A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on August 5, 2012.
2The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” 4Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” 6So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” 8And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but” against the Lord. 9Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’“ 10And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12“I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’“
13In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.
24So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. 25When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”
28Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” 35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. This sermon is about relationship. The food references are props, teaching aids, clues.
The sermon is really about relationship.The lesson from Exodus 16 and the lesson from John 6 have several common features. In both lessons people are anxious. Anxious is perhaps too mild a word to describe the emotions we read about in the passage from Exodus. At verse 2 we read that Moses and his brother Aaron were facing a congregation that was angry and on the verge of panic. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Those people were well past anxiety.
And we should not be unsympathetic toward them. These people had spent their entire lives as slaves. But they ate well as slaves in Egypt. They knew the oppression of slavery but hunger didn’t go with it. For them it seemingly would have been better to die as slaves in Egypt with full bellies than to be free people about to starve to death in the Sinai wilderness.
Did God send Moses and Aaron to liberate them so they could starve to death? Moses and Aaron weren’t coming up with provisions. So every day in the wilderness appeared to take the people closer to starvation. They were not merely anxious. They were angry, afraid, and had a bad case of homesickness for Egypt—yes Egypt! They were hungry and homesick.
But remember, this sermon is about relationship. What does a wilderness story about hungry and homesick ex-slaves have to do with God and us? We’ll ponder that together after we examine the lesson from John 6.
Perhaps you have noticed that John’s Gospel is very different from the other three. One of the most obvious differences is that John’s Gospel contains none of the parables mentioned in the other three. Instead, the Fourth Gospel presents Jesus Christ to us through a series of “signs” or miracles out of which Jesus makes some “I am” statements.
The passage we consider today from John 6 is really a postscript of sorts to the miracle Jesus performed when he fed 5000 men, women, and children using five barley loaves and two fish contributed by an unnamed boy. That was impressive. Jesus didn’t merely stretch the boy’s food. After everyone had been fed there was enough left over to fill twelve baskets. The people were so impressed that Jesus was the promised messiah from God they wanted to declare him king. Jesus wasn’t interested, so he withdrew to the hills.
The next morning (I’m skipping over Jesus walking on the sea during the night to join his disciples as they struggled with their boat in a sudden storm) Jesus and his disciples were back Capernaum when some of the multitude that had been fed found them. A key exchange occurs between Jesus and the people who have found him on the other side of the place from where he fed the 5000. Beginning at verse 25, we read:
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”
28Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” 35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life.
Unlike the angry and homesick people who confronted Moses and Aaron in the Sinai wilderness, the people who confronted Jesus had been recently fed. They weren’t trying to reject Jesus as leader. They wanted to make him their ruler. They had a different anxiety. They weren’t trying to get back to Egypt. They were anxious to make Jesus their ruler and get more free food.
The lesson in Exodus 16 presents hungry and homesick people in a wilderness clamoring for food. The lesson in John 6 presents recently fed people talking with Jesus about free food. I offer the following observations for us to ponder.
God provides! We are like the people in the wilderness at Sinai. On our journey through life there are spaces, places, and seasons when we don’t see how we’ll make it. The grade point average is too low for enrollment. We don’t have the money in the budget. Conditions aren’t favorable to keep going, begin a new project, take on another challenge, or overcome a setback.
And if we will be honest with ourselves, we are often like the hungry and homesick angry people who confronted Moses and Aaron. Often when we find ourselves in challenging situations we go back to wishing for the way things were.
- We remember when we didn’t feel hungry.
- We remember when we didn’t feel homesick.
- We fondly remember what was familiar, even if it was oppressive, and are tempted to prefer it rather than trust God.
- We’re tempted to look backward in regret and nostalgia rather than wait in hope and look up for God’s provision.
- We’re tempted to distrust God!
Remember, this sermon is about relationship. God calls you and me into a relationship in which God provides for us. God provides the grace for our guilt. God provides strength as we face new challenges. God provides signs of joy and hope even when darkness surrounds us. We’re called into relationship with God who provides, delivers, supplies, nourishes, protects, preserves, and strengthens. God provides!
God provides even when we won’t trust God. Despite the untrusting spirit of the multitude, God sent the manna every morning. Despite their talk about how much better they had it in Egypt, God stayed faithful. Our relationship with God means God will and does provide even when we don’t feel particularly good about our situations. God will and does provide even when we aren’t acting grateful or gracious. God will and does provide even when we question whether God cares about us. Even when we let go of God, God does not let us go.
God calls us to experience life, but we are often obsessed with loaves. The people in the Sinai wilderness who confronted Moses and Aaron and the people who tracked Jesus down in Capernaum the day after he fed the 5000 are examples of a very common situation. Their notion of faith was driven by the material benefits they associated with it, not life with God.
Benjamin Sparks, a retired pastor living in Richmond, Virginia, recalls a time when people came to church in China (and perhaps all over Asia) because they were hungry for food. They were converted, baptized, and remained active members as long as their physical needs were being met by the congregation. But when their prospects improved they drifted away from the church. The missionaries called them “rice Christians.”
“Rice Christians” is a good term for people who become involved with religion to get something, whether it is a preferred worship style, a place with a family life center or church-based school, access to people who are influential, or ministry that is trying to do something about injustice. Benjamin Sparks has written, “Christians like the rice.”
Jesus directly exposed and addressed this mindset when some of the 5000 multitude tracked him down in Capernaum the day after he fed them. “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (Jn. 6:26-27)
The loaves don’t make the life!
Yes, we must address injustice and human needs. Yes, the hungry must be fed, the homeless housed, children and seniors must be protected, the poor must be provided for, immigrants and other vulnerable people must be welcomed and loved. These are consequences of our life with and in God. They do not create that life.
Our relationship with God can and must impel us to address material needs. But remember that following God will and does expose us to material hardships. The multitude of hungry and homesick people who confronted Moses and Aaron in the wilderness were hungry and homesick because they were meeting God! That should make anyone pause and question the claims of the “prosperity gospel.” Even more clear is the image of a dying Jesus crying “I thirst” at Calvary and feeling forsaken by God even as he prayed. Our relationship with God is defined by our life together, not by the loaves and rice.
When the remnants of the 5000 fed multitude found Jesus the next day Jesus made one of those “I am” statements we encounter in John’s Gospel. Jesus had the multitude understand that it wasn’t Moses who provided the Sinai wilderness crowd with manna from heaven, “but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They then said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” That was when Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life.” (Jn. 6:32-35). The multitude was looking for loaves. Jesus stood before them to offer life.
How often are we, like them, more interested in the loaves than in a living relationship with God? How often do we focus on the goodies we can spend, eat, wear, or otherwise appropriate instead of living in faithful and trusting obedience to God’s Spirit in obedience to the example of Christ? We cannot get life from the loaves. Instead, Jesus reminds us to abide in him. Jesus calls us to a way that is life and truth. We cheat God and ourselves when we place more emphasis on the loaves.
Life with God is a gift of grace and faith, not something we earn. The Capernaum multitude asked Jesus, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” (Jn. 6:28). He replied that the work of God would be their belief in the person God sent. (v. 29).
Whether it is the Sinai wilderness, Capernaum, or somewhere else, God gives us evidence of God’s grace and invites us to trust it. God provides the bread of life—Jesus stood before the Capernaum people by God’s will, not by anything they did, wanted, or attempted. Life with God is offered to us by God’s grace.
The challenge is whether we will trust that grace. When the grace of God presents itself to us, will we trust it? Will we accept it? Or will we find some reason to doubt it, deny it, trivialize it, or disregard it?
Will we doubt God’s grace because Jesus doesn’t fit our notion of what God’s grace should look like and do? Is Jesus too loving, too generous, too humble, too willing to suffer, too willing to love vulnerable people, or too otherwise incorrect or inconvenient for us?
If life with God as Jesus offers it isn’t what we will trust, what other and better living is there? What can be better than life based on grace? What can be better than life based on truth? What can be better than life based on death-proof hope? What can be better than life based on the love that only God can give and which equips us to love others the way God wants them loved?
Jesus Christ is the bread of that life. He is the living proof about what that life means. Jesus Christ calls us to that life with God. To you and me, Jesus says, I am the manna from heaven. Trust God to supply what you need every day. I am the bread for your souls. Trust God to extravagantly supply what you need without charge.
God calls us through Jesus Christ. Trust the grace. Enter the life. Then live as part of that grace and life in the world to the glory of God. Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.