“Our Daily Bread”
Sermon, Lent 4, Laetare, Gospel, John 6: 1-15
Our God is a God that enters His creation. He does not just wind up the universe and stand back and see what happens. He is not some abstract philosophic idea of a creating force. He is a being who cares for His creation and sustains it. We see His care and sustenance clearly when He enters into His creation in His extraordinary miracles. The Evangelist John prefers to call these miracles signs. At the end of his gospel it says, ”Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”(John 20:30-31 ESV) This is the whole purpose of Scripture, that those who hear and read it may, through the power of the Holy Spirit, be brought to faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, sent into creation, into the world, to take on our human flesh forever, so that we who believe may have life, eternal life in His name. We see the mighty signs from God in the Old Testament fulfilled in Jesus Christ in the New Testament. We see that God chose a people, the Israelites, and made them a nation, gave them promises, brought them out of slavery through the waters of the Red Sea and we identify with them. We were brought out of slavery, too, through water, the water of Baptism, and given promises, promises of eternal life. We are inspired, literally, that is, the Holy Spirit moves us when we hear these stories. We are also inspired by the mighty works of His Son Jesus in the New Testament, His many signs, healing, casting out demons, curing leprosy, bringing sight to the blind, even bringing the dead back to life. When we hear of these signs we can only respond with praise and awe.
But the scriptures also show us how God’s people reacted to His wonderful signs, often with doubt, ingratitude, and grumbling, as with the Israelites in the desert in our reading from Exodus. They had just participated in one of history’s greatest series of miracles, the arrival of the prophet Moses whom God had appointed to speak for Him to Pharaoh to demand the release of His people. They saw the plagues that hit the Egyptians, but spared them. They saw the firstborn of Egypt slain by the angel of death, but their children spared because of the blood of the lamb painted on their doors. They saw the waters of the Red Sea parted for them to pass through and then close in again on the army of Pharaoh. Could there be any more stunning display of God’s power and providence for them? Yet here they are, a few weeks later, complaining about being hungry. They say they would be better off back in Egypt as slaves, the “good old days”, where they had plenty of meat in their pots. How incredibly fast they forget God’s works. They have been tested and failed. Yet God still sustains them, because He promised He would. He gives them bread from heaven.
Then in today’s text we have another testing of faith, this time of the disciples. Jesus uses the circumstances of a large crowd of hungry people to test the disciples to see how much they remember of the Old Testament signs of God, especially the feeding of the Israelites with the bread from heaven, the manna. He also wants to see if they remember the signs He has done personally already in His ministry. Did they remember His first sign, at the wedding in Cana, where He turned water into wine? Did they remember all the healings, the stilling of the waves? Did they understand that His Word had power? Surely they did, but in times of crisis, like this one, they reflexively went back to the way they had dealt with crises before they met Jesus. They looked at the situation, thousands of people, not enough food or money to buy food. The only solution they could think of was to ask Jesus to send the people away to the surrounding villages to find food for themselves. They had temporarily forgotten that God was working in His Son, Jesus Christ, that He had not abandoned them to their own devices, their own strength and wisdom. Stress does that to people.
Stress works against memory. It releases chemicals in the bloodstream that make us focus like a laser on the present moment, which can be helpful when survival is at stake, but it’s not good for memory, except muscle memory. You’ve heard of stage fright. It’s a paralyzing fear that grips some people when they get in front of a crowd, causing them to forgot their lines. I’ve seen it and experienced it from time to time myself as a musician. A pianist typically spends hours a day practicing for a recital. When I was younger, I would practice six or more hours a day, memorizing thousands of notes for a recital that lasted an hour or an hour and a half, practicing for months to a year for an hour and half concert, then being backstage minutes before the beginning of the concert and not being able to remember the first notes. That’s what stress does to memory. Performers, athletes, soldiers, rely on muscle memory when things get stressful. They have practiced an action so many times that when stress gets high they automatically know what to do.
It seems the disciples often were in a state of stress-induced memory loss. Jesus had to constantly remind them of who He was and what He had done. Right after feeding the five thousand, the disciples are in a boat arguing about whether they had enough bread.(Matthew 16:8) When Jesus was crucified and buried, in their fear they forgot His predictions of His death and resurrection. They forgot that He had the power to raise others from the dead.
They forgot and we forget. We live in stressful times today. We see declining attendance in our churches, declining stewardship, ridicule from an increasingly hostile culture, pressure from within and without our church bodies to compromise the Gospel, barbarous attacks on Christians abroad, fear of persecution at home. The stress caused by these things makes us anxious. And anxiety causes memory loss, in our case the loss of memory of the record of God’s providence for His children and His church. We forget that God is in control, that He always builds His church. God doesn’t ask us to come up with new and appealing ways to sell the church’s eternal message. He just calls on us to trust Him and be faithful to Him. He created the church, sustained the church throughout every trial and, He will preserve and keep it to the last day.
Elijah, the great Old Testament prophet is famous for his mighty victory over the priests of Baal. He challenged them to set up an altar to Baal and He would set one up to the Lord, Yahweh. (1 kings 18-19) The priests of Baal were unable to arouse their imaginary god to light the fire of their sacrifice, but Elijah, to show that it not by his efforts, asked that water be thrown on the altar he set up. Then He called upon God in prayer and God set the wood of the altar on fire, consuming the sacrifice. The priests of Baal were defeated. But their patroness, Queen Jezebel was furious. She sought to kill Elijah, so he went into hiding. And in his stress he forgot what God had just done. He asked that God take his life because there was none left who worshipped Him anymore in Israel. God responded by miraculously sending an angel with bread and water, and later told him that there were 7,000 left in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal. God was preserving His church. Elijah didn’t need to despair or stress out. He just needed to remember God’s great deeds, His signs, and His promises.
Shortly after Jesus fed the five thousand He preached in the synagogue that He was the true bread from heaven and that whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:58) Jesus said, “Do you take offense at this?”, and many of his former disciples, not the apostles, left him and didn’t walk with Him anymore. Jesus saw the formerly large and enthusiastic crowds dwindle. But He didn’t yell out, “Come back! I didn’t really mean that.” He continued in His mission to faithfully speak the words His Father gave Him, the words of eternal life, as Peter professed. He remembered the signs and promises of His Father and He told them to all who had ears to hear.
Let us also remember God’s signs and promises. He gave manna to the Israelites in the desert. He changed water into wine. He fed the five thousand and the four thousand in Galilee. He gave His body and blood for us on the cross so that we don’t have to suffer eternal punishment for our sins. And He has given an everlasting sign, an everlasting miracle to His Church, the gift of His true body and true blood to us in His Supper. Each time we partake of this miracle, we receive the reassurance that we are forgiven, that God loves us, that He has not left us alone, that He will be with us forever no matter how hard things get. Our Lord knows that we forget easily. That’s why He wants us to come together regularly to be reminded of His gifts, to hear His Word, the retelling of the story of His salvation for us. We forget, and He reminds. That’s why we read Scripture at home, why we memorize passages of the Bible. That’s why we pray when we are stressed. That’s our muscle memory that remains when we are gripped with anxiety for the future.
God has graciously called us through our vocations to share in the work of the church, through the giving of our tithes and offerings, our serving on the cabinet and boards and altar guild, as elders, as ushers and acolytes, as volunteers in church activities, and especially through our prayers. He wants us to use the gifts He has given us to serve Him and our neighbor. But He doesn’t want us to worry about the future of the Church. Jesus said, “So don’t worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will take care of itself.” (Matthew 6:34) And Saint Paul echoed that statement when he told the congregation at Philippi, “The Lord is near. Don’t worry about anything, but in everything go to God, and pray to let Him know what you want, and give thanks.” (Phil 4: 5b-6 )
We ask in the Lord’s Prayer for our daily bread, everything that we need to sustain our bodies and life. Today we also receive the true bread from heaven, Jesus Christ, Whom the manna in the desert pointed to as a sign. This heavenly bread was given to us to strengthen the muscle memory of our faith so that we may remember God’s great signs of old, the sustaining presence of His Holy Spirit in us every day, and His great promises for the future. It continually comforts and sustains us, in times of stress like these, and in times of peace and prosperity for which we pray. As the words of our sermon hymn say, “Though the earth be shaking, ev’ry heart be quaking, Jesus calms my fear.” (Jesus, Priceless Treasure, LSB 743, stanza 2). Amen.