Bread for the Journey: Communion Sermon for July 12, 2015
Exodus 16:1-18, 31-35
They took their journey from Elim, and all the congregation of the children of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departing out of the land of Egypt. The whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness; and the children of Israel said to them, “We wish that we had died by Yahweh’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots, when we ate our fill of bread, for you have brought us out into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Then Yahweh said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from the sky for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law, or not. It shall come to pass on the sixth day, that they shall prepare that which they bring in, and it shall be twice as much as they gather daily.” Moses and Aaron said to all the children of Israel, “At evening, then you shall know that Yahweh has brought you out from the land of Egypt; and in the morning, then you shall see Yahweh’s glory; because he hears your murmurings against Yahweh. Who are we, that you murmur against us?” Moses said, “Now Yahweh shall give you meat to eat in the evening, and in the morning bread to satisfy you; because Yahweh hears your murmurings which you murmur against him. And who are we? Your murmurings are not against us, but against Yahweh.” Moses said to Aaron, “Tell all the congregation of the children of Israel, ‘Come near before Yahweh, for he has heard your murmurings.’” As Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the children of Israel, they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, Yahweh’s glory appeared in the cloud. Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel. Speak to them, saying, ‘At evening you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread: and you shall know that I am Yahweh your God.’” In the evening, quail came up and covered the camp; and in the morning the dew lay around the camp. When the dew that lay had gone, behold, on the surface of the wilderness was a small round thing, small as the frost on the ground. When the children of Israel saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they didn’t know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread which Yahweh has given you to eat.” This is the thing which Yahweh has commanded: “Gather of it everyone according to his eating; an omer a head, according to the number of your persons, you shall take it, every man for those who are in his tent.” The children of Israel did so, and gathered some more, some less. When they measured it with an omer, he who gathered much had nothing over, and he who gathered little had no lack. They gathered every man according to his eating. ... The house of Israel called its name Manna, and it was like coriander seed, white; and its taste was like wafers with honey. Moses said, “This is the thing which Yahweh has commanded, ‘Let an omer-full of it be kept throughout your generations, that they may see the bread with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.’” Moses said to Aaron, “Take a pot, and put an omer-full of manna in it, and lay it up before Yahweh, to be kept throughout your generations.” As Yahweh commanded Moses, so Aaron laid it up before the Testimony, to be kept. The children of Israel ate the manna forty years, until they came to an inhabited land. They ate the manna until they came to the borders of the land of Canaan. (WEB)
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Most certainly I tell you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves, and were filled. Don’t work for the food which perishes, but for the food which remains to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For God the Father has sealed him.” They said therefore to him, “What must we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” They said therefore to him, “What then do you do for a sign, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you do? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness. As it is written, ‘He gave them bread out of heaven to eat.’” Jesus therefore said to them, “Most certainly, I tell you, it wasn’t Moses who gave you the bread out of heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.” They said therefore to him, “Lord, always give us this bread.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will not be hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. But I told you that you have seen me, and yet you don’t believe. All those whom the Father gives me will come to me. He who comes to me I will in no way throw out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. This is the will of my Father who sent me, that of all he has given to me I should lose nothing, but should raise him up at the last day. This is the will of the one who sent me, that everyone who sees the Son, and believes in him, should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” The Jews therefore murmured concerning him, because he said, “I am the bread which came down out of heaven.” They said, “Isn’t this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How then does he say, ‘I have come down out of heaven?’” Therefore Jesus answered them, “Don’t murmur among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up in the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Therefore everyone who hears from the Father, and has learned, comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father, except he who is from God. He has seen the Father. Most certainly, I tell you, he who believes in me has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, that anyone may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down out of heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. Yes, the bread which I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews therefore contended with one another, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus therefore said to them, “Most certainly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you don’t have life in yourselves. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father; so he who feeds on me, he will also live because of me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven – not as our fathers ate the manna, and died. He who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things in the synagogue, as he taught in Capernaum. (WEB)
Message from Pastor Jonathan
Has anyone here ever read any of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novels, or seen the movie adaptations? If you have, then you might remember how they tell the story of the Fellowship of the Ring – that's the title of the first book – and the journey that this diverse band of volunteers takes on a quest to protect Middle-Earth from the threat posed by the One Ring. And you might even remember that, late in the first part of the trilogy, the members of the Fellowship receive a rare gift from the Elves of food for the journey. Not just any food, but a thin wafer called lembas, “waybread,” “journey-bread,” a single cake of which “will keep a traveler on his feet for a day of long labor,” a “long day's march” through the hostile wilderness. No need for hunting, no need for foraging, this is the daily bread intended to get the Fellowship through their task. Because Tolkien, as a committed Christian, knew a biblical truth: you need bread for the journey.
The Israelites learned that lesson the hard way. As the children of Israel came through the wilderness, they fell into the habit of that most common human pastime: complaining. In Egyptian slavery, they remembered, they were fed. In Egyptian slavery, they “sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread” (Exodus 16:3). Scratch out the hardships of labor and the constant abuse, and slavery looks like a nice and easy deal. It promises security and sufficiency: as kept people, you get your rations of food and water, you get taken care of, you don't have to worry about it, because all the thinking's been done for you. That's what the Israelites want. Freedom is a hard thing, because it requires faith to receive food from above.
But that's exactly what God offers the whining Israelites: “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day,” or two days' worth, if it's before the Sabbath (Exodus 16:4-5). And just so, every morning “there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance,” the “grain of heaven” and “bread of angels” that the LORD gave them to eat (Exodus 16:14-15; Psalm 78:24-25). And a jar of manna was saved to be stored in the Ark of the Covenant, reminding Israel forever about how God had given them bread for the journey (Exodus 16:32-34). They ate it until they reached the border of the promised land; for forty years of nomadic life, this was what got them through each day (Exodus 16:35).
The Israelites really did get a daily supply of bread for the journey. Six mornings a week, it appeared, and they just had to pick it up. Between that and a regular diet of quail, they were set! This was real freedom: active trust in God, going forth to gather on the days he said it'd be there, and staying home to rest on the seventh day. Yet the story of Israel in the wilderness stands as a warning. As a generation, they did not have enough faith to make it to the promised land after all: “I was angry with that generation,” God says, and in that anger, he swore that the unfaithful of even this elect nation wouldn't enter his rest (Hebrews 3:10-11). They heard the good news, they got the gospel of their day, but they “failed to enter because of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:6). “They had no faith in God, and did not trust his saving power” (Psalm 78:22). He fed them for the desert, but there they would stay, their journey unfinished.
But we too are on a journey. In this life, all our days are a wandering in the wilderness, roaming through the desert of a world that's not our home. Like the patriarchs, we're “strangers and foreigners on the earth,” desiring “a better country” (Hebrews 11:13, 16). The promise that was set before Israel then “is still open” for us (Hebrews 4:1). Only those who live by faith can enter God's holy rest, the true and greater promised land that fills the whole world in the age to come (Hebrews 4:3). “Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs” (Hebrews 4:11). But as we journey as strangers through this strange land, pressing onward for a hope of something greater, we need bread for the journey.
Two thousand years ago, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, a crowd tried following Jesus for all the wrong reasons. Hungry in body and denying the hunger of their souls, they'd stick with anyone who would put bread in their stomachs. So after Jesus fed five thousand men, not even counting the women and children, they were ready to join his retinue. Like the Israelites longing for Egypt, their allegiance was for sale. The price would just be a free lunch.
Jesus challenged their self-serving quest to be satisfied with a free lunch: “Don't work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:27). They protest: they want manna, the same thing Moses gave them in the desert (John 6:31). Jesus corrects them: in their devotion to Moses, they've forgotten that it came from the God whom Jesus calls “Father,” a God who gives “true bread from heaven” to “give life to the world” (John 6:32-33). They say they want it, not getting what he means.
Jesus explains: he himself is the Bread of Heaven, the True Manna, the Life-Giver. Jesus is the Bread who satisfies every hunger: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry” (John 6:35). But the trouble with this crowd of fair-weather followers is that, even having seen Jesus and the sign he already worked, they aren't ready to trust him unless bare physical nourishment without work is a daily occurrence (John 6:36). They care nothing for the Signified, only for the sign. They won't believe him unless he keeps things simple, as simple as food on a plate they can touch and taste with their tongues. They dismiss his claim to be from heaven, not realizing who he really is. In their shallow presumption, they think they know Jesus (John 6:42). They couldn't be more wrong.
“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, and they died” (John 6:48-49). The Israelites in the wilderness lacked faith, so even though they ate the manna daily, it didn't get them to the end of their quest. Their journey fell short, even with daily bread. Daily bread isn't enough apart from faith. But with faith, the real manna lasts: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. … Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:51, 53). To feed faithfully on Jesus is to abide in him, and have his life abide in you, “so whoever eats me will live because of me” (John 6:56-57).
Jesus is the solution. As we journey through the wilderness, we know what it means to hunger. We know what it means to come up short. We have so many cravings. God made us with a God-shaped hole that only he can fill. No fleeting pleasures can fill that gap. Not even angel's food cake shipped down from the clouds will do the trick. Jesus is the only one who satisfies. You can't be satisfied, not in the depths of your soul, without the meal that he gives, where the Lord is at once Host and Feast, offering himself to keep our world in motion as we trek daily onward toward the true land of promise, the new creation. And he invites us to his table, not for any ordinary food, but for overcomers to taste their share of “the hidden manna,” the real deal (Revelation 2:17). We don't seek him for what he can do for us. We seek him because he's Jesus. He isn't the means to an end; he is the end, he is the goal, he is the fullness, he is pure satisfaction and perfect joy. And this perfect joy sanctifies the stuff of daily life – a loaf of bread, a cup of the fruit of the vine – and makes it grace, a gift from Jesus of Jesus.
Every time we celebrate the Lord's Supper, we dine with him, and we dine on him, as he gives himself in the eucharist as the viaticum, the “way-bread,” the lembas to sustain our fellowship all this life's journey through and to strengthen us for a Christ-sized task. If you're feeling drained and depleted, seeing the long and hard road ahead, come to this table. If you're feeling distracted and dismayed, unsure of your purpose, wavering in your resolve, come to this table. If you're feeling sorrowed and in doubt, wondering why the road is so dangerous, come to this table. If you're feeling strong, so strong you could almost delude yourself into thinking that you can gain all the sustenance you need by sucking your own soul like a baby sucks his thumb, come to this table. “For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink,” he says, and those who eat and drink at this table, by grace and through faith receiving it as a sacred sharing in Jesus Christ himself, “have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:54-55). Eat this food in faith, and this fellowship, this Communion of the Saints, will endure beyond death, and in the true undying lands, we'll feast again with all our fellows whose journey has closed – and with our Host himself, knowing as we're known, seeing face-to-face at last. So come in faith, come to life, come to this table.