Our brothers and sisters immortalized in today’s Gospel passage ask for a sign from Jesus (John 6:22-35). “If only you’ll give us a sign, if only you’ll do a great deed, complete an impressive work—then we can believe you; then we can believe that you are God incarnate. Then we will believe that God is standing in front of us—if you conjure up some magic trick on command—that will convince us that you are all-powerful.”
Of course, Jesus has just fed the 5,000 earlier in chapter 6 of John’s gospel, and the crew that questions him this morning is the same one who had just enjoyed the great big feast. Further, they’d done a geometrical story problem (John 6:22-25) and figured out that Jesus must have done some kind of fancy footwork to end up in Capernaum across the sea from where they’d been—John tells us that he’d walked on the water, another miracle, but we can’t tell whether the crowd suspects Jesus of surfing the waves on his own two feet.
Either way, two major miracles—big ole signs—have happened in the last chapter, and yet these people ask for yet another great work to be done. It’s almost incomprehensible; Jesus has done nothing except big showy miracles in their sight the last few days, and all they can do is ask for more.
We find a similar situation in our Old Testament passage this morning, from Exodus (16:2-4, 9-15). The Hebrew people have just been led through the Red sea. At the end of chapter 14, they “see the Egyptians dead upon the seashore” (14:30). In the following chapter, 15, they sing praise to God for their deliverance, for the miracle of their safety, and for the power of their Lord and God. After that, God provides sweet water for them out of a spring that had been bitter and undrinkable, and following that feat, God leads them to a desert oasis—Elim—which has 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees (15:27). And yet, at the opening of chapter 16, the passage read this morning, the Israelites wonder aloud whether God has forgotten them as they’ve been wandering about in the wilderness.
“And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.” (Ex. 16:2)
More than just grumbling about thirst, they start to say under their breath—and then more loudly—how it would have been better to stay in Egypt. “Forget this freedom,” they say, “at least in Egypt we had three square meals a day!” They threaten to turn back, they lament being led into a sandy grave; if they were going to die either way, why-oh-why could Moses have just left them alone to do their hopeless dying in Egypt?
What would it take for you to believe in Jesus?
What miracle or sign would you need to put your whole trust in his mercy and his love? What would convince you that Jesus Christ is the risen Son of God?
When the Israelites complain against Aaron and Moses, the anger isn’t about the leadership of these brothers from Egypt, but about how God has chosen to lead his people. We’d rather not be in the wilderness. We’d rather not be depending on God for water every time we’re thirsty. We’d rather have houses to live in and count on instead of these flimsy tents that are broken down each day. This nomadic lifestyle is exhausting and we’ve got nowhere firm to put our feet.
Sure, God has shown again and again, in Exodus and in John’s Gospel, that the people will never go thirsty and they will always have God on which to build the foundation of their homes, but just like so many teenagers, we roll our eyes, saying, “God, we didn’t mean YOU to be our ‘firm foundation,’ we want to shore up our security in our possessions, like everybody else!” “We don’t want to have to ask you every time we need water or food or some provision. Can’t you just build us a Publix?”
God the Good Parent compassionately tells the Hebrew people in the wilderness, “No. I am your Father. I am your foundation. I am your food.” Later on in Israel’s history, the people cry out for a king, and though God knows better, he eventually relents—and throughout the rest of the Old Testament, we read about how that turns out (spoiler alert: it doesn’t turn out well for anybody, least of all for the Israelites). God tells the people of John’s Gospel, you didn’t come looking for a Lord and God, you came looking for more bread for your bellies; if you truly want a Lord and God, here he is—to which the people reply, wait a second, we’re not sure we meant this kind of Lord and God or this kind of food, give us something a little more grand and god-like, a little more tangible.
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)
It’s not a coincidence that the wafers we eat during Communion each Sunday are “fine, flake-like things” (Ex. 16:14), almost as delicate as frost. We’re meant to be reminded of Manna when we eat the bread and drink the cup. God provides water for his thirsty people, God provides bread for our deepest hunger. Church is purposely reminding us every week of our place in God’s story, our place in God’s heart, our belonging to God. By eating those wafers, the body of Christ, we’re even claiming our own place in this story—in Scripture—as God’s adopted people.
Speaking of adoption, I’m reminded of the sweet souls to be baptized today; in a few moments we’ll make promises on their behalf, each of us adopting them as our brothers and sisters in God’s family. We’ll be taking responsibility to help them walk in the wilderness and to show them how to continually seek God’s face and his foundation for our own lives and for their lives. Today they come, quoting our brothers and sisters in John’s Gospel saying, “Sir, give us this bread always.” They’re joining in thousands of years of adopted family, declaring that the bread of Jesus’ body is more important than the security of riches and Christ the sure foundation is more firm than millions in silver and gold. They are being adopted today into the same people who wander in the wilderness and who traipse through the Capernaum countryside, hungry for God.
We often mistake that hunger for many other things—not least for the oppressive comforts of Egypt and the comparatively shallow salve of filled bellies—but God continues to lead and to chase us, even when we demand further signs and evidences and proofs of his Lordship. As these sweet children of God come to be baptized, may we remember and reflect upon the truth that we are God’s children, that the God made known in Jesus Christ has the first claim on our lives, that he has led us out of the oppressive, dark sin of Egypt, he has freed us from our bonds to evil and Satan, he has set us upon the firm foundation of his own body and blood, and provides for every true thirst we experience.
“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.’” (John 6:35)