How quickly people’s memories fade. Or else sometimes they find that their memories are strangely selective. Perhaps they look back at the past with rose tinted spectacles. Every summer in their childhood the sun shone, they could play out with their friends for as long as they liked, and times were hard but everyone was contented with their lot. Or perhaps they look back and remember only the bad things, having ringworm, wearing clothes that were always either a size too large or a size too small, or never being allowed to have red sandals like all the other girls.
How else are we to explain the strange recollections of the people of Israel in the wilderness when they complained to Moses: ‘In Egypt we sat by the fleshpots and had plenty of bread’? they complained. These are the very same people who, in Egypt, had actually been oppressed with forced labour by brutal taskmasters who made life bitter for them with their harsh demands and treated them like slaves.
In fairness we would have to concede that this was only the same fate which ordinary Egyptians seem to have shared. Who else, after all, built all those pyramids and temples or dug all those irrigation ditches? So even after they began to be oppressed, life for the people of Israel was probably no harder than for the average person in the street.
In fact, they were only induced to revolt after Pharaoh ordered all their newborn baby boys to be thrown into the Nile. And even then it took a long while, and the arrival of a charismatic prophet and his brother, to convince them that the time had come to draw a line in the sand.
But, despite their longsuffering acceptance of virtual slavery, where were these fleshpots, places of sensual pleasure and entertainment, which they remembered so fondly? And when did they have plenty of bread? On the contrary, because of the cruel servitude they were under, they had reached the very depths of despair .
Given their complaining attitude, God had every right to abandon them right there and leave them to retrace their steps and throw themselves on Pharaoh’s mercy. But, of course, there really was no going back. The bridges had all been burned with the destruction of Pharaoh's army in the Red Sea, or possibly the Reed Sea, so the people of Israel were right to conclude that the only option now open to them was either to starve to death or put their faith in God to save them.
It was fortunate then, that far from losing patience with his chosen people, God listened, and then responded to their complaints with an extravagant gesture which more than matched their overblown memories of plenty. ‘I shall rain down bread from heaven for you,’ God said, ‘So that each day the people may go out and gather a day’s supply.’ What’s more he threw in flocks of inquisitive quails for good measure. The people didn’t have a monotonous subsistence diet of dry bread without cheese, instead they got to eat high class chicken sandwiches.
Well, not quite, because the bread from heaven was not bread as we know it. In appearance it was like fine flakes of hoar frost or like white coriander seed, its texture was more like a wafer than bread, and its taste was like honey.
There have been various attempts to explain what the manna from heaven actually was - dried sap from tamarisk trees, perhaps chewed over and excreted by tiny bugs, wind-blown edible lichen, beetle cocoons or sugary excretions of one kind or another from other bushes and shrubs. All of these things are still called manna by the people who harvest them, all of them require no cultivation, are light enough to be carried by the wind and sometimes occur in abundance. None of them would be enough to feeds tens of thousands of people at one sitting, let alone for days or weeks at a time, and - just like flocks of quails - none of them occurs all year round.
So, if the manna wasn’t a miracle, perhaps it was - as God says in verse four - a test. Were the people willing to rely on providence? How far were they willing to trust that, even in the apparently barren wilderness of Sinai, they would be able to find enough food to survive?
In his poem Blackberry Picking, the poet Seamus Heaney recalls how - as a child growing up in Northern Ireland during the Second World War he and his brothers and sisters, or friends, would go out into the countryside in late summer to pick blackberries. Like manna, blackberries don’t have to be cultivated. They’re a free gift of providence, growing in the hedgerows. And like the people of Israel, Seamus and the other children found it was difficult to stop picking them once you had enough. A kind of lust overtook them. ‘I’ll just reach out for that one, and that one, and - oh - look at all those blackberries just over there!’
In those far off days before freezers the children would try to hoard the blackberries in the byre, only to find that, when they went back to collect them,
A rat-grey fungus, [was]glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
‘I always felt like crying,’ Heaney recalls.
It wasn't fair
that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.
The story of the manna teaches us to live in the moment and to rely on God’s grace. But it’s not a story about blind optimism. It’s a story which asks us to look out for God given opportunities to turn things around, or make the best of things, even in the most difficult circumstances.
And so to the Gospel reading, which also harks back to the story of the manna. Jesus urges the crowd not to search for perishable food like blackberries ‘but for the food that lasts, the food of eternal life.’
Like the people of Israel, anxiously asking how they were going to avoid starvation in the desert, the followers of Jesus are called upon to show a bit of faith - to put their trust in God, and in the one whom he sent. But the crowd is reluctant to put all of their trust in Jesus, even when they have seen how he can feed thousands of people in the wilderness with virtually no resources. They want another, more convincing sign.
They wonder aloud whether the Feeding of the Five Thousand was perhaps a flash in the pan, a one off tricksy gimmick, or whether it was a foretaste of a solid and reliable programme of regular feeding miracles like the manna from heaven which their ancestors had supposedly received each day for forty years.
Jesus is already in danger, it seems, of creating a dependency culture where people come to expect something for nothing almost as their entitlement. They quote words from Psalm 78 and Nehemiah chapter 9, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’, which both refer back to that verse we read earlier in Exodus, where God said, ‘I shall rain down bread from heaven.’
At first glance Jesus appears to assume the crowd is talking about Moses when they quote the words, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’, but it’s clear from the context that both the psalm and the Book of Nehemiah mean God gave the people manna to eat, so perhaps Jesus’ point is that the crowd needs to be careful to remember that miracles are in the gift of God alone and are not at the disposal of prophets or even messiahs. He can no more set up a programme of regular feedings than the great prophet Moses did. The manna happened only because God spoke and it was done. And anyway God’s gift for the followers of Jesus is not a constant supply of daily bread to eat but the gift of Jesus himself, who has come down from heaven to bring life to the world.
‘Sir,’ the crowd say when he tries to explain, ‘Give us this bread now and always.’ But even now Jesus is not quite sure they understand, so he gives them one of his great ‘I am’ sayings, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ The manna was God’s gift to the people of Israel during forty years of wandering in the wilderness, but Jesus is God’s gift to the human race for all eternity.
So what is the story of the manna, and Jesus momentous claim to be the bread of life, saying to us today?
The first thing we learn I think, is that it is no good looking back and dwelling fondly on the past. Was it really as wonderful as we remember? And even if it was, even if the church was in its heyday in 1990 or whenever, or even if life was altogether better when we were younger, there’s no going back. Our bridges to the past are burned. Like the people of Israel, we can only move forward.
The second thing we learn is that, if we look to the future, we shall find God waiting for us there. If we trust him, he will provide. The future may not be anything like the past, what God gives us to sustain us may not be what we hoped for or expected, but if we put our faith in him God will give us food from heaven to eat.
The third thing we learn is that miracles can happen, but God often works through the circumstances of ordinary life. If we approach each situation prayerfully, committed to finding a way through it with God, solutions and opportunities will often start to bubble up or present themselves.
The third thing we learn is that it’s no good trying to hoard God’s gifts in case there are troubles ahead. God isn’t an insurer. He only promises us what we need in the moment.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t plan for the future. Livability, who’ve been working with us, recommend that every church should have a five year plan. But we do need to sit light to our plans, so that we’re always ready to respond to God-given opportunities as they arise. Trusting God is not the some as leaving God to work everything out.
The final lesson from these stories belongs, of course, only to the Gospel passage. It is that the enduring bread from heaven is the Jesus event - his life, death and resurrection. These are the things which can truly sustain us each and every day, whatever life and death may bring.