ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBTYERIAN CHURCH AUGUST 5, 2018
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
SEARCHING FOR SOMETHING
Exodus 16: 2 – 4 & 9 – 21; John 6: 24 – 35
One of my favorite foods is bread. One of my favorite appliances is my bread maker. On a cold winter evening a meal of home-made soup and a fresh slice of bread is one of the joys of life. Unfortunately, bread isn’t a vegetable. Bread is a “bad carb”. What’s worse, bread is usually made from wheat. Dr. Wm Davis makes the ridiculous and callous statement that wheat has caused “more harm than any foreign terrorist can inflict on us.” While I’d still take bread over 9/11, I have cut back on wheat products. I miss wheat. There are times when I’d cancel Christmas for a chunk of a French stick or a slab of Naan bread or a fresh croissant or a scone or a fluffy slice of warm whole wheat bread. I’ve tried creative alternatives like almond flour, which is really just crushed almonds. At 400 calories a cup, I can’t see how almond bread is an improvement. I’ve swapped out my hamburger bun for a large leaf of lettuce, which at 5 calories a cup is a better choice. But really? There’s a lettuce leaf where my hamburger bun should be. So, I can’t see how that’s an improvement either. I relate to the people who followed Jesus across the Sea of Galilee. I too am searching for bread.
In today’s reading the crowd, whom Jesus had fed with 2 fish and 5 loaves, woke up to see their human “Easy Bake Oven” was gone. They commandeered several local fishing vessels and followed Jesus across the water to the town of Capernaum. They approached him like children on a hot summer’s day who go up the street to play with a friend who just happens to own a pool. Kids pretend they’ve come over to hang with their favorite buddy, but their real desire is for an invitation to go swimming. This group was clearly more interested in what Jesus could do for them then they were interested in Jesus himself. They didn’t fool Jesus for a minute. He quickly called their bluff and named the real purpose of the visit, “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free” (John 6: 26).
Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting bread. Bread is a staple of life. Bread, in some form, is found in every culture. Jesus himself encouraged us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). People need bread. As World War II was ending, the Allied armies found many hungry orphans whom they placed in camps where the children were well-fed. Despite excellent care, they slept poorly. They were nervous and fearful. Finally, a psychologist suggested giving a piece of bread to each child at bedtime. This bread was not to eat, it was to hold. The suggestion produced wonderful results. The children went to bed knowing they’d have food to eat the next day. That guarantee gave the children a restful and contented sleep. Real hunger is a terrible thing. Bread is essential to our physical and emotional well-being, but sometimes we’re so intent on having our those needs met, we neglect our spiritual needs. We fail to search for what we need most.
The crowd in Capernaum came searching for bread because they were unaware of their deepest needs. Not much has changed. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered to us. We’re like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” The trouble with temporal comforts is that they’re temporary. They don’t last. They’re based on external circumstances which come and go. The crowd had eaten a feast of bread and fish the previous day, but they woke up with empty tummies the next morning. The same was true of the Israelites who received manna from God during their time in the wilderness. Hunger pangs woke them the following morning, so they had to go out and gather their manna for the day. It didn’t matter that it was miracle food from the very hand of God. Manna fed their bellies and passed through them. Whether our goals in life are to be physically healthy, or to stay in our home, or to have a lot of money in the bank, or to have our material needs met and then some, or to be acknowledged for something, or to be loved, the fulfillment of those goals is unstable. Any number of outside factors, beyond our control can arise to shift things or take them away. Our outward circumstances are always morphing. Our only constant is God. When things do remain stable for some time, we begin to take our blessings for granted. Dissatisfaction sets in. For the Israelites, it wasn’t long until the miracle manna wasn’t so wonderful. They began to be bored with it. Maybe they came up with a few recipes to keep it interesting: maybe they ground it like almond flour and made Manna-pie or Manna-cake or Manna-pasta, maybe Manna-cotti! But after a while, they complained, “What’s for breakfast? Manna. What’s for lunch? Manna. What’s for supper? More manna! We’re sick of the manna. Why won’t God give us something else?”
Some Christians still treat Jesus in much the same way. Our attitude is “what can I get out of Jesus today? What will he give me? What can he do for me?” The prosperity gospel is huge. Christians are told to tithe and God will give you every earthly treasure you can imagine. So, they tithe not because they love God but because they want stuff. It’s an investment plan guaranteed to give you large, continual returns. Some attend church not to worship God for what he’s already done for them, but because they like the music or they want to see their friends, or they don’t want to miss the latest gossip. Even serving can be a back handed way to promote our selves or feel pleased with ourselves. It may have nothing to do with lifting others up or making God smile or creating God’s kingdom on earth. We use Jesus for self serving ends and gain.
Like the people in Capernaum, we often come into the presence of Jesus seeking many things, but we rarely come to Jesus for his own sake. We often seek Christ when our lives are in turmoil and we need something from him. We seek him for the good things he can do for us, not for Jesus himself. We seek him for his actions, not because we see God in those actions and long to draw closer to our divine source. Think about the time you spend in prayer: how much is spent asking God to give something or do something for us or for someone else? How much of prayer time is spent being with Jesus, asking God to give us only himself or basking in the light and love of God. When we’re in emotional turmoil, we pray repeatedly for God to hear us and act; our prayer becomes an obsession. But how often are we equally obsessed with knowing Christ? In the Antarctic summer of 1908, Sir Ernest Shackleton and three companions attempted to travel to the South Pole. Weeks later, their rations gone, they turned back toward their base on the verge of starvation. Altogether, they trekked 127 days. On the return journey, the time was spent talking about food — elaborate feasts, gourmet delights, sumptuous menus. As they staggered along, not knowing whether they would survive, every waking hour their thoughts were occupied by eating. How does our desire for Christ compare to this obsession with food?
Jesus offers a better way. He told the crowd, “Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides. He and what he does are guaranteed by God the Father to last” (vs. 27). Like the crowd we wonder how we “work for” this food that lasts. Jesus tells us to “believe in” (vs. 28) himself. The word “believe” gets kicked around a lot by the Church. What is it “to believe”? I like Peterson’s interpretation in The Message: “Throw your lot in with the One that God has sent. That kind of a commitment gets you in on God’s works.” A missionary experienced great difficulty in trying to translate the Gospel of John into the local dialect. He couldn’t find a word for “believe”. He continued as well as he could, leaving a blank space when he came to the word “believe”. One day a runner came panting into the village with an important message. After blurting out the contents, he collapsed on the ground. He muttered a brief phrase that seemed to express both his great weariness and his contentment at being able to rest. Not understanding the expression, the missionary asked what the runner had said. The interpreter responded, “Oh, he’s saying, ’I’m at the end of myself, therefore I am resting all of my weight here!’” The missionary thought, “That’s the expression I need for the word believe!” To believe is an action. It is putting ourselves completely in Jesus’ hands, so we can participate in what God is doing. What is God doing? He is providing people with Living Bread. He is feeding their spirits.
Often, we in the Church are confused about our mission. We think our job is to provide for people’s physical needs and that is part of our calling, just as Jesus provided for people’s physical needs. But people have a deeper need and Jesus came not to give them “perishable food” but “food that sticks”, food that nourishes their souls and gives them everlasting life. Whether they know it or not, people are hungry for, searching for that kind of food. When Jesus told the crowd, “my Father is right now offering you bread from heaven, the real bread. The Bread of God came down out of heaven and is giving life to the world” (vs. 33). When they heard that, the crowd jumped at it saying, “Master, give us this bread, now and forever!” (vs. 34) Jesus responded, “I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever. People are still hungry for Living Bread. Every time I do a funeral, the assurance people want is to know that their loved one is in heaven and that they will end up there too. Sadly, that may or may not be so. We have this Living Bread and like manna from heaven there is more than enough for everyone. After the missionary Jonathan Goforth had spoken in China, a man asked him, “I’ve heard you speak three times, and you always speak of Jesus Christ. Why?” Goforth replied, “Let me ask you, ’What did you have for dinner today?” “Rice,” replied the man “And yesterday?” “Rice.” “And tomorrow?” “Rice, of course. It gives me strength. I could not do without it. Sir, it is- well, it’s my life!” The missionary responded, “What you have said of rice, Jesus is to our soul! He is the ‘rice’ or ‘the Bread of Life.’”