When you go on a trip, especially a long one, are you the type of person who packs snacks? Do you always have a little bag of goodies in the car or a stash of granola bars in your purse or pocket? I, for one, am terrible at remembering to pack snacks, so I’d like to travel with you.
I think it’s all because my parents never let us eat in the car when we were growing up. They didn’t like messes. If we got hungry on a long car trip, we felt our needs were essentially ignored. In fact, I have many vivid memories of being thirsty and begging my parents to stop for something to drink. “We have plenty of drinks at home,” they’d say, without even looking in the back seat. “We’ll be there in just four hours.”
Perhaps it was a good policy, in many ways. Saved lots of money…kept us healthier…strengthened our endurance. And, of course, it really caused us to focus on that destination.
Fortunately for me, I married someone whose family were master snack packers. When the Martin-mobile sets out nowadays we’re usually stocked to the gills: fruit, crackers and cheese, chips, cookies. One peep of complaint from the back seat or—as is more likely—the driver’s seat, and Melinda just tosses over something to nibble on.
|"Jews gathering the manna in the desert" Poussin (1594-1665)|
They are several weeks on their road-trip into the wilderness of Sinai and the people of God are starting to give out more than a peep of complaint. And the trip leaders, Moses and Aaron, look around and realize they haven’t packed any snacks. The destination is still several years—maybe decades—in the future. For a trip that began with such excitement and hope, things have started to get pretty bad pretty quickly.
Therefore, stuck out in the wilderness with no clear direction and nothing good to eat, unsure of what their destination is, they start doing what many folks do when the going gets tough: they start fantasizing about the past. It doesn’t matter that they were slaves back in Egypt. All they can remember is the food. It doesn’t matter that they ultimately had no future back in those days. All they can really focus on is the things that made them happy. They are paralyzed with preoccupations. What they end up saying with their complaining and idealizing of the past is that it would have been better to die with no future than to live with hope as God’s people.
Individuals and congregations, of course, never do anything like this, especially ones with long-range planning teams that have us focused on the future. We never get into a predicament on our journey of life or faith and begin to pine away for what we once had, the church we grew up in, or the way things used to be back in those years when the pews were full every Sunday. Pastors, too, caught up in the stress of parish life, never pine away for the fun times of earlier days, like seminary, for example, or internship, or those lovely days of being an associate pastor. Those things only happened with ancient Israel.
Regardless, this hungry moment in the road to the Promised Land turns out to be a critical moment for the people of God. It’s a critical moment because they end up receiving manna, this strange, flaky, bread-like substance that falls on the ground each morning and provides just what they need to get through. Apparently it’s nothing to write home about, and it’s not even clear what it really is, which is how it gets its name: Manna means “What is this?” in Hebrew. In other places we learn that it tastes a little like coriander seed.
It may not be the fleshpots of Egypt, but it suffices, and with the manna comes the instruction to collect only enough for one day. This focuses their attention on the present and how God is with them in that moment. It draws them into a new kind of relationship that is daily, portioned out.
The gift of manna also shines the spotlight on the journey itself, so they are not left idolizing the past, nor may they become too preoccupied with the dreamlike destination of the future, that point four hours down the road when they’ll finally get water.
Furthermore, the gathering of manna is a communal event. Typically, when humans get hungry or desperate, our sinful tendencies of rugged individualism set in. It’s each man or woman for him or herself. But the manna is to be collected as a whole. No one can take any more than they need for that day, and they each distribute it in their tents as people have need.
This also turns out to be a critical moment for God who is responsive to the needs of his people. God, in a way, changes tack from showing up for Israel as a powerful, dramatic mover of Red Sea water and deliverer of deadly plagues—a grand deity who moves in big, broad, violent strokes—to a carefully present and attentive God, one who is now even drawn down to the basic, mundane rituals of daily provisions. Israel’s hunger moment becomes a chance for God to rain down something as delicate and as ephemeral as a daily gift of bread. It becomes a chance for God to show that the signs of God’s presence are not always the big, bold, miracles of power. They can even be the ones we practically disregard as we look them over and think to ourselves, “What is this?”
This critical moment from Israel’s past and God’s past is what Jesus uses to interpret his presence among the people after he feeds the crowd of 5000 and crosses to the other side of the sea. In a way, his sign with the five loaves and two fish is a throwback to the old days where God worked in flashes of grandeur. At least, that’s how the people see it. They are amazed at the work he has displayed and want more. When will the next miracle happen? When will the next bread come down from the sky, and with such force?
Their actions remind me of those lines from that Foo Fighters’ song:
“I’m looking for the sky to save me/
looking for a sign of life./
I’m looking for something to help me burn out bright.”
looking for a sign of life./
I’m looking for something to help me burn out bright.”
They, like God’s people then and now, want the sky to open up save them again, dramatically, if possible, and so they are drawn to the bold, dazzling, events of yesterday, the ones we point to from our past when we were so sure of God’s presence.
But, somewhat disappointingly, Jesus does not see himself as just a miracle-provider. Jesus does not see himself as a representative of a God who works chiefly by swooping down from the sky to save us and whisk us back to the fleshpots of Egypt. Jesus sees himself, rather, as the true bread from heaven, a gift from that second side of God, a morsel of daily sustenance that, when gathered and taken up in faith, provides enough for this day.
Indeed, Jesus is the kind of gift that, when received and consumed, really becomes enough. For you see, his forgiveness never runs out, never gets wormy, never goes stale, never loses its power. His compassionate love never tires, never takes a break, never directs itself inward. And these are what is offered each time we gather around the manna of his words and assemble at the table of his mercy.
And when we do—when we gather around Jesus and his meal—we start to see that, in our sinfulness, we often desire a god who will just move us from miracle to miracle, because we have an insatiable appetite for miracles. When we take his bread and cup, we realize we usually pining for a god who will hear our cry for hunger and immediately pull the car over and give us a feast…or at least point us back in the direction of Egypt.
But when we are graciously brought together to Jesus, and we taste his forgiveness, we are nurtured with his compassion, we begin to understand that the kind of god we often want will not stoop to be with us in our suffering. That kind of god would not eventually go to the cross. That kind of god would not choose the night his friends betray him, when he himself is feeling more than a little abandoned, to offer up his own body because that is not a god of the journey. That is not the God of Israel, the one who has remembered our hunger and who has thought to pack something that will keep us going. That god of our dream-sky is not the God whose blessed presence can be found in each day’s gifts, as insignificant and measly as they may seem,...even when we pick them up and sneer, “What is this?”
And yet even when we want that false god of our desires, that god who will only dazzle and amaze, we still come forward, open our hands, and we get the loving, thoughtful one who says, “I am the bread of life.” And bit by bit, mile by mile, daily bread by daily bread, we learn to put the past in proper perspective, regain hope for the future, and begin to see that this living bread, this gift from heaven—this Savior—is ultimately what gives life to the world.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.