When the Manna Stops

Joshua 5:10-12
David A. Davis
July 29, 2018
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Just between us, between you and me, between us students of the Bible with all kinds of variable amounts of knowledge under our belts, between you and me and anyone who clicks on this sound on the website or listens to the podcast or listens when I tweet the sermon title and link next week, just between us, I had no idea when the manna stopped. When that bread from heaven ceased. I never paid attention. Never gave it much thought. I’m pretty sure I haven’t thought much about the manna raining down from heaven every day except the sabbath for forty years. That’s a lot of manna. That’s a long time of manna. Manna over and over again for forty years.

We all remember manna, right? The whole congregation of the Israelites were in the wilderness and things weren’t going all that well. The people leveled complaint, after complaint to Moses. At one point it was their hunger. “It would have been better for us to die back there in Egypt eating our fill of bread rather than letting you bring us out here to kill us with hunger.” Of course the Lord heard their cry and told Moses that the Lord was going to rain bread from heaven. Moses and Aaron passed the promise along to the people. “Who are we that you complain to us? The Lord has heard all your complaining. Tomorrow you will see the glory of the Lord: bread in the morning and meat in the evening.” It was quail for dinner and manna in the morning. When the people saw the flakes as fine as frost in the morning they all asked one another, “What on earth is that?” Moses told them “that’s the bread the Lord has given you to eat.”

The word for “manna” translated in Hebrew confirms the people had no idea what it was. The word means “what is it?” The daily provision that came each morning also came with lots of instructions from Moses that required a strict adherence to sharing, the avoidance of selfish hording, and a plan to gather extra on Friday so they could honor the discipline of rest and not work on the sabbath. Moses told Aaron to preserve a serving of manna in a jar and place it before the Lord so that it could be kept throughout many generations as a testimony to all that God provides. And then, as recorded at the end of the 16th chapter of the Book of Exodus, “The Israelites ate manna forty years until they came to a habitable land; they ate manna until they came to the border of the land of Canaan.” They ate manna, every day, until they made it to the Promised Land.

Well, there it is. Forty years and then it would stop. Fast forward to Joshua and the crossing of the Jordan River, our text from last week. After they crossed over, they camped at Gilgal just inside the threshold of the Promised Land. Unlike the rambling, and sort of disjointed, two chapter-long account of that liturgical procession across the dry river bed, the narrator’s account of what happened in Gilgal is crisp and clear. There was circumcision which hadn’t been done in the wilderness. There was a Passover Celebration. The people feasted once again on the produce of the land. And the manna from heaven stopped.

The fathers, mothers, and grandparents who fled Egypt forty years ago would perhaps now be few and far between. But remembering God’s saving action is passed from generation to generation. The urgency of keeping the feast right there in Gilgal inaugurates new life in the land with an act of worship. Once again, a rite of remembering all that God has done. As I said last week, an awareness of and gratitude for God’s presence and for all that God has done was rooted deep within and passed from generation to generation.

“The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land.” Most of you like me I’m guessing, had no idea when the manna stopped. But after decades of that daily bread coming from heaven and sustaining God’s people in the wilderness, their nourishment was once again to come from the earth. Eating “the crops of the land of Canaan” implies a return to the rhythm and work of being stewards of the earth, of tending to creation. As the manna ceases, God’s people once again share in the responsibilities of community, care, and daily living. Other miracles of God will surely come but once inside the Promised Land, the manna stops.

It seems a bit counterintuitive, but after forty years in the wilderness, now in the habitable land of Canaan, the people of Israel appear to be more on their own. No more manna. No more water from a rock. No more being spoon fed by the hand of God. Life in the barren wilderness has a way of starkly defining roles and in a “Bear Grylls” kind of way, clearly pointing out the requirements that sustain life. Now on the promised side of the Jordan, the land bears fruit. But the building and care of community will require more attention and care. When the bounty comes and life is flush, responsibilities shift and commitments to faithfulness and righteousness must rise. Compassion and care for the orphan, the widow, the lost, and the vulnerable must not wane.

Years ago on one of our church trips to Guatemala, we went up into the mountains outside of Parramos to meet a small village that was led by women. Fredy Estrada, our group leader all those years and a dear friend of Nassau Presbyterian Church, wanted us to meet this community that he had discovered. Together the women had fled abusive and violent domestic situations to establish this small, safe, environment for themselves and their children. Of course they had nothing. Fredy had the idea to give them a small grant to buy a diesel powered corn grinder. Because they had to spend all their time hand-grinding corn, they never had time to develop a trade or to farm to try to provide more for themselves and for one another and for their community. So through the Princeton-Parramos partnership we were able to provide that machine. It was a one time, micro-lending sort of a thing to help their small village become more sustainable.

Several years later on another trip, when we were at the school in Parramos, Fredy came up to me and said he received word that the folks in the village would like to see us. So a small contingent of our traveling party jumped in a van and road the bumpy dirt road up to the village for a second visit. It turns out, they wanted to show us the corn grinder and to demonstrate how it worked. And they threw a feast for us as well. And then, there was a ceremony of sorts. Fredy was translating for me as folks of all ages, men, women, and children gathered in the courtyard of the village between the corn grinder tent and the kitchen area with a wood fired oven. My sense was that they wanted to formally thank us for the grant. Then some money came out; a whole roll of quetzals. So then I thought they were going to repay us, make it a loan. Which of course was not something we expected. Then with Fredy’s help to listen and my own eyes to see, I watched as the older women from the village called forward several younger women. With the time saved from the grinder, the older women were able to purchase some chickens and do some farming. They were now earning some money. They were having a ceremony to pass on the amount of money we gave them for the grinder to the next generation. They were passing forward the micro-loan so that the young women could get something else started. It was a remarkable and humble example of sustainability not just for food and water but for community.

When the manna stopped, it was as if the move to the new land west of the Jordan River came with the expectation of a deeper maturity among God’s people. At the very least, “eating the crops of the land of Canaan” requires a more nuanced understanding and expression of gratitude for the nourishment God provides. I take that phrase, “they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year” as a whole lot more than simply a reference to a menu or what found its way to the table. For those who have ears to hear, it is a reference to a way of life, a relationship to the earth, a covenant with the Creator. Not just to eat but to live off the crops of the land of Canaan. To feast on the promise of God and grow ever deeper in the life of faithfulness and service in the kingdom of God. The manna ceased and they ate the crops of the land.

“They ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.” That’s not just a loaded phrase. It is a theological one. Nate Stucky taught me that. Not about this particular verse but how farming and our relationship to the earth is fraught with theological lessons about community, life, death, justice, and providence of God. Nate and his family are part of our faith community. He is the director of the Farminary over at Princeton Seminary. The seminary owns a farm down on Princeton Pike and with Nate’s leadership and vision it is an outdoor classroom where students do theology, build community, and learn a whole more than I can even imagine. I haven’t sat in on any classes and unfortunately I haven’t even heard Nate give a lecture. What he has taught comes in little snippets over lunch, or Assembly Room conversations, a few late nights at the Family Retreat. Nate told me he could give a week’s worth of lectures on theology just from the mulch pile. That farming and pastoring are a lot alike mostly because of the dominance of the realities of life and death. That “farm to table” is less about creative menus and trendy restaurants and more about nurturing and building relationships in a community that serve the common good. That there is no better way for seminary students to learn how to deal with failure than working at the farm. You can do everything you are supposed to and a stretch of 100 degree days brings death you can’t stop. And one other thing Nate told me, there is nothing like farming to remind you that at the end of the day, it’s still all in God’s hands.

Once again this morning we receive our monthly Hunger Offering. When you stop a minute to ponder, the fact that there are hungry people in the world, in the nation, and in our community in the 21st century must make God weak. Some may pray for miracles to feed those who suffer. Some will settle for the notion of the poor always being with us. That the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner will always be with us. That the refugees, those suffering in a violent home or at the hand of another, the homeless, the un-cared for, the oppressed, the wrongly incarcerated, the wrongly convicted, the innocent children killed in war, those neglected in long term care, the victims of gun violence… some will settle for the notion that all of them will always be with us. But the people of God ought to point to the day that the manna stopped and rise up like prophets in a community that rolls up its sleeves and works for a kingdom where the least are served first. God’s people ought to remember the day that the manna stopped and God’s expectation that when bounty comes and life is good, commitments to faithfulness and righteousness must rise. You and I ought to never again forget the day the manna stopped and commit ourselves to life in a congregation that believes and preaches and lives Jesus’ teaching that those who want to be great again are called to be servants of all. Tending to and living off the crops of Canaan can never be separated from God’s call to the life of discipleship.

In the Book of Joshua it is described as “eating the crops of the land of Canaan.” The Apostle Paul called it “the more excellent way.” Jesus just said, “take up your cross and follow me.”

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