What Is It?

Through the Wilderness

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Manna, that’s what we’re celebrating today. Manna in the wilderness, sustenance for the journey. But also a question. “Manna” in Hebrew translates as, “What is it?” The perfect question for this odd stuff that just appeared in the wilderness every morning.

What are you hungry for when you don’t know what you are hungry for? It was a commercial many years ago, for a snack cracker, and the line was spoken by Matlock. No wait, by, um, what was his name? You know. Andy Griffith. That’s the guy. He’s the one asking the question. And the best part was, he gave us the answer. What are you hungry for when you don’t know what you’re hungry for? Something on a cracker.

Umm. No. Doesn’t really do it. All due deference to crackers with stuff on them. But, except in a momentary superficial kind of way, that won’t satisfy the hunger. Not the real hunger. The hunger that even us overfed modern-day pilgrims lost in the wilderness have. Because when we stop to think about it, we’re hungry too.

And we can’t help grumbling about it a little bit. We don’t want to make a scene. But we feel like we’ve been shortchanged somewhere along the line. We thought this faith thing was supposed to bring us satisfaction. And yet, when we admit it to ourselves, our stomachs are still rumbling out here in the wilderness. And our secret fear is that this is all there is. We were brought out here in this wilderness to die, hungry and hurting, lost and alone.

Kind of makes you sympathetic for the Children of Israel, doesn’t it? Oh sure, we preachers make fun of these folks wandering there in the wilderness, complaining at the drop of a hat. Even Moses gets fed up with them, let alone God. We shake our heads at their blindness. We roll our eyes at their wandering ways. “What a bunch of losers,” we can’t help thinking. If we were there, it would have been different. I mean the divided sea thing was pretty impressive. The pillar of fire and covering cloud must have been significant. Surely we would have paid more attention. Surely we would have trusted. Surely we wouldn’t have complained. At least until our stomachs rumbled again.

It’s hard to be faithful when you are hungry. Maybe we ought to listen again with a little more sympathy. Maybe we ought to listen for our own voices in this story.

What are you hungry for when you don’t know what you’re hungry for? They were six weeks in and pretty hungry. OK, six weeks into a forty-year journey doesn’t sound like much. But six weeks eating what you brought with you and what you could find along the way is a long time. They were hungry. And they weren’t sure where the next meal was coming from. And they didn’t have a clue where they were going. Sure, pillars of fire and clouds are great, but a good GPS or Google maps itinerary with points of interest highlighted in color would have come in handy. A good pecan roll from Stuckeys would have gone down as a treat. (Do they still have those? Or just the signs?)

But nothing was on the horizon. At least what they could see clearly. So they raised a ruckus. Probably the worst part of their complaint was that where they had been was starting to look better than where they were.

Ah, the good old days. How we long for them when the wilderness seems too dark and too scary, even though at least a part of us knows that the good old days were anything but good. In our memories, they seem so much better than what we have today. They were looking longingly back on slavery and oppression; and suddenly, because they were hungry, it began to look good. They seemed to remember it like it was some sort of resort. (“We sat by pots of meat and piles of bread,” they said, conveniently forgetting that they weren’t lounging by some pool dining on overladen buffets, but were slaves, living by the whims of the powers that be.)

Their faulty memories almost caused them to want to settle—not settle as in live there in the wilderness, but settle as in settle for less; less than what was in store for them; less than what God had intended for them. Their hunger almost caused them to settle for less, to go back to live as slaves because there at least they could eat, instead of living in this freedom that is too scary, too wild, too dangerous.

That seems to be the option open to us - slavery or wilderness. Giving in or being uncertain. Giving up or struggling every day. Wow, isn’t there a third option? Well, no and yes. No, because we are living in a cloud, living in difficult times, living with too many choices and no clear direction as to which to choose. So, we give up and live enslaved by the sin and despair that always seems within reach. Or we keep searching, keep marching through the wilderness, trusting that there is a pillar of fire somewhere in the darkness.

And to keep us moving forward, to keep us fed on our journey, we have the manna, which we are told in our passage today is really a question. “What is it?” in Hebrew is man hu. Manna in the wilderness. What is it? So, we are to be sustained by a question? Hardly seems adequate, don’t you think? Unless it is the right question. “What is it that God is doing in our midst?” Now that’s a question that can keep us moving.

What is it that God is doing in your wilderness? We think we are hungry for answers. But just maybe we are hungry for the right question. While the psalm text doesn’t ask us a question, it gives us a challenge and there is an inherent question there, “What is the Lord doing among us?”

When we are invited to give thanks to the Lord; we know how to do that. Our worship is often built around thanksgiving to God. But when the invitation goes on to say, “make known [God’s] deeds among the peoples,” we often stumble. The usual question we ask is, “How do we do that?” How do we tell the peoples around us what the deeds of God are? Notice it is peoples around us, not ourselves. We’re supposed to be letting the people who don’t yet know God know what God is doing. So, it is logical that the question would be a how one. How do we do that.

What if that is the wrong question, or at least the wrong time to ask that question? We can’t ask the how question until we have an answer to the what question. What is God doing among us? OK, sure, deeds can be historical. We can go and read the Bible to people around us. “See,” we can say, “this is what God has done in the past. Aren’t you impressed?” Maybe some will be. But most will follow up with the usual societal question: “But what has God done lately?” That’s what people want to know. Not what did God do centuries or millennia ago. But what is God doing now?

That’s the question the manna in the desert compels us to ask and answer. What is it that God is doing? Right here, in this particular part of our wilderness, at this particular time of our wandering. Yes, we need to pay attention to what God has done in the past. In the second part of the psalm text, we see a recitation of God’s actions with God’s people. It is good for us to review what God has done. The primary reason, however, for that review is to recognize God’s action among us today. What is it that God is doing now? With you? In you? These are the questions that will sustain us in the journey through the wilderness and give us something worth proclaiming to the peoples around us.

In This Series...


Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes