Bridgewater, Massachusetts, November 18, 2001
Thanksgiving Sunday

Exodus 16:1-15 Manna and quail

The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger."

Then the Lord said to Moses, "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days."

So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, "In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?" And Moses said, "When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning; when the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him, what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord."

Then Moses said to Aaron, "Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, 'Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.'"

And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, "I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, 'At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.'"

In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, "What is it?" For they did not know what it was.

Moses said to them, "It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat."

John 6:25-36 Jesus, the true bread from heaven

When they found Jesus on the other side of the sea, they said to him, "Rabbi, when did you come here?"

Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal."

They said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?"

Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent."

So they said to him, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'"

Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."

They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always."

Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."

Then the Lord said to Moses, "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. (Exodus 16:4)

Bread from heaven. For the ancient Israelites, as they wandered in the desert after being rescued from their Egyptian slavery through plagues and other miracles, the bread from heaven was quite literal. And they had no idea what it was. The Hebrew word "manna" means, "What is it?"

The manna came down upon the ground with the morning dew; when the dew lifted, the manna was left behind for the people to gather. This continued for forty years, from the time the Israelites crossed the Red Sea to the time they entered the Holy Land and first began to eat the produce of the land. It was their primary food--their main sustenance--the whole time they wandered in the desert.

Twice along the way, we are told, they were also given quails to eat--one of those times being in our story for today. The manna came in the morning, but the quails came in the evening. These were not local birds. The Israelites were on the quails' migratory path as they flew north from their winter home in Africa. So the quails were an occasional treat for the Israelites, while the manna came faithfully every morning--except on the Sabbath, when they were supposed to have gathered enough the day before to last two days.

Of course, we also need literal, physical food to eat in order to sustain our bodies so that we can live on this earth. We pray each week--and some of us each day--that the Lord will "give us this day our daily bread." And though our food doesn't come from heaven in quite the same way the manna did, we must admit that for all our scientific prowess, we have no power whatsoever to create even a single seed, still less to make it sprout, grow, mature, and bear fruit. We can and do take care of our crops as they grow, but life itself is still a mystery to science. And even though our food doesn't literally fall from heaven with the morning dew as the manna did, the life within it is still the Lord's work.

In fact, the life within all living things is really a deeper, spiritual force or reality that comes from heaven, and through heaven from the Lord. This is easy to see in the case of a human being. From a religious perspective, the difference between a living human being and a dead body is whether or not the person's spirit is dwelling within the body. When our spirit departs our body, the body dies. Once we realize this, we can see that it is the spirit that gives life to the body every moment of our lives.

It is also spirit that gives life to the plants and animals that provide us with our food. A seed can sprout, grow, and bear fruit only because of a continual flow of life from the spiritual world into its material substances. An animal can be conceived, born, and grow to maturity only because of the same flow of life from the spiritual world. If that flow of life were stopped even for an instant, the plant or animal would instantly die.

In a very real sense, then, even the literal bread on our tables--the food we eat each day to sustain our bodies--comes from heaven. We may balk at the idea of manna miraculously appearing on the ground each morning for forty years while the ancient Israelites wandered in the desert. But we are so used to the miracle of life, which brings us our food each day, that most of the time we simply take it for granted. We do not realize that if God were not flowing through the spiritual world into the world of nature, we would have no food at all--and even our own lives would be instantly snuffed out.

This year, as we sit down to our Thanksgiving feasts, we can truly thank the Lord for our daily bread. Every bite of food we eat is a gift that the Lord gives to us through heaven. Every bite comes to us in ways that we cannot even fathom. If we knew what it was really made of, and how it came to be on our table, we might, like the Israelites, exclaim, "What is it?" What is this food we are eating? It is not merely stuff of this earth. As the Psalmist said, "Mortals ate the bread of angels" (Psalm 78:25). And we are still eating the bread of angels today. At each meal, we are eating spiritual life put into physical form in order to sustain us while we are living here on earth.

What is the "bread of angels"? What is this "bread of heaven" that comes down into physical form to sustain us?

In our scientific age, we tend to be greatly impressed by material things and physical wonders. We are dazzled by the wonders of technology--the fancy new computers and games and gadgets that are continually flowing out of the minds of inventors and into stores, and finally into our homes to make our lives easier and put more power into our hands. Even in farming--in the production of our food--we have invented and produced big machines and huge factories to automate production and increase our efficiency in bringing food to the tables of our growing world population. Technology is something we can see and hold in our hands. And the things technology produces we can also hold in our hands and "consume"--either literally in the case of food, or figuratively in the case of "consumer goods"

Yet there is a deeper aspect to life that is even more vital to us than our possessions, and even than our daily food. And we can get at that deeper aspect very simply by asking the question: What's the use of having all kinds of possessions and all the fine food and drink we could ever want, if we have no one to share it with? Yes, we humans need clothing, shelter, and food. And we gain some comfort and pleasure from the belongings that we gather around ourselves.

But the most precious "things" we have are our relationships with our family members and friends. Without these, our lives are meaningless.

And what gives meaning and reality to our relationships? Isn't it the love and understanding that we share with one another? In a far deeper way than we need food and drink, we human beings need the love of our fellow human beings; and we need to share our thoughts, our beliefs, our aspirations, our dreams with one another. This is the "food" that sustains our souls--which, in turn, sustain our bodies. Without this spiritual food, we pine away even in the midst of luxury.

Now we can begin to understand what Jesus was talking about in our reading from the Gospel of John. Earlier in the same chapter, Jesus had fed five thousand people with five barley loaves and two small fish. Those who were there got as much as they wanted to eat. Given that many of these people lived in poverty and didn't often get a meal that really filled them up, just having as much as they wanted to eat was quite an experience. No wonder they followed Jesus all the way to the other side of the lake!

Jesus was no naive dreamer. He knew why they were following him. He told them plainly, "You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves." And then he continued, with words intended to lift our minds up to hunger for higher and deeper food: "Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you."

The people did not understand him. "Show us a sign so that we can believe you," they said. "Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'"

Jesus then challenged them to understand what the true bread from heaven is. And finally he said to them, in challenging words that we use in our communion services, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."

What does this mean? And do we believe it? That the Lord Jesus is the bread of life?

It is not so hard to believe. We know that we are sustained emotionally by the love and understanding of our family and friends. We know that we inwardly wither and die when we get only jealousy, criticism, and anger from those around us. We know that our spirits live or die according to the thoughts and feelings we can, or can't, share with them.

The Lord Jesus is where all our love comes from. The Lord Jesus is where all our understanding comes from. As Christians, and especially as Swedenborgians, we believe that Jesus is the human presence of the infinite, divine Creator of the universe. And we believe that God, the divine Creator, is made of love, shaped by wisdom. From that divine love, and through that divine wisdom, the whole universe, and us along with it, spins out from God.

Love is the stuff of the universe! We are all made of love. Even our physical bodies are simply love slowed down enough so that it takes a fairly inert, fixed form instead of being the dynamic, powerful, and brilliant presence that we are when we inhabit our angel selves.

Yes, the Lord's love is the true bread from heaven. Above all the material wonders that dazzle our eyes and our minds here on earth, there is the simple fact that nothing at all . . . nothing at all! . . . could exist even for an instant if it were not sustained by God's love.

This is the true bread from heaven. This is the greatest and most wonderful food to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, as we enjoy the food that sustains our bodies, and the love of our family and friends that sustains our souls.

Jesus said, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."

Music: Soulsong
2001 Bruce DeBoer
Used with permission

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