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  • Writer's pictureRichard A. Jones

When the Manna Stops and the Serpent Dies—Revised and Expanded Version

Several weeks ago, under Reflections of Faith, I posted “When the Manna Stops and the Serpent Dies.” Since then I have made some revisions, borrowed a couple of pictures from another post, and added an introduction.


I hope that this will add some clarity to what I consider to be a very important milestone on my own journey faith. Maybe a few of you can glean something from it.

Horn Peak


This picture is a familiar sight to those of us who know the Westcliffe, Colorado area. Although not the tallest, Horn Peak is one of the most recognizable mountains on the Eastern Slope of the Sangre De Cristo mountain range. It is a dominate feature on the landscape of the Wet Mountain Valley.


Imagine Horn Peak as representing favorite Bible verses that stand out in today’s Christian culture. The most quoted, most memorized, and most recognizable, they would often be the verse of the day on Christian radio. We find them on church signs, wall plaques, bumper stickers, yard signs, dish towels, journal pages, refrigerator magnets, key chains, and napkins.


If you will bear with me, I want to take a couple of minutes to list just a few of the most recognizable ones:


Romans 3:23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Romans 10-9If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

John 3:16For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 14:14—“if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.”

Romans 8:28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Philippians 4:13I can do all things through Christ who gives me

strength.

II Chronicles 7:14— if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

Jeremiah—29:11— “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

And of course, Proverbs 3:5Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.


For many Christians, these and other individual verses have come to define their understanding of God and their relationship with Jesus. Based on my illustration, they would be their “Horn Peak,” the dominate features, on the landscape of modern American evangelical faith.


This picture is an arial view looking down the “spine” of the Sangres as they zig-zag their way into New, Mexico. the Sangre De Cristo Range is 242 miles long and covers 17,193 square miles or over 11,000,000 acres.


Where is Horn Peak in this picture? You will have to look closely. It is the little pointy knob just to the left of the tiny blue dot I put there so that I could find it.


Let’s say that this view represents the wisdom of God (and even this is a limitation). Scripture says that God is “FROM EVERLASTING TO EVERLASTING,” and that God’s ways are “UNSEARCHABLE”, and “BEYOND TRACING OUT.” It says that “HIS UNDERSTANDING, NO ONE CAN FATHOM.”


Infinite—No beginning, no end, without limit or boundary. No one can comprehend God. Let me repeat, NO ONE: not John Wesley, John Calvin, or Martin Luther— Not Family Radio’s Bible teachers: John Piper, R.C. Sproul, or Adriel Sanchez—Not the seminary professor—the greatest Bible Scholar that ever lived—And not me. No human being is the ultimate purveyor of God’s truth.


It seems to me, therefore, that If we were to take all of the favorite Bible verses quoted, memorized, and displayed in our Christian culture, all the doctrines and theologies ever formulated, all the Biblical Commentaries ever written, all the creeds ever designed, and all of the church membership statements of faith, and put them into the context of the wisdom of God, they would be smaller than one tiny snow flake in the picture above.


Scripture says that “We know in part (We don’t know everything). I think that everyone would admit this. But, it also says,  “We see but a poor reflection” (even what we do know, is poorly known).


So, am I saying that there is no use in trying to understand God? Absolutely not! The human mind is a wonderful gift from our Creator. We should use it to the best of our ability.


But we must keep human knowledge in proper perspective. As Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up… The man who thinks he knows something, does not yet know as he ought to know.”


I wonder if maybe too often, we tend to draw conclusions and then “take a stand” on what little we think we know.


Seeking God is our calling. Drawing Conclusions about the infinite God is not. Conclusions are not a part of the human domain! Growing in the knowledge of God should lead us NOT to “take a stand” on our doctrine, become proud of our understanding, or claim our theology as ultimate. It should lead us to love, humility, awe, wonder, and worship.


Am I saying that there is no objective truth that we can know for certain? No! However, I am saying that the deepest truth of God is far more than our minds can contain or understand. I don’t think that the eternal truth of God will submit to definitions, doctrines, theologies, and theories.


The Pharisees knew Scripture, but Jesus said that they were “Not of the truth.” He said,”You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life…” Scripture and their understanding of it, had become their God, the object of their worship.


Jesus continues, “These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” Whether we read the Bible in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, English, or the best translation available, Scripture is not ultimate. It is simply a compass pointing us to Jesus.


Our faith is not in Scripture or someone’s understanding of it. Our faith is not in an explanation about God, but in God himself. Our faith is not in words about Jesus, facts about Jesus, or even the teachings of Jesus. Our faith is in Jesus. Understanding and accepting Biblical information as correct and accurate, is not the same as being “of the truth.”


Jesus said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free. The word know, is not a term of information, but a term of relationship. It is the same word used in Matthew 1:25 Joseph…had no union with his wife until she gave birth to a son. Some translations read Joseph knew her not….


Maybe the deep truth of God that sets us free, is not accessed by the mind. It is not known because someone explains it to us, preaches it to us, teaches it to us, proves it to us, and we accept it as true. It is not the “truth” we learned because we grew up in the church and took a membership or catechism class.


To know the truth that sets us free is to enter into union with with the one who said, “I am the truth.”  It is to have the heart and mind of Jesus. This truth begins to awaken our spirits, renew our minds, opens our eyes to eternity, inform our decisions, and order our lives, so that we are becoming “of the truth.”

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

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 (bread from heaven) to eat. 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, without manna, 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 live by principles, propositions, rules, and commands. 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 predictable, and manageable.


Have we maybe applied these methods to God?  Have we tried to make God 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 this God who, Scripture says is UNSEARCHABLE, and BEYOND TRACING OUT. Who is FROM EVERLASTING TO EVERLASTING, and WHOS UNDERSTANDING, NO ONE CAN FATHOM. How do we know a God who is wrapped in mystery, cloaked in paradox, hidden from sight, and often silent?

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

For me, this is often what seems like a journey into ignorance: The more I learn, the less I know. I hope you will allow me to share a little of my personal journey.


We are told that “God answers prayer,” and that “prayer changes things”—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 and a half weeks, until her body was found stuffed in a plastic tub, and dumped at an abandoned truck stop.


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


At times I have felt like Annie Dillard, 1972 pulitzer prize winner who said,  “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 ask for help 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?” What do we do when what we know and have been taught doesn’t fit? What do we do when God does not live up to our expectations?


For me, it will not suffice merely to say that everything is God’s will and then quote Romans 8:28. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.


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 what he should do or not 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 find a home in willing hearts. There would be no short cuts, no simplistic answers, no explanation offered before experience lived.


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 quit. 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. Many do.

***********

#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.


Let’s skip ahead to II Kings 18:4Hezekiah broke into pieces the bronze snake 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 thanks! And they refused to let go of any part of their traditions and beliefs.


What would the religious leaders in the time of Jesus 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 631 rules, and their “orthodox” 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 doing the same things, in the same way, in the same place, and at our designated times,


In contrast to this, 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, worship as we have always worshipped, think what we have always thought, read our Bibles with the same assumptions we already hold, and hear sermons about what we already believe.


As someone has said, What we see, depends on what we thought before we looked. Or to put it another way, We don’t see the world the way it is, we see the world the way we are.


I recently discovered, in an article I read, that their is a term for this: Confirmation BiasA term coined by English psychologist Peter Wason, is the tendency of people to favor information that confirms or strengthens the beliefs or values that they already hold. It is difficult to dislodge once affirmed…


…Subjecting our views to contradictory information is discomforting.The confirmation bias generates a vicious cycle that perpetuates our views on the world around us and leads to the formation of a thick-layered bubble from which we live.


…How to burst that bubble is a question we all must consider if we hope to grow as individuals.


In matters of faith, I think that confirmation bias is at work because we prefer 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,” and who “…No one can fathom,”  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. It did not mean that what I had said was wrong or worthless. It did mean that In trying to communicate my faith to others, they had simply become too small.


Meister Eckert, fourteenth century theologian and philosopher said, “Only the hand that erases can write what is true.”… But of course, he was tried as a heretic.


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, 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 wrongdoing?

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 must 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, Habakkuk 3:17-19

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 growing and 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 not allow my past understanding to destroy the possibilities of what lies ahead. 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—Times 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 Jesus, who is the truth?

—Or, will I step into the mystery, 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, will I dare 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, a five year plan, or three easy steps. 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 a little of what was ahead. He dreamed that Jesus came along beside him. “Ah,” the man thought, “Jesus will increase the light so that I will be able to read the map and can 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. The manna will stop. Favorite verses will fail me. Doctrines and theologies will grow small.  Jesus may take away my map and blow out my candle, but he will always offer me his hand.


At such times, the choices may not be easy………But they will always be mine to make!

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gillum.peggy
02 ene

Thank you, Dick. I have been reading and praying 2 Peter 1:2 this morning. I, too, desire “Then let us go on and take the adventures that fall to us.” Well said and good things to chew on today.

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