Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on August 2 2009.
Exodus 16:9-15; John 6:24-35
Here they go, chasing after Jesus again. He just can’t get away from the crowds, though he has tried. They are absolutely relentless, constantly looking for Jesus.
The way John, in his gospel, tells the story you can’t help but think of the Keystone Kops. Some of you remember them. They had a tendency to run willy-nilly, here-and-there, and never seemed to get anywhere… or catch anybody. The crowds of people chasing Jesus appeared to do the same thing. Except, they’re pretty good at finding him. Jesus just can’t get away from them.
I suppose the next question, the obvious question, is why they are so taken with the Nazarene carpenter, to the point they want to make him their king. Now, that in itself is quite interesting. Did they have the authority to do that, make Jesus their king? No, of course not. They’re just common folk, and definitely don’t live in a democracy. This is not a popular vote we’re talking about here. But they are so enamored of him, what with his ability to turn a few pieces of bread and fish into a gourmet meal, that they want more of what he has to give. And the best way to continue receiving from him is to enthrone him and put a crown on his head. To them, a king – a benevolent king – would be their sugar daddy, their meal ticket.
After all, if he can be their meal ticket, perhaps he also has the ability to put a roof over their heads and new clothes on their backs. Life is tough in the first century. Every day is an exercise in just getting by. They don’t have a Kroger on every street corner, and even if they did it doesn’t mean they would have the denarii with which to take advantage of it. The Romans keep squeezing them on one side, and the Jewish political leadership on the other. These poor people are caught in between, so it’s no wonder they flock after somebody like Jesus. He offers them hope in a world of despair.
And they’ve seen him operate. He’s good; he’s really good. So they think he is the one who can take away their burdens, or at least lighten them somewhat, and show them a better way of life. Security… that is what Jesus is becoming to them. Who wouldn’t chase after that? So, whatever their intentions may be, or their ability to do anything about it, they just can’t get enough of Jesus. They’re not about to let him go.
You want to know why they keep looking for Jesus? There’s your answer. He promises them something no one else ever has or ever will.
So they go chasing across the sea to find him, and when they do locate him they don’t say to him, “Master, it’s good to see you again. Fancy meeting you here.” They want to know how he got there, just in case he slips through their security lines again and runs away. They’ve got a good thing in Jesus, and they don’t want anything to jeopardize it.
“Rabbi, when did you come here?” On the surface of it, it’s an obvious question. They simply want to know how and when Jesus arrived on the other side of the sea. If they can figure out his escape strategy, were he to try it again, then they would know how to head him off at the pass. He’s fooled them once, but they don’t want him to do it again. They just want to know when he came to Capernaum. Pure and simple.
But I think John, the gospel writer, had something else in mind. I think he is telling this story this way because he sees in their question a deeper meaning. John is always looking at the deeper meaning.
For John, the question is theological, not chronological nor geographical. He’s trying to provide the answer to Jesus’ origin, not his itinerary. Where did Jesus come from and how did he come to be? This may not have been the intent of the question put to him by the crowds, but that, I believe, is the way John takes it. He is at least giving their question a double meaning.
Look at the very beginning of his gospel. He uses rather veiled language to say it, to be sure. He talks about Jesus as the Word, and how “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” If you’re a church and Bible veteran you’ve heard and read those words all your life. Quick, let me ask you… have you yet to come up with a concrete, definitive, unequivocal answer to what it means that Jesus is the Word? That’s what I thought.
So when the people ask Jesus, “When did you come here?”, don’t expect to get a straight answer out of John. And you won’t get a straight answer out of Jesus either. In fact, there aren’t very many straight or obvious answers to be found in the fourth gospel. John requires you to come up with some answers on your own.
Remember the wine steward at the wedding in Cana? He wanted to know why the wedding host held out, saving the best wine for last. He didn’t get a straight answer. Remember Nicodemus who came to Jesus at night? Jesus spoke with him of a second birth, and Nicodemus began thinking literally of a woman’s womb. That, for him, was the straight answer. But he didn’t get what he was looking for. Remember the woman at the well outside Sychar? Jesus talked to her of living water, and she asked where she might get some of it so she would never be thirsty again. She didn’t get a straight answer. And here, Jesus speaks of bread and the people think of their next meal. He doesn’t give them what they want.
So what did they get? They get Jesus. He was offering them relationship, eternal life. And if that isn’t the point John is making in his gospel, it’s pretty close. Yet, Jesus says to the Keystone Kops, the crowds who chase after him, that they are doing so for the wrong reason. They are looking for him for the next meal. Sorry, that kind of feeding is over. Besides, feeding the multitudes is a sign pointing to a greater reality. The real food Jesus offers is eternal life. No more free lunches. If they want something free from Jesus, what they will get is not the next meal; it will be a healthy serving of grace.
Jesus says to them, “For it is on him (referring to himself) that God the Father has set his seal.” But that just leads to another question. They want to know how they can get in on the action. “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Almost implied in that question is the attitude, “Look, you’re one of us, a Galilean. You look like us, talk like us, act like us. What’s so special about you? If you can do these signs, then why can’t we? What do we have to do to get on board your gravy train?”
That is when Jesus tells them there is only one requirement. They have to believe in him. Now, you would think that after chasing him across the sea, clamoring to receive from him the next meal, the next blessing, the next sign, that they would immediately say, “So where do we sign up?” But they don’t. They want more proof, and then they refer to Moses as their model of behavior. “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness…”
They’ve still got the next meal on their minds, don’t they? They’re always thinking about bread. They’re looking for Jesus because they’re getting hungry again.
The irony is, of course, that when their ancestors were given the manna in the wilderness, they didn’t at first understand it. There were particular rules given to them as to how they were to harvest it and eat it. They couldn’t take more than a day’s provision of food or it would spoil. God was teaching them to be dependent on his benevolence. They didn’t understand that kind of grace, and frankly, they didn’t want it, at least not at first.
The crowds that spoke to Jesus that day in Capernaum – across the sea from where they lived because they had come looking for Jesus and weren’t about to stop until they found him… those people – conveniently forgot that part of the story, that what God offered the ancient Israelites was not what they wanted. So it is not surprising that when Jesus offered them something they didn’t think they wanted, nor did they understand, they balked at the idea.
It’s time to apply the lesson. There always and inevitably comes that time when the Bible has to be applied – not to the wandering Hebrews in the wilderness who were given the manna, nor to the Galileans who chased after Jesus into the wilderness and across the sea – but to you and me, and where we live and move and have our being. It’s time to talk about what this story means for us.
You come to worship, maybe even every week, and in essence what are you doing? You’re holding out your hand, holding it out to God, and asking God to give you something to eat. Well, what if God gives you something you don’t want or don’t like? What do you do with it then?
Barbara Brown Taylor is a minister in the Episcopal tradition where the priest provides the bread and the cup to each parishioner during the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist, as it is called. She tells of the time a little girl had come to her and knelt before her, receiving communion for the very first time. She held out her little hands, eager to receive the cup of her first communion. As Taylor describes it, “Her chubby fingers circled the chalice as she peered into her reflection.”
“The blood of Christ,” the little girl’s pastor said to her, guiding it to her lips, “the cup of salvation.”
“Yuck,” the young girl said, pushing the cup away. “You keep it. I don’t want any.”1
We go looking and looking for Jesus, and when we find him and he tells us to hold out our hands for his blessings, we pull them back because his blessing is not what we hand in mind. Sometimes we’re tempted, aren’t we, to do the very same thing that little girl did when it came to the Lord’s Supper? We come to church and ask God for our next meal, our next blessing, and instead we are offered a difficult challenge. We chase after easy answers and instead are given a puzzling dilemma. We look for Jesus wrapped up in a neat little package and instead are faced with his perplexing demands.
I have a feeling – and don’t get me wrong because I’m as culpable as the next person – that the Christian faith you and I practice is a long way from what Jesus may have had in mind. We’ve taken the gospel, and all its complexities and depth, not to mention its demands, and watered it down with our cultural baggage to the point that it barely resembles what Jesus took with him to the cross.
So maybe what Jesus would say to us today is what he said to the seeking crowds that day across the sea. He told them they had one thing to do and one thing only: to believe, to believe in him. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Until you start looking at what he said and what he did, and then you place that up against what we say and do, and you begin to realize that we are hardly mirror images of the One in whom we have entrusted our lives.
So what are we to do? When we go looking for Jesus, and we find him, what are we to do?
Do you think John would give us a straight answer? I doubt it. I think what he might say to you and to me is that we have to find in our own hearts how we will believe in and follow our Christ. And then we trust the journey to God, hoping and believing that in God’s grace we’ve chosen the right path.
My guess – my hope – is that it will be the right path, if for no other reason than Christ will be there. And wherever we find Jesus, we find his forgiving grace.
Lord, may we believe even when what you give us is not necessarily what we want or ask for. It is when the answers don’t fit our questions that the real journey begins. Find us faithful in walking with you, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.