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A WORD FOR TODAY, July 28, 2021
Lectionary Scriptures for August 1, 2021, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 145:10-21; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:22-35
“Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom. Your dominion endures throughout all generations. Yahweh is faithful in all his words, and loving in all his deeds.” Psalm 145:13, WEB
They had their fill. That’s what we heard in last week’s Gospel lesson. Jesus fed more than five thousand people with bread and fish until they were satisfied, and there were twelve baskets full of leftovers. It wasn’t the first time God miraculously fed His people. God gave the Hebrews manna in the desert.
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.
Israel was led by God’s chosen deliverer Moses into a wilderness of uncertainty. The wilderness was literal, but it was also spiritual. Spiritually, they were following a man chosen by a God they did not really know. They believed in that God and worshiped Him, but they had lost touch with Him in Egypt after living there for four hundred years. Despite all the miracles that took them to the foot of Mt. Sinai, they quickly reverted to the gods they had come to know. Everything about the journey to the Promised Land was outside their comfort zone. They might not have been happy or prosperous in Egypt, but at least they were relatively safe. They were slaves, but they had roofs over their heads and food for their bellies.
They started grumbling. They grumbled against the enemy they could see: Moses and Aaron. They were them men who had led them out of their security into insecurity. The people saw only death in their future; they could not foresee the fulfillment of God’s promises or the blessings that would come with obedience.
We forget our need for salvation when we are hungry. We forget that we are sinners in need of a Savior when our circumstances are not comfortable. Our tummies grumble and then our mouths grumble. We look for someone to blame: our leaders, the government, or the rich. They grumbled against Moses, but the bible reminds us that when we grumble against God’s chosen, we grumble against God. Moses was the person whom God sent to lead Israel 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 or worldly institution than to blame God. The irony is that it did not take long for them to put Moses on a pedestal. Once they found the Promised Land Moses became more than a man. He became a legend. He became their savior. He became their deliverer. He did not enter into the Promised Land, but he was the one they turned to in times of stress and distress through the Law that he gave them. The Law was their god at times, even when they were not faithful or obedient. That was still true in Jesus’ day.
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. 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.
It is no coincidence that the word manna literally means, “What is it?” They did not know what it was. Many scholars have tried to discover a natural explanation for this miraculous event, and there is a plant that produces a sticky, granular honeydew for a short period of time each year. This could not possibly be the explanation because the plants cannot produce enough to feed more than million people wandering in the desert for forty years. Also, the manna doubled on the day before the Sabbath and was nonexistent on the Sabbath which could not happen with a plant. Manna was miraculous, beyond our human experience and understanding. The Hebrews picked it up off the ground and used it to make bread.
God gave them instructions that were meant to teach them how to trust His provision. They were only to take enough for each 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 rest on the Sabbath. Those who did not trust God’s Word, who tried to hoard the manna, were disappointed.
Some did not listen to Moses. Some hoarded manna. Some 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, they claimed 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 was beyond their knowing. He was 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 apart. 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 were transformed through food and water as they grew into the people God has called them to be.
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. They began grumbling as soon as they crossed the sea and were safe from Pharaoh. 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 the 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 just thirty-three days for them to desire their old lives because at least their stomachs were full back then.
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.
That’s what happened to the Hebrews. They forgot the God of their forefathers, and though they followed Moses, they did not trust God to provide. The manna was unknown, the quail redundant. Their desires made them falsely remember their life during their four hundred year occupation in Egypt. They lost touch with the one who promised to take care of them. Relationships take work and they did not know Him as they should.
We need to be in relationship with others. I don’t know how we’d survive in our neighborhood if we didn’t know our neighbors. We rely on them just as they rely on us. We enjoy sharing what we have with them and look to them for the things they have to share. The same is true in the Church. None of us has everything we need to do the work of God in this world. We each have certain gifts and resources which God joins together with other believers’ gifts and resources. As each person adds something to the mix, the benefits are multiplied. How much more can we do for those who need God’s grace if we join with others who have unique and necessary gifts?
We are bound together by the Holy Spirit, called as one body in one hope through one Lord, one faith and one Baptism. But even this relationship takes work. It is up to us to live a life worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called. This is a life of humility, which is never easy especially in a world that honors power and position. It is a life of gentleness which is also difficult in a world that gives preference to physically strength and ability. Love generated the call. Love sustains the call. And love determines all that we do for the sake of our neighbors. Though love is from God and is given to us, it still takes hard work on our part to make it happen.
The trouble is that we often look to the wrong source to supply our needs. Israel 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 the One who promised 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 more than five thousand people, Jesus saw that they 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 everything that was given to Israel 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 they had 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 more than 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 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 just like Hebrews who left Egypt. Just like us today.
The final words of the Gospel passage are difficult to comprehend and believe. Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me will not be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” 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 also suffer 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.
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 look to false gods for our salvation, for our deliverance. We give credit to the wrong sources 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 who struggle have in this world. They have nothing on which to rely except 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.
Paul was in prison when he wrote the letter to the Ephesians. Today’s 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 with which you were called.” Here, once again, we are encouraged 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 serving one another in love.
Paul begs us to 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, 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, never seeking God’s will about our ministry to one another. Do our petty issues matter to God? 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.
Have you ever noticed how many different types of bread there are to purchase? Hard bread, soft bread, dark bread, 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.
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 our tummies are grumbling, 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 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.
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