The collect this morning urges that God may so guide us through things temporal that we lose not the things eternal; this morning, with the readings from 2 Kings and the Gospel of John before us we are called to consider the rightly-ordered place of things temporal in our lives, as well as the place of things eternal.
As some of you may remember, I had a very furry temporal friend the first time I came to Cooperstown, his name was Ben, and he was 100 pounds of love, drool, and hair. His tenure here was somewhat short-lived, but he made every move with me and Jordan till this very month. On the first of July, as he lost the ability to eat, and then to walk, we put him down. After 8 years of constant companionship, there was very much a Ben-shaped hole in my life. But this absence occasioned reflection on things more eternal. This fully, sometimes-annoyingly, temporal being literally shaped my life — I would move around the kitchen to avoid the big, hopeful face and tongue that begged for a scrap, I instinctually stepped aside any time I opened the backdoor, because the huge hulk would drive himself right through it to freedom. While I was disappointed in myself at moments that I didn’t pay him more attention, and I hoped that he had known how much I loved him, I realized that perhaps, the very shape of my life, the way that my days and ways were formed to Ben’s rhythms, was itself a testament to our love.
This made me wonder if perhaps, too, my life with God was so underpinned by his presence, so shaped by God’s grace and work in my life, that while I could imagine greater contortions that might wring out a bit more piety from my soul, maybe I would only know the extent of God’s hand in my life by its absence, something I hope not to experience.
With this taste of how the temporal and the eternal is laced through our lives, let us now turn to the Scripture readings to consider how the temporal and the eternal are valued and placed by God for our good.
In 2 Kings, the prophet Elisha has recently taken over from his mentor Elijah, and this particular section is the last in a set of four miracles which parallel the story of Elijah, affirming for the people and for future readers the strong lineage between these two men of God.
Read in the context of the feeding of the five thousand in John this morning, this story’s christological angle is highlighted. The words in the mouths of Elisha and Jesus are almost identical in parts, the helpers all wondering how so little food would stretch to fill so many bellies, and each leader saying, “they shall eat and have some left.”
So we see here in the Old Testament, even in a scant three verses, that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Elijah and Elisha, works the same way, does the same sorts of things, as the God known in Jesus Christ. This God provides food for his people. And not only that, but look again, if you would at whence comes the food in this passage — at the hand of a man from Baal-shalishah. Just as places where Yahweh-worshipers lived often boasted the name of their God in the titles, it’s easy to see that this man and thereby, the town itself, was associated with, that is, was devoted to, Baal, that infamous god of Ahab and Jezebel, god of fertility and weather, him of capricious will, god who demanded child sacrifice and delighted in manipulating with terror the lives of those who ascribed to him.
By naming this god in the town which submitted to the God Yahweh, the Scripture shows that all idols bow to the God who freely distributes bread to all people. That is, the God alone who is able to keep the promises he makes. There’s an echo here, in the deliverance from hunger which Yahweh provides, of the great contest which Elijah undertook, when the priests of Baal were unable to call down fire for their offering, while Yahweh scorched ground which had been swamped with cisterns of water at the zenith of the great drought which was visited upon the people of Ahab and Jezebel.
We learn in both readings today that the God Yahweh, the God made known in Jesus Christ, is one who is able to keep his promises, one who is able to provide food for people. This is the one God who is true and faithful, who offers security and true love with acceptance. The God Yahweh provides things temporal, cares for creation which is in temporal bonds, has mercy upon the people, animals, plants, and all creation which is ruled by temporal existence. This God cares.
This same message is underlined, highlighted, expanded, reiterated, in the testimony given in our Gospel lesson today; that Jesus fed 5,000 men with five loaves and two fish. Joining the lineage of Elijah and Elisha, and even more, bringing it to fruition in himself, Jesus himself blesses and breaks the bread to feed the thousands of hungry bellies; rather than attributing the miracle to the Lord God, as Elijah and Elisha do, Jesus intimates that he himself is the man, by his action in verse 11, “Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted.” By this sign, we see, as the people who ate and were filled also saw, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (v. 14)
And just as happened in 2 Kings, so in the Gospel of John; these people who enjoyed temporal relief of their hunger had done no special thing to merit the service. THey had not earned the bread by the sweat of their brow, they had not tilled the soil or threshed the grain, they had not even gone to the marketplace with their own coin for the honor of sated hunger. They freely received the gift that this God offers. This God offers the gift of security and love without need of a sacrifice, unlike that of Baal, or that of any other idol or false god throughout all history.
Having learned something important about the character of this God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, this God of Elijah and Elisha, this God made known in Jesus Christ, let us now consider the eternal aspect of his gift. Just as the temporal gifts of bread and of canine companionship have their limits in life, what more does God have for his people, for us, when we look past the things temporal, that we may perceive the things eternal?
This God, revealed in Jesus, ascribed to in Christianity, wants to give his people more than just food for their bellies, he wants to do more than just a tangible miracle, more than some sleight of hand with great yeast and dough; Yahweh is not just the giver of loaves. He is the giver of life. Later in this same chapter, which you will hear in weeks to come, Jesus reveals himself to be the bread of life. “Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (6:35)
So here our reflection is enriched by its consideration of God’s miracle through Elisha: when God goes up against idols, any being that takes primary place in our hearts, any philosophy or lifeline outside of Yahweh himself, God is shown to be the only one faithful and true, the only one who can deliver on his promises.
Money, for example, can provide a certain kind of security for awhile, but it’s also easy to become isolated, bitter, and even frightened when this kind of security is so frail — money can be take away from us at any time, whether we store it under your mattresses or in an investment account. Its security is temporal, its security is feeble. If followed as a god which offers safety, it falls short. Only Yahweh can provide true, eternal security.
As another example, be known and loved is seated deep in our human nature, just as is the need for food, and for security. We long to be understood and to be loved for who we are, but each of us are wounded and let down by others as we neglect to be loved perfectly, as we face real trauma in our families or work, as the vagaries of life enact their justice upon us. So we are again, isolated and perhaps even embittered by the ways that the false gods of love and acceptance beat us up and spit us out. Only the Lord God revealed in Jesus Christ knows each of us fully and embraces each of us completely. Only Yahweh loves us, knows us, and can say truly at the end of our battles, “well done, good and faithful servant.”
So finally, let us bring this reflection to the union of tangible and spiritual, to the zenith — and ending place — for this morning. God provides for our daily bread, yes, but God also provides for the eternal hunger of our hearts in giving us the gift of his Son, Jesus Christ. And so it is that on the night before Jesus’s body was given into the hands of evil, and was traipsed through the holy streets of Jerusalem on its journey to the cross and death, that Jesus, that is, the God Yahweh in human flesh, took the holy, eternal bread of his body, he broke it, and he gave it to those who would follow him to be for them the bread of life, the everlasting nourishment not just for bodies, but for our very souls.
May we prepare ourselves to receive this most glorious gift of Holy Communion, and then, brothers and sisters, to walk into the world, testifying not only to God’s temporal provision for all people, but also of his eternal love for each and every one. Amen.