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“What Can We Learn From the Loaves and the Fishes?”: Sermon 8/5/2018

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Pastor Debbie Spangler

Sermon Text: John 6: 1-21, 24-35

My refrigerator looks rather bare….but no, thanks be to God, it is not because I can’t afford to buy food…it’s because it’s not packed with lots of half-filled bottles and jars. Our refrigerator died and the landlord (bless him) replaced it and that was the opportune time to clean out which means it does seem bare---just like the Sanctuary looks right after the Christmas tree has been taken down. The usual parental effort to get a child to eat her dinner worked on me: “Eat up---there are starving children around the world that would love to have what you have to eat.”  I seldom leave anything left on my plate!

Today we will spend some time looking at two miracles in which many were fed at the hands of God. To begin, let’s turn our attention to Exodus chapter 16. The Israelites hasd escaped from the pursuing Egyptians. Moses, through God’s intervention, had led them to safety through the Red Sea. They are now in the area of the Desert of Sin. They have been thirsty and God provided water at Marah. Now they are hungry. They grumbled to Moses and Aaron as their tummies rumbled: “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt. There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

What happens to us when we don’t have what we think we need or what we want? We gripe and grumble. We immediately think about when things were better and wish for them---even when they were not “better”. We look around for someone or something else to blame rather than ourselves. We raise the question: “Why me?” And oftentimes, we turn on the One who sustains our very lives, who gave us the breath of life to begin with: “Why have you done this to me, O God?” For the Israelites were not just upset with Moses and Aaron but also with God for their lack of sustenance.

God provided two miracles that sustained the Israelites in their forty year desert wanderings: he fed them manna and quail. Now, we have heard this story before----but it bears repeating. Why? Because we, like the Israelites, often feel like we are in need, and rather than thanking God for what we do have and letting him know our need in reverent prayer, we gripe because we don’t have and in today’s society of instant gratification, our thoughts and emotions run away with us.

God told Moses: “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.” Then God gave instructions on how it was to be collected and used. The Hebrew word “man” means “question”. It is prefixed to “hu” making the question: “What is it?” The word “manhu” may also be an adaptation of the Egyptian word “mennu” which means “food”. Josephus and other ancient writers attributed the name to mean: “Is it food?” Precisely what manna was has puzzled scientists and naturalists. We do like to have all the answers, don’t we?

It came at night, resembling hoarfrost and dripping with dew. It was white, flavorful and resembled the seed of the coriander, a plant of the eastern Mediterranean area and was both tasty and nourishing. Being seed-like in form, it had to be ground in order to be eaten. Was it coriander? It could have been from the tamarisk plant that grows along the route of the Hebrews in the Sinai area. It exudes a sweet liquid that collects at night on twigs and falls to the ground. After sunrise, unless it is protected, it disappears. But this plant produces this food for only a brief period each year. The Israelites ate manna for 40 years! There is also a mossy plant that at maturity is round and eaten with honey but it too is not available year round. Asaph called manna the “grain of heaven”. It is also called “bread of heaven.” Other Hebrew writers referred to it as “angels’ bread.” The apostle John called it spiritual food—a hidden agent for spiritual sustenance for the risen saints [Rev. 2: 17]. Whatever manna was/is, it was definitely a provision of God!

God also said to Moses: “At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.” That evening, quail came and covered the camp.” There are some 130 species of quail which is a small migratory game bird. It lives at ground level in pastures, scrublands, etc. and is able to fly short distances. The birds’ abundance as food for the Israelites occurred as large numbers of quail fell exhausted following their long flight from Africa where they had spent the winter. Another occurrence that could not be anything else but the hand of God!

Yahweh Yireh is translated as the “God who provides”. The Hebrew word “raah” from which yireh is derived means “to see”. Since god sees the future as well as the past and the present, he is able to anticipate and provide for what is needed. The English word “provision” is made up of two Latin words that mean “to see beforehand.” When we pray to Yahweh Yireh, O God who provides, we are praying to the God who sees the situation beforehand and is able to provide for our needs.

Alexander MacClaren, a 19th century Scottish preacher reminds us that God’s provision is not automatic: “If we wish to have our outward needs supplied, our outward weaknesses strengthened, power and energy sufficient for duty, wisdom for perplexity, a share in the Sacrifice which takes away the sins of the world, we receive them all on the condition that we are found in the place where all God’s provision is treasured. If a man chooses to sit outside the baker’s shop, he may starve on its threshold…And if we will not ascend to the hill of the Lord and stand in his holy place by simple faith, and by true communion of heart and life, God’s amplest provision is nought to us; and we are empty in the midst of affluence.”

Now, let’s look at our Gospel reading from John chapter 6. The crowd had seen and heard of the miraculous signs Jesus had performed on the sick and so they followed him across the Sea of Galilee. When Jesus saw the crowd, he asked Philip where food could be bought to feed the people. Philip was the likely choice to have such knowledge since he was from Bethsaida, a town 9 miles away from where they were. Jesus was also testing Philip’s faith. By asking for a human solution (knowing that there was none), Jesus highlighted the powerful and miraculous act he was about to perform. Philip’s reply was that 8 months’ wages could not buy enough to feed all the people. Did you know that we can limit what God does in us by assuming what is and is not possible?

Another disciple, Andrew, spoke up: “There is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” We worry about “will we have enough food to feed everyone at our potluck dinners?” We always have enough, don’t we? We don’t know if the boy offered his food or not, but we assume that he did. If we offer nothing to God, he will have nothing to use. But he can take what little we have and turn it into something great. In performing his miracles, Jesus usually worked through people and he did in this case, working through the offering of the young boy. God gives in abundance. He takes whatever we can offer him in time, ability, or resources and multiplies its effectiveness beyond our wildest expectations. The entire crowd of 5000 plus were fed that day (with plenty leftover) from just 5 small loaves and 2 small fish!

But Jesus was not through teaching on the subject of God’s provision. God’s provision does not stop at what we need to sustain our bodies---but also covers what we need to sustain our spirits. Jesus told his disciples: “You are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. It is not Moses who has given you bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”

We eat bread to satisfy physical hunger and to sustain physical life. We can satisfy spiritual hunger and sustain spiritual life only by a right relationship with Jesus Christ. Just as bread must be eaten to sustain life, so must Christ be invited into our daily walk to sustain spiritual life.

Bread was baked daily in  the ancient world. Made from a variety of grains (barley for the poor and wheat for those with money). It was usually shaped into small round loaves that looked more like rolls or buns than the large loaves of bread we eat today. Because bread was a primary staple, it was also used in various aspects of worship. Cereal offerings took the form of loaves or cakes and bread was also used as a firstfruit offering or a peace offering. The Bread of Presence, consisting of 12 loaves of unleavened bread, symbolized the covenant between God and his people. Displayed at the temple sanctuary next to the Most Holy Place, it served as a constant reminder to the priests and the people that it was God who sustained the 12 tribes of Israel.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus Artos Zoes, the Bread of Life. Jesus instructed his disciples, in what is known today as The Lord’s Prayer, to pray for daily bread. Jesus was born in Bethlehem which means “house of bread.” Thus it is fitting that Jesus announced himself as the only food that would enable them to live forever.

Today is a Communion Sunday for us as we share in the feast that Jesus has prepared for us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “the table fellowship of Christians implies obligation. It is our daily bread that we eat, not my own. We share our bread. Thus we are firmly bound to one another not only in the Spirit but in our whole physical being. The one bread that is given to our fellowship links us together in a firm covenant. Now none dares go hungry as long as another has bread, and anyone who breaks this fellowship of the physical life also breaks the fellowship of the Spirit.”

And what does it mean to be fed by God? How am I fed by God? Being fed by God is beyond our natural comprehension. It is utterly mysterious. These are divine things, heavenly realities that lie beyond our abilities. We should not complain or grumble about them. It is God alone who can supply divine insight. Our task is simply to stand and receive, to engage, to be open to the work of the Spirit as he permits us glimpses into realities too deep for us. Our faith, whether great or small, bids us remember these words of Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” For Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. The Bread of Life.