In the midst of our wilderness places, God finds a way to insert a little humor – light and sweet as manna in the dewy morning.
[Texts: Exodus 16:2-4, 9 – 15; John 6:24 – 35]
“What is it?”
Those were the first words out of the Israelites’ mouths when they saw the white, flaky substance on the ground in the midst of the wilderness. It’s a natural reaction. If you walked out one morning after the dew had lifted to see this delicate, cracker-like coating on the grass, you’d wonder what it is, too.
Scholars have speculated about what the manna actually was. Perhaps the dried sap of a tree? Maybe the crystalized honeydew of insects? Or could it be a kind of lichen found on trees?
Regardless of what manna was made of, the intriguing part of this story is the way God uses humor to make a point. I know, I know – God has a sense of humor?
Yes, it turns out that ours is a teasing God who enjoys a good pun.
The situation is this. The Israelites have escaped slavery in Egypt and watched Moses part the waters of the sea so they could cross on dry land. Then after three days in the hot desert, they tasted sweet water miraculously purified. You’d think by now they would know that God’s got their back.
But no. What they want to do is turn back. They long for the meaty stews and hearth-baked bread of Egypt. Even though that food came at the cost of their freedom. And, truth be told, it’s likely that they got nothing more than the scraps of their oppressors on their tables. But now with crying babies and children whining for food, those Egyptian scraps are looking pretty good from out here in the desert.
So God gets an idea.
God instructs Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you.” After 10 plagues and towering sea walls that collapse and sweep away an entire army, you should know, Moses. I got this.
There’s a scene from my favorite Christmas movie called A Christmas Story (the one with Ralphie and the Red Ryder BB gun). He wakes up Christmas morning to see that the world is covered in fresh new snow, with angelic harp music glissing in the background. His big blue eyes fill with wonder and his round cheeks flush red with excitement.
I would like to think that’s how the Israelites would have responded to yet another miracle from God. But instead, they look at it suspiciously and ask, “What is it?”
I can see them gingerly touching it. Plucking a few pieces from the ground. Giving it a wrinkle-nosed sniff.
“What is it?”
And God says, “Yes, that’s exactly what it is.”
You see, in Hebrew the words man hu literally mean, “What is it?” Manhu – manna.
It’s a pun! God is poking fun at the Israelites!
What we have is like Abbot and Costello’s comedy routine, “Who’s on first?”
“What is it?”
“I mean what’s it called?”
What is it.
“Well, that’s what I’m trying to find out. What is it?”
You’re exactly right.
“Arrgh. What is the name of this stuff? What is it?”
That’s what I’m trying to tell you, says God. That’s exactly the name of it. The name of it is: What is it?
Just try it – take a nibble.
“Hm, crispy, flaky, a hint of sweetness. Tummy’s full! I guess you’re looking out for us after all, God.”
It’s one of the lighter moments in the Bible.
One of the things I like about this story is that it reminds me that not only does God not abandon us when we’re in our wandering wilderness times, but that God does not abandon a sense of humor either. In fact, I think God knows that sometimes it’s the lighter moments that get us through. It’s the giggles of a child, the sound of a baby laughing for the first time. The shared joke between friends. The times when my family and I get so silly at the dinner table that we’re just howling with laughter.
These moments – light and flaky and sweet as manna in the morning dew – remind me that even in the midst of the wilderness, joy can still be found.
I hope your church is a place that allows you to experience that joy. Are you able to laugh and be silly together? Do you have inside jokes that you tell each other? Can your pastor let his hair down and allow himself to be goofy with you?
Or does your church take itself so seriously that when the manna is at your feet, people wrinkle their noses with suspicion?
I’ve been fortunate to serve churches with high silly quotients.
They want children in the worship and welcome opportunities to laugh with them. They celebrate “Holy Humor Sunday” after Easter and dress up in silly clown costumes and sing Zippity-Do-Dah after the sermon. [See: Holy Humor Sunday: Ideas for Celebrating the ‘Easter Laugh’.] When there is tension, they can tease each other – not in a mean-spirited way, but good-naturedly.
And when they are in their wilderness times – they haven’t made budget in months, or a pillar of the church dies, a beloved couple of the church divorces, a teenager becomes addicted to drugs, the roof springs a leak and mold is discovered in the basement – even then, they know that God is going to send down the manna. It’s always just enough to get through the day. But they’ve learned that that’s really all they need – enough to get through the day, through the week.
And they know right where to find that manna.
In a little bit of bread and a little sip of wine that reminds them – this is what gives life to the world.
At this table of Holy Communion, you don’t have to ask, “What is it?” You know exactly what it is. This is God with you. In the flesh. In the wilderness. At the table.
We have a God who boops our noses and tickles our funny bone when we want to take ourselves too seriously.
When we think our situation is so dire that there is nothing to do but complain. When we forget to be grateful for the liberation God has provided for us. And when we doubt that God is really there, or wonder if God actually cares, the Holy One reminds us that she has already trekked through those desert places. And she tosses manna upon the ground – breadcrumbs of grace – so that we can find our way and make it through one more day.
Leah D. Schade is a professor of preaching and worship and author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is an ordained minister in the Lutheran Church (ELCA).