Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Yahweh is near to all those who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.
It was raining somewhere other than Texas a few weeks ago and I commented on a friend’s post about it, “Send some to Texas!” He lived in Texas a few years ago and responded that he wouldn’t because Texans just grumble about the rain. We tend to get a lot of rain in a short time after months or years of no rain, so he’s probably right that we complain. Yet, we need it so desperately during these times of drought that we ask for it knowing that all that water will quickly get old. Who among us hasn’t complained about the weather in one way or another? We hate the cold, but we beg for it in the middle of summer. We hate the heat, but we beg for it in the middle of winter.
We aren’t content. We grumble about the rain because it doesn’t take very much before the dry creek beds overflow. Roads are closed. Cars are swept away. Rain brings mold and mosquitoes. We need it, but it would be ideal if we could just get an inch or so every week rather than ten inches in a few days every few years. The rain is always a blessing, but we stop seeing it as a blessing when it becomes a problem.
The Hebrews were oppressed by the Egyptians, held captive as slaves. Slavery was never a pleasant life. Slaves died at the hands of their masters. They suffered horrific accidents. Who knows how many slaves died under the rolling stones that built the cities of the ancient world? The mortar of too many buildings was mixed with the blood of people unable to stand against greater powers. It appears, however, that those Hebrew slaves at least had food, shelter and the certainty of tomorrow.
Moses took them away from the burden of slavery, but they went into a wilderness that was frightening and uncertain. There was nowhere to get food or water. There were no buildings to shelter the people. They didn’t know where they were going or what would be at the end of the journey. They didn’t even know how long it would take to get there. They were tired and hungry. They were losing hope. As a matter of fact, they had more hope that they’d be saved when they were living as slaves under the whips of the Egyptians than they did as they wandered free in the wilderness. They trusted God to save them, but didn’t trust that He would provide for them on the journey. They didn’t know how they would survive. They grumbled to Moses, begging to return to the life of certainty with suffering in Egypt rather than continuing a journey of uncertainty.
God did provide. He sent manna from heaven in the morning and quails in the evening. The people were required to follow very specific instructions. They were given the opportunity to learn how to trust in God’s provision. Those who did not trust God’s Word, who tried to hoard the manna, found only disappointment. Imagine what it must have been like for these people. They had to rely on an unseen God and accept an unidentifiable thing as food to fill their grumbling bellies. Even still, was worth returning to a country where the oppressor waited to make life even more difficult for them?
Have you ever stood in a moment like this: when God has given you an opportunity that seems scary but might just be the way of freedom? We look at the answers to our prayers and wonder what God was thinking. We try to control our circumstances and grumble about things even if they are blessings. Getting our way will not always take us to a better place, no matter what we think. God guides us through the journeys that seem frightening and He’s faithful to His promises. What lies at the end of the journey is a land of blessing even if the way is difficult. We need only trust that God will be with us through it all.
We might think that it took a long time for the Hebrews to start grumbling. It took them about twenty five days to get to the Red Sea. Pharaoh started them until about a week before then. It was immediately after they crossed the sea and were safe that they began to grumble. Moses healed the bitter water a few days later. Four days after that, the people complained about having no meat. The quail fell that night and the manna was on the ground in the morning. They arrived at Mt. Sinai two weeks later, just forty eight days after the Passover. The people turned to golden calf before the 100th day.
It seems to me that it should have taken much longer for them to turn from the God who saved them from slavery, but in today’s passage we see that they had already forgotten the bitterness of their oppression. “We wish that we had died by Yahweh’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots, when we ate our fill of bread, for you have brought us out into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” It took thirty-three days for them to desire their old lives because at least their stomachs were full.
God heard their cries and sent everything they needed to survive in the wilderness. The quail came, and they were fed. The manna came, and though they didn’t understand it at first, they were fed and satisfied. Sadly, they got sick of quail and manna and they complained again. But in this story we see that God provides what we need even if we do not trust that He will. He hears our complaining and He answers with His grace. Would that we could be so gracious.
The trouble is that we often look to the wrong source to supply our needs. The people looked to Moses and Aaron. They were fallible human beings with no special powers. They could not buy bread in the desert. They couldn’t even grow the grain, harvest the wheat and make the bread for so many. They could not provide for God’s people. But Moses and Aaron weren’t called to provide for them. They were chosen to lead the people to the Promised Land, with God as guide and provider. The wandering was a time for God to prove Himself to the whole assembly. By the time they got to the Promised Land, they would have to trust God even more. And in their history they would need to trust Him over and over again. If only they had trusted Him to give them meat and bread, they might have trusted Him to protect them from the more deadly dangers they would face.
But we don’t think about those other things when our bellies are grumbling. We don’t think about our soul when we are hungry. We fight for the tangible things, but ignore the things that really matter. That’s what Jesus saw in the crowds on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. After feeding the crowd of five thousand or more Jesus saw that those were following Him because He was doing miraculous things still did not understand. They recognized that He was the Messiah, but they wanted an earthly king. They wanted someone who would lead them out of occupation into a golden age of prosperity as a sovereign nation. They did not know that they had a deeper need, the need for forgiveness and the hope of eternal life.
Unfortunately, Jesus’ teachings seemed to contradict that which was given to the people by Moses. Jesus told the crowd not to work for food that perishes but to work for food that endures. They asked, “What must we do, that we may work the works of God?” They were expecting Jesus to repeat the Law which was given to them by Moses. They expected to hear a list of rules to obey and things to do. They wanted to receive God’s blessings based on their own actions. That’s the way it has always been. Moses gave them the Law. Moses gave them the manna. If Jesus contradicted Moses, then He’d have to prove Himself.
Jesus told them that the work of God is to believe in the one He has sent. This was a new teaching. It was different than what they had received from Moses. So, it wasn’t enough that He’d just fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish, they needed more. Jesus needed to do something even greater than Moses in the wilderness. Jesus needed to provide them with something better than the bread from heaven.
This is where they were wrong: the bread from heaven did not come from Moses. It came from God. They’d lost sight of the real provider of all things good, which is the very reason why Jesus came. He answered their demand for proof with this statement: “Most certainly, I tell you, it wasn’t Moses who gave you the bread out of heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread out of heaven.” They were so focused on the world as they knew it that they lost sight of the true reality of God.
Jesus is the bread of life, but He knows how difficult it is for us to believe. He has drawn us together into one body, binding us together with His Spirit, feeding us the bread of life. Together we live with the same hope, faith and baptism all under and for the glory of the One God our Father.
Have you ever noticed how many different types of bread there are to purchase? Hard bread, soft bread, dark bread and white bread. There are tortillas from Mexico and sourdough from San Francisco. France gives us croissants and baguettes. Southern kitchens produce biscuits. You can find bread made with cinnamon and raisins, bananas and nuts. Some loaves are small; others are large. When we think of the most basic food necessities, bread is always on the list. Prisoners are given bread and water. Many restaurants include a basket of their signature bread with every meal.
Just as there are so many different types of bread, so too there are many different kinds of tasks to do in the body of Christ, to feed the Word of God to those who hear. Paul writes, “He gave some to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, shepherds and teachers.” These servants of Christ are gifted with all they need to do that which they are called to do, and that is to build up the body of Christ, bringing all those who believe together in love. The church has much work to accomplish and we are called to trust that God will provide the people to do that work. We are also called to trust that God will provide each of us with the gifts and resources we need to share His grace with the world.
Paul begs that we live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called. What is that life? He goes on to say that we should live, “with all lowliness and humility, with patience, bearing with one another in love; 3 being eager to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
We don’t do this very well. We find it much easier to grumble when we feel our needs are not being met - asking for food and drink when we really need Christ. In our churches, the bonds of peace are broken too easily over disagreements about the things that really do not matter. We are like children, whining for our own way about whether the carpet should be cardinal or brick colored, never seeking God’s will about our ministry to one another. Does it matter to God the color of our carpet? Or is that the bread that perishes?
Paul tells us to grow up, to not fall for every idea that comes our way, but to love one another as God makes us into one body by the power of the Holy Spirit, so that everything in the church works as it has been designed by God and is built together in love. This will bring glory to God and He will continue to feed us with the life giving food that comes from faith in Christ.
Today’s passage from John juxtaposes the manna in the desert to the Bread from heaven which is Jesus. These things come from God. They are gifts from the One who cares for our every need, even the grumbling of our tummies. But as with the Hebrews in the desert and the people by the Sea of Galilee, we are reminded that there is something much more important to understand here: these lessons are about trusting that God will provide us what we truly need.
Jesus didn’t come to feed the hungry or heal the sick. He did those things to prove that He is who He is. He did it to prove Himself to us, just as God proved Himself in the desert. All He wants in return is that we believe and trust that He will do what is good and right and true. He will provide what we need. And while we do need food for our bellies, the true bread is Jesus. In Him is life; in Him is eternal life.
We will continue to study the Bread of Life over the next few weeks, and the lessons will get incredibly difficult for us to understand and accept. It will be so shocking to Jesus’ audience that many will stop following Him. Jesus began this lesson with the feeding of the five thousand because He knows that we need to have our flesh satisfied before we can truly learn about our spirits. We can’t stay there, however. We have to take the next step to truly believe in Jesus. He did not come to be an earthly king; He came to save the world.
That salvation is enough. We might not think so when we are two miles into a thousand mile journey or when we are standing in front of a refrigerator with nothing that we want to eat. But if we begin with thankfulness for God’s salvation and praise for God’s graciousness, then we will find that He generously helps us deal with the rest. We can join with the psalmist in singing the hymn of praise to the LORD who is the Great King of a kingdom that reaches far beyond this world. He has done great things; He saved His people and fed them as much quail and manna that they needed to be satisfied. He taught them to trust in Him, and while they failed over and over and over again, He continued to love them with His faithfulness to His promises.
We will fail. We will grumble about the blessings when they do not seem to be what we want them to be.We focus too much on our stomachs and too little on our spirits. We forget the great things that God has done and turn again to the gods who promise to fill our bellies and satisfy our physical desires. We turn from God by demanding that He serve as our earthly King and ignore the greater Kingdom that He rules from heaven. We turn from Him when He demands more from us than we are willing to give or that we can understand. We forget to praise Him for our daily bread because we can'’t find anything that will satisfy our desires on the shelves of our pantries.
The Israelites learned how to trust in God by eating manna in the wilderness. The crowd learned that Jesus wasn’t who they thought He was by chasing after the wrong sort of bread in their wilderness. Paul learned to live in his vocation even when it took him into places that he didn’t want to go. We learn through these lessons that our work is simply to believe. As we believe in God, we are given opportunities to share God’s grace with others. The love of God calls us to share the bread of heaven with all those who are hungry. We tell the world about the good things God has done, just like the psalmist, so that others will come to believe in Him and receive eternal life.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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