Against God and against Moses, the people said, “There is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” The Book of Numbers
Those words are the likely source of an the old joke about the woman who complains in a restaurant to a friend. This food is awful, she says, and her friend answers, Worst thing I ever put in my mouth, and the portions are so small. In the Book of Numbers, the people tell Moses they have no food, or at least nothing they care to eat. In search of new life in a promised land, they are busy complaining. Their complaint is familiar to us, the sort of words any of us might say on a long roadtrip in a car full of candy and crackers and empty cans of Coke. Absent snakebite, the only cure for backseat whining is turning the radio up loud.
Apparently, you can have too much or not enough, and all of it can prove miserable.
The “miserable food” the Israelites are tired of eating — the food they no longer recognize as nourishment — is manna from heaven. They’re tired of the holy provision of God to be had in their very midst. In their impatience, they fail to see what’s there to feed them. It’s an old story. Chronic complaint spoils a life. As symptoms go, it tells you your soul is unhappy, tells you your life is crying out for change.
You wonder what it is we really need to live well. And why our own lives often fail to nourish us. In our Gospel today, Nicodemus also wonders what human beings really need to live well. Though he isn’t named in today’s reading, Nicodemus is the man Jesus is speaking to when he says, “The Son of Man must be lifted up [so] that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
What we need more of is trust. Jesus had it. And the gift of eternity suggests you, too, can trust God with your life at all times in all places, no matter what. In the words of St. Patrick, God is always to be trusted.
Nicodemus, though, has come to Jesus at night because he doesn’t want anybody to see him, doesn’t want his family and friends to know he’s no longer sure about what he needs to live well. You get the feeling he’s doing his best to hold on to the way things are and have always been, like he’s drawn to the possibility of some new life, some hidden song arriving in his own heart, but doesn’t want to change the way he lives or hurt the people he loves.
And for an answer, Jesus gives him the cross on which he himself will be lifted up. A cross that means to lift you up as well: to break open a new day in your same old life. A day to live as you will in front of God and everybody — as if for God and everybody. No room for complaining, no room for waiting, only daring to let Jesus lift you up into his sacrificial life. Trusting God, come what may.
You are surrounded by nourishment that means to open your heart and fire your imagination: prayers and hymns, holy food and drink, friendship. And stirring within these holy provisions lurks the possibility of transformation. You can ignore it and hurry home to complain about what’s wrong with the world. And yet even safe at home, the prayers we say and the hymns we sing together will find a way to whisper to you in the dark: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.
When I was a little girl, I used to watch to my father struggle with the hymnal. Let’s agree: a hymnal can be a hard sing. My father was in the Army, and he used to sneak out at night like Nicodemus and hurry off to play jazz on the piano in whatever nightclub would have him.
He didn’t go to church near as often as the rest of our family, but I had every expectation one day he would number among the saints in song. So it surprised me to hear how his hymn-singing voice was high and thin, barely there really, nothing like the way he spoke or sang at the piano. His hymn voice seemed weak with uncertainty, like it was coming from somebody who’d never seen a line of music in his life and didn’t want anybody to hear him singing hymns out loud, like he had no clue where the notes were taking him.
I wished our hymnal was jazzier then, wished we could sing, The king of love, my shepherd is, his goodness fails me not, and sing it like Dusty Springfield crooning The look of love is in your eyes, the look your smile can’t disguise.
Now that I’m older, I know there were joys in my father’s life he never found a way to live with our family. I know he hid them from us.
Tradition tells us Nicodemus found a way toward living a new life in Christ out loud. This doesn’t mean new life only comes to faithful churchgoers. As the Bible reminds us again and again, needy people often come into the light of God easier than the satisfied. They are less ready to condemn the world, more open to the grace of God wherever they find it. Because they need it.
Life is our first and best songbook, always a threat to sing us an old story in a new way.
Holding a hymnal, my father looked like a child trying hard to learn something he didn’t know yet. And looking up at him, I must have looked the same way. We are among the mysteries of God to each other. Late in life, my father joined a Cursillo praise band, playing hymns like they were country songs for reviving the faithful.
I believe God sings in every person a new song, a song always bending toward change. I believe complaining gets in the way. You can choose to sing the Lord’s song as you will with what you have. Or not. Either way, it will never leave you be.