Welcome to week two of the summer of bread! The readings assigned to be used in church are on a three-year cycle, called the Revised Common Lectionary. Which means every three years, an entire five weeks is dedicated to John 6, Jesus’ sign of feeding the 5,000 and the ensuing explanation. So we have readings about bread for the entire month of August.
It can get a bit tedious to preach on, and I may jump around to the lessons from the Hebrew Bible and Epistles as the summer goes on, but I think that this type of in depth reading of a passage is good for us. Our readings often jump around the Bible, and sticking with a confusing, esoteric passage is good for us sometimes. (Talk to me again in four weeks.) Anyway, here’s the sermon–is this something you’ve found true in your life? Food that perishes vs. food that endures?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Some of my favorite scenes from the Bible have to be the Israelites wandering around in the desert. It’s high comedy reminiscent of the Marx Brothers. And it’s okay to laugh at it. One of the most beautiful things about the Bible, and about the Hebrew Scriptures in particular, is how willing it is to poke fun at itself, how honest it is about life. A lot of memoirs, stories, histories of this time period deify and glorify their heroes. Not the Hebrew people. When writing down their history, they are honest about the fact that they weren’t perfect. That they grumbled and murmured against Moses and Aaron and against God.
Our story this morning from Exodus starts out with some of the whiniest words you will read in Scripture: “if only we had died in the land of Egypt, where we ate our fill; but you Moses have brought us into this wilderness to kill us all with hunger.” Couple of things here: God is the one who led them out of Egypt, not Moses—and life wasn’t very good in Egypt, the people have a selective memory where that’s concerned. And they never actually ask God for food! This God who they’ve seen send all these plagues and part the Red Sea, no one thought that maybe God could help them out, they just go right to complaining.
But God hears their complaints; God did not rescue them from Egypt only to have them die of starvation, and so God sends meat in the evening and bread in the morning. And manna, this bread from heaven, falls upon the camp each morning, so confusing the Israelites that they ask each other, “What is it?” And that is what manna literally means in Hebrew, “What is it?”
It reminds me of being served an unfamiliar food as a child, asking my parents, “What is it?” Pretty sure already that I would not like it. Moses’ response is classic parent: “This is the bread that God has given you to eat. Be thankful that you have it, now eat it and stop complaining.”
And it is quite beautifully the definition of daily bread. God sends the manna new each morning, and the people are to collect just enough for that day. If they collect too much, which will happen later in the story, it turns to rot. Enough is given to meet the needs of the day—hoarding is not necessary.
I wonder if this is what the crowds who are following Jesus (or chasing Jesus depending on your perspective)—is this what they are expecting, anticipating. They mention the manna in the wilderness as a sign from God, and they want Jesus to give them another sign. Having just participated in the feeding of the 5,000, are they looking for a similar sign? Do they want more bread?
It’s unclear what the crowd is expecting to happen. Are they simply hungry? I think it’s more than that. They’ve just seen a miracle and are drawn to Jesus. But Jesus tells them that they have misunderstood this miracle, this sign. They don’t get it.
They are seeking to fill themselves with temporary, earthly things. In fact, after the feeding of the 5,000, they tried to seize Jesus and make him into an earthly king. They are clamoring for physical bread, for physical power from Jesus. And Jesus tells them that physical things are not going to satisfy their need. Not in the long run. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”
What are the things we seek, the things we chase after, that will never be able to satisfy our need? What, for us, is the “food that perishes”? Money. Power. Activities. Status. Popularity. We think if we just manage to get a little bit more, then we’ll finally be happy. If we just manage to get the house up-to-date and looking like an HGTV special, then we’ll be happy. If we just find that perfect hobby, we won’t be so restless. If we manage to get to our target weight, we’ll stop feeling so bad about ourselves.
But if you, like me, have ever chased some of these foods, you know that the happiness they bring is fleeting. J.D. Rockefeller, at the time the richest person in the world, was asked, “How much money is enough?” His answer: “Just a little bit more.” These earthly things that we seek after are never enough to satisfy our need. We will always want just a little bit more. We will always be looking for something else.
And this is not what Jesus came to offer. He’s really clear on this point: God did not send Jesus to offer fleeting satisfaction or temporary fulfillment. He comes instead to give something lasting: food that endures for eternal life. No bread that he produces, but bread that he is. God’s living bread from heaven, Jesus is God’s manna incarnate.
It puts the earthly pleasures we clamor for to shame, because unlike them, being in relationship with God can satisfy our yearnings. Experiencing God’s love, knowing that we are valued for who we are, that we are worthy of respect and love, these things provide fulfillment that “just a little bit more” of money or popularity or perfection never can. This is what Jesus has come to earth to offer: relationship, purpose, love. The food that endures for eternal life.
“We want that…How do we get it?” asks the crowds. Jesus says simply: “believe in the one whom God has sent.” You can’t earn a relationship with God. You can’t earn God’s love. Love and acceptance and relationships are things that can never be earned or coerced. They can only be given as a gift from one person to another. We simply have to trust, to believe, that God provides them for us. It’s manna, bread from heaven. It’s a gift.
When we don’t trust that it will be provided is where we go wrong. That’s when we try to hoard and stockpile it for ourselves. That turns to rot. Manna comes daily. Enough for all. There’s no need to hoard it. God’s love doesn’t need to be hoarded, either. God’s grace is new every day. God’s love springs up like dew on the grass and God’s care settles around in the evening.
It is there for the taking, says Jesus, just as it was in the wilderness to the Israelites. The bread of heaven, come from God to give life to the world. Pure gift, always enough. So come to the table. Partake of the bread of heaven and be filled with God’s life, with God’s love, and with God’s grace. Amen.