Sunday, August 6, 2006

Ninth Sunday in Pentecost
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Psalm 78:23-29
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

So they did eat, and were well filled; And he gave them their own desire.

They had their fill. That's what we heard in last week's Gospel lesson. Jesus fed five thousand people with bread and fish until they were satisfied, and then there were baskets full of leftovers. The psalmist writes, "So they did eat, and were well filled; And he gave them their own desire." This was written long before Jesus sat on that hillside. It was written about a different miracle. It was written about the manna in the desert.

The Hebrews had left Egypt, led by God's chosen deliverer, into a wilderness of uncertainty. The wilderness was literal, but it was also spiritual and physical. Spiritually, they were following a man who'd been chosen by a God they really did not know. Though they believed in that God, and had continued to worship that God, they had also lost touch with that God. At the foot of Mount Sinai, they reverted to the gods they had come to know in Egypt because everything about the journey was out of their comfort zone. They might not have been terribly happy or prosperous in Egypt, but at least they were relatively safe, they had food and water. Out in the desert they had only what they carried and that was not likely to last very long.

So, the Hebrews started grumbling. Now, they grumbled against the enemy they could see – Moses and Aaron, the two who had led them out of their security into this insecurity. They saw only death in their journey, they could not foresee the fulfillment of God's promises or the blessings that would come with obedience.

Was the grass really greener on the other side of the fence as they recalled? No. They said, "Would that we had died by the hand of Jehovah in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger." They remember eating and being satisfied, and yet we know that the Hebrews were not comfortable in Egypt. They were slaves, slaves that were beaten and abused. They were denied the basic necessities of life because Pharaoh was afraid. They were too numerous, so Pharaoh took advantage of their numbers while oppressing them. They needed deliverance.

But we forget that we need salvation when we are hungry. We forget that we are sinners in need of a Savior when our circumstances are not what we desire. As our tummies grumble our mouths grumble also and usually we find someone to blame. We blame the person in charge – the leader, the government, the rich. Yet, we learn in today's lessons that when you grumble against those whom God has chosen, like Moses, you grumble against God. Moses was the person whom God sent to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, but he was not their Savior. God was their Savior, so if they were unhappy being away from Egypt, it was Him they had to blame.

It is a lot easier to blame some guy than to blame God. The irony is that it did not take long, once the Hebrews found the Promised Land, that Moses became more than a man. He became a legend. He became their savior. He became their deliverer. He became the one to whom the people turned in times of stress and distress. He did not make it into the Promised Land, but he was with them always because he gave them the Law. When there was a question, they turned to the Law. The Law was their god at times, even when they were not faithful or obedient. That was true in Jesus' day.

So, when the people started grumbling, God sent them food. He sent them so much quail that they became sick of meat, and then He sent them manna. Manna is beyond explanation. Many have tried to describe it. We know from the scriptures that it was "a small round thing, small as the hoar-frost on the ground." Other translations describe it as something like coriander seed. The Hebrews picked it up off the ground and used it to make bread.

It is no coincidence that the word manna literally means, "what is it?" They did not know. Many scholars have tried to discover a natural explanation for this miraculous event, and there are natural occurrences that might explain some of this substance. However, the plants that produce a sticky, granular honeydew for a short period of time each year could not possibly produce enough to feed a million or so Hebrews wandering in the desert for forty years. Also, the fact that the manna doubled on the day before the Sabbath and non existent on the Sabbath is miraculous.

The psalmist said, "So they did eat, and were well filled; And he gave them their own desire." God indeed gave them what they desired – He fed them bread and they were full. Yet, the gift came with a test. It was a lesson; God wanted to see their obedience. Would they believe Him? Would they trust Him?

They were only to take enough for a day. God would provide enough as long as it was needed. They did not need to hoard the manna because there would be enough. They did not need to keep some for tomorrow because there would be enough. And on the sixth day there would be enough for two days so that they could take the Sabbath for rest.

Some did not listen to Moses. Some hoarded manna, they gathered enough for a second day, only to discover that the next day the jar was smelly and full of maggots. Some people did not keep enough for the Sabbath and when they went to gather it there was none. They were not obedient, but they learned. They learned to trust that God would provide them their daily bread, every day. Eventually, it was Moses who provided food for them to eat. They grumbled against Moses when they were hungry and when they were satisfied they thanked Moses for the manna.

They believed, but it is much easier to believe in those things you can touch and feel and know. God is beyond their knowing. He is bigger than their understanding. They looked to Moses to be their ears and their mouth. They were happy to let Moses have the intimate relationship with God while they stayed separate. It is frightening to see the glory of the Lord, because it is beyond our control. Yet, throughout their struggles they had moments of growth, as God tested them they grew in maturity and obedience. The people are transformed through food and water as they grow into the people God has called them to be.

"So they did eat, and were well filled; And he gave them their own desire." That's how the people were feeling after that meal on the hillside. Five thousand or more were given enough fish and bread to satisfy them. Then Jesus and the disciples disappeared. When the people realized that they were gone, they got into boats and went to Capernaum looking for Him. When they found Him they asked, "Rabbi, when camest thou hither?" We might think that they sincerely wanted to know, but it is more likely that they are curious for other reasons. To them, Jesus is like that manna in the wilderness, although instead of "what is it?" they are wondering "who is this?"

Even more so, they are wondering how they can make Jesus be and do what they want. They were impressed with the miracle, not because it was a miracle or a sign, but because they were full. Instead of answering their question, Jesus answered another – about their motive. "Ye seek me, not because ye saw signs, but because ye ate of the loaves, and were filled." The bread was not given to feed them, but rather to point to the giver. As we saw last week, the people were probably not starving. They may have had grumbling tummies, as we have grumbling tummies after a long day of hiking. However, they had not been in the wilderness for a days or weeks or months. At least one carried a meal – it is likely others did so also. It was not about the bread. It was a sign.

Jesus was frustrated because they missed the sign. As a matter of fact, they were not very impressed by the miracle. Compared to what Moses did in the wilderness, some bread and fish for five thousand is nothing. They demanded to know how or when Jesus got to the other side of the sea. We know it was a miraculous journey. The disciples knew it was a miraculous journey. The people wanted to be in on the secret, not to believe but to control. Jesus answered their question with the truth. They didn't care about Jesus. They cared only for themselves. But then Jesus also gave them some advice. "Work not for the food which perisheth, but for the food which abideth unto eternal life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him the Father, even God, hath sealed."

So, they are believing in the bread. Jesus says, "Don't work for the perishable, work for the imperishable." Now, He's talking in language we understand. We understand work. The crowd asked, "What must we do, that we may work the works of God?" Notice, they ask about the works of God. They were wondering, which of the laws are the most important? Which things should we be doing, since we all know that we aren't able to do it all? So, where's the loophole? What are the works of God?

Jesus answers, "This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent." There is no list of the top ten things to do to make God happy. There is no hierarchy of tasks that will get you into heaven more quickly or into God's good graces more deeply. There is only this: believe.

Have you ever read the tax code? Neither have I. As I understand, it is a document that is so big that there are few people who ever read the entire document, including those who approve it for use in the government. Most good tax accountants or lawyers could probably give you a pretty detailed summation of the code and they know where to find they answers they need for their clients, but they certainly could not know everything there is to know about the tax code. So, when we choose an accountant or a lawyer, we ask about their credentials. What makes him or her qualified to give the answers I need? This is important, because if we get it wrong, we might owe extra money or even end up in jail.

For the Jews following Jesus, His credentials mattered. If they were going to risk the relative peace of their world – even though it was a world of oppression, it was still peaceful – they wanted to be sure they were getting someone who would do the job. He was radical. He said things that didn't always make sense and He did things that were out of the ordinary. They wanted to hear Jesus list the commandments, to give them a road map to God's grace. It must have been shocking to hear Him say simply, "believe." It was even more shocking to hear Him say they were to believe in Him.

They asked Him for a sign. Feeding five thousand people one meal was not enough. After all, Moses fed a million for forty years. The Hebrews eventually believed, but even then it probably took some time for them to be transformed into believing, obedient people. "What work are you doing?" Jesus answered, "It was not Moses that gave you bread from heaven. It is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven." Manna was temporary. Though the miracle lasted for forty years, the manna was fleeting. It quickly deteriorated and went bad. There was always enough, not by Moses' word, but by God's grace. Even still God gave them just enough. But the true bread from heaven is imperishable and it does more than fill bellies. The true bread gives life.

Now, manna in the wilderness was a daily struggle. Though they learned to trust that it would be there, I am sure they still had to wonder if and when the miracle would stop. The manna was temporary and perishable. Would it be there tomorrow? We may not ask the same question today, but we do wonder from time to time about our security. When there is a question of money, we wonder if we will pay the bills. When there is a question of health, we wonder if there is healing. When there is a question about our relationships, we wonder if there is even enough love. So the idea of an endless supply of anything is good news to us.

They said to Jesus, "Lord, evermore give us this bread." Ok, Jesus. We like what you are saying, so we'll take it. Give us always this bread. They remembered the unending supply of bread at the hillside just the day before. We'll take some of that, for sure. If the bread will never end, we'll never be hungry! However, they still did not understand. Jesus wasn't promising them that they would be forever satisfied in the flesh. Jesus answered, "I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall not hunger, and he that believeth on me shall never thirst."

He answered, "I AM" and added, "the bread of life." This is the first of seven "I AM" statements found in the book of John. Jesus tells us that He is the bread, the light, the gate for the sheep, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way the truth and the life and finally, the true vine. Each statement helps to define Jesus to the people, each point toward the truth of Jesus. He is not simply a Messiah to be made king, a rabbi or a Lord. He is the "I AM." He is not simply someone to give them bread. The bread He gave was a sign that pointed to the true bread. The meal pointed at Jesus, who is the bread of life.

We find the final words of this passage difficult to comprehend and believe. Jesus says, "…he that cometh to me shall not hunger, and he that believeth on me shall never thirst." I have believed and I have been hungry. What of those third world countries where faith in Christ is growing and moving and doing amazing things? Yet there is great poverty, hunger and thirst even among those Christians who are living lives worthy of their calling. If you ask them, however, they will tell you that they have far more than we because they have learned to trust in God.

There is great truth in that statement. We live in our fancy homes with our cushy jobs and worry the minute there is a threat to our security. We grumble when we are hungry at four o'clock because we missed lunch. We are quick to blame those in authority when things do not go quite the way we would like them to go. We look to false gods for our salvation, for our deliverance. We give credit to the wrong source for our many blessings. We work hard for the perishable, giving far too little attention to the imperishable. Yet, active faith will naturally work the work that pleases God – to believe in the One whom He sent. That's the advantage those Christians have in this world. They have nothing on which to rely, except God.

When we think about Paul, we like to imagine that he is a prosperous and successful man. Perhaps there was a time when he did well in the world. There is no reason to suggest that he failed at being a tentmaker. As a matter of fact, he used his talents to pay for his ministry. He mentions times when he suffered, and we do not doubt it to be true. We know he was beaten, imprisoned, persecuted. He undoubtedly suffered hunger and thirst. His feet must have ached constantly and he suffered from some physical ailment that got progressively worse as he aged.

Yet, even when he was in prison, he continued to write to the churches, to encourage them in their faith and to guide them in their Christian vocation. He trained leaders, settled disputes, rebuked sin and shared God's grace. He lived his vocation even when it was inconvenient. He lived his faith even when there was no reason for hope.

He was in prison when he wrote this message to the Ephesians. This passage is so full of powerful words, words filled with God's grace for our lives. It begins with a difficult request. Paul asks the reader to "walk worthily of the calling wherewith ye were called." Here, once again, we see encouragement to work. Yet, what is the calling to which we are called? Jesus told us – to believe. This is not a passive faith. It is an active faith that naturally works the work that pleases God. It is the faith that leads to maturity, and that maturity leads to love. In love we live in unity and in peace in the body of Christ.

This passage is very specifically addressed to a certain group of people – leaders in the church. These are the people that are called to encourage and equip the saints. They establish the churches, speak to the church both about the things to come and the things that have already been, they guide the church in growth toward the maturity which Paul describes. In the world maturity often means a different attitude than what is expected in the Church. Paul writes, "…with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."

Humility and gentleness are not ways we characterize those in positions of authority. As a matter of fact, as my husband has been job hunting, he's had to present himself as confident and aggressive or else he is not noticeable in the crowd. He has to put forward an image that makes him appear better than the other candidates. In the job market, it is also hard to be patient because if you wait too long, you might just miss the perfect job opportunity.

These things are necessary to be successful in the world, but Paul gives us an opposite vision of vocation. Those who are called to work in the church – both as professionals and as lay people – have a much different goal. In the world it is necessary self-focused, to be out for "number one." While it is possible to be a Christian and search for the perfect job, it is harder because a much different attitude is expected from those who will compete for the position. Unfortunately, the same thing happens in church even though the outcome should be much different. Those called to live and work within the body of Christ are not out for "number one" but rather are called to be part of the body of Christ. As Paul writes, " There is one body, and one Spirit, even as also ye were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all."

God gave gifts to His people. "But unto each one of us was the grace given according to the measure of the gift of Christ." The reality is that God does not appear to be "fair" when it comes to the giving of His gifts. We all know someone who is incredibly gifted – they seem to be able to do everything and accomplish anything. They seem to have a much greater measure of God's blessings. However, God gives gifts according to the measure of the gift of Christ. This does not mean He gives less to some. It means He gives more to all. The gift of God's grace is beyond anything we deserve. Though we might try to work to earn more from God, there is no work that really pleases Him.

What pleases Him is faith, and this too is a gift. Our work in the Church and in our lives is to believe. This does not mean chasing after God, like those who enjoyed the meal on the hill. It does not mean seeking Christ so that He can fulfill our needs and our desires. It means believing Christ, and believing that Christ is the bread of life. It means receiving what God has for us today and trusting that He will provide what we need tomorrow, growing in obedience as we mature in faith. God does indeed give us more than enough to eat so that we are filled and He provides as much as we can desire. He has done so in the One who by His grace gives us life eternally. Through faith, God calls us to live the life worthy, the life in which we are all He wants us to be. Most of all, He calls us to live within the body of Christ, bearing with one another in love and peace. Thanks be to God.

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