A sermon delivered Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on August 5, 2012.
Exodus 16:2-15; John 6:24-35
What did you have for breakfast this morning? What do you plan to have for lunch? Dinner? My guess is that whatever you eat today for lunch, whether you join us downstairs in Hicks Hall for the inevitable First Sunday Lunch fried chicken, you go out elsewhere for your meal, or you have something prepared at home, it will not be the same thing you had for breakfast. And I doubt you’ll have the same thing for dinner that you have for lunch.
Do you have a favorite restaurant where you eat on a fairly regular basis? If so, the chances are you try various and different items on the menu. After all, what fun is it to eat the same thing every time you visit? We do like a little variety in our dining, don’t we? I mean life would get pretty dull if you ate the very same thing all the time, certainly the same meal every day.
You can pretty well guess, on just about any morning, that my breakfast is going to be composed of frosted mini-wheats with fruit on top. But that’s just for breakfast. I wouldn’t want to eat it for lunch and dinner too. And not every day. I mean, every once in awhile I’ll have some Cheerios, maybe some frosted flakes!
But that’s what the Israelites did those forty years they wandered in the wilderness. They ate the same thing all the time, the manna the Lord provided them. Morning, noon, and night for forty years! The same food, over and over and over again, every day, every meal. It is no wonder the Israelites grumbled and complained.
But when they were introduced to this manna from heaven, they first had to figure out what it was. Here’s the story... In response to their complaining, God decides to take care of his wandering children. Once the morning dew had lifted, on the surface of the wilderness the Israelites found a flaky substance, “as fine as frost on the ground” (vs. 14). When the people saw it, they said to one another, in the Hebrew, “man hu”? “What is it?” Moses told them it was the bread the Lord had given them to eat, but from that day forward they called it “man hu,” or manna.
That’s all they had to eat, day in, day out, for forty years. And while the people of God may have grown weary of such a steady diet, it provided a story of sustenance and grace that became iconic in the minds of all Israelites thereafter.
I’ll bet the Israelites became pretty creative in figuring out different ways to fix the manna.
Remember the movie Forrest Gump? Remember what Bubba said to Forrest as they shined their boots and cleaned their rifles in the army barracks? He’s talking about shrimp. “You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. Dey's uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There's pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich. That – that's about it.”
I wonder if the Israelites learned how to barbecue manna, or boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. I wonder if they made manna-kabobs, manna creole or manna gumbo. Did they pan-fry their manna, deep-fry or stir-fry it? Was there pineapple manna, lemon manna, coconut or pepper manna? How about manna soup, manna stew, manna salad, manna and potatoes, manna burger or manna sandwich?
What is it? We don’t know, but it’s all we’ve got. I would imagine that after eating nothing but “what is it?” for awhile, they decided it came from just about anywhere else but heaven.
Still, manna became a metaphor for the people of God. And when Jesus of Nazareth came on the scene, exhibiting his amazing ability to do things no one else could do – heal the sick, raise the dead, feed the hungry – the people asked the same question that was on the lips of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. What is it? Who is he? How can he do these things?
Jesus had wanted to escape for awhile. The intensity of his ministry, and the constant presence of the crowds, were beginning to take their toll. He wanted to be alone with his disciples for awhile. But, it didn’t quite work out that way, did it?
And, he wanted to go to a private place to grieve. Word has just come that the old fox Herod had beheaded Cousin John, the baptizer. So, Jesus grieves for John, to be sure. But I would imagine he also knows that John’s execution is a prelude to his own. So, he needs to be alone. He and his Father need to work out some things together. They need to talk.
However, not only can he not find a place of solitude, the crowds anticipate where he is going and they beat him there. They’re pretty savvy, aren’t they? People in need can be that way.
You’d think he would be angry with them, wouldn’t you? At least aggravated. After all, they’re always wanting to get something out of him, something more out of him that he hasn’t given them before. “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness...”
The manna in the wilderness. You can’t help but wonder if Jesus might have been tempted to regret the story of the manna from heaven. Now, everybody is expecting him to do the same... or even more. You might wonder if Jesus might have been a bit resentful about the whole thing.
But evidently he isn’t. Instead, he gives them a lesson in theology. “...it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven... I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
He looks out at the multitudes of people knowing they are destined to live under the impotent leadership of the religious establishment in Jerusalem. And in one of the most poignant statements in all of scripture, seeing them as sheep without a shepherd, Jesus had compassion on them. Jesus, dealing with a heart that is grieving, not only for the loss of John but also for the condition of God’s people, and perhaps for himself, knowing what awaits him on the cross, having compassion toward them he teaches them about the Kingdom of God. He heals their broken bodies and fills the spiritual vacuums of their lives. His compassion does indeed run deep and strong, and the reason Jesus is able to show such deep caring for the people who flock after him is that he is so in tune with the mind and heart and spirit of his heavenly Father.
Wayne Oates, the man who coined the phrase workaholic, was my pastoral care professor in seminary. In a 1984 sermon, preached at the St. Matthews Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, Dr. Oates talked about how we approach the days of our lives. He refers to the day of desire, the day of difficulty, and the day of decision. He says that in the providence and grace of God, our Father knows just how to lead us when we are confronted by these realities.
In the day of desire, he says, God saves us from the idolatry of always wanting what we don’t presently have. He tells about the grandchild of one of his good friends who came to him and said, “Grandpa, I want this right now. I want it right in the middle of now.” That little story is especially timely for us since our two older grandsons are with us this week. “I want it right in the middle of now.”
He doesn’t tell this story in this particular sermon, but my favorite Wayne Oates narrative has to do with this same theme. When he was a seminary student, when he was still Mr. Oates, he pastored a small, rural church in North Carolina. He and Mrs. Oates would drive over for the weekend and stay in the home of one of the families in the congregation.
One Saturday night, as they sat in front of a warming fire, his host announced that he and the missus were going to bed. He said to his guests, “Now, if you need anything and I have it, feel free to take it; it’s yours. If you need something you don’t see, come ask me, and if I have it I’ll gladly give it to you. If you think you need something and I don’t have it, I’ll be more happy to teach you how to live without it.”
There always come those days when we desire something we don’t have. Jesus ran into this all the time with the crowds who followed him.
But there is also the day of difficulty. That is when God provides us with the strength and wisdom for dealing with the problems that confront us. “Do not be anxious for tomorrow,” Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount, “let tomorrow be anxious for itself.”
When difficulties come our way, we don’t know how we’re going to stand it. Somehow, in his infinite and patient understanding and grace, God sees us through it. Don’t ask me to explain it. There is no magic or secret formula. That’s just the way God works, and when the people came to Jesus in the wilderness asking for more of what he could give them, he told them that he was the bread of life. What he meant by that – or I think this is at least something of what he might have meant – is that his purpose in ministry was the same as his Father’s when it came to providing the manna in the wilderness. He came to show them through the difficult times they were encountering.
We all have our times when life treats us unkindly. The next time you think this is true for you, let me encourage you to do something. Go to one of the homeless shelters here in our city. Take your pick, there are plenty to choose from. See what those folks are going through. There’s a reason they are there. Some are mentally ill. Some don’t know how to make decisions except for bad decisions. They get caught up in an endless cycle of difficulty, to the point that unresolved, destructive habits just pile up on one another until the burden gets heavier and heavier.
It was to these kinds of people that Jesus came and offered his grace and hope. Right into the heart of such difficulty and despair, Jesus held out his hand of grace and offered them a release from the burden of their lives.
And then there is the day of decision. Every day calls for decisions to be made. Having Christ in your life is not a guarantee that you will be freed from the difficulties that come your way. But think of this... “Faith in God is a candle put into our hands by God through Jesus Christ.” Dr. Oates said that, and he said something else. “If we have the courage to take the step today in behalf of our commitment to Jesus Christ, his promise is that we will have the light to take the step tomorrow.”1
John Killinger, in his book, Bread For the Wilderness, Wine For the Journey, tells of once reading the journal of a young minister who began each day alone in the sanctuary of his church, singing hymns, reading prayers, and taking private communion at the Lord’s Table. The journal, as John puts it, revealed his confessed sins, the burdens of love, the joy of discipleship. “One particular line sticks in my memory,” he says, “the culmination of a prayer of thanksgiving: ‘Bread for the wilderness, Gary, and wine for your journey.’”
If you find yourself today in the wilderness of your life, know that in Jesus Christ you will find bread for that wilderness. Not necessarily the next meal, mind you. But the kind of bread he gives will fill you so that never again will you hunger for ultimate, eternal things. They shall all be yours in great abundance.
And when such grace comes your way, you will not have to ask, “What is it?” You will know. You will definitely know.
Lord, as you fed the Israelites in the wilderness, and as Jesus met the needs of those who followed him, visit us with your divine grace. And then, show us how to share it with others. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
1Wayne E. Oates, “The Daily Providence of God,” unpublished sermon at St. Matthew Baptist Church, Louisville, Kentucky, June 24, 1984.