One of my favorite books read to me while I was growing up was “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.” In this story a man tells his grandson about a land called Chewandshallow where three times a day food would rain from the sky. There were pancakes and orange juice caught in the mornings, baseball games cancelled because of pie, and fried chicken caught on the way home from work. The people of this place do not see this food as anything special or miraculous, but rather it is just how they’re used getting their food. It is simply provided for them without any effort on their part.
This is the book that came to mind while I was reading another story where food rains from the sky, a story that Clint read to us today from Exodus. In this passage, God provides both bread and quails to feed Moses and Israelites.
Of course in this Old Testament narrative the menu is simpler than the pie and fried chicken of the children’s book, but it serves a much more profound hunger. These people are not just looking for a meal, but for a reason to keep going.
It’s important to know that the Israelites in this passage are the very same Israelites who were initially slaves in Egypt. And it’s also important to know that these Israelites originally came to Egypt because of hunger. There was a famine in Canaan and they went to Egypt because they had heard there was food there. Through a strange sequence of events their brother Joseph had become an advisor to the Pharaoh of Egypt and Israel’s sons are permitted to serve the Pharaoh in order to have food and survive.
These Israelites lived under the ruling of the Pharaohs for the next 400 years, and over the course of that time with changes in leadership, the Egyptians forgot the nature of the relationship between themselves and the Israelites. The Egyptians did not like how the Israelites had multiplied over the generations and sought to assert power over them first with hard labor and then a plan to have midwives kill every Israelite male that was born. This is where we enter into the story of Moses.
By God’s help and through some rather frightening plagues, Moses brought these people out of the oppression of harsh enslavement under Pharaoh, in the promise that God would bring them to their own land.
They’ve known much pain and have hungered for freedom for their people for years. But now, here they are, free from slavery, and so very hungry that they think it would be better to return to slavery than live with the hunger they are feeling now.
This short sightedness seems alarming to me, sitting here in a 21st century context. How could anyone who has suffered so much be willing to return to that suffering just for the sake of the stability of a meal? Why would anyone give up that freedom?
But then, I realize how many times that happens in our world today. How many people stay in a dead-end job because taking time away to get additional education or training for another position may put their current lifestyle in jeopardy? How many people go back into situations of domestic violence, because they believe that their partner is the only one who will ever love or provide for them?
We allow ourselves to be bound to situations that are not the best of what God has in store for us, because we believe that they fill our short-term needs. How many times do we do this in our relationship with God? Trusting in God will provide eternal life, but if people at school make fun of me for going to youth group, I’m not sure I want to go, because I want to have friends now, right? Trusting in God will provide eternal life, but if my boss at work wants me to work Sunday mornings and scoffs when I mention attending church, I have to back down, I need a job, right? Trusting in God will provide eternal life, but if the person I’m dating gets mad when my growth group interferes with date night, I’ve got to skip growth group and spend time with them, right? Trusting in God will provide eternal life, but following this call I’m sensing to go and do mission work would mess up my work life and uproot my family and I can’t do that, right?
There are so many ways that we settle for less than what God intends for our lives because we are so eager to be comfortable. There’s the saying “hindsight is 20/20,” and with this clarity of vision we take pleasure in retracing our steps. If we’re working backwards we know what we will come across, and there’s comfort in that. If we keep returning to what we’re used to, no matter how bad it is, at least it is something we can depend on.
Proverbs 26:11 says, “Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who reverts to his folly.” Though this is also known as one of the grossest passages in scripture, there’s a truth to it. Dog’s return to their vomit not because they think it’s good, but because they know it’s there. How often do we also return to things that aren’t good for us, just because even if bad, they are reliable? Seeking this comfort is our way of gaining control over our situation. We like to be in charge, have a plan, and when we’re going backwards we choose our own destination.
The much scarier option, to let God have control, seems crazy. Why go out in the wilderness? Why walk out into a life without guarantees? If you’re not sure where your next meal is coming from, can you really put your family through that?
At this moment in my life I am working my way through the ordination process for the Presbyterian Church. When I was in eighth grade and taking Confirmation classes here at church, I felt a call to ministry. Though I’ve been grateful to have all kinds of support from this church family, from my family, and from my seminary community, there have surely been times of wilderness. When I started seminary off with two semesters of Hebrew crammed into seven weeks of summer classes, returning to my college Freshman level French class seemed like a much better idea. When I had to write five quite difficult ordination exams, I would have much rather gone back and retaken the SATs. And now, while I’m just about to begin searching for a call to fulltime ministry, it seems like it’d be more comfortable to go back to the babysitting I did in high school.
French, too, was difficult while I was taking it, the SATs were stressful, and not every kid I babysat for listened to me or went to bed when they were supposed to, but the stressful aspects of each of those things seem more comfortable because I’ve been through them before. If I were to go back to any of those I would know what I was getting into.
I am excited about serving God as a minister, but at this moment, I don’t know what that service will look like. I don’t know where I’ll be or what the congregation will be like, all I know is that it won’t be a life I’ve lived before. And honestly, that scares me.
Over Judeo-Christian history the word “manna” has come to stand-alone as it’s own word describing the flakey food that was given to the Israelites. It also is used in common speech in our time as a term for something that is an unexpected relief or in describing the deliciousness of a meal. The word “manna” however, actually comes from the Hebrew, which means quite literally “what is it?” Though we now look back on this story as a way that God took care of God’s people, giving them abundant and consistent food to eat, at the time the Israelites just looked at this powdery, flaky substance and said, “what is it?”
I’m sure anyone who has prepared a meal for children has had a similar experience at some point. You find a great new recipe, go out to the store to find just the right ingredients, figure out how to cook this meal, and serve it, excited to see how they will enjoy it and you are greeted with a “what is it?”
The Israelites were hungry, so very hungry, but even when God provided food for them, it didn’t look quite like what they were used to and they were wary of it.
God sent another type of bread from heaven, living bread, in the form of Jesus. Jesus was sent to provide salvation, to satisfy both our immediate and eternal needs. By His life and teachings, Jesus provided an example of how we should live in the world right now. By his death on the cross, Jesus provided a way for us to have eternal life.
But this way is a wilderness way, with “what is it?”s echoing still across thousands of years.
Jesus’ birth is confusing. An angel comes to Mary telling her that she will have a child, she says, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
Jesus’ call for us to be born again is confusing. In John 3:9, Nicodemus comes to Jesus trying to understand what Jesus was saying about rebirth, he says, “How can this be?” To be born from Heaven as an old man? To him, it sounded ridiculous.
Jesus’ miracles were confusing. John 7 us a of a story of a man who Jesus healed from blindness and all the Jews of the synagogue can ask is, “How did he open your eyes?”
As surely as Jesus’ birth, life, and resurrection bring us hope, they also bring confusion.
“What is it?” How often do we find ourselves asking this when faced with Jesus’ promise and teachings? “What is it?” we ask about where God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do. Even when we know God’s plan for us will be life giving, we’re not sure about it. Following God means walking away from what’s not good for us, but it also involves walking away from what we know into the wilderness.
What is it that God is calling to walk away from? Is there a wilderness God is calling you to walk towards?
The good news about follow God’s plan is that you are not walking out into that wilderness alone, God will be with you in that wilderness. God will sustain you. And no, that sustenance is not likely to be the elaborate meals of “Cloudy with a Chance of a Meatballs,” but it might just be manna. And if you take just what you need, there will be more tomorrow. Glory be to God. Amen.