6 August 2006
We’re never content, are we? Our two readings today show us people who simply aren’t satisfied with what they have.
Our Old Testament reading is set shortly after the Israelites have been set free from Egypt. You remember how God sent various plagues on the Egyptians, and then parted the waters of the Red Sea, or more probably one of the lakes that’s now part of the Suez Canal, to allow the Israelites to escape from Pharoah’s armies, which drowned. So now they are wandering about in the desert, waiting to be shown the way to the Promised Land. And they are fed up and hungry. Wouldn’t they have done better to have stayed in Egypt, where at least they had delicious food to eat? Forgetting, of course, all the nasty things about having been in Egypt.
But God provides for them – quails in the evening, so they can have a hot meal, and manna for the rest of the day. Nobody seems to know quite what manna was – the Bible tells us that it looked a bit like white coriander seeds, and tasted a bit like a wafer with honey, but that doesn’t really help. Nor, of course, does it matter; it’s not about what manna was, after all! I’m sure that those of you who are interested can research further into the whys and wherefores of it; scholars have argued about it over the years, and they have some very weird and wonderful ideas! But for now, suffice it to say that God provided enough food for his people while they were wandering in the desert.
I am always interested when I read the rather longer version of this story, since it’s made quite clear that every family was only able to collect enough manna for its own needs. You couldn’t store it. You couldn’t hoard it. If you gathered too much, and didn’t give it to someone who wasn’t as able to gather it as you were, then it went rotten on you and had to be thrown away. The only exception to this was on a Friday – you were allowed to gather enough to last you for the whole Sabbath day, so that you didn’t have to gather it on the Sabbath, but that was the only time you could gather more than needed for immediate use. Strictly enforced socialism!
All the same, the people were still not satisfied, so we are told, and went on and on grumbling and muttering and being generally miserable. As you probably remember, it came to a head on several occasions – for instance, when they thought Moses and Aaron, their leaders, had been gone up Mount Sinai for too long, so they decided God must have abandoned them, and built a golden calf to worship, instead. And so it went on, grumble, grumble, moan, moan, never satisfied.....
Actually, are the Israelis ever satisfied? Seems like it’s going on still, this time with bombs and mortars.... oh dear.
But I don’t want to go into that now. Instead, I want us to turn to our Gospel reading, where, once again, people are not satisfied.
It takes place almost immediately after Jesus has fed five thousand or more people with a small boy’s packed lunch. He then sends the disciples on ahead of him, so he can spend some time in prayer and being quiet for a bit – in some of the gospels, we’re told that he’s just heard about his cousin John’s execution and needs a bit of space to grieve. Anyway, he then walks across the lake to join the disciples, and next day the crowd finds him on the other side of the lake than they’d expected.
But Jesus reckons they’re not following him because of his teachings, but because they want another free lunch. “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves."
And this is not what he plans for them. “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.”
Jesus points out that in the wilderness, the story we’ve just been thinking about, it wasn’t Moses who provided the manna, but God. And it is God who gives the true Bread from Heaven. “I,” said Jesus, “am the Bread of Life”.
You know what I’m reminded of here? The story of woman at the well, a little earlier on in John’s Gospel. She asks Jesus to work the pump for her, which he duly does, but he tells her that he is the Living Water, and any who drink of that water will never be thirsty again. Same sort of principle.
I've called this sermon “Never Satisfied”, because that's what most of us are! We're never satisfied. God brings us out of the worst kind of slavery in Egypt, and all we do is grumble that the food was better back there. Jesus does a miracle, providing food for everybody from a small boy's packed lunch, and all we do is seek him out to get another freebie meal. Seems like all we think about is our tummies, sometimes!
But, of course, there are some things it's right not to be satisfied about. Athletes of any kind are never satisfied with their performance – they are always working to shave vital fractions of a second off their time, or to make their performance better, to make that difficult jump look easy.... in some sports, sadly, they even resort to illegal substances to try to improve their performances, because they're never satisfied.
And St Paul comments on this – not the illegal substances, although I expect they did that in his day, too! But about the training and training to win that elusive prize: “Do you not know that in a race, the runner all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.” And he goes on to compare this with the spiritual life: “Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one!”
For him, physical training “is of some value”, as he said in his letter to Timothy, but the point was, just like athletes are never really satisfied with their performance, but long to get better and better, and the highest crown of all is an Olympic medal, so we need to strive to become more and more spiritually fit. We need, as Jesus put it, to “work for the food that endures for eternal life”. We need to never be satisfied with where we are spiritually, any more than athletes are satisfied with where they are physically.
Of course, not everybody can be an elite athlete – oh, how I know that; I'll never be an elite ice-skater, no matter how hard I train. But I can be, and am, competitive against people of my age and level. But we always fight to get better, and to win against people whose skating we respect... Robert has serious ambitions about some of the people he hopes one day to beat in competition!
We can't all be elite athletes, but we can all be part of the spiritual elite. Because, of course, the crown that St Paul speaks of is available to all of us. Eternal life is God's free gift to us – but just because it's free, doesn't mean it is easy. We are all, I think, committed to being God's people, but how much do we allow God into the very depths of us, to change us and mould us into his spiritual elite? How much, even, do we allow what we do on Sunday to influence what we do on Monday?
I've often said that in this second half of the year, what we claim to believe comes up against what we actually believe. And this working for the Bread that doesn't perish is very much part of that. Like all training, it's about building new habits, going one step at a time. But we need to be making those steps.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us a picture of what a spiritual athlete will be like – always forgiving, never angry with people in a destructive way, loving and valuing other people for more than just their bodies, never judgmental, and so on. Treating other people with the greatest possible respect for who they are. Being honest – perhaps not to the point of tactlessness; after all, the answer to “Does my bum look big in this” ought almost always to be “No, it doesn't.”
But honest. Honest with ourselves, knowing where we fail, admitting we have failed. Honest with God, too – being able to admit to ourselves, in front of God, where we've gone wrong. And asking God's help to turn round and do better.
Because this isn't work we have to do alone. For, if we let him, God the Holy Spirit will indwell us, change us, grow us, challenge us, help us train spiritually. We should work to receive the food which does not perish – and that food is Jesus, who is the Bread of Life.
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