February 14, 2016 A+D
St. Matthew 4:1-11
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Manna has an ugly history in Israel. It seems like a nice thing: God feeds His newly freed people whom He’d snatched out of death and slavery and they don’t have to work for it. It just is, freely given, a gift.
The ugly part isn’t the manna, it is their response. They hate it. They want cucumbers after working all day in the Egyptian sun with lashes on their backs instead of fresh bread and quail. It is so unreasonable that we balk. How can this be? Who could fail to stand in awe and gratitude at such a miracle? Who wants to be a slave and eat cucumbers instead of being free and eating bread and quail?
There is a rather vulgar line in a popular movie that explains this phenomena. The cleaned up version goes something like this: “Show me a beautiful woman and I’ll show you a man tired of kissing her.” If we were looking for a case study we might take King David with his hundreds of beautiful wives lusting after Bathsheba, but we can be more primordial than that: we have the curious case of Adam and Eve, standing in the garden with their bellies full, surrounded by delicious, beautiful, diverse fruits, having the Word of God but they listen to the devil.
Show me delicious manna and quail, given for free, without money and without labor, and I’ll show you a man sick of eating it. We could improve upon this saying this way: show me a man and I’ll show you a sinner.
The discontentment of the Israelites is described in length in Psalm 78. Here is a bit of it:
(The Lord) commanded the skies above and opened the doors of heaven, and he rained down on them manna to eat and gave them the grain of heaven. Man ate of the bread of the angels; he sent them food in abundance. . . . And they ate and were well filled, for he gave them what they craved. But before they had satisfied their craving, while the food was still in their mouths, the anger of God rose against them, and he killed the strongest of them and laid low the young men of Israel.
They did not eat to live but were consumed with cravings, with lust for food, and with bitterness toward God whom they were convinced was holding out on them. This is part of the reason that the Church commends fasting. It isn’t meant to impress God. It doesn’t impress God. It is meant to help discipline the body, to mortify the flesh and bring it into submission.
The first temptation in the desert is to see if Jesus will feed Himself. The tactic worked on Adam and Eve in the garden when they weren’t even hungry, so why not give it a shot with Jesus. But mostly, I think, the devil doesn’t expect it to work. It is really more of a taunt. Don’t get me wrong, it is a real temptation. The devil would love for Jesus to sin, but mainly he just wants to torture Jesus.
Jesus is the God who feeds. He fed grumbling, ungrateful rebels rescued out of slavery in the wilderness. He will feed the 4000 and the 5000 in a similar way and they will try to seize Him and then they will demand that He be crucified. All over the world, at that time, while the Lord suffered hunger in the wilderness, ungrateful people were eating. “This,” says the devil, “is unjust. Why not go be God and leave these people to what they deserve? Why suffer for those who will never really appreciate it, let alone those who will never benefit?”
It is not enough for the devil to point out that Jesus could feed Himself if He wanted to, he also wants Him to know that His efforts for humanity are wasted, that we’re not worth it, that we’ll never live up to it, that we will fail Him.
In this the devil is correct and the Lord knows it. His response, fittingly, is a reference to Manna in Deuteronomy 8
And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And 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 man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”
If manna was honey to attract the flies of humanity it failed. Humans aren’t flies they are cannibalistic sheep, stupid and docile yet quite willing to kill one another. If the goal was to attract their attention, a car wreck or a celebrity behaving badly would be better bait. But manna wasn’t a bribe, it was a gift. God gave it because they needed to learn that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Many died in the desert. They didn’t learn. They ate the bread but refused the gift.
So the devil is correct that we will fail Jesus. But did the devil forget Joshua? Did he forget Nathan’s absolution of David? Did he forget that God clothed Adam and Eve? I think he did, willfully, maybe, but he forgot because he didn’t want to know. He forgets because he refuses to believe in that God is good, that He forgives sinners and reaches out to failures and restores and gives new chances to bad promise-keepers. The devil cannot accept the very essence of God: Love. He thinks it is a trick or a lie.
God didn’t give manna in the desert to make the people love Him. He doesn’t need their love. He just loves them and He loves them whether they repent or not, whether they are ungrateful or not, whether they complain or not. So He feeds them. He gives Himself to them. It doesn’t take faith to receive the benefits of the manna. It is real food and those eat it are sustained. Their bodies go on.
That is why Jesus won’t turn stones into bread and feed Himself. He didn’t take up flesh to make a sales pitch, to talk people into loving Him, and He didn’t come to eat anymore than He came to served. He came to serve and He came to feed. He came to be bread, to give Himself to men who don’t deserve Him and can’t fully comprehend Him and who will probably take Him for granted at best and abuse Him at worst. He doesn’t do it to make them love Him. He does it because He loves them.
So what about Joshua, David, Adam and Eve? What about the woman caught in adultery and the man born blind and the paralytic? They received not simply bread for the day, but the love of God in Christ. Love that came in a Word: “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has made you well. You will not die.” And in response, they did love Him. They loved Him, imperfectly, but they loved Him as He first loved them. And like Paul they learned to be content, to trust, to wait, and no evil befell them, not even death, for death itself is the portal whereby God brought them to Himself.
The devil never had a chance. The Lord of bruised heel, the Lord with the 5 marks on wrists and feet and side, the Lord who multiplied the loaves knows how bad we are. Nothing is hidden from Him. He is no fool, or maybe He is, counted in the ways of demons and men, but He is a knowing fool, and yet knowing He loves us. He loves us still. He is going to keep on loving us. He won’t stop. The devil can’t win. The battle is already done. Jesus lives. And by His Word so do we.
Thus you have manna today. It is here for you, bread for eyes to see, but a miracle on the Altar for your faith: the risen Lord gives Himself to you with what you need to live, sustenance by forgiveness, faith by His Word. That is how you live. That is how you die. And that is how you are.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.