Pentecost 9B August 5 2012 Exodus 16:2-4,9-15 John 6:24-35
Which is better? Slavery and rich foods or freedom and bread? Is it better to bow down to a master and have our physical needs cared for or to live in freedom and rely upon God alone for our needs?
I had a friend once, named John (not his real name). When I met him, he had recently been paroled from prison where he had been serving time for theft. This was not the first crime he had committed either—he had been in and out of trouble since he was a young boy. For a year, he struggled to re-learn how to live life outside of prison. Getting a job was difficult, but he managed to do so and he had an apartment with his father. He faithfully checked in with his parole officer. But, daily life was difficult. He was so used to having someone tell him what time to get up, when to go to the shower, when to brush his teeth, when and how to clean up. Someone always prepared his meals, did his laundry and there were no bills to pay. It was not long before he lost his job because he had been late one too many times. Soon afterwards, his father told him he had to move out because he wasn’t paying his share of the bills and he was so messy and irresponsible. It was not long before John quit checking in with his parole officer and began to engage in some of his old habits, most of which were illegal. He was arrested and sent back to prison, this time for stealing a car. If you asked him why he did this, he would have told you that ultimately, he wasn’t cut out for living in society. He never learned to live in the joy of freedom. He was better off in prison because there they would feed him and he would always have a place to sleep.
He, like many people who have been in prison, didn’t know how to live in freedom. Think about this: he, and many other people like him, often want to go back to prison because they like it better. They would prefer to give up the freedom to come and go as they please, to visit friends and family whenever they want, to choose what they will wear every day, to choose where they will live, to have and raise children, to drive a car, to walk outside whenever they want in order to have guaranteed food to eat and a place to sleep.
This is similar to what the Israelites were saying to Moses in today’s Old Testament reading. They complained that they had been brought out to that desert to die of thirst and starvation. They would rather have returned to their life of slavery under pharaoh—a life of restriction, abuse and confinement—than to live free lives. Oh if only we had died in Egypt! When we were there, we sat by the big pots full of meat and ate our fill of bread!
We see what God does next, too. God says: alright, then, I’ll send you meat in the evening and bread in the morning. You will be satisfied fully and, because I am the one who feeds you—because you are fed by my hand alone—then you will know that I am your God. You will know it.
How wonderful! God saves the day again! Surely, the Israelites will be happy now! But, if we read further into Exodus, we would quickly see that it will not take long for them to begin whining again. You see, the quail and manna are boring. They will whine again and again. They are free from the slavery of Egypt, out from under the thumb of Pharaoh, fed by God every day and on their way to a promised land flowing with milk and honey. But in the end, they would rather be back in Egypt where life was “better”.
We don’t do that do we? Surely we don’t think it would be better to be in prison, in slavery than to be free?
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus is talking about bread, too. He even refers to this story about manna in the desert.
Last week, we heard the amazing story of Jesus feeding the five thousand people who had gathered to hear him. Little bit of bread and fish and Jesus makes it a bountiful feast with twelve baskets of left overs! After this Jesus and his disciples head off to the other shore, still looking for some rest for a bit. When all the people get up the next day, they realize this guy whom they’d tried to force into kingship has taken off. So the go searching for him.
When they locate Jesus, they start asking him questions and he simply responds to them: you are looking for me because I gave you bread. You’re not here because of a miracle; you’re just looking for more of that food! Jesus suggests to them that, perhaps, they should raise their expectations! Stop looking to get buy on free food and, instead, look for something more. Something better than someone to provide the next meal. There is so much more that the Son of Man can give you! Something eternal.
But the people are confused. They had wanted to make him a king by force because he was able to feed them all. Well, I’ve always heard it said that they way to a man’s heart is through his stomach! And, if we look at history, it is often the case that the way to political power is to feed the people and provide them with material needs in order to win them over. There was actually a Roman political tactic often called (unflatteringly) Bread and Circuses—wheat was given free to Roman citizens and the circus, a popular entertainment of the day designed to distract from any political concerns, both of which were designed to ensure loyalty and complacency in the masses. I’m sure we could all think of times we’ve seen this in action.
Jesus tells them there is more to be had from him than bread and circus. And he is interested in giving them something more, too. Giving us something more.
The people then ask him what they have to do next…what does God require. Jesus answers that faith is all that is needed. Faith in something other than, greater than, bread. Faith in him—the Son of Man. They say to him—well, what are you going to do to make us believe? What miracles can you perform? Hmmm. Here’s the circus part! Then they refer to the story we heard about in our Old Testament lesson about the manna from heaven, only they imply that Moses is the one who gave the bread. Jesus is quick to correct them! God sent that bread. God fed your ancestors. God alone. And God is sending you now the true bread from heaven!
They say to him—please, sir, give us this bread. Give it to us always. Jesus says to them: I am this bread. I am the bread of life. Anyone who comes to me will never be hungry again.
Wow. That is really saying something isn’t it? An amazing promise. Hard for us to believe though. Hard for us to turn away from the bread and circuses of this world and look instead at the bread of life come down from heaven. Of course, we understand this whole concept of looking for something of a greater and more everlasting nature don’t we. We aren’t like those Israelites lamenting those days in slavery with fond memories because of their satisfying food handed out easily. We wouldn’t even dream of thinking life in prison would be better than the freedom of the outside world. Or do we?
In our confession each week, we say—we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We are in bondage—enslaved as surely as the Israelites were in slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt—to sin and, without the gracious help of God, we’re stuck there. Thanks to God’s saving love in Jesus, we’ve been freed from that sin. We are free! Free! No longer in bondage! But, as Luther said, we are both sinner and saint—slave and free—at the same time. Within each of us is a saint and a sinner and they struggle constantly. The saint part of us says “Give us this bread, Jesus. The bread from heaven that we may never be hungry again.” But the sinner part of us says “oh how we long for the good food we had back in slavery days. Oh for the days when I could do what I wanted to do, for the time I would eat the rich food of the slave master—the fruit of the life of sin—instead of this bread of life business.”
he truth is, the life of freedom isn’t always easy. The bread of life from heaven doesn’t always look like a big turkey dinner with all the trimmings. Sometimes this free life we’ve been given actually appears quite costly when compared to slave life. Living this life of freedom affects everything we do; how we spend our time and money, how we treat those we love and those we hate. In virtually every way you can think of, life in freedom is different. It is not that we have to earn our freedom. Jesus even tells those people that the only thing God needs is our faith and we know that faith is itself a gift from the very same God.
When we look at the story of the Israelites in the desert with Moses being fed by God every day on Manna and quail, we remember the beginning of that chapter in the life of the people of God when he sent Moses to Pharaoh to say: set my people free. But that is not all God said. God said set my people free SO THAT they may worship me. In the end, it is God who frees them from their slavery, just as he frees us from sin, SO THAT we may be with him. Even when they, like we, pine for the ‘good ole days’ of bondage in Egypt, bondage to our sin, God never ceases to give the bread from heaven. We receive the bread from heaven—the body and blood of Jesus—this very day not because we’ve earned it or because we have freed ourselves from sin, but because he has freed us.
Come and be fed by the hand of God. Receive the bread of life—the body of Jesus Christ.