What happens when you know the story too well?
When Jesus tells his hearers that he is “the bread of life,” they couldn’t help but think of Moses and manna from heaven. The great leader of God’s people had fed them when they were stuck without food in the wilderness. “Bread that comes down from heaven” meant only one thing—the white flaky stuff that collected like dew upon the ground. That was a story that every faithful Jew knew.
Jesus also seems to have been well known. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” the Jews asked themselves. “How can he have come down from heaven. He’s from Galilee!” Jesus’ identity was already disclosed. He wasn’t able to “mislead” his hearers. They knew his background. Jesus couldn’t outrun his parents. Given that, how was he supposed to compare himself with Moses? That’s pretty risky. For a known quantity—a carpenter’s son who certainly didn’t look like the deliverer of God’s people.
Of course, Jesus did come down from heaven, and he did come to give life to the world, but not quite like the people expected. They were so familiar with the story of Moses and manna that they heard “bread of life” and “come down from heaven” and they put two and two together to expect more of the same. But, if Jesus was anything, he was not more of the same.
I worry that Christians have become so familiar with the story that we don’t know what to look for anymore. Like a scientist dedicated to one tiny sliver of research, we’re expecting life, death, and resurrection to be a regurgitation of the New Testament. But what is heaven, really? What is new life? Is it a gate made of one pearl? Is it, as James Taylor once asked incredulously, streets paved with solid gold? (“Must make a mighty fine road?”) Or is it something we’ve forgotten how to look for?
Resurrection is all around us. Miracle is all around us. Sustenance and new life are all around us. It’s a surprising hug from a child. It’s a table server who smiles warmly and genuinely. It’s a bedside moment when a 92-year-old dies and his children smile as tears roll down their cheeks. If we’re waiting on a Jew from ancient Palestine to show up with a host of angels, we might not ever see it.