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what is this?

September 17th, 2005 by isaac · 4 Comments

So, here’s another sermon. I am preaching it tomorrow at my church.
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Title: What is this?
Date: Sept. 18th, 2005
Lectionary texts: Exodus 16:2-16; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Jonah 3:10-4:11; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16.

Manna. What is this in the desert? The Israelites fear their death, their annihilation in the wilderness. They fear the undiscovered country, that unrecognizable future, that possibility of dissolving in the desert. So they look back to Egypt, where life was somewhat stable, predictable, controllable. This isn’t the first time their fear turns to grumbling and turns them back towards those warm meals in their Egyptian slave quarters.

Remember back when they found themselves between a rock and a hard place: the Red Sea on one side and Pharaoh’s approaching army on the other? Listen to what they said to Moses then: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” (Ex.14:11-12).

At that moment—the moment when death seemed imminent and continued existence impossible—that’s when their lack of trust was exposed. But God saved them anyway. God’s gracious care for his people exceeds our imaginations, reaches beyond our ideas about what is possible and impossible.

Now, again in our Scripture reading, Israel remembers their glorified Egypt and complains in the wilderness. They say to Moses and Aaron, “Why did you take us away from those warm meals and bring us to the desert to starve to death?” (16:3). Despite their lack of trust, this constant grumbling against God’s promised care, God graciously provides. He sends quail and bread from heaven. In the wilderness, in the desert, God sends abundant provision. Heavenly bread…bread of life.

But this is where it gets so interesting. When they see the bread, they somehow don’t recognize it. Even though Moses tells them God will provide bread from heaven in the morning, they ask “what is this?” (v15). It comes, and they don’t know what it is. It’s morning, God promised them a hearty breakfast, and they don’t see how this white stuff on the ground could be it.

Maybe they wanted Oatmeal, not this dew-looking bread that tastes like honey wafers (v31). They expected French Toast, not what appears to be something more like Honey Bunches of Oats. They sound like quite particular people. Anyhow, somehow their expectations blind them from the heavenly bread right before their eyes. “What is this?”, they ask.

What is this?

The shock, the completely foreign, the unimaginable, the unrecognizable. God’s gift arrives so mysteriously that it doesn’t fit into how we think gifts are supposed to be given, what they are supposed to look like. This heavenly gift is so new that it’s unnamable: they call it Manna (v31), which means “what is it”. They name it the same phrase they used as their question when they first saw it. Manna: What is this? They don’t yet know how to name it, but they do the best they can with what they got.

And Peter asks Jesus, “What is this?” What is this kingdom of heaven? What is it? Just before the passage we heard this evening from Matthew, Peter asks Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (Matt.19:27). Jesus then tells Peter that he and the rest of the Twelve disciples will “sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (19:28).

But then Jesus tells the disciples that the way they will rule from their thrones won’t look like what they expect. He unsettles their images of sitting on heavenly thrones by adding, “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (19:30). And we, along with the wondering disciples ask, “What is this?”

And Jesus says, it’s like this: “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard” (20:1). We just heard how the story goes. In the morning he hires some guys and says he’s going to pay them a denarius. Then he goes out again around lunch time, then afternoon, then evening, and hires new people every time. And at the end of the day he starts with the last people he hired and pays them the same as the first people. And the folks who worked the longest grumble and ask, “What is this?” And we ask, “What is this?”

And Jesus answers by calling it generosity. He names this gift the kingdom of heaven—divine bread of life falling down from the heavens. It’s just like that Manna in the wilderness: it’s hard to name, to conceptualize. We struggle with all the words we got to come up with some description, something to say, some way to tell others this good news—to say, “hey, this is how God’s generosity works. I’ve seen it.”

And when we think we got a grasp on God’s grace, the way God’s generosity flows in the world, in our church, among our friends and enemies, among our co-workers—just as we approach that level of confidence the Word descends from heaven and says, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” And we say to ourselves, “We’ve been here longer, we’ve been working on this discipleship business and know the ins and outs and that one—yeah, her over there—she’s definitely out. That isn’t the way of the cross. We’ve been in the Lord’s army awhile, and that doesn’t belong here.”

And we’re like Jonah. Nineveh does not belong. They shouldn’t get God’s generosity. Bread from heaven shouldn’t fall in that desert.

And the Word in Jonah says, “Have you any right to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4). And the Word in Matthew says, “Are you jealous because I am generous?” (Matt.20:15). And we gasp, and all we can say is “What is this?.... Why do you work this way, Oh Lord?”

Well, if you follow the flow of this sermon as I wander through these passages of Scripture it seems like we run into a lesson. It’s the sort of lesson that seems to sneak its way into all my sermons. So, some suspicion is warranted. I mean, I’m suspicious of my own reading of these texts. I am suspicious because somehow, no matter what texts I get, I come up with a message I sorta like. It’s a lesson that I am growing comfortable with. I can name it.

It goes something like this. Here it is: the way into the eternal life God offers us is found as we extend our conceptions, as we reach with our imaginations, explore undiscovered countries, humble ourselves, and see how God is speaking to us through our neighbor—that stranger sitting next to you right now, and the one tomorrow at work, and the one you thought you knew oh so well so you never let yourself see how God wants to say something new to you through them.

It’s a sermon about how the Father’s gift of the Son, and continuing presence in the Spirit, wants to explode all our jealousies, all our selfish confidence, all the ways we are like Jonah or those folks working in the vineyard since morning. It’s about all the ways we try to control other people, and how little we dare to let other people see who we are—all those ways we pigeon-hole others in ways that prevent us from ever picking up our eyes, catching another in our gaze and risking a question: What is this? Is this one the Manna, the bread of life from heaven that I’m supposed to eat for breakfast? Is this one supposed to sustain me in my travels of faith, this Christian journey of trust?

And that’s how my story goes; that’s the part of the gospel I like to preach. Now, I still think all that is the gospel. I am not about to change my mind. But I also have to admit that it’s easy for me to preach that message. I think it fits my personality pretty well. I have a much easier time trying to listen to others than thinking that I have something to say, that what I have to say is all that important. That’s why it is strange for me to get up here and try to preach. It’s just not me. I’m always nervous and uncomfortable. Always sweating.

And, I think, that’s why Paul makes me so uncomfortable. I mean, listen to him: “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me” (Philippians 1:23-26).

He sounds totally full of himself: “necessary for you… for your progress… that your joy may overflow because of me.” How dare he! What is this?! I don’t know what to do with Paul’s confidence. It’s strange to my eye. I cringe. I have a hard time seeing how this word is bread of life, a heavenly gift. This confidence rubs me the wrong way. I feel threatened.

But Paul has something to say; he has some fruit he wants to share. And nothing will stop him. He must speak. He’s like that Psalmist we heard tonight—the one that can’t keep quiet about all the wonderful ways God has sustained Israel: In Psalm 105 we hear how God delivered Israel from Egypt, how God traveled with Israel in a fiery cloud, how God sustained the people with quail and bread from heaven, and gave his people drink from a rock, how God is forever faithful to his promises to Abraham. The Psalmist must speak. Paul must speak. So, I speak… and so must you.

This speech might be about confidence. But to reduce Paul’s, or the Psalmist’s, or Moses’, or Jesus’ proclamation of the good news to some sort of posturing—an attempt to manipulate an audience, to make me or you feel important—is to miss the point entirely. Sure, most of us have mixed motives. But still we speak the good news, we communicate the wonderful acts of God, because we have to make sense of the bread of heaven. The Christian life is about figuring out how to make sense of what happened when the Holy Spirit descended from heaven and revealed to our eyes the bread of life—the Word made flesh, the Son of God, our crucified savior, this Manna.

Paul speaks because he can’t help but speak. He has to share himself with us. And it’s a risk. It takes vulnerability to say what we think, to risk a moment of confidence, to speak up and let yourself be known—to speak through all our masks, all our posturing, and risk the possibility that someone might see us for who we are. And that’s scary. It’s like that dream when you show up to your first day of school and realizing that you’re naked.

What is this? Maybe that’s what you are saying right now. And all I can say is that I hope this is the bread of life, that somehow the Word from heaven descended in our midst… manna. So, here I am, up here learning to speak about all the ways our Scriptures make me uncomfortable, all the ways I feel exposed up here stammering away trying to say something about what I saw as I cringed and squinted at these texts.

But the good news is that some among us know what it means to suffer with Christ like Paul did, and some among us have something to say about how they are learning to see Manna—that Word made new every morning, just enough for our daily bread.

Discernment of the Word. That’s what follows this sermon. That’s your chance to speak, to risk exposure, to learn from one another how to name God’s grace at work in our midst. Our communication is holy—it’s today’s Manna—because we trust that wherever two or more are gathered, Christ is present with us…in our midst, transfiguring our risky words with the Word. This is good news, the good news of the Kingdom, of Manna.

(If you want to read more of my sermons, look at this page )

Tags: sermons · theology

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Celia - friend from the past... // Sep 23, 2005 at 8:48 am

    I am so very proud of you! I am speechless…that is all that can be said!-

  • 2 Jason // Sep 27, 2005 at 10:55 am

    Great sermon—elegant, honest, and compelling. Your best one yet, IMO.

  • 3 Eric Lee // Feb 16, 2006 at 9:17 pm

    This is mega-belated, but I just got around to reading this. Really good sermon

    Peace,

    eric

  • 4 isaac // Feb 17, 2006 at 8:19 pm

    Eric,
    thanks for reading it. And thank you for the kind words. I actually used this sermon again for my preaching class. We had to preach in front of our class a narrative sermon. I thought I’d give this manna story a try. And they dug it. It was actually a pretty good experience for me as well becuase I wasn’t allowed to use notes! That’s new for me. I usually preach from a manuscript. So, I felt like I was naked without my notes. And it was rough because I had to preach to a bunch of preachers—that seems like the worst audience.

    Anyhow, I think I like the story more and more as I preach it. In the African-American church, it’s a wise thing for ministers to come to church with a sermon in the back pocket even though they aren’t scheduled to preach. You never know has the Spirit might move—or when the preacher might decide that he can’t preach and that you need to! It happens often, believe me. All that to say, I think this Manna sermon is going to be my “back pocket” sermon.