Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
March 6, 2016; 4th Sunday in Lent, Year C
Joshua 5:9-12; John 6.26-36
“The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land…”
There’s an old story about a woman who went out to the drugstore one night to get some medicine for her sick daughter. It was just about closing time at the pharmacy, and when she left the place, the store clerk locked the door behind her.
When she got to her car, she realized, to her horror, she’d locked her keys inside. This was the pre-cell phone era, so she really was stuck.
Not knowing what else to do, she tried prayer. “Lord,” she said, “send me someone, please, to help me out of this predicament!”
It wasn’t more than a minute before a beat-up old van pulled up. A man got out and walked over to the pharmacy door. He tested it, found it was locked, and turned around to go back to his car.
It was then that the woman got a good look at him. He was pretty scruffy, to say the least: dirty, unshaven, dressed in torn jeans and a motorcycle-gang jacket. He wore a greasy bandanna on his head. Not exactly the knight in shining armor she’d hoped for.
Just then, the man noticed her standing beside her car, pharmacy bag in hand. “You OK, lady?” he asked.
“Great God,” the woman prayed silently. “Is this who you send to help me?
She explained the situation: sick daughter, desperately-needed medicine, keys locked in the car.
Without a word, the man reached into his van and pulled out a wire coat hanger. He expertly twisted it into a long shape with the hook at the end, inserted it between her car window and the door frame, and in seconds there was the reassuring “pop” of the lock.
What could she say but “Thanks”? She turned to him, tears of relief in her eyes, and said, “Thank you so very, very much. You’re such a nice man.”
“Lady,” he said, “I am not a nice man. I just got out of prison for grand theft, auto. But, you’re welcome.” He climbed into his van and drove away.
As she sat down behind the wheel and started the engine, the woman offered up a final prayer: “Thank you, God, for sending me a professional!”
It’s remarkable how often the Lord sends us just what we need, when we need it. And nowhere is this more true than in the Bible, during the Israelites’ wanderings through the wilderness. When they were lost, God guided them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. When they were thirsty, the Lord told Moses how to strike a rock with his staff, calling forth a bubbling spring. When they were hungry, thinking back with longing on the three square meals a day their slave-masters provided, God offered them flocks of quail, easy to catch, and also the unique gift of manna from heaven.
The word “manna” literally means “What is it?” Surely that was the question they asked themselves, when first they saw this crusty white substance on the ground. It showed up during the night, like the morning dew. Exodus chapter 16 tells us “it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.”
Manna was highly perishable. If you kept some over till the next day, it smelled terrible and was filled with maggots. But that was of no concern, because each morning there was always a fresh supply.
Most remarkably, on the day before the Sabbath, the manna lay on the ground twice as thick. When they awoke on Sabbath mornings — and on those days alone — they discovered there was no manna on the ground. But the leftover manna they’d gathered the day before tasted just fine.
Scripture tells us it went on like this for forty years: an entire generation. Manna was the gift God gave them daily, to preserve their lives.
Now some Bible scholars have tried, over the years, to figure out what manna was. There are all kinds of theories. Some say it was the secretions of certain insects; others, tree sap; still others, a sort of edible fungus that sprang up during the night. The bottom line is, nobody really knows. To the authors of the Bible, it’s a miracle — and that’s probably all we need to know.
Always there are some people who approach the Bible looking for scientific explanations for everything between its covers that seems to bend the laws of nature. That’s how you end up with insect secretions and tree sap and wild fungus — not very appetizing, I know, but it’s the best you can do, if you’re bound and determined to send these stories through the wringer of the scientific method.
I’m not sure even the authors of the biblical accounts understood them 100% literally, as today’s fundamentalists insist on doing. I think those biblical writers had a healthy understanding of metaphor and symbolism, even if they didn’t have such literary terms to describe them. The elegant image of manna from heaven is a powerful way of depicting God’s goodness in providing all that we truly need in life.
The great preacher William Sloan Coffin has a wonderful way of addressing the whole subject of miracles in the Bible. Here’s what he writes:
“Miracles do not a messiah make. But a messiah can do miracles. If you ask me if Jesus literally raised Lazarus from the dead, literally walked on water and changed water into wine, I will answer, ‘For certain, I do not know. But this I do know: faith must be lived before it is understood, and the more it is lived, the more things become possible.’ I can also report that in home after home I have seen Jesus change beer into furniture, sinners into saints, hate-filled relations into loving ones, cowardice into courage, the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. In instance after instance, life after life, I have seen Christ be ‘God’s power unto salvation,’ and that’s miracle enough for me.” (Credo, Westminster John Knox, 2004, p. 10).
Are you a fan of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings? I know I am. There’s a substance in those fantasy novels that functions very much like manna, in the Bible. Tolkien, of course — a professor of ancient literature at Oxford — was a deeply Christian man, a committed Roman Catholic. When faced with the problem of explaining what food Frodo and Sam would find to eat, as they crossed the scorched, volcanic hellscape of the land of Mordor, Tolkien invented a kind of manna that they carried with them — a gift of the elves. It’s called lembas, a magical bread. It’s durable as hardtack, but tastes far better. Lembas cakes would keep for many months, as long as they stayed wrapped in a certain magical leaf. Even a bite or two was enough to sustain you for a whole day.
Lembas is a food for the righteous. Those who are evil — like the dark and twisted soul, Gollum — find the taste of lembas offensive. Gollum refuses to eat the lembas cake even when faced with starvation. This is consistent with Tolkien’s personal eucharistic theology, from his Roman Catholic upbringing. Pre-Vatican 2 Catholics were not supposed to receive the sacrament unless they’d first been to sacramental confession — to be absolved of any mortal sins they had on their souls.
There was a Latin term for the communion elements that was well-known in the early 20th century, and would surely have been well-known to Tolkien. It was the word viaticum, which means “for the way.” The communion wafer was understood as spiritual provision for life’s journey.
And so it should come as no surprise that Tolkien, in his novel, refers to the elvish lembas cakes as “way-bread.” For him, the sacrament is the Christian manna, which comes to believers by the hand of a generous God.
What we’re talking about here, in theological terms, is called “providence.” It’s not a word you hear so often anymore — unless you’re talking about the capital of Rhode Island. That city was named, by the way, by its founder, Roger Williams: who gave thanks for “God’s merciful providence” in leading them to that place. That was after he and his followers were driven into the wilderness by the governing authorities of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They didn’t like his unorthodox theological views. The early settlers of Rhode Island didn’t discover any flaky white stuff on the ground, but they did find plenty of game in the forest and fish in the streams, and that was manna enough for them.
It’s been said that “life is understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Isn’t that so often the way it is with us, in those times when we feel trapped in dire circumstances? When jobs are lost, when relationships fail, when sickness intrudes — even when we’ve locked the keys in the car — you and I may not think at the time that God is close at hand, guiding our circumstances.
Such experiences are our manna moments. They may not always seem so, at the time — but, later on, with a little distance to reflect back on the situation, a pattern of loving care emerges. We do very often come to see the providential hand of God, active in our lives in the most remarkable ways. When that happens, the place we once imagined to be wilderness turns out to be a place of blessing after all.
There comes a time, though, when the manna ceases. That’s what happens in the passage from Joshua chapter 5 we read today. On the very day the Israelite people are bringing in their first harvest in the promised land, they awaken to discover — for the first time in forty years (except for Sabbath-days) — there is no manna on the ground. That’s not because the Lord has ceased to be generous. It’s because the people of Israel no longer need such heavenly largesse. It’s not that the Lord has stopped providing; God has simply started to provide in a different way.
You and I are partners with the Lord, you see, in this business called living. It’s not that we are some kind of house-pet — a cat or dog who looks for the supper-dish to be filled twice a day. Surely there are times and seasons when we may need the manna, but always God’s purpose is to bring us to the place where we no longer do. Yet, even then, if we expand our field of vision, we’ll discern the Lord at work: guiding us in the ways we provide for ourselves and our loved ones. For all that we have and are in this life is ultimately God’s generous gift.
In just a little while, we’ll gather at the table of the Lord. There we will consume not manna and quail, but bread and wine — which we understand to be, for us, the body and blood of our Savior.
But first, let us confess our faith, in the powerful words of questions 26 and 27 of the Heidelberg Catechism, from our Presbyterian Book of Confessions. You’ll want to take your worship bulletin and turn to them now.
These lines date from a time — the Reformation era in Europe — when the concept of providence did not seem so mysterious and strange as it does to so many people today. “I trust God so much that I do not doubt God will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and will turn to my good even the adversity that may come my way.”
Powerful words indeed — and a powerful promise of a loving and attentive God. I invite you to claim that promise, for your very own: as we stand and say what we believe.
Affirmation of Faith (from Heidelberg Catechism 4.026-27)
Q. What do you believe when you say,
“I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth”?
A. That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who out of nothing created heaven and earth
and everything in them,
who still upholds and rules them
by his eternal counsel and providence,
is my God and Father
because of Christ the Son.
I trust God so much that I do not doubt
he will provide
whatever I need
for body and soul
and will turn to my good
whatever adversity he sends upon me
in this sad world.
God is able to do this because he is almighty God
and desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.
Q. What do you understand by the providence of God?
A. The almighty and ever present power of God
by which God upholds, as with his hand,
heaven and earth
and all creatures,
and so rules them that
leaf and blade,
rain and drought,
fruitful and lean years,
food and drink,
health and sickness,
prosperity and poverty—
all things, in fact,
come to us
not by chance
but by his fatherly hand.
Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.