The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
“What is this?” This is the question the Israelites ask when they first encounter the manna that God has so graciously given them from heaven; manna that literally covered the ground. “What is this?” Set within the immediate context of this lesson, it’s very easy to hear a “snotty incredulity” in these words. “What is this?” You call this bread?! Are you serious?! This is a joke!” Makes sense, right? The text tells us very plainly that the Israelites had been grumbling and complaining about how bad they now had it as freed children of God, and how much “better” they had it as slaves when they were living under Pharaoh. Keep in mind, this is only about forty-five days after leaving the bondage in Egypt, which means they had just witnessed ten plagues; they were being led by pillars of cloud by day and fire by night; they probably still had dirt from the bottom of the Red Sea in the treads of their sandals after that miraculous crossing just a few weeks earlier. As fresh as it all was, none of that was registering. “That’s all great, but what can you do for me right now?”
But here’s the thing: What if the Israelites were actually asking their question out of genuine ignorance? I don’t know. I’m trying to put the best construction on all this. What if they really, truly didn’t know what they were looking at? What if there was no snotty incredulity in their voice, but instead pure curiosity and a genuine lack of understanding? After all, it’s not like manna had ever appeared before. (That’s what the Hebrew word “manna” means: ‘what is this?’) This was an entirely new and strange gift from God.
Now, I know the snotty/bratty incredulous history of the Israelites makes it very easy for us to doubt the idea that there wasn’t at least a little bit of entitled snarkiness in their question. They do make it very easy to not like them. These are the same people who will go on to grumble that they “have no bread, and they hate the bread they have.” And it doesn’t take very long either. Fiery serpents and a certain bronze serpent are in their immediate future. They quickly come to hate the manna God so graciously gives them. They have none of the bread they want, and they hate the bread God gives them. How can you not look on these people with pitiful, angry disgust?
But this is precisely why I want you to give honest thought to the fact that maybe, just maybe, they were asking ‘what is this?’ out of genuine ignorance and lack of understanding. Look in the mirror. Are you really any different? I’m not. I can confess this. Now, am I so snotty, bratty, entitled, and incredulous so as to take such an arrogant stance against God and grumble and complain that I deserve so much better? Actually…I wish I could say ‘no,’ but that’s not the truth. I have had my share of crosses that I was convinced I didn’t deserve, and just like the Israelites, I did grumble and complain to God about it…just like all of you have done too. It’s an ugly, sinful truth that nobody wants to admit to, but that’s not the point I want to make with you today.
How many times have you struggled and despaired and not recognized God’s gracious abundance in your midst? How many times have you missed or overlooked or just plain ignored the fingers of God at work in your midst simply because you were looking for or expecting something very different; something more grand, more powerful, more showy? How many times does God show Himself in very real and tangible ways, and you just don’t get it? You don’t see it. You don’t recognize it. Sadly, if we’re honest, it happens. It happens to all of us, and there’s nothing snotty or bratty about it. Maybe we miss it because we’ve been blinded by grief or worry. It happens. In the end we don’t see what’s right in front of us. We don’t recognize Immanuel.
What’s truly sad and regrettable is the fact that we do this with things that we’re already well-acquainted with. It’s one thing for the Israelites to ask ‘what is this?’ with the manna. As I said, it was an entirely new and strange gift from God. But what about us? We struggle and despair; life gets tough; things get a bit sideways; things don’t shake out the way we want or expect, and we turn to God looking for some sort of miraculous sign or proof of His love or His presence. “God, where are you? Help! Why me? Why now? Don’t you care? Give me a sign and let me know that it’ll be alright.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve counseled with good Christian people who are really struggling and hurting. They’re looking for something—anything—to make it all better. When I share with them the words of Scripture regarding suffering and faithfully bearing our crosses and God’s peace that is known even in the midst of suffering; when I pray with them; when I share with them God’s Word about being yoked to Christ and His light burden, and trusting in the fact that He is working all things for the good of those who love Him and not even a sparrow falls to the ground without His knowledge, and how much more loved and cherished are we, for God knows how many hairs number our heads; when I share with them the realities of their baptism into Christ’s victorious death and resurrection; when I share with them the reality of Christ with us as He absolves us and feeds us and nourishes us with His own body and blood, and how we, with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven, are feasting with the Almighty at that very moment, they almost always look at me like a dog looks at you when they don’t understand. “Pastor, I already know all that. I don’t really need Scripture or prayer. I was hoping you could give me something more; something that would really help me right now.” It’s sad. Even good God-fearing Lutherans will sometimes not recognize the things of God because they’re too busy looking for the things of Freud and/or self-help exercises.
And before you get too comfortable in how “thank God I’m not like that,” just consider how often you’ve despised or stayed away from these gifts of God, which He freely holds out to you each and every time we gather in His name. “What? What’s the big deal? I was tired. I was up late last night. I had yard work to do. The kids had a soccer game. It’s raining. The fish were biting. It’s my only day off. What’s the big deal?” You just don’t recognize it, do you? How often do good Christians have “great” and new ideas to help “save” the Church? The Word rightly taught; i.e., full Law and full Gospel? Christ’s sacraments rightly administered? “Pastor, that’s good and all, but what about the children? What about the ‘seekers’? What about the empty seats and empty offering plates? What about that other church that has a great coffee bar and grocery giveaways and kids’ church and a laser-light show and an awesome big screen? God’s Word and Sacraments are good and all, but what about the things that really make my heart flutter and the numbers increase? What about the things that really work?” Not exactly “Go and make disciples of all nations—everyone—by baptizing them and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded,” is it? It’s sadly amazing how even the best intentions can sometimes make Christ unrecognizable.
Folks: Here is God, right where He tells you to look and listen; right where He has promised to be until the very end of the age. ‘What is this?’ In the words of Moses, “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” In the words of Jesus (words which He will speak just a few verses later in chapter 6), “I am the Bread of Life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” It doesn’t get any clearer than that.
Here is Christ. Here is the Bread of Life. May your eyes and ears of faith be opened to not only recognize, but to hunger and thirst for this righteousness; the righteousness of Christ that avails to everlasting life. May this Christ-centered peace—this Bread of Life—completely fill and satisfy your soul so that no matter what life may bring, richer/poorer, sickness/health, feast or famine, you will always be satisfied in the over-flowing abundance of God’s mercy, grace, peace, and love.
In Christ’s name and to His glory…AMEN
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