The Bread of Life

Text: Exodus 16:2-15
Date: Pentecost X (Proper 13) + 8/5/2012

Bread. On the one hand it’s the name of any sort of usually baked and leavened food made of a mixture of flour or meal. There is white bread, whole wheat bread, rye bread, pumpernickel bread and the like. But then the word can also refer just to food in general for physical sustenance as in the Lord’s Prayer, “give us this day our daily bread.” And that leads to an even wider definition that includes more than food but everything that contributes to your livelihood, and usually that brings up the subject of money, also referred to as dough. But what happens when you run out of bread? when there are literally no loaves or rolls or when the pantry is empty or you lost your job? Ever since the creation God created man as a hungry being. We need to eat. Eating is not an option. And when there is little or no bread there is poverty, weakness, starvation and ultimately death.

The same can be said of spiritual life. Life is more than food for the body, more than this physical living and moving and having our being. Life is meant as God’s creation forever. Death is not “just part of life” as many say. It’s just that because the cause of death is universal, namely, “all have sinned,” and as a result all die, that it fits the category we call “normal,” it is the “norm.” But remove sin and life returns to its original design, namely, eternal. Therefore God has used “bread” also as a symbol of His gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation. Not that you don’t also have to eat food, but life is more. As the body relies on the nutrition of food, so the soul relies on the supply of God’s mercy and grace.

Jesus says that a person’s fixation on only temporal things gets in the way of perceiving and understanding the big picture. “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Jesus was referring to the feeding of the five thousand just before today’s Gospel. But there already St. John tells us, “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (John 6:15). They had the wrong idea.

So for the people of Israel in our first lesson. After their miraculous deliverance and exodus from Egypt, when the month’s worth of food they had taken began to run out, they began to be hungry. Then they began to wonder and question the wisdom of their ever leaving slavery in Egypt. As uncertainty and pain set it they began to murmur and grumble. But they didn’t murmur or grumble against God, but against Moses and Aaron. “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for YOU have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Uncertainty and fear can drive you to misguided conclusions. For it was not Moses and Aaron who brought them out but God. So God gave them quail to eat and miraculous bread, but He did that, God says, not just to fill their bellies but as a test to see if He could wake them up to remember and to “know that it was the Lord who brought them out of the land of Egypt” (16:6, 12).

Now we could imagine that God would have been totally justified if He would have just ignored His people’s grumbling or even just abandoned them because of their spiritual blindness and ingratitude. But this is the important detail of the story, namely, that God doesn’t turn away from us but actually inclines His ear to us even in our complaining.

How many prophets or psalms are full of expressions of weeping, despair and complaint? Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet. The excruciating story of Job forces you to face the tragedy and suffering of life that is but common to all. The psalms give us words of complaint, saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1). “I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him” (Ps 142:2). “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping” (Ps 6:6). And again, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (Ps 42:5).

The people grumbled. Yet even Moses didn’t always play the strong, positive, reliable Charleton Heston. He wasn’t immune to despair as he also complained to God, saying, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me” (Ex 17:4).

But the record of God’s dealing with sinners is that He doesn’t wait for them (for us) to cry out and come to Him first. Indeed they (we) cannot; we “cannot by our own reason or strength” get things started with reestablishing a relationship with God. We can’t because the only way we think we can is by way of the Law. And, as the experienced and inspired apostle Paul said, “by works of the law no human being will be justified” (Rom 3:20). No, thanks be to God He inclines His ear to our complaint. Out of love He comes to us. For “God so loved the world….”

In fact He did more than merely incline His ear, more than merely feeling sympathy from His high throne. He came to us to rescue us. Taking on our flesh and blood of the Virgin Mary He brought His compassion to heal us, and to feed us, not just with manna for the stomach but with bread from heaven, namely, Himself, “He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33).

And He gives life to the world by means of taking up our complaint into Himself—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken ME?” “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death” (Ps 22:14-15). Then He literally gave His life for the world on the Cross.

Here the King of all the ages,
Throned in light ere worlds could be,
Robed in mortal flesh is dying,
Crucified by sin for me. (LSB 428:2)

Another psalm says, “O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear” (Ps 10:17). And so He did not abandon His soul to Sheol, or let His holy one see corruption (Ps 16:10), but raised Him from the dead in order that all who look, who believe, who are baptized into His death are now raised from their despair, their weakness, their death and given the gift of life so that complaint turns to praise and says with confidence, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps 23:6).

When the people of Israel saw the food, the “fine, flake-like thing” God gave, they said, “Manna?” “What’s this?” Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” When the people asked Jesus for more bread, He said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” For life is more than food or clothes for the body. It is the forgiveness of sins and salvation that is alone by faith in Jesus.

Bring your needs, your fears and uncertainty, your complaint to God. For He inclines His ear to hear and to save. He gives you the Bread of Life.