I delivered this sermon to the women’s gathering at our church last week, so for a blog post, it’s SUPER looong and it sounds more like a “talk” than an essay! If you’d rather listen, I recorded it (about 25 minutes in length). Just click below.
I first read the prayer below in a book I was reading on the Old Testament Law. It’s called the “Prayer to an Unknown God” and was found on a tablet dating from the mid-seventh century BC. The original prayer is from Sumer and probably dates from somewhat earlier. What follows is just a small portion of this prayer:
May the wrath of the heart of my god be pacified!
May the god who is unknown to me be pacified!
The sin which I have committed I know not.
An offense against my god I have unwittingly committed.
The iniquity, which I have done, I know not.
The lord, in the anger of his heart, hath looked upon me.
The god, in the wrath of his heart, hath visited me.
I sought for help, but no one took my hand.
I wept, but no one came to my side.
I am afflicted, I am overcome, I cannot look up.
I kiss the feet of my god and [crawl before him] . . .
How long, known and unknown god, until the anger of thy heart be pacified?
Can you imagine being in that situation? We don’t live in an ancient near eastern culture, so the idea of having to appease an unknown god is pretty strange for us, but this was the norm in that time. When you listen to that prayer—and I only read a very short portion of it—you hear the desperation and you begin to see why people did so many strange and even terrible things to appease these gods they didn’t even know. About a month ago I read a fictional book about a village in ancient times that was oppressed by a demon. This oppression had gone on for decades, so by the time the story takes place, the villagers have made up a religion to try and please this demon. They’ve elected a priestess to serve the demon, and she spends her entire life trying to determine what the demon wants. But things have gotten worse and worse, and they’ve finally begun offering their children to the dragon, a different child each month. They choose the child by lottery and take the child up into the hills and leave it there to be consumed by this demon. The author allows you to get into the mind of the young priestess, and you get to feel her confusion, her dread, her sorrow at the death of children she has known and played with. But she doesn’t know what else to do. She doesn’t know how to please this angry, hungry god. It’s heartbreaking! They give and give and give to meet the demon’s needs, but it’s never enough.
This isn’t just ancient history, is it? That scenario describes so many of the religions or systems that people follow even today. Many of our systems are governed by questions of “Is this enough? Is this what I should be doing?” People who follow them are plagued by feelings of inadequacy and failure and hopelessness.
Does this sound familiar? If we’re honest, we have to admit that WE often put ourselves under those systems—without even realizing it. And then we discover ourselves asking those same questions, feeling those same feelings of inadequacy and failure.
But we don’t have to. We don’t pray to an unknown God. We don’t live with an unknown God. We follow a God who has made Himself known, who has revealed Himself to be a God of goodness, a God of light and love.
And what is more, in complete contrast to every system we’ve created, to every demon that has demanded worship, God doesn’t ask US to figure out an offering for Him. HE OFFERS HIMSELF!
This is unheard of! Unprecedented! It’s so far outside our natural inclination as to be CRAZY!
God gives Himself to us.
Do you see this in the passage we just read, in John 6:25-35? Let’s look at it again.
25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
26 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
30 So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’[c]”
32 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
34 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life.Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Now we have to go back before we go forward. In the section just before this one, Jesus fed the 5,000 with five loaves and two small fish. That’s what Jesus is referring to in verse 26.
So he tells these people who have followed him to focus more on eternal life rather than physical food, and they respond with a question, a very typical question, one that is our normal response when we’re told that what we’re doing isn’t quite right, isn’t “enough.” They ask, “What should we do? What is the work God requires?”
Such a normal question! Whenever we’re told—or we even feel that what we’ve done or who we are isn’t enough, isn’t completely right—we do the same. We, too, ask, “What do I do?”
But Jesus’s answer is NOT normal—is SO “not normal.” It’s a shocking, crazy, upside down answer!
“Believe in the one God has sent.”
Believe in the offering of God!
He doesn’t tell them how to fix THEIR offering. He doesn’t give them more specific instructions. He tells them to believe in him.
He goes on to explain that this belief, though, is not just a head decision; it’s not flippant. The Amplified Bible gives several of the meanings inherent in the word and translates “believe” as “adhere to, trust in, rely on, and have faith in.”
Then Jesus takes this further, and equates belief to “eating his flesh and drinking his blood.” Let’s look at verses 47-58:
47 Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. 50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
52 Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
53 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
Jesus tells us to ingest Him, to eat and drink of Him. Think of all the implications in that: tasting, chewing, swallowing, and then a digesting that spreads his being into every part of our being!
He’s telling us to believe in him to the point that we take him into our own selves—THIS is what will please God!
It sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it! And how, exactly, are we supposed to do that?
Now I want to point out that in this passage John brings up two Old Testament events that “fill out” this command of Jesus and might help us understand this I Am statement. First, John opens chapter 6 by mentioning that the Passover was coming. He just throws it in there like a throwaway statement, but it’s not. The Passover was the celebration of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from the Egyptians; it was His rescue of them from slavery and oppression. So the word Passover was synonymous for the Jews with the word salvation, and John mentioning the Passover is a clue that this entire passage is about Jesus being salvation—that the miracle that opens this chapter and leads into Jesus ‘s statement about his being the Bread of Life is about way more than Jesus just providing physical food.
So when Jesus tells us He is the Bread of Life; he’s telling us He is our salvation, our deliverance. This is central every time we celebrate Eucharist. “This is my body, broken for you. Take this in remembrance of Me.” His flesh, offered for us, brought us deliverance.
That’s amazing! That God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Him—through His own Body. HE made the offering. We don’t have to. All he asks us to do is believe that He actually did this for us—and that it’s enough!
But remember that I said there were two Old Testament events that John brings up in the passage? I think the second one actually helps us to believe the first one. The second one is what moves our belief in Christ from our heads to our hearts. We can SAY, “yes, I believe Jesus is the bread of life for me”—but it’s in the nitty gritty, every day “eating” of him that this belief becomes something real and warm and true inside us!
So let’s look at the second Old Testament event. In verse thirty, right after Jesus tells the people that the work of God is to believe in the one God sent (Jesus!), the people bring up the manna in the wilderness. “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? … Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
Now just a little backstory. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness AFTER their deliverance—that’s important—and the manna was bread that came from heaven every single day for their sustenance. They’d already been delivered from slavery, but they needed something to carry them through the gap between the deliverance and arrival in the Promised Land.
We, too, need sustenance. Our salvation is one of those “Now and not yet,” things. We have eternal life, but we’re not living in the actuality of it right now.
But hold on! Let’s not just gloss past this, let’s not SETTLE for something less than what Christ offers us. Remember, Christ told us that he came that we might have LIFE—and have that life to the full! He’s still offering us Himself—and He’s holding it out to us every day! He’s saying—that eternal life that I offered myself for—that my death provided for you—I want you to start living it NOW, HERE!
He doesn’t mean that we never struggle; he doesn’t mean that we don’t experience problems; he doesn’t mean that we’ll never have to fight against our sin tendencies.
But He does mean that He is making available to us a life in the here and now that is full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, a life that is able to consider others’ interests ahead of our own without resentment or bitterness, a life that is drawn to the noble, beautiful, lovely, and the good!
We know what it’s like to have moments of that eternal life here, don’t we? But we also know a lot about the half-life, the shadowed life, the pseudo=life we usually live in—the life we plod through, always struggling with ourselves, with others, lacking joy, lacking peace. The church father Athanasius described this life as a return to “nothingness.” He described it kind of like being a zombie (okay, the word “zombie” is MY take on Athanasius’s idea!—wandering around, walking dead, grunting and geared toward grumpiness and destruction!)
That’s a little how I’ve felt in the last 30 days. My husband and fifteen-year-old daughter went on a Whole 30 diet about a month ago—for a month—and in sympathy I went on a modified Whole 30 with them (I did NOT give up my afternoon sweet chai ritual or cream in my coffee!). But I did give up bread, which is not terribly difficult for me outside our house, but I MAKE our bread at home, and it’s darn good, whole wheat, incredible toasted with some butter! Mmmm.
I discovered that there was another side effect of giving up bread. One morning I ate some leftover stew for breakfast (you eat weird meals sometimes with Whole 30). I worked for a couple hours and then took the dog for a walk in the woods. It was good—until I just bonked. My energy was gone. The stew—the little bits of meat and lots of veggies—were gone. My legs and arms felt heavy, and every step was hard. I thought, “Oh, if I’d had a slice of bread this morning, I wouldn’t feel this way,” and I longed for a warm slice right then! Instead I had to drag myself the rest of the way out of the woods to the car.
That’s a picture of the half life, and it’s not the full life Christ is offering us.That full life fills us full! It spreads the fruits of the Christ’s Spirit all through us and gives us the power to live like Christ did, energized by the Spirit, motivated by the love of the Father, in fellowship with God and his people.
We KNOW how to live the half-life, the dragging, defaulting-to-self-and-negative-emotions life. That is completely natural to us. But we don’t really want that—not deep down. Deep down we want the full life Christ tells us about—and we SHOULD. C.S. Lewis once said that the problem is not that we desire too much but that we desire too little. The Holy Spirit wants us to recognize that desire for more, that desire to be filled with Christ, to be empowered by his Spirit, to have life to the full.
But how do we do this? (Oh, I’m back to asking what do WE do, am I not?)
Here’s how: we eat Jesus like the Israelites ate manna in the wilderness (which often describes our here and now, doesn’t it!).
That means daily!
We can learn from the Israelites’ wilderness experience here. God sent the manna every day to them, and he told them not to store it up. They tried to—a few of them went out and gathered a whole bunch of it—either because they didn’t want to gather it the next day or because they doubted God would provide it the next day or they were trying to be resourceful—but when they opened up their “stored” manna bread, it had worms in it. It was stinky and rotten.
We do that, don’t we? We try to do life on our own. We follow our own plan. We want to be in control. We want to prove ourselves—that we’re strong and capable. We don’t believe God really means it when he says he wants us to come to him empty handed every day! We don’t believe he’ll love us or want to be with us if we’re too needy.
But we have to believe that he really wants us to come with our bellies empty and our hands empty, empty but ready to receive from him. He doesn’t ask us to gather the wheat or press the oil or grind the salt. He just tells us to come and believe that he is who he says he is—the one who made us and loves us and feeds us. He wants us to believe that like we take bread into our mouths and chew it and swallow it down inside us, filling us.
Our only work in this is to come to him, to cup our hands or, if we’re simply too weary to even do that, to open our mouths and let the Holy Spirit feed us the Bread of Life.
Practically speaking, what does this look like? It looks like us coming out of sleep each morning and saying, “I got nothing. If I try to feed myself with myself—or anything else— today, if I try to function on my reserves, it will be disastrous. I will crash. I will struggle through my day, feeling overwhelmed or weary or struggling with negative attitudes” OR we acknowledge, “I will seem to function just fine but I’ll be charging through without the ability to really care for those around me or to notice God and the gifts He is giving me.” (Those are just a couple of examples of what it is like to live the not-life—you probably have some ideas in your own minds of what it looks like for you.)
But if we eat Jesus as our daily bread, we dwell in Him—who is Life itself!—and Life Itself—Jesus—dwells in us! And THAT is a life worth living. THAT is eternal life NOW!
So how do we eat this daily Bread of Life? I came up with three action steps:
First, we Look at Jesus.
Second, eyes still on him, we Reveal our brokenness and emptiness.
We acknowledge it—to ourselves and to him.
And third, we Accept His fullness for us.
We say, “Oh, I want to really believe in You today. I want You to be my all in all. I want to know and rely on and trust in you—completely! Help me to do this.”
We do these steps at the beginnings of our days, in the middles, at the ends—daily bread might need to be hourly! We probably need to graze on Jesus all day long!
Look at Jesus.
Reveal your brokenness.
And Accept His fullness for you.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of our God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit abide with you, now and forever. Amen.