Sermon texts: Exodus16: 2-4, 9-15; John 6: 24-35
A cabin full of elementary school-aged cabin campers sat around the breakfast table at Camp Sequanota and I was one of them, I was 9 or 10 years old. Throughout the week we had eaten all the normal breakfast foods: pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage, oatmeal. But on this particular day an alien food substance was served from the kitchen. A thick, New England clam chowder like mixture that was accompanied by hot, steaming biscuits. Our group was bewildered by this mystery food in the same way that the Israelites look at manna for the first time and asked, “What is it?”
The food was sausage gravy. Our counselor explained what it was, but that table of Pennsylvania boys were instantly put off by this southern…delicacy. Some of us even tried it. At the very least we grabbed the biscuits. But within minutes most of the camp was lined up for Frosted Flakes and Fruit Loops to complete their balanced breakfast.
That moment of complete uncertainty around the dining hall reminds me of what the Israelites lived through in the wilderness as God gave them manna to eat, except the Israelites didn’t have a cereal to fall back on. It was manna or bust. I imagine that this situation was a hard one to bear. They were forced to give this small flaky bread a chance. The choice was either manna or starvation…and you better believe they complain to management about the lack of options.
On one hand it is hard to imagine the Israelites complaining once they escaped Egypt. They had been slaves. They were beaten, forced into hard labor. Their children were killed. All they longed for was to not live under the oppressive thumb of Pharaoh—to be free.
God hears their cries and raises up Moses to lead them out of slavery and into their own promised land. The Israelites watch as God sends the plagues to persuade Pharaoh to let them go. The Israelites follow the cloud of smoke and the pillar of fire in the wilderness. They watch as Moses lifts his staff and as the waters of the Red Sea part. And again as those very same water drown the Egyptian army. You would think that this track record would make them grateful for God’s extraordinary abilities and for God’s ability to respond and provide.
And yet, in today’s reading, we hear them complain against Moses and Aaron. We hear them complain against God. They look back on their time in Egypt and remember the food they once ate; ignoring all the harsh labor, mistreatment, and infanticide. Their hunger makes them forget all the good and miraculous things God has done for them. They whine like toddlers in the back seat during a road trip.. “If only we had died in Egypt, where we had plenty to eat. You’ve brought us into the desert to kill us with hunger.”
You kind of expect God to just smite them right then and there, don’t you? Just a few well-placed lightning bolts should do the trick. Maybe some fire and brimstone. But what does God do instead? God says to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you.” God keeps on taking care of them and providing for them even though their memory is so terribly short that at every new obstacle they throw up their hands and expect the absolute worst. In those moments, God still provides the best.
One morning the Israelites wake up and find the bread of heaven covering the wilderness like a fine frost on the ground. In Hebrew Manna translates as “What is it?”—which is all the people could say when they saw this strange new bread that God provided. It was not Egypt; it was not the land they knew, the food they knew; it was something different, something new. Yet through this new thing, God provides for them and will continue to provide for them for all the years that they wander in the wilderness.
In today’s gospel, we find that the people of God are still preoccupied with food. They are thinking with their stomachs and Jesus challenges them. He knows they haven’t followed him because they understand who he is, but because their hunger was satisfied with the loaves and fish he multiplied.
Last week, John told us that Jesus multiplied five barley loves to feed the 5,000; but barley bread was the inferior food of the poor. So, these people aren’t even excited about bread made from the finest wheat flour—they just want some Wonder Bread.
Jesus hears this, but he wants to give them more. So, Jesus patiently explains to them that there is something more, something better. But the people are just like woman at the well who did not understand Jesus’ promise of life-giving water—she simply wanted to drink without always having to walk to the well. Give us this bread, the people say to Jesus. They only want bread that will fill their stomachs.
Jesus tells them—I am the bread of life. He is more than a full stomach, he is satisfaction and sustenance. Sure, their physical needs are important, and Jesus will provide for those needs. But now he draws the people beyond the satisfaction of a hunger they already know. He promises to fulfill the hunger that goes much deeper than the stomach—the hunger of the spirit, the hunger of the heart, the hunger of the soul.
The problem of the ancient Israelites and the problem of the crowd in the Gospel is not that they kept calling out to God or complained or were ungrateful. The problem is they expected, asked, and hoped for too little from God. God was trying to give the ancient Israelites a whole new land, flowing with milk and honey, where they would be free to live and worship. God is trying to continue in the covenant of children, land, and blessing that was given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but the best they could think of was the food they ate in slavery. Jesus was trying to lead the people to new, eternal life, life where they no longer felt want. But the best they could think of was a double portion of the coarsest, most basic bread. The problem is their expectations.
Expectations can have a profound impact on our lives. They color our experiences, either enriching our lives or leaving us shortchanged. Too often, once our short-sighted expectations are fulfilled we miss out on a larger opportunity or blessing that may have been possible.
When I was a student at Thiel College the Residential Life staff worked hard to plan and host a number of fun social events on campus. They tried everything from movie nights to karaoke to frozen turkey bowling in the snow. It always felt like these events were underwhelming, like they flopped—through no fault of the planners. I think the events were fine, the problem was our expectations. I know my friends never thought these Student Life events were going to be much fun, so we did exactly what the people did from our readings; we showed up, we grabbed some heavily fried food, and we left.
I look back on those times and wonder what we missed out on by not engaging more fully. What memories and friends could have been made? What blessing could I have experienced if I had expanded my expectations beyond free food?
In terms of our faith, what are we expecting God to do in our lives? When we pray to Jesus, what are we asking him to do with and for us? Are we trusting him to lead us into a better life than we have known, a better life than we can imagine? Are we trusting him to empower us with his Spirit to do something new and exciting and fulfilling, something that allows us and others to experience God’s love and the coming of God’s kingdom? Or, do we hardly trust God to supply even our basic needs? Is our best hope that we might get back to a time when things weren’t so bad?
Jesus invites us to experience something bigger and better, not just bigger or better versions of what we already know, but a whole new life. The bread we share at the table is not merely to satisfy our hungry stomachs; it is Jesus himself, satisfying and sustaining us for eternal life. Therefore, let us dare to step out in faith and broaden our expectations about how God will impact our lives. Let us raise the bar on how we expect God to enter our lives. Let us move beyond the lowest common denominator. For God has plenty to give us—more than we can ever ask or desire. AMEN