“What is this?” Is that a question you would welcome from the judges if you were a cooking show contestant? If the judge has screwed up his face as if he’s just been punched in the stomach, “What is this?” is a cry of disgust. There goes your chance of winning the contest. You probably shouldn’t have drizzled soy sauce on your homemade vanilla ice cream. On the other hand if the judge says: “What is this?” while smacking his lips, you know that this is a cry of delight – a sentiment that every chef hopes to hear.
It’s not just judges on the Food Network that are in the habit of asking: “What is this?” We do it all the time. Catch a cold in mid-summer and you’ll be saying with a grimace: “What is this?” But receive an unexpected present from a loved one and you’ll cheerfully chirp: “What is this?”
“What is this?” is also a question we ask God – often with disgust because we think God should treat us better. The Israelites in our sermon text felt this way. How did God deal with their attitude? He patiently turned their cries of disgust into cries of delight. God still does this. Let’s find out how that we may once again thank and praise him for his amazing grace.
One of the greatest miracles in the Bible happened when God parted the Red Sea so that a couple million Israelites could cross over on dry land and escape the Egyptians who had enslaved them for four hundred years. There was much celebrating at the time but the mood was much different about a month later. By then all the food the Israelites had brought with from Egypt had run out and so they cried with disgust: “What is this?” Had Moses and Aaron brought them out into the wilderness to die from hunger? “We were better off in Egypt where we sat around pots of meat and ate our fill!” the angry mob exclaimed.
But weren’t the Israelites forgetting something? They had been slaves in Egypt. How much “sitting around” had they really done? Not a lot, I should think, because the Egyptians weren’t afraid to whip lazy slaves. The Israelites added that they would rather go back to Egypt and die there by the Lord’s hand. Really? Had they also forgotten about the frogs, the flies, the boils, the hail, the locusts, and all the other calamities God had unleashed on the Egyptians during the Ten Plagues? Did they really now want to become the victim of God’s judgment?
How do you suppose God felt when he heard Israel’s disgusted cry of “What is this?” It must not have been unlike the way you parents would feel if you scrimped and saved to take your kids to Calaway Park for an end of summer treat but on the drive home the only thing they can talk about is how they didn’t get cotton candy. Sure, they had been on all the rides and had been given money to pick out a carnival stuffy to take home but because there had been no cotton candy, the trip was a total waste of time…or so your kids would have you believe by their incessant cotton candy complaining. It would make you wonder why you even bothered trying to do something fun with your children. Did God too wonder why he had bothered saving the Israelites?
Israel’s murmuring and complaining was not just bad form; it was sinful. God didn’t owe the Israelites a thing. He could have let them be so that the Egyptian pharaohs eventually worked them to death. Sadly Israel’s disgusted murmuring is often heard among us. “Can you believe these mosquitos? They’re driving me crazy!” That may be but we can be thankful that the same rain which has helped hatch so many bugs also nourishes our gardens and crops. “Road construction! When is it going to end?” But aren’t you glad they fix roads around here? Life isn’t perfect but it would be worse…much, much worse if God didn’t continually provide for us. Don’t lose sight of his blessings.
How did God deal with Israel’s cries of disgust? With amazing patience and grace. God said to Moses:
“I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God’” (Exodus 16:12). There was no rebuke. No “You want me to stop this car and come back there!” threat. God actually sounded excited to provide for his grumbling people. And why not? Because of their desperate hunger, all eyes were now on him. When food was delivered, there would be no question where it had come from and this would result in great praise and in the acknowledgement that the one true God was indeed Israel’s loving Lord.
And how exactly did God provide for two million people in the wilderness? God promised to “rain down” bread from heaven. And sure enough, when the Israelites went out the next morning there were white flakes on the ground as if a giant box of cereal had been spilled everywhere. When they first saw it they asked: “What is this?” It was a cry of curiosity that would quickly turn into a cry of delight when Moses explained that this was the bread God would provide until Israel entered the Promised Land. For the next forty years God never missed a delivery.
God may not rain down bread on us every morning, but he has promised to provide for our daily needs. This is a promise that God keeps in spite of our constant complaining of what we don’t have. What is this? What is this that God should be so patient and gracious with us chronic-complaining, serial-sinners! With his patient love God turns our cries of disgust into cries of delight.
This manna, as the bread from heaven became known, was a super food. It not only sated the Israelites’ hunger and provided all the nutrition they needed, it exercised their faith. How so? Manna that had been gathered in the morning was supposed to be consumed by evening. No manna was to be stored overnight in Tupperware containers. The only exception was on Fridays when they were to collect enough manna for two days since there would be none to collect on the day of rest (our Saturday). In other words on six days of the week the Israelites went to bed without a bite leftover to eat in the house. They had to trust that God would provide manna again the next morning otherwise they would go hungry. Would you trust that there would be bread again in the morning? Sadly, not all Israelites did. Some tried keeping manna overnight but it quickly rotted and they incurred Moses’ wrath.
If you’ve ever found yourself staring at a bare cupboard or at an empty bank account and wonder how you’re going to survive, fear not. God will provide the right amount at the right time. You might not get to eat steak nor may you ever be able to scrape together much of a savings fund but don’t listen to the financial experts who say that you “must” have a million dollars in your account by the time you retire or you’ll be miserable. Sure, we should be good stewards and should control our expenses now so we can save something for retirement, but God will provide for us even if right now we’re having to live from paycheck to paycheck – after all isn’t that how he provided for the children of Israel in the wilderness? But let me say again that this doesn’t mean that we can be careless with the resources God gives to us. If we squander his gifts on luxuries we can’t afford, don’t be surprised if God lets you suffer the consequences of your frivolous spending when you end up having to eat mac & cheese for a month. God’s promised providence is not an invitation to be silly spenders.
Manna was a super food in another way: it served as a picture of Jesus. In our Gospel Lesson you heard Jesus explain that just as manna was a heaven-sent food, so he had come from heaven to feed the world (John 6). The difference of course was that those who ate manna grew hungry again. Jesus promised that all those who eat him, that is, who believe in him, will never go spiritually hungry. Our need for forgiveness is satisfied in Jesus.
So how is your taste for Jesus, the Bread of Life? Have you, perhaps, become like the Israelites who soon got tired of eating manna? Do you find it boring to hear about Jesus’ death and the blood that he shed to cleanse us from sin? Do you cry with disgust, “What is this?” when the sermon or home devotion touches on this theme yet again?
Or are you like those Israelites who thought they could store away some manna for later and so treat Jesus like an emergency granola bar in your backpack? “I know Jesus is important,” you say, “just not right now. I’ll get him out when I really need him – like when I get cancer or have financial problems.” Jesus, of course, is always there for us. Today’s sermon is about his patient love. But why would we want to shove Jesus into a back pocket if he is our loving Lord?
If you have been guilty of doing that, take heart. The Bread of Life comes to you today. Through his Word he announces free and full forgiveness. “What is this! What is this that he should show such love to me?” Let your cries of delight resound at the news of Jesus’ love – love that falls full and free on us sinners every morning, like manna in the wilderness. Amen.