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Monte isn’t preaching this week, instead we have a guest preacher who’ll be speaking from the above texts. Here are some online writings by professor William Loader (of whom Monte is a fan) to get you thinking about the texts and what they offer about faith and doubt.
The people of Israel have journeyed on from the Reed Sea and are now on the way to Mount Sinai (v. 1). There is yet no definite identification of the location of their destination, Mount Sinai. In tradition it has been associated with a range of granite mountains in the south-central part of the Sinai Peninsula. This area has three peaks within 25 miles of one another. One of these, Jebel Mûsa (the mountain of Moses) is traditionally associated with Sinai-Horeb and God’s giving of the Law. Some have suggested another location in the north-east of the Sinai desert, on the direct route to Kadesh-Barnea. But while it is tempting to consider the location of Mount Sinai, it is the language associated with the mountain that is important, for example, in Exod 19:16: ‘On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain’. The thunder, lightning and dark cloud are characteristics of a storm and are part of the language associated with the appearance of storm gods in the ancient Near East. But Israel have not yet reached the mountain so let us return to Exodus 16.
In Exod. 16:2 both Moses and Aaron share the responsibility of feeding the people on their journey through the wilderness. This is a continuation of their shared responsibility for freeing the people from Egypt. Moses received God’s instructions and passed them on to Aaron, who spoke the words to Pharaoh (Exod 7:1-2). That partnership continues in the wilderness. Yet the people are now hungry, and they are complaining to both Moses and Aaron (16:2). The Sinai Peninsula is a barren place, so it is neither unexpected nor unrealistic that such a large group of people are finding it difficult to get adequate food and water. They do what most people do when they face change, or difficult circumstances – they idealise the past and complain bitterly to those responsible for the present. They forget that life in Egypt was slavery and oppression. At least they had food and water. Their rescuers Moses and Aaron are made to share the blame for the present conditions.
The answer from God through Moses is that enough bread for each day will be ‘rained’ from heaven. The people are to learn to trust that God will continue to provide enough for each day, and accordingly they will not gather more than one day’s worth. Instructions about the sixth day of gathering the ‘bread’ actually pre-empt the giving of the Sabbath law (vv. 22-29). In v. 5 Moses is told to give the people special instructions on the ‘sixth day’ (of the week). They are to gather enough of the heaven-sent ‘bread’ for two days, obviously so that they need not work on the Sabbath. The call to trust incorporates space for worship too. But we ought not to miss the point that before the people cried out (v. 2) there had been no word about the provision of food. Their anxiety does not seem to have been unreasonable. The testing of trust (v. 4) only seems to come when the daily provision is mentioned. Complaining to God, or even God’s lieutenants, does not seem to be out of place here.
Moses and Aaron tell the people that in two ways they will understand it was God who brought them out of Egypt (vv. 6-7). This is a clear warning that in their complaining they are not against Moses and Aaron, but against God. In the evening this will become clear to them, and in the morning the people will ‘see the glory of the Lord’. In v. 8 Moses makes it plain that they will receive meat in the evening and bread in the morning. The ‘glory of the Lord’ apparently refers to the appearance of the bread. Moses and Aaron then call the people together, to draw them back to God (v. 9). They are reminded that they have not been abandoned in the wilderness. God has heard their complaining. Moses and Aaron are only human, it is God who looks after the people. They are reassured by the reappearance of the cloud in which God has accompanied them from Egypt, and which precedes them toward Sinai.
As the people were promised, on that evening a flock of quails appeared and on the following morning the ground was covered in a ‘fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.’ In Numbers 11, another account of hunger in the wilderness, the quail actually follow the manna. The account in Exodus also eliminates any delay in God’s response. The people have meat on the very day of their complaining.
Yet even so, there is hesitation in the people when confronted by the ‘bread’: ‘What is it?’ They are in desperate straits in unknown, hostile territory. They have not yet reached a point of wholehearted trust in God to bring them safely to the ‘Promised Land’. And even when confronted by God’s provision they will not let go of their anxiety. They also have to learn to trust that their leaders are in turn being led by God. It seems that trust in such hard circumstances is not only a matter of adopting a sense of confidence in another but in letting go of the fears that so easily dominate from within.
Paul is in midstream as he looks to the future. He has just opened a vista of hope that looks to a transformed world both of people and of creation as a whole (8:18-25). In recent times the transformation and renewal of the whole creation takes on new dimensions of urgency as we face the impact of climate change and the way we manage our environment. Such issues claim central court in our reflections on spirituality and hope. Paul has already spoken of the Spirit (8:23). The Spirit yearns. It longs for change, for renewal, for birth of the new. Paul has not arrived. He is in the midst of the pain of change and hope. The Spirit helps us in our human frailty (8:26), not by offering shortcuts to success, but by praying with and for us. The Spirit, the life of God with and within us, is a longing and yearning Spirit. What a spirituality! We are caught up into the divine yearning for change far beyond what we can comprehend: we cannot capture it in words (8:26). Paul may have in mind ecstatic groaning, but this is far from a celebration of speaking in tongues. It is love’s yearning which knows no bounds and cannot be captured in definition.
The Spirit not only groans with us; it groans for us (8:26). There is a groaning in the heart of God. We become part of it. That is something ultimately and fundamentally positive. It is hope, whatever befalls us (8:28). It is probably God who works good out of all our experiences. One might want to surrender at this point to belief in a calculating plan which has set our destiny, but this would misread Paul. He is returning to his theme in Romans 5 and earlier in this chapter that suffering does not mean abandonment and failure (8:18). Quite the contrary, it means being engaged with God in the world.
8:29-30 might sound even more like a closed system, but Paul’s focus seems to be not an exclusive system or a theory of why some respond and some do not, but rather a celebration of God’s love from the beginning. Sometimes love’s claims make outrageous statements which are true as celebration and doxology and become shaky if turned to the discourse of doctrine or definition. In the language of love we might affirm “you were meant for me from the beginning of time”, whereas in our settled moments we realise we could probably have a good marriage with a number of people. Paul’s focus is not exclusion, but the privilege of love and love’s goal.
We are to become like Christ. In his letter to the Galatians Paul speaks of labouring like a women until Christ be formed or born among the Galatians (4:19). Here he looks to our becoming children of God with Christ as the firstborn from the dead, an echo of the tradition with which he began his letter (1:4). Becoming like Christ elsewhere means recovering the image of our humanity, which we lost through sin and alienation (3:23). Paul lets the rhythm flow, from our call to our glorification (8:29-30). That is a theme he introduced in 8:17. Glory is a way of speaking of God’s being. In Christ it is as good as done and we look forward to being surrounded by God’s goodness. That is our hope here and beyond.
Paul’s rhetoric reaches great heights in the closing section of the chapter. Echoing the questions of Isaiah 50:8, Paul brings us into the courtroom and invites us to face reality and judge for ourselves. God is for us! That is the meaning of love! 8:32 celebrates that fact in Christ’s death seen as God’s giving. Christ’s reward as God’s Son, the first to rise from the dead, is just as much our reward. What is so rewarding? Sharing God’s life in the here and now and in the future. That life is love. The reward is not a place or a gift or anything which would contradict its source: outgoing love. It does not consist in ceasing to love and finding selfish reward, but finding joy in God’s life and in our own and that of others as we engage in God’s generosity. In that we also find ourselves.
Paul knew about accusers. For him they are near at hand, not least the Christians who fear his radical gospel. But they can be further afield or can be our domesticated enemies within with whom we have contracted over years of experience to live and who become the basis of our balance or imbalance. It is like Paul invites us to call them up. Let them have their say. Bring on the therapy. Then let us hear the word of God. Picking up what was probably a very early image of Christ, Paul depicts Christ as the advocate for us in the heavenly court. The notion of a heavenly court appears to have been an ancient strategy in the shift from polytheism to monotheism. The gods are powers in Yahweh’s council. Prophets have the gift of listening in. In the legend of Job the heavenly court hears the accuser (the Satan). Paul plays similarly, except that even in the heavenly court we can be assured that someone speaks up for us: Christ. Hebrews has a similar idea: he will intercede to help us when we face suffering so we will cope (4:14-16; 7:25). It is only in 1 John 2 that we have the idea that he also prays for our forgiveness. Paul is not focussing on forgiveness but on help and support.
The focus on suffering comes to expression so strongly in 8:35-37. Partly Paul is refuting accusations that if he were a true apostle he should show signs of blessing and victory. In the spiritual supermarket, Christian preaching which promises victorious living as freedom from troubles and guaranteed prosperity attracts the go-getters and fits more neatly into the goals of society at large. Paul rejects this both as criticism of himself and as a travesty of the gospel. It makes his words far more than just personal, relating to him. They become beacons to lead our way through the glitter of religious commerce. He is happy to speak of victory, but it consists in being like Christ: loving like him, suffering like him, and finally joining him also in the future. In this we are more than conquerors (8:37). Even in this statement he is not thinking about who might be conquered. Paul doesn’t have to win by beating others. Love is against making others losers at our expense, even though that runs contrary to much common wisdom in his and our day.
Finally Paul’s flourish in 8:38-39 is a wonderful assertion of love over against the competing and threatening powers which in their persuasiveness or power have the capacity to enslave us. Paul does not give us detailed predictions about the future. He doesn’t have to have “knowledge-control”, that is, answers which pretend to know the unknown. He doesn’t have to pretend the powers don’t exist or present no menace. Paul can face up to his own vulnerability without deceit and without magic. He does so simply because he is convinced that God, the God of Jesus is loving. That gets him through. Paul stakes everything on God’s goodness. That is also the heart of the gospel which he preaches.