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We moan, God carries on!

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1 Kings 19:4-8, John 6:35, 41-51
10th Sunday after Trinity
(12.8.12)

Every year the lectionary gives us John chapter 6 for the whole of August. Having 5 weeks to speak on the same theme can be a little difficult. It reminds me of the story of a missionary to China in the late 19th century, Jonathan Goforth. After he’d spoken in a chapel in southern China, a man said to him, "I’ve heard you speak three times, and you always speak of Jesus. Why?”

Jonathan replied, “Sir, before answering your question, let me ask, What did you have for dinner today?” “Rice,” replied the man “What did you have yesterday?” “Rice.” “And what do you expect to eat tomorrow?” “Rice, of course. It gives me strength. I could not do without it, it is my life!” The missionary quickly responded, “What you have said of rice, Jesus is to our soul! He is the ‘rice’ or ‘the Bread of Life.’”

And it’s true He is the very substance of our life. But, let’s face it; human beings can be fickle as is seen in our readings today. Verse 41 says the people began to grumble. They’ve just seen Jesus feed 5000 people with 2 fish and 5 loaves. Now He’s trying to teach them that instead of hungering for bread that perishes they should be seeking the bread of life. They grumble because Jesus says He is the bread that has come down from heaven.

In last week’s Old Testament Reading the Israelites grumbled when God gave them manna in the wilderness. Human nature hasn’t changed very much: the Israelites moaned, the Jewish crowd with Jesus did and, guess what? So do we!

Just after I first came to Willingham someone asked me who had picked me. Who had decided that I should become your vicar? I explained it was a mixture of people appointed by the PCC and diocesan officials. Amazed the person replied that they could not believe that anyone from the PCC would have appointed me as I was not what this church wants! The grumbling in this morning’s Gospel is remarkably similar as the crowd question how Jesus could be the person they wanted. Wasn’t He just the son of Joseph the carpenter. How could He say He’s from heaven.

Today’s Old Testament reading was about Elijah having a moan at God too. Hounded and frightened by those who don’t like the words and actions he brings from God, he runs away bemoaning his sad lot in life.

We all have times of moaning at God and usually there’s a pattern to it. The Israelites, for example had seen God use Moses to part the Red Sea and secure their freedom from slavery in Egypt. By God’s power Elijah has just performed an
amazing miracle against the prophets of Baal. The people moaning at Jesus had seen Him miraculously feed 5000. It appears that experiencing a great high in life inevitably means that a low follows on. It’s rare to live on the mountaintop for more than a few moments. We need to come down to a low point to consolidate. We can’t expect to see great and mighty wonders 24/7. We often forget it, but God works in small and quiet ways too.

Jesus says He’s the bread of life. Bread was, and is, a basic staple of life. The bread of life doesn’t just feed our bodies on a daily basis but feeds our very souls unto everlasting life. Jesus performed a great miracle with bread that was seen with the eyes. There’s an even greater miracle performed through the bread of life that is known only by our souls. Jesus started with what looked very little but it was miraculously enough for everyone. The same is true of Jesus himself, the Bread of Life. Many people wonder how one man 2,000 years ago can make a difference to us today. The greatest miracle is that He is enough to give us, and everyone who believes in Him, throughout the world, eternal life.

St James wrote (5:17) “Elijah was as human as we are”. We might idealise men and women in Scripture, but the Bible is the word of truth and describes, warts and all, even the
greatest and James probably had this morning’s Old Testament reading in mind. It comes straight after Elijah has celebrated God’s victorious defeat of the prophets of Baal. Here we see him at his lowest. How quickly he has moved from the mountaintop of triumph to the valley.

Spurgeon says Elijah “retreated before a beaten enemy.” God’s hand had been on him in the really difficult part, but sadly he starts walking by sight instead of faith.

Fortunately he calls out to God, albeit not in a wise way: “I’ve had enough - take my life” he says. “I’m no better than my fathers. Actually never asked him to be better than anybody else, only to hear His Word and obey it. But, God listens and deals with him graciously. Sometimes the best remedy is sleep and while the prophet sleeps God sends an angel to care for him.

This passage later describes Elijah standing on the mountain while God passes by. First, comes a strong wind that breaks rocks, then a great earthquake shakes the mountain. Then comes fire. After these dramatic displays of power, there’s “a still, small voice.” It’s only in this quietness that Elijah recognises the voice of God.

It’s God’s way of saying to Elijah, “You called fire from heaven, you had the prophets of Baal slain, you prayed down a terrific rainstorm, but now you feel like a failure. You must realize that I don’t usually work in loud, impressive, and dramatic ways. Much of the time, I speak to people in tones of gentle love and quiet persuasion.”

This might be difficult for some to understand. But when He wanted to start the Jewish nation, He sent baby Isaac; when He wanted to deliver Israel from bondage, He sent baby Moses. He sent a teenager, David to kill the Philistine giant. When He wanted to save the world, He sent His Son as a weak and vulnerable baby. Today, He reaches out to His world through “earthen vessels” like us. No matter how much or how often we fail Him, God’s never at a loss to know what to do.

He assured Elijah his ministry hadn’t been a failure, there were still 7,000 faithful people in the land. The prophet wasn’t alone, and He sends Elijah to return to his place of duty. We often have to retrace our steps and make a new beginning. God sent Elijah to touch the lives of three other people to help him. God encouraged Elijah to stop weeping over the past and running away from the present. When God’s in command, there’s always hope.

In the Gospel passage Jesus disturbs the religious leaders, for saying He came down from heaven He was claiming deity. They thought they knew Jesus, who He was and where He came from. They identified Jesus with Nazareth and not Bethlehem. They thought Joseph was His natural father. Had they investigated they would’ve learned who Jesus really is. Their knowledge was superficial.

Similarly the manna was a mysterious thing to the Jews; in fact, the word manna means “What is it?” Jesus was a mystery to those who saw Him. But it’s not difficult to see a picture of Jesus in the manna. The manna came at night from heaven, as Jesus came to earth amidst spiritual darkness. The manna was small: His humility, round: His eternality, and white: His purity. As the Bible describes the word of God it was sweet to the taste. A gracious gift of God given to a rebellious people, it met their needs. All they had to do was stoop and pick this small thing up.

There’s a wide gap between God’s ways and our understanding of them. If it were not so we would be equal to Him.

When Elijah looked at himself and his failures instead of at God’s greatness and power, he began walking by sight
instead of faith. But God sustained him and showed him his understanding of the situation was limited. He came to Elijah in a different way than he expected. There was a big gap between what Elijah understood and what God knew.

Sometimes God prefers the still and small. Looking back we see it was often small things that prompted us to act in certain ways. And yet we see that God used those ways to lead us to where we are.

Don’t limit God to big events and become dissatisfied with the small. It’s not for us to dictate what methods God should use. It’s our duty to trust and obey. When we‘re working hard to do God’s will but are discouraged because nothing seems to be happening, remember that God works in both the big and the small. We may have preconceived notions about what God does and how He blesses, but God works in all things for the good of those who love Him.

Amen.

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