Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sermon: Lent 4 - Laetare

22 March 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: John 6:1-15 (Ex 16:2-21, Acts 2:41-47)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

The word “grace” is based on the same word as “gratitude.” When we are given grace, which is to say, when we are given a gift, the natural attitude is to show gratitude, to be grateful.

Indeed, to be called an “ingrate” is not a compliment.

The children of Israel were freed from slavery, were taken care of physically and spiritually by Moses and Aaron, and were on their way to the promised land. They were shown grace from God beyond measure. Were they grateful?

“And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, ‘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.’”

In their grumbling, they actually tell Moses it would have been better for them to die as slaves than live as free men. They felt that the Lord’s plan to free them was not a gift, but a curse. They not only know better than God, they believe death is a solution to their problems rather than the wages of sin.

Their complaint is perplexing. It comes across like the ungrateful Katrina refugees who made headlines by grumbling that all they had was water to drink instead of soft drinks.

Moses reminds the people that they are really not grumbling against himself and Aaron, but against the Lord. And yet, the Lord is patient with His ungrateful people. He hears their cries of hunger, and provides for them. In His mercy, He gives them a bounty of quail meat and the mystical bread known as “manna” which ensures that none of the Lord’s people will be hungry in their sojourn from slavery into the promised land.

Yet even then, some of the people disregard the Lord’s instruction and try to horde extra quantities of manna. For that is what sin does – it blinds us to the richness of the Lord’s bounty, makes us think we are in want, and leads us to disregard God’s Word in search of selfish gain. Instead of being grateful, how often do we start grumbling and whining? Instead of thanking God for His bountiful salvation, how often do we pout that we should have more than we do?

This daily ration of supernatural bread is called to mind in the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” In the Greek of the New Testament, the word we translate “daily” is tricky. It can mean daily, but it can also mean “supernatural.” For man indeed does not live by bread alone. When we pray for our daily bread, as we recite in the catechism, we are indeed petitioning the Lord to supply us with “everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods,” etc. And yet, “daily bread” also means that which sustains us spiritually, the supernatural bread of Holy Communion, the miraculous forgiveness of sins, eternal life, being able to hear the Word of God and pray. For man does indeed live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God – and for that grace shown to us, we are grateful. For this newness of life, we are a Eucharistic people, that is, a people of thanksgiving.

For grumbling is the very opposite of the Eucharist. Like those who hoarded the manna, those who grumbled were demonstrating their lack of faith in the Lord’s providence.

In the eyes of the world, grumblers are often seen as sophisticated, like a wine aficionado who wrinkles his nose and orders the waiter to bring him a new bottle. Grumbling at one’s station in life says to the world: “I’m worth more,” but it also says to God: “I know better than You do.”

The same attitude manifests itself as our Lord performs miracles, including the feeding of the five thousand. Now, there was no grumbling going on – after all, everyone got a free meal – but the same dissatisfaction with the Lord’s will was still evident as the people completely missed the point about the grace of God.

Our Lord was performing “signs” as the evangelist John calls “miracles.” These demonstrations of the Lord’s power were not being done as parlor tricks, but rather as signifiers of something greater. Our Lord is making a point by performing signs – He is teaching them about Himself and His kingdom. He is demonstrating that He is God and that He is loving and merciful. He multiplies bread in anticipation of the miraculous distribution of His body in the form of bread in the Holy Supper – bread that will never run out, bread that provides grace sufficient for the day.

And yet, the people did not see this as a lesson on the kingdom of God, nor were they even simply content that God had provided for their physical need while He taught them. No indeed! They had other plans. They wanted Jesus to be a king in the kingdom of their choosing. For “they were about to come and take him by force.” Can you even begin to imagine a more ungrateful gesture? In exchange for His feeding them, they show their “gratitude” by conspiring to kidnap Him and hatch a plot to overthrow the temporal government. The matter is so bad that Jesus has to hide in the mountains.

Sin causes both groups of recipients of the bread of life to be ungrateful, to be filled with a desire to harness this power for their own good, to bend the Lord’s grace into something over which they can control.

And this is why our Lord not only taught us to pray: “Give us this day our daily bread,” but also “Thy will be done.”

For this petition is an expression of trust. It is a show of faith that, in the words of Luther, lets God be God. To pray “Thy will be done” is to acknowledge that any benefit we have is strictly a grace, a gift, something for which we should be grateful. For if it is God’s will to allow us poor miserable sinners to partake of the Holy Eucharist, we should give thanks with all our heart, and not complain that the weather isn’t to our liking, or that we don’t like the people we have to sit with in the church, or that the communion wafer isn’t very tasty, or the billions of other things we gripe about in the face of the Lord’s bountiful goodness and mercy.

Rather, we should emulate the saints of the early church, who “day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with the people.” For they found joy not in self-indulgence, but in sharing with their brothers and sisters who were poor. They didn’t seek after greater thrills in life, but “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.”

Dear friends, we have already been saved, redeemed, and given the gift of everlasting life. It has all been earned at the cross and delivered at the font. It is made yours again and again at this altar and from this pulpit. The Lord provides meat and bread for your life in this world, and the forgiveness of sins that gives you eternal life. And for this grace we can indeed be grateful. This is the joy of the Christian life, that whether we experience prosperity or want, health or sickness, celebration or mourning, we have a living bread from heaven that can never be taken from us. The very same Lord that miraculously fed the five thousand with five loaves and two fish – and taught them about the kingdom, the very same God that miraculously fed the children of Israel with quail and manna – and gave them freedom from slavery, also feeds us with our daily bread, with Himself, giving us not only bread but every Word from His mouth that He utters to preserve us. He gives us the kingdom. He gives us Himself. He gives us everlasting life.

We are a people saved by grace and who live by gratitude. Let us adopt the antiphon from our introit, Isaiah 66:10-11 as the very motto of our Christian life:

“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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