Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Food That Endures

Texts: Exodus 16:1-20; John 6:22-40

I’M GOING TO TAKE A risk now: Even though I’ve just met you all, I’ll predict that sometime during this service you’ll be thinking about food. No matter how hard you try, some stray thought will cross your mind about what you’re going to eat once you get home, or how the roast is doing in the oven, or how crowded it might be at the restaurant where you always go after church. I’m not risking that I might be wrong about that; the risk is that now I’ve brought the subject up, you won’t be able to think about anything except food.

It doesn’t take much to get us thinking about food, does it? Here in America, even when times are harder than usual, our thoughts usually run to what we might be eating next and how good it’s going to taste. In other places and times, we’d more likely worry about where our next meal is coming from at all. Food means life and lifestyle and a whole lot of other important and necessary things, and it stands to reason we’ll often have it on our minds.

The problem is, we don’t take our concern for food far enough. We contemplate and worry about and work for the kind of food that will sustain and enliven and give pleasure to our physical bodies, but we neglect to go on to contemplate and desire and work for the food that will enliven and sustain and give pleasure to our immortal souls. We consume our lives going after the kind of food that feeds us for a little while then we need more or we die, but forget about the food that can make us live forever. Sure, let us think about food, but let us go much further and concern ourselves with the food that really matters!

In John, chapter 6, verse 27, our Lord Jesus Christ says, "Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you." Jesus the Son of Man has this special kind of food that sustains the new and different kind of life that we all need, and He promises simply to give it to us!

The people He originally addressed with these words, the crowd gathered around Him there in Capernaum, certainly needed this good news. They’d been running themselves to exhaustion the past several hours trying to get Jesus to give them more of the food that spoils. Yes, the bread and fish that Jesus gave them on the other side of the Lake was miraculously multiplied. But it remained plain ordinary bread and fish. Yes, God gave the Children of Israel manna in the wilderness, long ago in the days of the exodus from Egypt. But it was still food for the flesh, to be digested and done with; after a few hours, it would still breed maggots and spoil.

But that was the kind of food the crowds were after. That’s why they’d been searching so strenuously for Jesus. That’s why, as John tells us up in verse 15, they’d wanted to make Him king of Israel by force. Feed us, Jesus! Give us food for our bodies! We’ll do anything, we’ll be Your subjects and slaves, if You’ll just satisfy the hunger of our flesh! Their minds were stuck here on earth and hadn’t risen up to desire the food that endures to eternal life.

We’re often the same. Not just when we’re feeling hungry ourselves, but even in our Christian service. Too often we think our main calling as followers of Jesus Christ is to do physical relief work. To make sure the less advantaged are provided with food and clothing and medical care. And that once we’ve done that, we’ve done our duty as Christian disciples.

Now I’m really getting into dangerous territory, right? Yes, we should and ought and must show that kind of loving physical care for others. James the brother of our Lord says in his letter that if we see a brother or sister starving or naked and simply say, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed" and do nothing to meet his physical needs, we’ve clearly demonstrated that our faith in Jesus is meaningless and dead. But if food and clothing is all we give; if physical help is all we render, then we’ve given them only the food that perishes and we’re starving them of the food that endures. And that goes triple if the needy person is not yet a brother or sister in Christ. This mortal body is important, but it is doomed to die. What’s more, any well-meaning unbeliever can feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Only we as followers of Christ can go beyond that good work to do the best work of all. What’s the point of us going into the world in Jesus’ name if we nourish only people’s mortal bodies and fail to serve them the enduring food that only Jesus gives?

And yes, Jesus, alone, is the only Giver of that food. There’s a wonderful irony here in verse 27. "Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you."

Wait a minute! You don’t work for a gift! You just receive it! Are we listening? Do we have ears to hear? The crowd there in Capernaum were deaf to what Jesus had to say. They missed the part about the gift and asked, "What must we do to the works God requires?" We fall into the same trap today. Okay, Jesus, okay, You’re offering us a better kind of food that doesn’t go bad but lasts forever and nourishes eternal life. All right, tell us what we have to do to get it!

And to them and to us, Jesus replies, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent."

That’s it. Just receive the gift of Jesus Christ, the Son of Man. He is the one whom God has approved. He is the one whom God the Father has sent from heaven to be our Bread of eternal life. Open the hands and mouth of your will and take Him in by faith. When you have done that, you have done all that God requires for you to be fed. Preach Him broken on the cross for the sin of humankind and you have fed a spiritually-starving world.

The manna in the wilderness was a wonderful thing. But the Jews of Jesus’ day were wrong to be fixated on it. The manna that God gave in Moses’ day was not the true bread of heaven, rather it pointed to it. Or rather, it pointed to Him, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of the Father, sent into the world to die for our sins and turn aside the wrath of God we so deeply deserved. We all wander starving in the wilderness of our rebellion until God raises up the cross of Christ before us and leads us into the bounty of His eternal kingdom. Jesus tells us clearly, "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."

"Yes, Lord," we say, "but I’ve lost my job, my unemployment’s running out, and if it’s all the same to You, I’d prefer You gave me food I can chomp down on with my physical teeth." If that’s where you are, I can’t blame you. In my flesh I’m just as shortsighted. Before we can even desire Jesus to give us Himself as the bread of God, we first need to beg Him to give us a true and holy appetite for Him. Oh, that He would make us into sort of people, that if some persecutor should give us the choice between eating a meal and remaining faithful to Jesus Christ, we’d choose to starve our physical bodies so our spiritual bodies could live.

That heavenly appetite is not something we can gin up on our own. It’s not in our fallen human nature to crave the bread of heaven over the bread of this earth. We can never come to Jesus to feed on Him unless the Father first has put that craving in us by giving us to His Son. It is God alone who makes us desire Jesus the bread of life beyond all other satisfactions. The good news is, that if you even desire to desire this, it’s a good sign that the Father is drawing you closer, ever closer to eternal life in Him.

The Lord’s Supper is a sign and seal of the reality of God’s promise in His Son. This year we’re celebrating the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, and he said a beautiful thing about Holy Communion. He said that the heavenly reality of eternal life through the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ is given along with the physical elements of bread and wine. The bread and wine are not changed in themselves, but they certainly are set apart to a holy use and mystery. For when we eat the bread and drink the cup, looking in faith to the Son and believing in His power to raise us up at the last day, we truly receive all the holy and life-giving benefits won for us by Jesus Christ our crucified and risen Lord. St. Augustine, many centuries before Calvin, was asked, "How can one eat of Christ, the bread of heaven?" He answered, "Believe, and you have eaten."

For this is the work of God: to believe in the One He has sent. It not only is the work God requires, it is the work God Himself performs on our behalf. Belief itself is a gift from God the Father; our ability to exercise that belief is also a gift, and Jesus Christ, the food that endures to eternal life, is the greatest gift of all.

So be at peace in Him. Your life with God does not depend upon your works, your good intentions, or even on how much you feel you love and desire Him. It depends totally on Him, in the power of the Holy Spirit, through our Lord Jesus Christ. He has given you to His Son, He has given His Son to you, and whoever comes to Jesus He will never drive away.

The manna that fed the Hebrews in the wilderness was a picture and a preview of Christ the true bread from heaven. In our own lives, may every meal, every thought of food, remind us of Jesus the bread of life. May the food that spoils spur us on to crave and hunger for the food that endures, the food that is Jesus Christ alone. May this craving seize not only ourselves, but all who don’t even realize they are perishing without the Son of God. And may God in His love use us to spread that hunger so others may refuse to be satisfied with anything less than Christ, the true and ever-living Bread.

This is His Table, spread for you. Here taste of the bread which satisfies all hunger, and drink of the wine that slakes all thirst. Receive your Lord, Jesus, the bread of life. In thankfulness and faith feast on Him, and receive the food that endures to eternal life.

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