Everyone has had different reactions to seeing empty shelves in supermarkets in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have taken it in their stride, continuing to shop as if nothing much has changed, with the trademark Aussie “she’ll be right” attitude. Others have done the opposite, with panic-buying creating a feedback loop that leads to more and more panic-buying and less and less items on the shelves.
For me, as I walked through my local supermarket this week and saw the last scraps of onions, no lettuce in the crispers, and very few options for fresh meat (not to mention the distinct lack of toilet paper), I was overcome by sadness. My reaction made me realise something about myself: I have lived in a time of such prosperity, such excess. Here I am in my late-30s and for the first time in my life I may have to go without something. I can’t get the type of eggs I want, it’s hard to get pasta, and the only reason my household has toilet paper is because I routinely buy a 6 month supply online and ours only arrived a month or so ago.
It’s not just millennials and gen-xers who share my experience of plenty. My baby-boomer mum has also never had a time in her life without easy access to the basics (she asked me to pick up some extra toilet paper for her at the shops today, even though they already had a 20 pack at home).
I had to go back to my granddad, who turns 94 this year, to find someone in my family who knows what scarcity looks like. My Poppa was born in Scotland in 1926, during the great depression, and served in the Royal Navy in WWII. He has memories of salted kippers as a staple when he was a kid, and has told me how he used to marveling at his Dad’s ability to leave not a skerrick on the bone. Waste not, want not.
There was another generation with an experience like mine, a people who had gotten so used to their plenty that when it was suddenly taken away, they didn’t know what to do. The book of Exodus describes how God worked through miraculous signs, warnings and plagues to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. After the final plague and Passover, after Egypt’s armies had perished in the Red Sea, it seemed like God’s people are truly convinced of his power and might. They even sing a song about it! (Exodus 15).
Yet, mere days after singing God’s praises (and mere verses after it is recorded), the Israelites find themselves without fresh drinking water. What do you think they’d do? They’d seen God’s miraculous rescue just days earlier, the answer seems so simple, and yet their response isn’t to pray. Instead, they grumble (15:25).
God soon provides clean water. Lesson learned, right? Wrong. In only the next chapter, we see what happens when the Israelites get hungry. This time, not only do they grumble (16:2), they actually wish to go back to Egypt, and hoped they’d died there! (16:3)
What does God do? Yet again he provides. This time it’s manna – bread from heaven that arrives in the morning, is sufficient for the day, and is rotten by next morning. Yet when the sun comes up, there it is again (with a double-portion on Fridays for a Sabbath-day’s rest).
Later, when the Israelites complain yet again, because they’re sick of eating manna, God provides even still. This time, it’s quail, and quail in abundance. God’s patience with the Israelites’ lack of faith is nevertheless running thin. In one of my favourite verses that shows God’s exasperation with the Israelites, he says,
“You will not eat it for just one day, or two days, or five, ten or twenty days, but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it—because you have rejected the Lord, who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt?’ (Numbers 11:19-20).
But what for us? Is God going to provide the food we need? Is this a Biblical precedent I can use to assure me there will always be loo roll to spare? Is God demonstrating to us that the squeaky wheel gets the grease and all we need to do is complain as loudly and for as long as the Israelites did?
Absolutely not! There is a wider lesson here, one that Douglas K. Stuart helpfully points out:
[In the story of Manna from heaven] God was teaching them a concept: that he was the ultimate provider, the one who from heaven gave them not necessarily what they expected but what they really needed. Thus his satisfying them with the bread of heaven becomes a theme of Scripture that not only refers to the manna described in this account but to the ultimate provision of eternal sustenance, Christ himself (Exodus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture).
Man does not live by bread alone, man doesn’t even live by tinned baked-beans or frozen veggies (or whatever the next item is that we all buy in bulk and clear out from the supermarket shelves). Man truly lives by the word who became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), God’s son Jesus. Jesus himself tells us this: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6: 35). He isn’t promising full bellies and quenched thirsts, he’s promising that our greatest spiritual need will be satisfied, and that our broken relationship with God will be healed.
God’s word doesn’t guarantee me completely-stocked supermarket shelves. But it does promise me that my spiritual and eternal needs are covered, completely provided for, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.