Back in 2005 the author David Foster Wallace gave the graduation address at Kenyon College in Ohio. In the 12 minute talk he challenged the graduates to try to escape the bounds of a life with self at the centre of everything. To escape their default settings. In the mundane day to day adult graduate world they were about to step into.
David Foster Wallace was at pains to point out he was by no means a Christian. And yet he echoed the words of Jesus warning against chasing after the small stuff and missing out on the big stuff.
And everyone listened enraptured.
To this bunch of bright graduating students, David Foster Wallace said, everyone worships something. But watch out. Because if you're not careful what you worship will destroy you. Worship power, you'll end up feeling weak and afraid. Worship your intellect, you'll end up feeling stupid.
Because he says the reality is that, "The world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self."
And everyone listened. Enraptured. For most of them, this was the first time they'd even heart this stuff.
He said, "... There are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you won't hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving... "
Real freedom, he says, is truly caring about other people. Sacrificing for them. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think.
The alternative is the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
And as David Foster Wallace is speaking to these razor sharp graduates, they're hanging off every word. Someone posted the talk on YouTube. And on YouTube it's had over two million views.
Because it struck such a deep resonance. That a life of craving and wanting; the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost something infinite... it's a profound kind of hunger, isn't it, that can leave you constantly grumbling and unhappy and wanting something more?
ACT 1 - WE'RE HUNGRY
Which is on a more physical level where you find the Israelites in Exodus chapter 16, about a month and a half after they've come to freedom out of Egypt.
You'll remember, they left in a hurry. They didn't pack any sandwiches.
They're missing the kebab shops and the latés back in Goshen.
We saw the grumbling start last week when they thought they were trapped by the sea. But now it's starting in earnest.
Hungry. For the food that doesn't last. And complaining about it.
If you want a key phrase to hang it on, that's the one. Hungry for the food that doesn't last. And complaining about it. Thinking that the God who so far has brought them out of slavery, the God who's opened up the sea, the God who's provided a redeemer for them in Moses and crushed the might of Pharaoh; thinking that that God hasn't got their best interests at heart. And is just going to leave them hungry in the desert.
Now I've got to confess, I'm a bit of a food complainer myself.
If the chips aren't hot at McDonalds, I send them back. No hesitation. If I'm ever there with my kids, they're hugely embarrassed.
Well, listen to their whinging of the Israelites. They say to Moses and Aaron in chapter 16 verse 3,
If only we had died by the Lord's hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.
Which isn't actually true. I mean, they might have had plenty of pot roasts back in Egypt. But they were crying out to God in their distress.
And the reason they're here is not so he can starve them. They're here. Because they're on their way somewhere far better. They're here because they're heading to the promised land. A land flowing with milk and honey. And everything good.
And the Lord says to Moses in verse 4, I'm going to send both a provision. And a test. I'm going to find out what they're like.
I'm going to send bread from heaven. But it's not going to be lasting. And so every day... is going to test their trust. In God's provision. Each day's going to test their greed. See if they'll be satisfied to live within God's limits.
Look at the words; chapter 16 verse 4.
I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. 5 On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.
There's going to be new bread every morning. And in the evenings, quail; a la carte.
Verse 11. God says, "At twilight you'll eat meat. And in the morning, you'll be filled with bread. And then you will know... that I'm the lord your God."
If you didn't know it already from what I did to Egypt. From what I did to Pharaoh. From how I opened the sea. From how you got from there as slaves to here in freedom.
And so it happens. quail to eat in the evening. This layer of thin flakes like frost on the desert floor. The Israelites say mah-nah which means "what is it?" Apparently from other descriptions, tasted a bit like coriander seed; with a dash of honey. Quite nice. And so that's why they called it manna. "What is it?"
But Moses says to them quite plainly in verse 15, it's the bread. That the Lord has given you to eat.
So, take as much as you need. Gather it up in baskets. Enough for you and your family. Take an omer basket for each person in your tent.
But remember, he says, the expiry date.
Did you know that we Australians are throwing away 20% of our food every week. One shopping bag in every five. Is ending up in the garbage. And it's partly because we don't get the difference between best before dates and expiry dates.
There's the best before date you get on stuff like chocolate and chips. Which means if you eat them after that they might be a bit stale. But they're still fine to eat.
And then there are expiry dates. On things in the fresh food aisles. That if you go past the expiry date there's sure to be a dangerous build up of bacteria and you'll end up with a sure case of food poisoning.
Manna. Is in the second category. Manna. Is not designed to last. So everyone gathers just as much as they needed; just the right amount.
And Verse 19, Moses says it again. Shelf life. 12 hours. Eat it all today. No one is to keep any of it until morning.
Which of course is the trust test as well. What if God can't be trusted? What if it's a one off? What if his blessings aren't New Every Morning like the old song says?
So some of them, verse 20, pay no attention to Moses at all. Nor to God. And they keep it. They keep the perishable food until morning. And by morning it stinks. And it's crawling with maggots.
Except on the Sabbath; when in verse 22 to 26, when they can keep extra on the day before. And bake or boil it into manna cakes. And keep and eat it on their Sabbath day so they can rest instead of gathering food.
Except of course some of them. Persisted.
Verse 27, some of the people; go out on the Sabbath to collect it wanting even more. And find nothing.
"How long," verse 28, "will you Israelites refuse to keep my commands?"
Well, keep in mind, they haven't even been given the full law yet. That's coming next week. They haven't even been given the Ten Commandments. And the 603 other laws.
How long will you Israelites refuse to keep my commands? The answer is, if you know a bit about the way the story pans out, the answer is, all the way through to Jesus.
But that's getting ahead of ourselves.
The chapter winds up in verses 31 to 36 with one omer of perishable manna put in a jar and put on display.
As a reminder for generations to come.
And in a little flash forward we're told they ate the honey flavoured manna, we're told, for the next forty years. Until they came to the promised land. A foretaste. Of the land of milk and honey.
Chapter 17. More complaints. This time; we're thirsty. They set out from the desert of Sinai, they camp at Rephidim; and there's no water.
And straight away, they're quarrelling with Moses about it.
It's a different word to last time. Chapter 16 they're grumbling. Now it's open hostility.
That time it was food. That God provided. Now it's water.
Take a look what they're saying. Same tone.
3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, "Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?"
And look, they're so angry at this point that from what Moses cries out to the Lord, they're about ready to stone him.
And the Lord says to him. Go out in front of the people. Hold up your staff. The same one you used to strike the nile and turn it to blood. And then strike the rock at the foot of Mount Horeb. And I'll make water gush out. For all the people to drink. As much as they need.
Which Moses does. In the sight of all the Elders of Israel.
And they call the place the delightful sounding massah and meribah. Because sah and rib at the root of those words mean quarrelled and tested.
The Lord at the start was going to test Israel. And see if they obeyed. But they've tested him instead. Saying is the lord among us or not? Sure, he's brought us out of Egypt. And through the sea. Or maybe we just got lucky.
Here's the story so far:
Israel. Grumbling over perishable food.
Tested by God.
And testing God.
Look, by and large the way it starts with Israel is the way it's going to keep going. All the way through their story. All the way through the Old Testament. All the way to Jesus.
You get to chapter 18, and Moses meets up with his father in law Jethro; and he's telling him the story of everything that's happened. He summarises it this way. It's kind of a re-cap point in the narrative.
Moses told his father-in-law about everything the Lord had done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians for Israel's sake and about all the hardships they had met along the way and how the Lord had saved them.
And the point of it is, it's all been for their sake. He's done it all for them. He's saved them. And brought them out of Egypt. Ready to be his people.
And all the can do is grumble. And complain. And be constantly dis-satisfied. And quarrel with Moses.
Remind you of anyone?
Look, before we get to you and me, I want to stop off at an episode in the New Testament; John chapter 6. We were there not so long ago. At a very similar scene. It's Jesus. With a hungry multitude in the wilderness.
Turn over to it if you can - page 1068 and 1069 in our church bibles.
Because the parallels are astonishing. And on John's part as he tells the story, very intentional.
Jesus has just crossed over to the far shore of the sea of Galilee. A water crossing. Then up on a mountain. It's near the Passover time, verse 4, when they stop and remember Moses. And the Exodus from Egypt.
And the people are hungry. What can they do? In this case, Jesus makes the first move. Five loaves, two fish, 5,000 men.
But he sits them down. And verse 11 says pass round the food. And all of them get as much as they need. With loads left over.
But look, here's where it gets interesting. Remember the manna? The bread Moses gave? Don't try to keep any? It's perishable? Don't try to keep any. It doesn't last. Jesus says to them, gather up as much as you can. Because this time, it's bread that lasts.
John 6 v12-13:
12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, "Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted." 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
This time, it's keep the leftovers. Because the bread he's offering. Lasts forever.
It's a bit hard to get your head around because what Jesus is doing with his sign is that he's making a point. He's using the real bread. As a kind of a metaphor. To make a contrast between himself and the original exodus.
So you step down to verse 26, he's gone back across the lake, they're looking for him, they find him; he pushes back.
Jesus answered, "Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill."
He says, you're just chasing me because you want free bread. You're hungry for the kind of food that doesn't last.
But get this bit. He says, "Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you."
They want perishable food. Stuff with a use by date.
Don't work for food that spoils. This is Jesus speaking. But food that endures to eternal life. Which the son of man will give you.
I'll give it. Not Moses.
And they say in verse 28 and 29, what do we have to do to do the works God requires. To which Jesus says... just this. Verse 29.
The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.
Now that's a big call, isn't it? It's putting all your eggs in that one basket.
The conversation turns back to Moses and the manna in the wilderness. Verse 30 to 33.
They ask, what sign will you do that we'll believe? How are you going to prove it?
"Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness," verse 31, "as it is written, he gave them bread from heaven to eat. "
What are you going to do? Well, I would have thought feeding 5000 people with a couple of bread rolls might do it. With leftovers that were lasting. Kind of a hint. Focus on the lasting food.
Now. Keep your eye on the ball. watch what he says.
32 Jesus said to them, "Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." 34 "Sir," they said, "always give us this bread."
Then Jesus says to them... verse 35. I'm talking... about me. He says, "I am the bread of life. I'm the way... to get lasting satisfaction. To find life not just for now but eternity. Just gotta put your trust in me. And stop chasing the other stuff. The perishable food.
The kind of hunger David Foster Wallace was talking about. "The world of men and money and power that hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self."
Hungry for power. Is that you? Politely of course.
Hungry to get ahead. Is that why you're so driven at work?
Hungry to be noticed. Is that why you always want to be the centre of attention. Always talking, never listening.
Hungry to be taken seriously. Is that why you're frustrated?
Hungry for influence maybe? That your ideas get taken on board?
Hungry for affluence. Having the stuff the guys in the ads have got, and having it now.
Hungry for likes on Instagram.
Hungry for a better house?
Hungry for better holidays. In better hotels? So you can talk about it when you get back?
And when you don't have those things... is that why you grumble and complain? Remember the Israelites? No food in the wilderness. They grumble. No water in the wilderness. They quarrel.
Jesus says, Come to me; and you'll never go hungry.
Come to me; and you'll never be thirsty.
Exodus 16. Grumbling that there's no food. here's food, says Jesus. It's me.
Exodus 17. Grumbling there's no water. Here's water. Says Jesus. It's me.
And you know what the Israelites do when they're listening to Jesus. This is classic.
It's there in verse 41.
41 At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." 42 They said, "Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, 'I came down from heaven'?"
Even his disciples, down in verse 61, are grumbling about it. Saying this is a hard teaching. That we've somehow got to eat and drink Jesus. That somehow he's going to be the one who sustains us. And gives life.
Doesn't make sense. We'd rather look somewhere else. And from that point, lots of his disciples turned back. And no longer followed him. Competing appetites. Competing priorities. So they grumble. And they walk away.
David Foster Wallace in that graduation speech, he was at pains four of five times to say he wasn't pushing religion. He was an atheist. Just that he was an atheist who was tired of what he called post modern cynicism. That tears everything down and puts nothing back in its place.
In a nutshell, his philosophy was, "Let's at least be nice to each another because we're all on the same meaningless journey."
In 2008 he took his own life. Somehow his philosophy wasn't working. He was seeing the problem; but there was no centre to his value system. No solution. Perishable food.
What about you?
Advertisers invented a new word a while back. It's hangry. Hungry-Angry. The sort of grumpy you get when you hit the low blood sugar point. You need a Snickers bar.
I wonder if you're maybe a bit spiritually hangry. Hungry-Angry. That you've come to the point of realising the default settings of the world don't satisfy. And yet you're maybe not really prepared to throw your lot in with Jesus. And really trust him; and live like it.
And so you grumble. You're never quite satisfied. There's an intangible longing. Something missing. And so you're not quite satisfied with the way things are at church; someone should do something to fix it; and it's always someone else's fault. You can't see past the problems to the positives. And you're always taking the opportunity to talk up the negatives with anyone who'll listen. If that's you, Maybe it's time for a spot check. Maybe you're not being sustained by the bread of life.
And you need to feel the weight of the words of Jesus one more time. "Don't work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life."