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  • Writer's pictureRichard A. Jones

When the Manna Stops and the Serpent Dies

Updated: Nov 19, 2023

In the beginning of the Old Testament book of Joshua we find the culmination of a story that had begun four decades earlier. The Israelites had been delivered from the slavery of Egypt and had set out for Canaan, the promised land. They had been forty years in the wilderness.


While in the wilderness God had given them manna to eat—bread from heaven. Every morning for forty years, they had gone out to gather a days portion. Now, Moses, along with all the other adults who had left Egypt, have died. The Israelites have crossed the Jordan River and are camped on the plains of Jericho ready to enter Canaan.


We pick up the story in Joshua 5:10—On the evening of the fourteenth day of the month, while camped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho, the Israelites celebrated the Passover. The day after the Passover, that very day....The manna stopped....there was no longer any manna for the Israelites....


Consider the impact of what is happening here. Other than Joshua, Caleb, and some who had come out of Egypt as children (who are now middle aged), no one living could remember a morning without manna. Manna was at the center of their stories, their memories, and their religion. It had defined their faith.


And when the manna stopped, I think the questions must have begun:

—Without manna, how do we know that God cares for us?

—If we can’t trust in the arrival of manna, how can we trust God? —Without manna, how do we know who God is?

—In fact, how do we even know that God exists?


In forty years you can become pretty comfortable with the familiar and the predictable….Maybe, not much has changed in 35 centuries.

***************

Today, we live in what we call the “real” world—the tangible, the visible, and the touchable. We read how-to books. We are educated in the way of either-or, yes-no, true-false, right-wrong, a-b-c or d. We trust cause and effect. We look for formulas, methods, patterns, proofs, five-year plans and three easy steps.


We prefer linear thinking. We want conclusions, answers to questions, and solutions to problems, It gives us a sense of security to think we have succeeded in making our lives knowable, familiar, predictable, and manageable.


On the other hand, we are not comfortable with, paradox, contradiction, uncertainty, and mystery (If we admit mystery at all, it is only as we wait for enough research or study to be done in order to solve it).


So what do we do with a God who, Scripture says is infinite, unsearchable, and beyond tracing out? A God who is wrapped in mystery, cloaked in paradox, hidden from sight, and often silent?


We are taught that God is good—And yet, children are murdered in school shootings, die of hunger, and live in poverty. People are abused, Governments are corrupt, and Injustice, abuse, oppression, and war plague the human landscape.


We are told that God answers prayer—But with days and weeks soaked in prayer, my sister still died shortly after her high school graduation.


We hear that God cares for us—But our daughter, Le’Brea went missing for two weeks, until her body was found stuffed in a plastic tub, and dumped at an abandoned truck stop.


Annie Dillard, 1972 pulitzer prize winner says:  “Many times in Christian churches I have heard the pastor say to God, “All your actions show your wisdom and love.”  Each time, I reach in vain for the courage to rise and shout, “That’s a lie!”—just to put things on solid footing.”


What becomes of faith when we look for a miracle and receive disappointment, when we pray for healing and the answer is death, when we are told to have hope and what comes is bone-crushing grief?


What do we do when the “manna stops?” When God does not live up to our expectations. We ask questions.

—If God loves me, how could this happen

—Does God really care what happens to me, or anyone?   

—If God is good, and he is in control, why is the world the way it is?


In those times when life is turned up-side-down—When doubts come and it seems that my faith is on the verge of crumbling to dust—When God seems too absent to care and unwilling to act, I believe that I have choices to make.... Choices that will shape the nature of my faith and the direction of my life.

************

When the “manna stops,”  I think that I am confronted with three choices.


#1—I Can Check Out

A friend once told me, “Yea, I use to believe in God, but then I went to Vietnam—no more! In other words, God did not live up to what I think he should be and do, so I quit.


My friend was not the first to choose this way. As Jesus roamed the area of Galilee and the Jordan, his teachings were a breath of fresh air. He spoke of new birth and new life. He gave the people hope, and many believed and followed him.


But one day, Jesus said—I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life....John 6:53-54


The people did not understand, and Jesus did not explain himself. Hasty explanations would only obscure the deep truth. It would take time for the truth Jesus spoke to truly find a home in willing hearts. There would be no short cuts.


On hearing this, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching.  Who can accept it?” From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.


They no longer followed Jesus because he no longer conformed to their expectations. When faith in God no longer makes sense, I can abandon faith and turn away from Jesus.

***********

#2—I Can Cling to the Past

In the Old Testament we read that poison snakes had invaded the camp of Israel. God told Moses to set a bronze serpent on a pole, and anyone who had been bitten, would look at it and live.


Skip ahead to II Kings 18:4—Hezekiah broke into pieces the bronze serpent Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan).


For over 500 years, after the power of this serpent icon was dead and gone, they had worshiped a lifeless metal snake on a stick. They even named it. And twelve generations thought that they knew God because of it.


How many times in 500 years had the “manna stopped” and they knew that there was no power in that metal snake. How many times had the invitation come to expand their vision of God? To see more clearly, to live more fully, to trust more deeply—but they said No! And they refused to let go of any part of their traditions and beliefs.


Like the religious leaders in the time of Jesus, what would they do when they expected a conquering king, and instead, they got a baby born in a stable? They would accuse him of heresy and cling to their traditions, their rules, and their understanding of Scripture.


Someone has said, “Habit with him was the only test of truth, it must be right, I’ve believed it from my youth.” Often, we are taught and conditioned to expect God to always come to us in the same way and in the same places.


C.S. Lewis has said, “If there is one prayer that God refuses to answer, it is encore.—The universe is not big enough for God to reveal himself once, much less that he would reveal himself the same way every time.”


But we want the security of a familiar vocabulary. We want to pray as we have always prayed, think what we have always thought, read our Bibles with the same assumptions we already hold, hear sermons about what we have always believed, and worship only in the way we have always worshiped.


We want a static God. A God who holds still. We want God to remain as we think he is—because we want to remain as we are! A God who is “unsearchable and beyond tracing out,” threatens our assumed security.


Does this mean that all of my past beliefs and traditions are worthless? No, they are all a part of my journey. It does mean, however, that I must wisely discern what to take on the journey of faith that lies ahead, and what needs to be left behind.


I remember the morning that this thought really took root in my life. I don’t remember the exact year but it was long enough ago that I was still hand writing my sermons. I was sitting at the church thinking about the sermon that I would preach the following Sunday. I got up, went to my file cabinet, took out ten years of old sermons, walked to the dumpster, and threw them in. In trying to communicate my faith to others, they had simply become too small.


Israel’s bronze serpent, had its season of usefulness, but it was past. Are there “bronze serpents” in my life that need to be torn down?   

  ************

#3 I Can Trust God

To put it bluntly, the prophet Habakkuk had had it with God. The “manna had stopped.” Life and God no longer made sense.   

Habakkuk 1:2-4

How long, O Lord, must I call for help,

but you do not listen?

Or cry out to you, “Violence!”

but you do not save?

Why do you make me look at injustice?

Why do you tolerate wrong?

Destruction and violence are before me;

there is strife, and conflict abounds.

Therefore the law is paralyzed,

and justice never prevails.

The wicked hem in the righteous,

so that justice is perverted.

Sounds like the questions people ask today.  “If there is a good and loving God, why does he do this—and why doesn’t he do that?”


God was not offended by Habakkuk’s anger, his questions, or his doubts, and he is not offended by mine. For Habakkuk these questions and doubts  were not reasons to abandon faith, or cling to worn out theories and religious habits. They served as a springboard into a deeper faith:


As Scottish Author George MacDonald has said: “Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but will be, understood. . . . Doubts must precede every deeper assurance; for uncertainties are what we first see when we look into a region hitherto unknown and unexplored…”


After the anger, the questions and the doubts, Habakkuk says:

Though the fig tree does not bud

and there are no grapes on the vines,

though the olive crop fails

and the fields produce no food,

though there are no sheep in the pen

and no cattle in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord,

I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;

he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,

he enables me to go on the heights.


This is Habakkuk’s mantra of an ever deepening faith: Circumstances will not determine my faith in, or my relationship with, God. My faith will not be based on familiar, safe, or predictable. I will strive to understand, but even when I do not understand, I will trust the unsearchable and infinite God.

***********

If my faith is honest, let me make no mistake, there will come times in my life when “the manna will stop”—times when life, faith, and God no longer make sense—Time when my doctrines are too small, and my learned traditions and familiar beliefs offer no peace—times when life threatens to cut the legs of my faith from under me.

************

What will I do when the manna stops?

—Will I quit; abandon God, give up on faith, and no longer follow Jesus?

—Will I go back to my old assumptions about God and just pretend, continuing to worship my bronze serpents, seeking God only in comfortable forms, familiar places, and predictable ways? Seeking security rather than truth?

—Or, will I step into the mystery and wait patiently for fresh insight and wisdom to find a home in my heart and life, and heed the whispered invitation to breathe the fresh air of a deeper faith.

************

In C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, four children discover that ”Aslan is not a tame lion.” In our world, am I willing to believe that God is not a tame God?


In Narnia, Aslan did not tell Jill Pole and Eustace Scrubb what would happen, he just told them what to do. “Your  quest is to seek the lost Prince Rilian, “until either you have found him and brought him to his father's house, or else died in the attempt, or else gone back into your own world.”  The Children’s response was, “Then let us go on and take the adventures that shall fall to us.”


God does not promise me comfort, convenience, familiar, predictable, safe, or a three-step plan. He offers the adventure of entering into the quest to re-claim the kingdom of God in this broken world. And Jesus doesn’t tell me what will happen, he simply says, "follow me."


A man had a dream in which he was trying to navigate his way through a dark cave with many passages. All he had was an old map of the cave and a candle to help him see what was ahead. He dreamed that Jesus came along beside him. “Ah,” the man said, “Jesus will increase the light so that I will be able to read the map and see further ahead. Instead, Jesus took away the map and blew out the candle…The man was frightened. But then, Jesus offered the man his hand.


God never forces, coerces, or bribes me to know him. Jesus may take my map and blow out my candle, but he will always offer me his hand. When the “manna stops,” the choice may not be easy………But it will always be mine to make!

    







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2 comentários


B Long
B Long
20 de jan.

perhaps one should buckle up for a wild ride when the very first line of the book opens with, "In the beginning . . . " and the GOD that is referred to is the plural ELOHIM with the singular article EL :)

Curtir

B Long
B Long
19 de nov. de 2023

well said

Curtir
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