Texts: Exodus 16:2-4. 9-15; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35
Whether you use social media or not you may have heard of the Darwin awards. Photos are posted of people doing things that are clearly not wise. Like the guy stretching his hand out toward the nose of a bison in Yellowstone National Park like you would when approaching an unfamiliar dog.
It’s sometimes a risk to do that with a dog. It’s always a risk to do it with a bison, in which your very survival is in question. Hence, the name of award – after Darwin’s survival of the…well, you know. Fortunately, the outcome of foolish actions is not always gruesome. And these posts are cautionary tales bearing wisdom. Though we human beings can be remarkably slow learners.
The bible study crowd this past Wednesday had a great discussion about the lessons for today. After considering all that was going on in the lessons, their conclusion was that we, God’s own people, repeatedly fail to hear God and see God’s provision. It’s there in every text. No matter how faithful we may be, we can be remarkably dense, spiritually speaking.
The irritable, complaining Israelites are no match for Moses, Aaron, and God who work together to resolve a supply chain problem. These were urban people after all. Used to shopping at the local fleshpots for their food. But in the wilderness? They were way outside their comfort zone. Absolutely dependent on Moses for everything.
So God worked out a system involving direct delivery of protein and carbohydrates. Then God implemented the system with the people. God told Moses right up front that it was a test of the Israelite’s ability to follow God. And when quails rained down from the sky that first night of God’s provision, it was well received.
But when the bread came, everyone was suspicious. It wasn’t in a form they understood, so the asked, “What is it?” In Hebrew that’s, man hu. This is where we get the word manna. The tone of the question suggests distrust and dissatisfaction.
So when they might have been thanking God for food, the people were instead saying, “manna?” What is it? When they might have been celebrating the power of God they were saying we don’t know what this is. Moses might have been nearly out of patience when he replied, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”
So how did they do with the test? Well, the test also included their obedience to God’s command to take only what they needed for each day. And, spoiler alert! Some of them didn’t do so well with that part either. Ah, human frailty.
The gospel lesson for today is a riff on the Exodus story. It reads like a comedy script of missed meanings. It’s verbal volleyball on an Olympic scale. That’s because it is based on the dialogical form of teaching that was typical in the Synagogue. In fact this particular part of John’s gospel is set in the synagogue at Capernaum where Jesus was known to have taught.
After setting the scene, with a crowd of people eager to hear Jesus, the subject is given: “…you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” What we want from God is not what God desires to give us. What God gives we don’t recognize.
In the desert, the Israelites thought they needed food. What they needed was to change their ideas about God’s provision. They were six weeks into the desert journey when they demanded food from Moses and Aaron. They would spend 40 more instructive years in the wilderness (a whole lifetime) with God as their teacher before they would enter the Promised Land.
John’s gospel takes on the problem of what we expect from God relative to what God provides. The exchange between Jesus and the crowd illustrates all too clearly again human failure to listen well to what God is trying to say to us for the sake of our spiritual wellbeing.
“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.” As soon as Jesus said “work”, the people fastened on the question of what specific work would satisfy God and guarantee them a box seat in eternal life. But Jesus was determined to lead them to a different understanding altogether. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
But they were not ready to cast aside all the religious work they’d done to that point. Who was Jesus to give them this instruction? The people asked Jesus to perform a miracle for them like Moses and the manna, even though they had just witnessed him feeding a crowd of thousands with seven loaves and two fish! The evidence of their inability to receive Jesus as God’s provision was like the failure of the Israelites to recognize bread from God in the wilderness. Ah, frail humankind. How little we know of God. And how quickly we forget God’s grace!
Jesus corrected the crowd – it wasn’t Moses who provided food in the desert, it was God. And there in that place God was again providing the bread of life to satisfy a hunger we still don’t understand. The final miscue came when the crowd asked for the bread from heaven, when it was already placed before them. All they needed to do was come and receive God’s Word.
The community will always struggle with trusting in God’s provision. And God’s children are never done with complaining and rebelling. Ephesians appeals to God’s children to find unity in belief that God is enough - one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.
God’s gifts for building up Christ’s body are given through ordinary people. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers. Gifted yet still ordinary, wrapped up in the frailty of ego, pride, fear and desire. So people growing into faith must also be careful listeners and consumers of spiritual truth. Because there will always be plenty of competing spiritual voices feeding people with fear rather than faith.
Ephesians says, bear with one another in love. God speaks and saves through love in Jesus Christ. The body of Christ is a body of love. And particularly it is a body that directs love outwardly rather than inwardly through practices of justice and righteousness. This is the truth that love always speaks. And all who love as Jesus loved will find themselves strengthened and nourished until their journey ends…in God where all is revealed.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.