What is it? (Mother Beth)
On the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”
We’ve been reading Henri Nouwen together this summer at Emmanuel. He was one of the 20th century’s most respected writers on the spiritual life of Christians, with 39 books on topics ranging from solitude to disabilities to compassion to death and more. The one we chose, With Burning Hearts, is subtitled A Meditation On the Eucharistic Life. The clever thing about that subtitle is that it refers both to the life Jesus offers in the Eucharist, and to the life you and I can live when the reality of what goes on in the Eucharist comes home to us. When the shape of the Mass becomes the shape of our own lives.
Nouwen weaves the book around chapter 24 of Luke’s Gospel, where we hear of two disciples, just a few days after the Crucifixion, who meet a stranger on the road to Emmaus. He interrupts their grief and depression, and shows them how all Scripture points to what God was doing in Jesus. But it’s only when he breaks a piece of bread to share with them that they realize that he himself is the Risen Jesus -- and run out to share the news that he is alive.
The structure of this passage is also the structure of the Mass, which is certainly one reason God must have wanted to make sure it got written down and put into the Bible – he knew we would need that chapter of scripture to understand what he was doing here. We’ll have readings and homilies focusing on the Eucharist over the next 4 Sundays, with a little help from Nouwen’s book. Then on August 15 and 22, after Mass we’ll make time for group discussion.
As the stranger told those two disciples, God drops hints throughout the Old Testament about what is coming in Jesus, and today’s reading from Exodus is one of them: the people hunger, and God gives them manna from heaven. He starts by providing something they already understand: quails. We all know what quails are. But God’s next gift dares them to take a new step of trust, and they’re not too sure about it.
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was.
What is it? A very basic question, and it’s no wonder they are asking. The people have not seen this before, they’re not sure why it’s there, they’re not even sure if it’s edible. It’s easy to roast up a nice quail. But this stuff, this fine flaky substance, they can’t figure out. It’s a weird intrusion into their environment. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, what is it?
This is, in a sense, the position we are in every time we hear a Word from God. Something from beyond intrudes into our environment. God’s word and presence come to us from outside our assumptions, from outside what we assume should be true, from outside our perspective, and if we really take it seriously we will probably say What? What is it?
After all, if Christianity is what it claims to be, a revelation from God that brings news of God’s achievement in Christ, it has to be something we never could have made up for ourselves. It has to be something from outside that will keep on giving us new information that we didn’t have before. It has to be something that doesn’t quite fit with what we’d expect. I’ve been a Christian for just over 40 years, and I am still regularly saying What? I’ve eventually gotten used to feeling relieved and grateful when that happens, because I know it means that yet again God is intruding into my environment and challenging my assumptions with his weird, freeing, nourishing truth.
But the manna God gives me, gives all of us, in his Word and in his Sacrament is so unlike what you and I hear everywhere else. It’s so unlike all the other, easier, more normal-seeming offers out there of temporary distraction or of self-guided improvement or of curating your preferred identity through buying things. When God speaks to us, intrudes into our environment with his grace, if we’re listening, the most honest response is probably “What is it?”
And yet this intrusion, God’s giving of himself, full of grace and truth from outside us, is where we find the words of eternal life, the truth of who we are and what we’re meant to be. It is the bread from heaven, which God has given us to eat. If we do not learn how to receive and respond to God’s intrusive Word, his unexpected news of what’s really true about you and me, we will never have the full lives he intends for us. We will, knowingly or not, settle for a cheap, temporary substitute.
Nouwen writes about this in his chapter called “Discerning the Presence.” He says, “It is quite possible to come to the end of our lives without ever having known who we are and what we are meant to become. Life is short. We cannot simply expect that the little we see, hear, and experience will reveal to us the whole of our existence. We are too nearsighted and too hard of hearing for that. Someone has to open our eyes and ears and help us to discover what lies beyond our own perception... We cannot live without words that come from God, words… [that] lift us up to a place from where we can discover what we are truly living.”
So I guess my question for you this morning is, how much of the 24 hours of your day is spent trying to live without words that come from God? How regularly do you allow God to lift you up to a place where you can discover what you are truly living? If your answer is not that often, take home today’s bulletin and read one of the lessons every day this week and ask God to speak to you through it. Ask him for manna from his word. And then do the same thing next week.
If you follow Jesus, he offers you the chance to experience God opening your eyes and ears and telling you things you could never have figured out on your own. God offers you words that come from him, manna that comes from him. It’s right there in your bulletin. It’s right there in your Bible. It’s right there on the altar. Without that manna, your spirit will starve, whether you feel hungry or not. What is it? It is the bread from heaven, the Bread of Life, that God has given you to eat.
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