Have you ever wondered, “I just don’t know how we are going to make it through one more mile in the journey? One more day of demanding bosses and rude customers? One more day of worry? One more day of pain? My grandmother used to get outdone with this wayward calf who kept escaping from the pasture and she would utter an oft-used phrase, “It’s enough to make a preacher cuss.” The journey of life can lead you to such extremes. The Bible calls it murmuring.
Many of you know that I contracted a disease from a ministry trip to Africa in 2010. I continued to serve a seminary as president and chancellor for four more years, but my final year was a forced medical sabbatical that would conclude my service at the seminary. I didn’t want it that way, but we serve at the pleasure of others. It was announced that I had “retired,” a phrase I resisted, but was stuck with. During the lonely months following that decision of others, I wondered, not about my life, but about taking care of my wife and our son, John Michael, who was set to go to college, and who needed a very important surgery. Even more I wondered about my ministry. I knew, somehow, that we would be taken care of materially. But I didn’t know if I would ever preach again. The illness was one thing, but the way I was summarily set aside was another. And the thought of not preaching or shepherding a flock in the Kingdom almost killed me. The decision by institutional governance to sever my call because of my illness was a dark night of the soul for me like none other. Yet, their decision led to our journey: an unexpected hard turn into the most barren spiritual wilderness imaginable.
I am certain that I am speaking to someone today who is going through such a wilderness time in his or her life. You alternate between trust and desperation. You remember the promises of Scripture, even as you hear the voices of doubt in your head, taunting you, and inciting fear and a pain in the soul won’t go away. The pain and the fear can contort the soul. It can produce legions on the spirit that turn to sin, in the case of Israel, murmuring. It is a bad place.
God meets us in that place in Exodus chapter 16. In verses nine through 36, the writer of Exodus, Moses, recounts how God provided for his people and was faithful even when they were faithless. The murmuring of Israel is here answered by God, not in judgement, but in heavenly food. The Lord explained to Moses that the Hebrew children would get a quail supper in the evening and a tasty pastry in the morning. And so it was. But, when the People came upon the “fine, flake-like thing” that was “fine as frost on the ground.” I think Guy Ferretti missed a great opportunity for featuring some mysterious chow on “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.” It sounds like Baklava—kind of. I imagine everything from cotton candy to a delicate French pastry I once ate in Paris. Yet, nothing comes close. But, I am in good company, because the people who were actually there, seeing it, gathering it, and eating it, just didn’t know what to make of it. When they saw it, they said, “What is it?” Their answer? “What is it?” They called it “What is it”—that is, in the Hebrew expression “Man-hu:” “What is it?” Like a rabbi they answered their question with a question. Mystery gave birth to mystery. And behind it all was God.
Today, we want to visit that bleak wilderness of long ago to understand the features of this “what is it?” for our own lives. For we see: God feeds us on His Manna from heaven to help us along our way, even though we may have lost our way for a while. How? Well, let’s examine three Biblically revealed features of this, “What is it?”
The first feature of Manna is this:
Manna is mysterious
“What is it?” The mere question leads us to see that this bread from heaven and its unusual, but sweet and refreshing composition was something out of this world. Yet, the mystery was to be consumed. If not all consumed the remaining parts perished.
Part of the joy of living is when we learn to live in the tension of the mysteries of life. There was a time when I felt that I needed to know the answer to everything in the Bible. Then, upon knowing, I felt that it was my duty to let you know that I knew! That is not a very happy person to be around is it?
Yet, the mysteries of life go far beyond wanting to know how many angels can fit on the head of a needle. There are great questions that demand our attention and cry out for answers. I remember standing with a couple looking over the body of their child and asking, “What is it?” I also recall being with a couple when a baby was placed in their arms after years of prayer for a child. “What is it?” Mystery upon mystery.
The manna of God from heaven was a sweet, heavenly bread. It was a mystery and it went forever by its nature, “Manna,” literally, “What is it?” God’s love is often greater than our ability to understand. Sometimes we must just stand before Him in wonder and praise.
There is another feature of this heavenly wonder:
Manna is Miraculous
“What is it?” It was not just a mystery, but was a miracle. That God should feed the Hebrew children by raining down sweet bread from heaven is literally out of this world. Moreover, God regulated the use of the manna. It had to be consumed the day it’s filled. No one could be leftover or it would be ruined. On the six day that would be a double portion so they would not have to work on the Sabbath. All of this pointed to a miraculous origin and method of feeding the Hebrew children.
There are those who have surmised that the Manna has a very earthly and logical explanation. Jamieson, Faussett, and Brown, in their commentary on Exodus, mention this:
“…according to the views of some, it was a production indigenous to the desert; according to others, there was a miracle, which consisted, however, only in the preternatural arrangements regarding its supply. But more recent and accurate examination has proved this gum of the tarfa-tree to be wanting in all the principal characteristics of the Scripture manna.”
Some people like CS Lewis, before he was converted, have struggled with what they felt was the logic of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Then they came to see that it was not about logic it was about miracle. It is perfectly logical for an all-powerful God to do as he pleases and he was pleased to save, for example, a CS Lewis, an atheist and medieval English literature scholar, and he is pleased to save you. He does so in his way – through the miraculous gift of the Son of God.
The Manna was logical. It just wasn’t natural. It was a miracle from God. It was God breaking into human existence and sending down salvation at the very time when the children of Israel needed it most. And that message is a message that you and I need to hear today in our own journeys. God is with us. Through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, God has sent Manna from heaven to nourish our lives and to save us from eternal death. There are some, perhaps some here today, who would like to try and reduce Him to a mere man, a teacher, a philosopher, or just another rabbi. But, like the Manna, our Lord, who said that He is the Bread that came from heaven, is to be eaten now, while there is time, while He is available. For the time is coming from the heavens will close for you in death, or when the hands of time will move no longer. Today is the day, if you will not harden your heart, to taste and see that the Lord is good in sending us His Son, the Manna of life.
There is a third feature of this “What is it?” bread that is important for us on our journey today:
Manna is a Memorial
Moses instructed Aaron to place an omer (about an arms’ load) (verse 33) in a jar and place it “before the Lord.”
“These verses contain instructions about keeping a jar of manna and placing it before the LORD (vv. 32–33), which is described as being carried out when Aaron placed it before the testimony (v. 34). The “testimony” refers to the two tablets of the Ten Commandments (see 31:18; 34:28–29) that will be placed in the ark (see 25:16), which at this point in the narrative has not yet been built” (see 25:10–22; 37:1–9 in the ESV Study Bible).
The Bible is filled with such instances of memorials. The rainbow is a memorial to God’s promise to not destroy the earth by flood waters ( Gen. 9:13–16). The Passover was a memorial in which the future generations would remember God’s salvation through the shedding of the blood of the lamb (Exodus 12:11-14). The Sabbath is an eternal memorial ( Deut. 5:12-15), in which we remember God’s creative glory and His command for mankind to have a one-in-seven day of worship and rest.
And all of the memorials point to Jesus Christ our Lord! The Lord’s Supper, for us, looks back at the shedding of the blood of the Lamb, looks around at the communion we have in the Lord with each other, and looks forward to the Second Coming of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Yet, the power of all of this was to reach through the generations to one who was struggling through a wilderness of their own and assure remind them of how God fed the Israelites in the desert with heavenly food: Manna the mystery, Manna the miracle, and Manna the memorial.
It is to remind you, too, in your own life, today, of God’s faithfulness to you. If He rained down Manna from heaven for His people then, if He sent His only begotten Son for His people then, will He not come to you through the power of His Spirit today to meet your need? My friend, the memorial is here to remind you: you do not journey alone. God is with you. And even if you’re paying leads to Grambling he will not leave you. God is sufficient for the journey. God will provide a way. And even more gracious, he will provide even when you have lost your way. He rains down grace upon grace even when we have walked away from it and it is his grace — his Manna in Jesus our Lord — which nourishes us and eventually leads us to the one who sent the manna.
We have seen that the great question of God’s provision is its own answer: “What is it?” Manna? It is a mystery, a miracle, and a memorial, all signifying the Lord Jesus Christ who said, “For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33).
One of the best known hymns in the Christian Church, around the world, is “Guide Me, O Though Great Jehovah.” The hymn writer was William Williams, one of the founders of the Calvinistic Methodist Churches in Wales, when revival swept that rugged and beautiful land in the 18th century. In the early twentieth century God moved again. This time through a miner named Evan Roberts. And the old hymn was set to the majestic congregational music of Cymn Rhondda, or hymn of the Rhondda valley in South Wales. The hymn is one of the most famous in the world and has been heard around the world in the moving film, “How Green was My Valley;” in “African Queen;” and more recently at the funeral of Princess Dianna, and the wedding of William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the future king and queen. Why the popularity? Because it speaks of trials, difficulties, and a journey. We are all on that journey. And we all cry out to God:
“Guide me, O thou great Redeemer, Pilgrim through this barren land; I am weak, but thou art mighty; Hold me with thy powerful hand: Bread of heaven, bread of heaven Feed me till I want no more. Feed me till I want no more.”
And do you know what? The Lord has led my wife and son and myself through the wilderness of illness and given us manna for ministry. Sometimes we have asked, “What is it?” And the answer is, “What is it?” The answer is the question. The answer is the mysterious, miraculous, memory-making loving life of Jesus Himself coming to us to say, “I am all you need.” And so I stand before this day to preach of the mysteries of the faith because you are an answer to our prayers. I am only here for a season, and then the Lord will guide us, O great Jehovah, to His next assignment. And I am sure when I see it I will say, “What is this? What is it?” It is the same answer always: God is sufficient for all of our needs.
No matter where you are on that journey today, He has promised that He is here with you and will never leave you. He is the bread of heaven that never perishes and is always available to you.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
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