This week’s story is a familiar one, too . . . so familiar that, even if you didn’t grow up going to Sunday School, you’ve probably heard the story of God providing food for the Hebrew people in the form of manna . . . and . . . their continued inability to be happy with what God provided. I think it was Tuesday of this week, as I was balancing my computer and a pile of books in one arm and dragging five or six grocery bags to the front door that I thought, “You know, those Hebrews had a lot of gall to complain about their food, delivered right to their tent flaps, fresh every single morning!”
Today we’re telling the story of the Hebrews’ first experiences in the desert of the Sinai Peninsula. It was just a few weeks before that they’d lived through one of the most astounding experiences ever—fleeing Egypt and escaping with their lives right through the middle of the sea. When we left them last week they were celebrating on the edge of the water, slapping tambourines and singing with disbelief and pure joy—they were finally, finally experiencing what they’d only dreamed of their whole entire lives: freedom and the possibility of building their own nation.
And who knows the time frame exactly—probably it was a few weeks into their desert adventure—when the reality of their situation hit them.
They’d been so focused on getting away that nobody had really given much thought to the logistics of travel. While they were certainly more prepared to survive in the desert than you and I would be, just think about the enormous and overwhelming issues related to leading a whole nation of people, with all their animals and children and possessions, out into the desert and camping. By the time we get to our story this morning, they’d already had problems with drinking water, and, frankly the food was about to run out.
Well, what happened next is not surprising. We saw it last week on the shore of the Red Sea looking out over the water, and today it happens again, constituting what we might call a pattern of behavior we will see again and again with the traveling Hebrews: the people start complaining. They gathered around Moses and his brother Aaron and said things like: “Hey, thanks a lot for bringing out here to DIE. Egypt was forced labor, sure, but at least we had enough to eat.”
And, well, they kind of had a point.
Clean water and nourishing food were critical if the whole group was going to make any progress toward Canaan from the beach where they’d watched the water swirl in and cover the Pharaoh’s army. They had a long and arduous journey ahead of them; the issue of supplies was critical; they were worried about how they would feed their children. Not too unreasonable to be headed out on a long camping trip and wondering about how to handle the logistics, right?
So, the people complained because they could see the problems facing them but couldn’t imagine what solutions they might find. And, the text says, God heard their complaining and responded. Miraculously, food would appear, God said. In the evening they would have meat and in the morning, bread, every single day. That way, God told them, you’ll be sure to know that I am God.
It was quail at night—meat that provided enough protein for the whole big group. But in the morning it was manna, like frost on the ground, a fine, flaky substance God called bread.
Nobody knows what manna actually was. It’s described in other parts of the text as tasting like flour with honey, or bread with oil. Its name, tradition says comes from a colloquial expression the Hebrews used, something like “man hu,” which meant “What is this??!?”
We learn from other places in the Hebrew text that manna had to be gathered in the morning, as the sun melted it. Every day the people gathered six or seven pints of manna per person, and no more, except on the eve of the Sabbath, when they were instructed to gather enough for two days. Apparently, whatever it was exactly, the people were able to eat it the way it was or to grind it in a mill, boil it or make it into cakes. Other food was available when the people could trade or hunt, but manna was the staple of their nourishment. The people would have died without the daily supply every single morning, from that first day that God provided for forty years, every single morning, until the people reached the land they were promised.
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It’s a very simple theological situation here . . . can you see it? The people were desperate. They asked God for help. God gave them just enough to meet their needs, day after day after day after day.
It’s so simple that, really, we should just pack up our Bibles and head home, lesson learned.
But we can’t, can we?
Because it’s not so simple for us . . . and it turns out it was never that simple for them, either.
Like the Hebrews, there are lots of things we need. But, despite God’s generous provision—really, friends . . . we have everything we need, don’t we?—it seems we often get stuck right where the Israelites found themselves in our Hebrew text this morning . . . gazing out over the wilderness in front of them and seeing nothing except what they didn’t have.
Listen, they had just been delivered from 400 years of slavery in Egypt!
God had miraculously protected them from plagues and illness while their oppressors suffered.
For Pete’s sake, they had just lived through an experience of provision so miraculous that we’re still making movies out of it thousands of years later.
But when their stomachs started grumbling all they could think about was what they didn’t have—nothing close to the bounty of food they had in Egypt—forgetting all the while that they ate that food with a lack of something far greater: their freedom.
And, if we’re honest, when we read the story of how the Hebrews couldn’t see past their empty stomachs, we should be able to immediately recognize ourselves . . . . We have problems understanding what it is we really need; it turns out the problem of seeing the world only through the lens of what we don’t have is nothing new. You and I live in a world where we have no framework for knowing what we need—what we have is too overwhelmingly vast that it obscures our vision.
So I wonder, what do we really need?
In 1943 American psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote a paper called “A Theory of Human Motivation” in which he presented his famous hierarchy of needs. It’s basic psychology, remember it? There are five levels of his hierarchy: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization. Basically, the theory is that human beings will work hard to meet basic needs and, as they take care of things like hunger, thirst, shelter, etc., the landscape of what they need changes—it shifts to next-level needs like belonging and love.
Maslow may have been right, but for you and me, right now, trying to get a picture of what we need is like peering into a warped mirror. Everything is distorted, so much so that I sometimes can’t see everything that I have because I am so mesmerized by the illusion of what I think I need.
This very topic was on the minds of a few Calvary folks who gathered a couple of times over the last few months to think about stewardship. Every year around this time we plan a budget for the following fiscal year and talk about how we will raise the funds to keep the doors open. This year, though, a whole group didn’t talk about money at all and talked instead about the spiritual component of this process.
You’ll be hearing more about that in the coming weeks, but one of our assignments in the group was to find a story of someone who was able to live with a clear perspective of what they have and what they really need. The story I found I also included in this month’s newsletter column, but I think it’s worth hearing again.
Oseola McCarty donated $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi in 1995—you might remember this story. What was so notable about Miss McCarty’s gift was that she was a single woman with a sixth grade education who, at age 86, had recently retired from doing laundry.
Her whole life she washed, folded and ironed other peoples’ clothes. She’d always been very intent on saving her money, thinking that she might need it to take care of her aunt and mother as they aged, but the saving just got to be a habit. She opened her first savings account at First Mississippi National Bank, and faithfully saved as much as she could.
Laudable, for sure, her approach to saving money. What struck me more than her rigorous saving, though, was her sense about what she needed in order to live. For example, even right up until she died in 1999, McCarty never owned a car; she walked everywhere she went, pushing a shopping cart nearly a mile to get groceries. She had a little house her uncle gave her after his death; work to keep her busy; her church and her friends.
And, in 1995 she contacted the folks at the University of Southern Mississippi and told them that she had a little money in savings and she’d like to talk to them about using it so a deserving student who might not be able to afford to go to school might get an education.
Since she’d dropped out of school at sixth grade to take care of her sick aunt, she explained, she’d never gotten the chance to really get a good education. But she had saved her money and she thought it might be good to help someone else who needed it.
The people at the university were flabbergasted. In fact, they tried to suggest to her that perhaps she might want to use some of her money to make her life more comfortable—maybe get an air conditioner for her house or get some help so she didn’t have to walk so much? McCarty laughed at them, though, and said something that has stuck with me. She said: “Why would I do that? I already have everything I need.”
“I already have everything I need.”
Would that you and I could see the world with the same eyes as someone like Oseola McCarty. But usually, that’s not the case at all. Instead of noticing the abundance we have, usually it’s the illusion of what we need that catches our attention. And what happens then? Well, the same thing that happened to the Hebrews. When we spend our lives striving for what we feel we need, we create a disparity—us against them. After all, to get what we feel we need, we’ll have to either take from somebody else who has it or rebel against those who keep it from us.
I did it on Tuesday when I was carrying in the groceries, grumbling about how easy the Hebrews had it while I have to drag in my own groceries and laptop and books. I confess that it never occurred to me to stop and say thanks for the abundance of what I was carrying—good, healthy food for my family to eat, more than we could possibly need, along with so much more.
You and I spend a lot of time thinking about what we don’t have: enough money, enough friends, a job that fulfills us, good kids, enough retirement, family relationships we long for. Sometimes we’re just exactly like the Hebrews, who looked out over the desert of Sinai and wondered what on earth was ahead for them.
How would our lives change, how would our view of the world be altered if we were somehow miraculously able to see the world through the eyes of God’s gracious provision, facing the future with confidence because we’ve lived day after day after day, recipients of God’s tender loving care—enough to meet our needs and sustain us again and again and again?
Verse 10 of our Hebrew text says that as Aaron told them what God planned to do the people “looked toward the wilderness.” They must have been thinking so much about the uncertainties that were ahead of them. And then, the text reads, “and the glory of the Lord appeared on the cloud.” A pillar of cloud spread out before them, God’s presence and leadership into whatever was ahead. And those of them who were able to see it kept right on marching, into the unknown, toward the promise.
Because they had been recipients of God’s provision—food when they were hungry, day after day after day. And when they were finally able to see their lives with recognition of the vast goodness they had, then what God had hoped to accomplish all along began to happen: they could finally see clearly who it was who was the source of their very lives: Almighty God.
I wonder if we could ever learn the lesson the Hebrews learned when they woke up one morning and the manna was falling from the sky? God will always provide what we need, even when we don’t know what it is we need. And our daily bread, the sustenance that fills our lives day after day after day . . . it’s enough . . . . Enough and more than enough.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.