Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sermon: Laetare (Lent 4)

18 March 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: John 6:1-15 (Exodus 16:2-21, Acts 2:41-47) (One Year Series)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Our sinful flesh is never satisfied. The more of anything we get, the more it becomes expected, and the less we appreciate what we have. This is nothing new. In the Garden of Eden, mankind had everything his heart could desire. Our first parents lived in complete and total bliss and had nothing to bother them – no fears, no sickness, no disease, no pain, and no death. They enjoyed the richness of the fruits of the earth, and complete freedom. Well, almost complete freedom. The one thing they could not do was to unseat God.

All the gifts of God became expected and unappreciated, and the one thing they could not do became the thing they desired. And like the dog in Aesop’s fable who saw his own reflection in the pond and greedily went after the image of the bone belonging to his reflection, mankind lost everything. Bored with the bounty of God, mankind chose to trade it all in for sin, death, and the devil.

It’s a very old story, one that is told again and again.

It plays out historically in our Old Testament lesson as God has given his chosen people freedom after 400 years under the Egyptian yoke. Leaving behind the cruelty of slavery, of centuries of exile only being able to dream about the land promised to their father Abraham, after what seemed to be a situation devoid of hope – the Israelites were set free. They were led by God’s powerful prophet Moses. The children of Israel witnessed miracle after miracle and sign after sign of God’s providence and grace. They saw the plagues visited upon the Egyptians. They were passed over from the wrath of God as their own children were spared while the Egyptian boys were cut down. They saw first hand God working through Aaron and Moses to part the Red Sea, keeping them safe while destroying their enemies. And now, they find themselves on the road to take possession of the Land of Milk and Honey promised to Abraham.

But in short order, this was becoming old and boring. “Then the whole congregation of the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.” The wonders and mercy of God had become familiar, taken for granted, and worst of all: boring. The menu was so much better in Egypt. There was a variety at mealtime that is missing here in the desert. And imagine how the d├ęcor just isn’t cutting it!

In His patience, the Lord provides them the miraculous bread from heaven, the manna, that will sustain them on their journey. He also blesses them with quail meat that falls into their hands with no effort – not unlike the way food was provided in the Garden of Eden. And since it was all being provided, there was no need to hoard. And yet, some did. And so the grumbling people of God respond to God’s grace by being unappreciative and greedy. And we really haven’t changed much, have we?

In our Gospel reading, the New and Greater Moses, is leading the New Israel to the Promised Land, to the recreated Eden, by doing what God has always done: sustaining and feeding His people, giving them their daily bread.

It was nearly the Passover, the commemoration of God’s miraculous deliverance of His people from slavery in Egypt. Great crowds are there to listen, but they have no food. Jesus slyly points out that money will not resolve this situation, the bread He plans on giving them is not for sale at any price. And as He did through Moses, God provides bread and meat for His people through the signs and wonders of His prophet – in the case of Jesus, “the Prophet who is to come into the world” – the very Bread of Life Himself, in the flesh and in the loaf.

Jesus Himself gives thanks, and orders the distribution of this holy bread to those who follow Him, who hear His Word, those burdened by their sins and who wish to be disciples of this Prophet of all prophets, this fulfillment of Moses, this living Bread from Heaven. He uses his ministers to distribute the food, and to reverently collect what is not consumed by the people “so that nothing is lost.” The people believed in Jesus by this sign, by hearing His Word, and by eating the bread He distributes through His servants.

But in spite of all the Lord has done for them, in the face of all He has taught them, in the aftermath of this miraculous sign, the Lord’s followers are still sinners. They misconstrue this sign, and seek selfishly to crown Him king. Instead of seeing a kingdom not of this world, and a King who is Creator, Prophet, Priest, and Redeemer – these sinful disciples of Jesus see a welfare program, a politician who can hand out free food. And Jesus proves He is no politician, for rather than form an exploratory committee and hire a PR firm, He slips away to be alone.

Dear friends, we are like the children of Israel, who grumble in the face of God’s extravagant mercy and lavish gifts. We are like the five thousand insofar as we want God to provide us with goodies of this world rather than treasures to be stored up in Heaven. We are no different than Adam and Eve, wanting what was not ours and showing contempt for what has been given us. We need to repent of our inability to be content, our hoarding, our blindness to what is really important.

These passages of Holy Scripture are a mirror, and in them, we see every flaw and blemish writ large upon our very faces.

In the early church of our reading from the Book of Acts, we also see a gathering of God’s people, of signs, and of bread. First, these people were baptized. Then, they heard the doctrine of the apostles, followed by fellowship with their brothers and sisters in that faith. And that fellowship is nothing other than the liturgy: the breaking of bread and prayers. And these early Christians did not hoard, but shared of their bounty. Instead of having less, they had more – not unlike the twelve basketfuls left over after our Lord fed the five thousand. “The Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”

In baptism, in preaching and teaching apostolic doctrine, in fellowship, in the liturgy, and in storing up treasure in heaven by sharing with those in need, the Church was blessed with growth. The early Christians made no provision for grumbling, for a sinful desire for variety and for satisfaction of the selfish craving to be entertained. The church did not water down doctrine to appease the tolerant and deviant Roman culture. They did not only think of themselves, and jealously guard their time and possessions. They took comfort in what might have been seen as boring by others: by the reading of Scripture, the preaching of the Word, by the participation in the sacraments, by prayer and the singing of praise to God in pious hymns.

And though the Book of Acts is describing the people of God of nearly two thousand years ago, God is still doing the “same old same old” – and thanks be to God that He is! For we are also the “same old same old” - rebels from the gifts of Eden, whiners and complainers in the face of grace and plenty, seekers of earthly treasure and a desire for others to provide for our wants, and despisers of the Word of God and the sacraments. We are poor reflections of our forbears in the ancient Church, who lived in times of peril, of martyrdom, who never had the luxuries we all enjoy today, and yet who served as saintly examples enshrined in Holy Scripture of what the Church is expected to be, yes, even what she shall be for all eternity when this flawed earth and heaven pass away.

In a few moments, God will once again provide sustenance for his rebellious wanderers in the desert, for us complainers and hoarders. The Lord will once again break bread for the many and will use His unworthy ministers to distribute the Bread of Life of His body to you. They will likewise pour the very New Testament of His blood into your mouths. And just as the children of Israel were sustained by this miracle, so too will we. And just as Jesus was physically present to His people in the Book of Acts in the liturgy, so too He is for you today.

So, if you find the liturgy boring, if you want Jesus to give you something worldly instead of eternal life, if you want to break the commands of God in the delusion that you can be like God through your disobedience, repent! God is giving you the miracle of everlasting life, right here, and right now.

And this is why we call this Sunday in Lent “Laetare.” It means “to be glad.” For even in Lent, even as we ponder our sins, even as we struggle to deny ourselves and take up our cross, even as we come to grips with our grumbling, unbelieving flesh – we are glad.

As we sang upon our entrance, our Introit, into this house: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord.’” For this house is the House of God, the House of Bread, the House of Peace! “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad with her, all you who love her; that you may feed and be satisfied with the consolation of her bosom.” Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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