Sermon for Proper 14, Year B

August 12, 2018

1 Kings 19:4-8                    Psalm 34:1-8                       Ephesians 4:25-5:2                           John 6:35, 41-51

For the past two Sundays, and again today in the gospel reading, we heard of the manna coming down from heaven to feed the tribe of Israel their daily bread.  The Lord began providing this manna when they complained to Moses that they were starving in the wilderness.  They asked him why he had lead them out of slavery in Egypt only to die of starvation.  Today, our Old Testament reading is from 1st Kings and it is of the prophet Elijah in the wilderness.  He does not ask God for food, but he does ask that he might die.  After doing what the Lord has asked of him, he had to flee for his life.  He is alone in the wilderness with no place to go.

The wilderness is a wonderful metaphor for all the times in our lives when we feel lost, alone, and afraid.  People with no ties to a place or work, and who wander from one location and job to the next are sometimes referred to as drifters.  They seem to have no more purpose than simply surviving.  The people of Israel may have left Egypt with visions of the Promised Land, but they are behaving like drifters.  They are like many in our society today who have trouble seeing beyond the moment.  They are not mentally or spiritual prepared for the long journey ahead that will lead them into the Promised Land.  They want instant gratification.

Many of us today, want someone else to fix to our problems, we don’t want to make necessary sacrifices to improve our own lives.  When we are this way, we are like the people of Israel, who lack commitment and long term vision, spending more time and energy complaining, than working to make their lives better.

Elijah, however, suffers from another problem.  He has done what the Lord asks, and it has cost him everything he has.  He says, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”  He is referring to the ones in wilderness.  I don’t know about you, but I can identify with how Elijah feels in that moment.

There have been many times in my life when I am tired, when I feel all alone, and when I am at a loss for what to do next.  I’m done, I feel used up, and I don’t want to continue.  These are the times I have to remind myself how blessed I am. More often than not, what I need to do is what Elijah does next – sleep.

Like the people of Israel who were complaining and discover the manna next morning, Elijah awakens and finds that God has not deserted him.  God has heard his complaints and answers his prayer with nourishment – not death.  He eats what has been given to him then sleeps some more.  He is awakened a second time to food and drink the Lord provides.  The angel of the Lord says to him, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  As the story continues, Elijah, nourished from above, continues to do the will of God.

It is not at all uncommon for people to share with me stories of their spiritual awakenings, most of which begin as wilderness stories.  Typically, the people in the stories are not literally in the wilderness when they experience the overwhelming presence of God – but some people do experience a spiritual awakening outside in the middle of God’s creation.  I have had such experiences backpacking in a Sequoyah Forest, worshipping in church, and while saying my daily prayers.

Getting away from all the noises and distractions of our daily lives by taking a walk in the woods enables us to rest our minds and see the vastness and beauty of God’s creation.   We can also quite life’s distractions through worship and prayer.  These are all places where, in the midst of our struggles in the wilderness of despair, we find can God.  And, like Elijah, we can be spiritually fed, giving us the strength to continue our journey.    Not only may we find God in the wilderness, we can come to understand that we are never alone.  We might tend to become self-absorbed at times and unaware of Christ’s presence, but God is in the very fabric of our creation, of all creation.

Our gospel reading is a good example of how God can be standing right in front of us and we don’t realize it.  Before this passage, Jesus feeds the five thousand and they are ready to make him king.  The next day, however, the people question him again asking for more signs that he is the messiah.  Jesus then tells them about the spiritual bread from heaven and says, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

This metaphor of Jesus being the spiritual food they need to experience life is lost on the people.  One moment they see Jesus as having being the one sent by God, now they are saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”  Jesus is too familiar; therefore, he cannot be the one sent by God – let alone the third person of the Trinity, the word made flesh.

In my experience, however, when I have been in the wilderness, Christ comes to me in unexpected ways – quite often working through someone familiar.  At other times, however, Christ comes to me through strangers.  Having a stranger show up and offer to help at the precise moment when I need help, is not an experience unique to me.  Words of encouragement at the just the right moment can come from anyone.

Years ago, Brother Mark – double meaning intended, told me a story that I have not forgotten.  In a sermon he challenged his members to look for opportunities to do something nice for someone.  The next week a member shared her experience with him.  She was at Target with full basket of items and she was the next in line at the cashier.  A young woman with only one item got in line behind her.  Remembering Mark’s challenge, the lady invited her to trade places.

After checking out the lady was wheeling her purchases to her car when she noticed the young woman was sitting in the car next to hers and she was crying.  She mustered up the courage to check on the young woman and learned that, after months in the hospital, the woman’s premature baby had died the day before, never having made it home.   She said that when the lady allowed her to cut in line, it was the first act of kindness anyone had shown her.

I don’t for one-minute believe that was the first act of kindness the young mother had received, but I do know that grief is a wilderness experience.  I also know God reaches out to us in the wilderness in so very many ways, and sometimes we are ready to receive it – at other times we are not.  In the parking lot at Target, the young mother was ready.

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven.”  The distinction here is important.  The manna from heaven our ancestors ate nourishes the body, but Jesus comes to nourish our souls.  The lady at Target allowed Christ’s love to work through her that day.  Her random act of kindness lead to the greater gift of listening.  Kindness may get us through the day, but it is Christ’s love, shared with others, that is life-giving.

Love helps us find our way out of the wilderness and back into the world of the living.  Share some of Christ’s love today.  Love seems to be in short supply in our world.  Yet, when we give love to others without an expectation of receiving love, we find we always have more to give.  Christ is with us to fill us with his love so that we might share it with people in the wilderness that they, too, might experience true life.

Let us pray.

Loving and gracious God, help us feel your presence in our lives, help us to be open to your love, and led us out of the wilderness of fear and loneliness.  Then use us, we pray to spread your life-giving love in this world which so desperately is need of its healing power.  We offer these prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.