A sermon for Messiah Village’s annual Thanksgiving Service, based on I Thessalonians 5:18 and Exodus 16:9-21, 31.

In this passage, God responds to the Israelite’s complaints by telling them to “draw near.”  Then, God provides for their needs, because that’s who God is.  But the way in which God provides is so strange, so unexpected, so utterly confounding, that when the hungry, whiny Israelites wake up, step out of their tents, and look around, they turn to each other in utter confusion.  

Seeing nothing more than fine, white flakes spread across the ground, they ask each other, “What is it??”   

Their befuddlement is so complete, they take to calling the strange food ‘manna,’ which is the Hebrew way of asking “What is it?”   

Any parent can tell you that a meal that starts with the question, “What is it?” isn’t likely to go over well.  Most of us like to know what’s been put on our plate.  We don’t want to be surprised.  We don’t want to consume a meal we may not recognize or, worse yet, may not even like.  

But this story doesn’t focus on the Israelites’ confusion or preferences, it focuses on God’s provision.  God provides and all the Israelites have to do is wake up each morning, step outside and ask, “what is it.”  They are to look for what God has given.  Then, they are to gather and consume as much as they need.  Three times that phrase is repeated in this passage, “as much as they needed, as much as they needed, as much as they needed.”

God’s glory appeared in the wilderness, God heard the complaints of his people, and God provided for their need.  As advent approaches, I’m struck by the parallels between this passage and the stories of Christ’s coming.  The stories of John the Baptizer appearing in the wilderness, and Jesus, the bread from heaven, sent from God to meet our deep need.  Jesus, like the manna in the wilderness also seemed like a strange and unexpected gift.  The question with Jesus was not “what is it” but, “who is he?”

Exodus reveals a God who appears and provides, daily.

In response, the Israelites are call to be people who look and gather, daily.  

I chose this passage because I think it can give us some insight into Paul’s challenging command to “give thanks in all circumstances.”  I don’t know about you, but there are times when I find gratitude and thanksgiving come easily.

I’m thankful when the house is warm.

I’m thankful when my kids are happy (and quiet). 

I’m thankful when medical tests come back with good results, when money is plentiful.  In short, I’m thankful when things are going the way I want them to – the way I think they should.  I’m thankful when I can easily identify “what it is” that God is doing in my life and in the lives of those I love. 

But some mornings, I wake up and step outside and struggle to know what God is doing.  Like the Israelites, I find myself asking, “what is it” God is doing?  “What is it” that I even have to be thankful for? 

Maybe you have those mornings too.  Sometimes those mornings stretch into days and weeks and months; whole seasons of asking God, “What is it you are doing?  Where in this wilderness are you?”

I love this story in Exodus for the way it answers these questions.

Where is God?  God is with us, appearing right here in the middle of whatever wilderness we find ourselves in.

What is God doing?  God is providing, as much as is needed, every day.

In response we, like the Israelites, are invited to be people who look and gather what is given in every day and every season.  We place our trust in God who appears and gives as much as we need.  We accept and give our consent to the words of Moses, “This is the bread the Lord has given you to eat.”  We look and gather and are filled, because of who God is.

God is meeting our needs, but God may not be meeting our wants.  And the difference between the two – wants and needs – can be the center of a lot of pain and suffering.  The way we navigate the difference between having what we need and what we want can be the difference between a life of peace and contentment and a life of anger, frustration, bitterness, and resentment. 

Let me give you an example from my own life.  Eight years ago I was working part time as an Associate Pastor, feeling fulfilled in a job I enjoyed deeply, when I found out I was unexpectedly pregnant with twins.  Now, if having two healthy, unexpected babies is the worst thing that ever happens to me, I have very little complain about.  But, at the time, I found the news and the changes it would bring very unsettling.  

I would need to quit my job, I would need to surrender to living a life that was markedly different from the one I planned.  Friends and family were quick to tell me that this pregnancy was a blessing from the Lord and, with time, I told a friend, “I know this is a blessing, but it’s not the one I would have chosen.”

Over time, as I grew to love my boys and my new life, I realized how large the ‘I’ in that sentence loomed.  Who’s to say I would have chosen best? Isn’t it possible that the answer to the question “what is it” might be, “something bigger and better than you could ever imagine”?

I like that the bible tells us manna tasted like wafers made with honey.  Honey was a rare treat, a symbol of luxury in biblical times.  Imagine if the Israelites had never gotten beyond the question, “what is it.”  What if they’d never placed those small, seed-like flakes on their tongues, had never allowed themselves to taste the goodness because they first needed to know what it was?

Have you ever tried to get a child to try something on the tip of a spoon without first telling them what it is?  I do this with my own children sometimes, wanting to share a special treat, and they put up no end of loud protest.  But, I insist, luring them with sweetness. “Trust me,” I say, “it’s good.”  Do you know the kind of trust it takes for a young child to open their mouth and receive in that way?

I think this is something of what Paul is asking of the early church.  He’s reminding them to be people who trust in a God who provides; people who believe that the answer always, ultimately, to the question, “what is it,” is “it is good, because God is good.” 

I want to encourage you if you’re in a season of life in which you don’t know what God is doing.  Or, if you can’t understand why God is allowing things to happen as they are in your life.  There are few more difficult circumstances to find yourself in.  You’re pain is real and we pray that this season will pass quickly.  

If you find yourself in a season in which thanksgiving is difficult, I want to encourage you to keep looking and gathering what God is giving and to invite others to join you in the wilderness you face.  The Israelites went out together in the morning and turned to each other to understand God’s strange provision.  No one stood alone outside their tent that day.  

Also, like the Israelites, may you remember that the sweetness you taste this day, like those wafers that tasted like honey, is only a small foretaste of the meal that awaits us when we reach God’s promised land – that place flowing with milk and honey, where tears and sorrow shall be no more.  

Let us praise the God who appears, even in the wilderness.  Let us be people who go out together, looking for what God is doing, gathering what God has given.  Let us be people who can say, “We have tasted and seen that the Lord is good.”

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