Each morning tens of thousands of Hebrews left their tents, jars in hand to gather the white food. The areas immediately outside their tents were as fruitful as the fields that stretched away from the temporary settlement. The morning light saw the people bending over almost in unison as they scooped up the manna. While it may have been a desert, each morning yielded an abundant harvest. Just a short distance away other nations tried to coax crops out of land that teased them at times with abundance contrasted with times of drought when the ground seemed cursed. But regardless of what was happening outside the Hebrew camp, for the Hebrew children manna kept coming and coming and coming.
And that was part of the problem as the people saw it. There was no end to the stuff. There was no use to ask what was for supper. Or breakfast. Or lunch. Some no doubt had found recipes or creative ways to serve it up. Manna surprise. Manna stew. Manna with banana. But in the end it was manna still.
Everyone knew it was God’s gift to the people, His provision of sustenance for the decades long journey. But was it too much to ask for a little change? If God provided this so miraculously, could He not also give us a surprise, a tasty variation? As memory toyed with the minds, the cucumbers were more luscious, the fruit more juicy, the roasted meat ‘s aroma made the mouth water just thinking about it. It’s not that the manna was bad but everything they could not have seemed better. Could God not give us some of these vegetables? Could He not make fresh meat appear like He made water gush out when we were thirsty? It would almost be worth the chains of yesterday, just to sit down at a fully furnished table.
And the miracles. There were lots of them. Water out of the rock. A sea divided. A pillar of flame at night and/or a pillar of cloud in the day. A bronze serpent as an antidote to the adder’s venom. The Israelites seemed to be thnking – and sharing with each other, “Those were all well and good but what we really want to see is this so-called Promised Land. Forty years trekking around and you’d think by now we would have stumbled on it. But no. Just more walking around. Yes, we like all this miracle and manna that comes but really, just get us out of these tents and settle me in a little farm of my own. More. We want more.”
Then there were James and John. What a thrill it must have been to be selected as two of the elite Twelve who got to follow Jesus all around. Then they were two of the three that with Peter comprised the inner circle of three who were Jesus’ special companions. They had a front row seat where they beheld wonder after wonder. From water turning to wine to watching the dead rise up and walk away. Leprosy left without a trace, demons departed, often providing high drama as they were driven away. And then there was the thrill of seeing thousands upon thousand fed with a meal that was barely enough for a little boy. So many more than that.
But there was even more. How many times had they marvelled at what happened when He spoke? There were fireworks when Jesus tangled with the Scribes and Pharisees, leaving those hypocrites smarting while Jesus’ friends walked with Him triumphantly away. He spoke and the turbulent sea became like glass. He taught and people flocked in such numbers that at times it seemed they would be crushed by crowds. His words did something to people on a very personal level. Two totally different men could speak to that. Nicodemus thought he would have an intellectual discussion but instead was told that he must become as an infant. Zaccheus, rejected and despised, heard Jesus say that He came to seek and to save lost people like him.
Later as he wrote his gospel about Jesus, John was overwhelmed to think of all that he had seen as one of the Twelve. He wrote, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25). With all this, you would think it was enough for James and John. But it wasn’t.
All this seemed to go to their heads. They thought that they must be not only special but highly favored above all the others. So one day they came with what seemed a reasonable request.
First, they flattered Jesus by saying they expected Him to establish a kingdom. They weren’t too far off the mark on that one because Jesus even began His ministry by declaring that the kingdom of Heaven was at hand. As James and John figured it, all the ministry was to build a power base so that by acclamation, the nation of Israel would not only follow Christ but that the Romans would be driven out. All would be right with the world. As far as the two brothers were concerned, this was going to happen and happen very soon.
That led to the next step in their thinking. The most powerful kings didn’t run the kingdom on their own. They needed hosts of people to administer their rule. Now, it was pretty easy to figure out that the ones with the inside track on this had to be the Twelve who knew Jesus best and who had been with Him through thick and thin. Good enough. But there were a couple of really key positions that James and John figured had to go to somebody. And though they were close to Peter, as the old adage goes, three’s a crowd. Jesus had only one right hand and only one left. Two out of three key positions to be filled but three candidates. Feeling they were positioned well enough to make their move, they asked for one more thing. “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory” (Mark 10:37). Jesus’ reply was quick and sobering. Not what they were expecting at all. In fact, it led Jesus to preach to them, and all the other ten disciples who were angry at James and John and angry at themselves for not thinking to ask about these places first.
Jesus took the conversation a whole different direction. “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).
What makes this whole scene that much more amazing was that James and John had seen things everyday that hundreds of generations before and all generations that have come after would love to have witnessed. To just be one of those among the 5000 who were fed! To have watched from a distance when Lazaus came walking out of the grave! To have sat in that upper room the night before the crucifixion! They had all this but then they had more.
As one of Jesus’ inner circle they had watched as Christ met with Moses and Elijah, and shielded their eyes as His robes glistened with glory. They were there at the bedside of Jairus’ daughter when this dead little girl opened her eyes, comforting her overwrought parents with her warm hug. They were taken to the Garden of Gethsemane and given the privilege to watch as Jesus wrestled with His destiny and with it, the destiny of all creation. But to James and John these blessings were not enough. They wanted something more.
Shame on the Israelites! Shame on James and John! Shame on me!
Each morning I awaken after a sleep when I come as close to death more than any time of day. My breathing has slowed, my heart rate lessened. In my deepest sleep I am nearly defenseless. But I woke up without giving it much thought.
As I sit down to eat, hundreds of operations are set into motion to smell, taste and handle my food. After I eat it and while I am about my business, the whole digestive process not only happens but my body takes my bowl of cereal and parcels it out throughout my system so that everything else can keep working.
There are miracles everywhere I turn. The eyes, albeit aided now with corrective lens, gauge distance, confirm color, warn of danger, show me opportunity, make me stop to look again. Right next to them are ears that pinpoint where sound is coming from, and through the auditory process vibrations are meaningful. One time they are a bit of music, another the voice of my beloved. They signal to look up, look down, turn around and quiet to listen. The nose not only holds my glasses but in rhytm takes in and then expels. It refreshes me with the pleasant scent of a flower or the crisp smell of autumn. It tells me to leave a room, open a window, turn away from that food. Similar signals and miracles flood my senses through touch and taste. What is my response? I want a different body. One that looks like his. Or if not, just the one I had when I was eighteen.
The same thing exists with mental ability. How the human being can take bits and pieces of this or that and make it make sense in a nanosecond is a beautiful thing indeed. Without conscious thought, when the car suddenly crosses the line into my lane, I conduct a multitude of operations simultaneously and yet orderly. I assess the danger, move my foot to the break while my hand turns the steering wheel. If the radio is on, I screen out the sound while any thought traipsing through my head is expelled immediately. I at the same time mindful of the passenger with me as well as the welfare of the errant driver. A number of options are explored until one action decided upon. All that without me mentally voicing a thing. It’s just done.
One more example is the miracle of reading. Here are these little blips now appearing magically on my computer screen that more or less say what is in my head. They will stay on some little part of a disc on my computer until I call them up again and in reading this paragraph, I will transport back in time to the moment I wrote it. But it gets better. The book publisher will take those electronic bits, assign some ink to them that will be blown on to some blank paper that will then be cut and bound into a book. And if you have made it this far in your reading, you will take partial leave of your present circumstances to go back in time to my office and enter into my thoughts at that time. This is how I can hear the heart of Paul. This is how I can work back through the centuries to join George Washington or Martin Luther. I am at the side of C.S. Lewis or Winston Churchill. I take those little splotches of ink on paper (or electronic bytes off my e-reader) and I am there with them and in their heads. How can that be? But the miracle of reading makes it so.
It seems to be no different with spiritual blessings. I not only have the blessing of God’s Word, I have a shelf full of Bibles. If I don’t like the way this version reads, I can find one more to my liking. Or if I want something more, I can find a Bible formatted for men, leaders, addicts, athletes, teens, older people, praise, favorite personality, new believers, nurses, those in the military, comic book, ad nauseum. But then they come out with a new Bible and I want it.
I have been blessed with a personal experience with Jesus Christ since I was 13. I have been blessed and encouraged by more people than I can even remember. I have enjoyed countless hours of rich worship in the company of other believers and I have blessed moments of quiet reflection when God came so very gently to me. I have felt God’s power when I needed to take a stand and I have felt His needed rebuke when I said too much. I have been blessed with a number of gifts which I have enjoyed having and using, hopefully in a meaningful way for the kingdom of God. But when I see that guy over there, I want what he has. I am surrounded by a sea of miracles but what he has on his little island of blessing I sooften want for myself.
It is not that we are not grateful for what we have. It is that in our wanting something else we tend to diminish what we have. The manna was fine until the Israelites heard about the bounty of the Promised Land. James and John were thrilled to be among the Twelve until they thought they could be the darling duo. Thousands of things with our bodies may be working perfectly but we get down because the back is acting up. And picking up the countless blessings works very well for us until we notice a blessing that isn’t ours.
If we fix our eyes on what we don’t have, we will despise the manna. Better to bend over, pick it up and feast on what God has prepared for us.