You may recall the story in the bible where Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and into the desert. And you may also be aware of the fact that there’s not a lot of food in the desert. So it’s really a dumb place to take a few thousand people. But not to worry – God had a feeling that all those people might want something to nosh on in between trying to shake the sand out of their crevices and crannies. So God sent the Israelites manna.
Each morning this bread like substance would form on the rocks and the Israelites could gather and eat it. Manna from heaven! Food of the angels! What could be better? Well, a lot of things, actually. A nicely seared steak would be one. Apples. Fried chicken (or pheasant!). Kale. A Dorito Locos taco from Taco Bell.
Being fellow hominids, the Israelites agreed with me and began complaining about the manna. So God sent them pheasants until they choked on them and it was pretty gross. It turned out that manna wasn’t so bad after all. But that’s a whole other issue.
What I want to talk about today is manna itself. I’ve been thinking about manna a lot lately. It had some peculiar qualities. First of all, God had instructed each person to take an omar (an ancient measurement) of manna each morning. When the people went out to gather the manna, some people took a lot and some people took a little, yet when each person’s manna was measured they were each found to have taken just the right amount. So somehow, each person gets just the right amount of manna – whether they take a lot or a little.
The second characteristic of manna is that it was white and tasted like wafers made of honey. White indicates purity, despite being in the grubby, grainy desert. And manna goes down easy – with a sweet taste in the mouth.
The third, and to me most interesting quality of manna is that it can’t be saved. Whatever is not eaten on the day it is gathered with become rotten and maggoty by the next day.
So, that’s all very interesting, but why have I been thinking about manna and what does it have to do with our faith walk today? Well, thanks for asking. Let I explain a bit. Often we read the story of the Israelites receiving manna from heaven and think of it as history. Maybe a morality tale. But really, it’s also an illustration of a spiritual reality which many people who seek to follow God on the way to the promised land will experience.
Since biblical times, being lead into the desert has had spiritual significance. Many of our forbearers in the faith have spoken of their time in dry and desert places. The desert mothers and fathers literally went into the desert to live in recognition of the spiritual meaning and discipline of surviving in the desert. And many of us today have found ourselves spiritually in the desert as well. Manna is God’s food for those in the desert.
Now, I don’t personally wake up to white, flaky manna covering the rocks out in front of my house and I’m guessing you don’t either. But since what we experience isn’t often being sent into a physical desert with thousands of our nearest and dearest, I supposed that’s not surprising. Rather, since our experience is of a spiritual rather than physical desert, we can expect God to feed us not with physical manna, but with spiritual manna.
So, spiritually speaking, what is manna? Deuteronomy 8:3 (which Jesus quotes in the Gospels) says that God fed the Israelites with manna “to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” Consider also that both John of Patmos (Book of Revelation) and Ezekiel recount being handed scrolls to eat prior to preaching the messages they had been given. And those scrolls tasted like honey in their mouth. So spiritual manna, I would argue, is whatever word or message we receive from God while in our spiritual desert place.
What got me started thinking about manna is something peculiar I have noticed over the last few years in the desert. The spiritual desert is often described as a place where a person feels cut off from God. Where they can’t sense or connect with him. And sometimes that is the case. But I have found, and others have admitted to me, that God isn’t actually completely silent to us in the desert. That sometimes he does drop manna into our hungry hearts.
The problem is that, like the manna the Israelites ate in the desert, the spiritual manna of the desert can get you through the day. But then it’s gone. In the past I have had experiences of God which not only affected me profoundly in the moment they happened, but continued to sustain me for years afterwards. Over the last few years, I have heard from God – maybe more regularly than ever before. But the words and comfort tend to get me through the day and nothing more. There’s no long-term sustenance in them. The next day, the next crisis, the next wave of pain and I’m right back to feeling dry, lonely and desperate for God.
In fact, more often than not, when I try to remind myself of what God has said to me while in this desert place, not only is it not comforting; it’s downright distressing. I find myself angry and bitter that I’m still in this miserable desert on this miserable path – what good do nice, honey flavored words do? They don’t change anything in the real, material world! And then I begin to doubt; will God ever see me through? Does he even care? Maybe he intends to keep me here forever, hanging on and getting by on crappy manna until I die! Like the manna the Israelites tried to store overnight, I find that the manna God gives me spiritually has become rotten and maggoty.
It’s one of the most frustrating aspects of this desert experience, frankly. It feels like I’m doing it wrong. Like I’m not holding onto God’s words and his truth with enough faith. Often I feel like I’m being blown about by every passing wind rather than standing firm on the rock like I should be.
Then again, perhaps the point of the whole desert experience is that we would in each present moment seek after God. To be that needy and desperate that we return over and over again for that day’s bread. It could be that the gale is so strong simply so I won’t be able to stand firm, but will cry out for rescue in the storm.
As anyone who has lived paycheck to paycheck or even day-to-day knows, the hardest part isn’t not having enough money to do and buy everything you want. It’s the constant worry that at some point there simply won’t be enough to survive on. Living hand to mouth makes it very hard to trust in any future wellbeing. Getting by on manna is much the same. But there is that one other trait of manna which is reassuring. It’s that however much manna a person took – whether it was a little or a lot – it somehow turned out to be just the right amount. And so it is with spiritual manna. There are days when I am sure I am going to starve and die spiritually if God doesn’t show up. And yet day after day and now year after year, I haven’t actually starved yet. I’m just hoping my journey through the desert doesn’t last for 40 years!