and you want to see it happen again, and it’s good to be full. But there’s something beyond your stomach. Seek what pertains to eternal life; strive in the same way for that which you need to live eternally, and I’ll tell you where to get that.” (John 6:24-27) Jesus gave them the bread, not on that day, but He told them how He would do it.
And He would do it the same way that God did with the manna. The Jews didn’t have to do a single thing: they went to sleep at night, woke up the next morning, and what was lying on the ground? Manna. All they had to do was go out and pick it up – nothing else. Jesus says, “I’m going to do that same thing. My Body is the bread that gives eternal life, and all you need to do to receive and consume that bread is to pick it up when it’s offered. You only have to receive it. But to receive it you have to believe that it’s there and that it’s good for you.” (John 6:28-35) All the manna covering who knows how many square miles for 600,000 people, all the manna would have been for nothing if the people had looked at it and said, “I’m not eating that”. He won’t force feed us, but He provides.
Why does God provide?
He’s going to provide us a place; we don’t yet know what it looks, and we don’t yet know where it will come from. The question is: Why is He providing? What is it for? Is it just so that St. Stephen CEC, London does not vanish from the face of the earth? I suspect not: it’s not just so we can exist. If we look at the New Testament reading it gives us a clue: it talks about the Body of Christ. We are the Body of Christ: we individually are the Body of Christ, and we at St. Stephen’s are a part of the Body of Christ, just as the church in Estonia is another part; it looks different and functions differently, and it is another critical part of the body. Paul says, “To each of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” (Ephesians 4:7) Each of us individually have different gifts, different grace; each church has different gifts, different charisms, different grace, different talents… and why is that? Jesus “gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11). That talks about our individuals gifts; and you can see in the same way He does churches: this church reaches better into this part of the community, another church reaches better into a different part of the community: different ministries; but all “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12). Remember that “edifying” – it has the same root as “edifice”, which means an impressive building – is for the purpose of building up the Body of Christ: to make it bigger, to make it stronger, to make it more healthy, to make it able to stand the test of time, to make it teleios: mature.
We are facing this change at the end of the month. Hopefully we’ll remember not to come here on Sunday morning. I may have a hard time with that: I may have to do like the time change, and set an alarm the day before: Go… wherever we’re supposed to be going on the first Sunday of September. In the process, whether we have a new place or not, we should do what the Jews should have done, which is to take our request directly to God: not in a “You just brought us out here to die” frame of mind, but “You have a plan for us, You have a destination, You have a Promised Land for us, but I don’t see how to get from here to there; can You please show us the way”; and He will. We will keep on praying for that, and we’ll receive it with joy, because we know it’s coming even when we don’t see it.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember as we seek God’s face for our church, for our Diocese, is really what this is all about. What the Jews in the Promised Land was all about is not seeking God for what He can give but seeking God for who He is. This whole thing with the manna was training, not in how to eat right, but trust. Every day, trust; different days, trust. If we know and experience who he is, we won’t have problems believing what He will do. He will provide; and He will provide it not only for our benefit but so we can share it with others. That’s the ministry, that’s the edification: to reach out to whatever community He’s moving us to, to reach out and draw them in; to raise Jesus up, and He will draw all men to Himself. That’s our heart, that’s our goal, that’s what we pray for, and that’s what He will provide.