Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 12, 2018
John 6:35, 41-51 Commentary
“Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert yet they died.”
That’s what Jesus said and it’s a pretty easy verse to cruise past and not much ponder. I mean, of course those people died—in fact, they had died about 1,000 years ago!! And since no one even a millennium earlier had ever said manna would keep you alive forever if you kept eating the stuff, noting the fact that those ancestors ate and died seems about as profound a thing to say as “Your great-great-grandfather ate his fruits and vegetables his whole life and then he died.” Well, I didn’t really expect fruit and veggies to mean Grandpa would still be with us at the age of 187 so . . . what’s the point?
Did Jesus here in John 6 mean “death” more metaphorically, in a spiritual sense perhaps? Well, here’s hoping he did not mean that the Israelites died to eternal perdition on account of their having been born prior to the advent of the Messiah. Although Jesus does go on to use death in this spiritual sense—claiming that if we eat Jesus’ flesh we will never die—he cannot have meant it in that sense when applied to ancient Israel.
There appears to be more than a little fluidity in terminology here. Perhaps one way to get through this apparently confusing tangle is to recognize that over time, “manna” became a symbol for far more than the flaky, bread-like stuff the Israelites received in the desert. Manna became a symbol for the presence of God and the Word of God and the gifts of God generally—for all things that contribute to our salvation, in short. And even as a physical substance, the original manna was a true source of wonder and delight, a key sign that God was with his people, sustaining life in a place that was otherwise shot through with death.
But now in John 6 Jesus seems to be saying that for all its wonder—and despite all the metaphorical significance that accrued to manna over time—it pales in comparison to the true spiritual sustenance God is ultimately providing for his people through the Christ of God, whose sacrificed flesh will well up inside God’s people as a source of Eternal Life that not even physical death can snuff out.
Jesus will say something very similar to Martha on the occasion of Lazarus’ death a bit later in this gospel in John 11. So perhaps the reason Jesus brings up manna in this context is along the lines of “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” The original manna was great. It was a true life saver. It signaled the presence of God among his people in a place of death. But it was, in the end, a temporary fix. It was part of the story of salvation, not the whole story and not the climax of that story. If anything, it could only point toward the greater Bread from heaven that was yet to come.
The original manna didn’t cost the Israelites anything and, presumably, was an easy thing for an Almighty God to provide as well. Receiving the ultimate Manna will finally be a cost-free gift for also us. But the power of that Manna will be revealed in the fact that it ended up costing God a very great deal indeed. God so loved the world (as Jesus told Nicodemus three chapters earlier in John) that he sent his only Son. He sent him to die.
As bread goes, that’s pretty costly fare. Small wonder that in the hands of God, it provides sustenance for nothing short of life eternal.
As noted in last week’s commentary—which was actually just a whole sample sermon—the Year B Lectionary keeps treading water here in John 6 for five whole Sundays. Few preachers have enough illustrations on “Bread” to keep things going that long!! So maybe this lection and this mention of manna can give us preachers a fresh angle to compare—as I just did above—the old with the new, the sneak preview in the Pentateuch with the main attraction as it arrived in Jesus. Maybe it’s a chance to remind everyone of the Grand Story of which we are all privileged to be a part.
In an age of soundbites in which people often seem to have no sense for the big picture or for history or for anything like a meta-narrative that can bind life together, perhaps the reminder we get in this part of John 6 of a very sovereign God who is patiently working out a plan across the whole span of history can be a properly bracing thing to point the congregation toward.
It reminds me of Terrence Malick’s (usually misunderstood) film, The Tree of Life. Much of the film centers on an ordinary family living in a small Texas town in the 1950s.
But Malick deftly locates the trials and tribulations of this one family inside a cosmic (and God-driven) drama that went back to the Big Bang and whose forward trajectory was nothing short of glorious, ending in a New Creation. The film intersperses the mundane scenes on earth with the majestic images of God’s unfolding cosmos of grandeur.
That’s the location of all our living before the face of God. That’s why God’s been feeding his people in various ways for so long now. And that is why it is more than a blessing of divine grace to be in touch with the Manna come down from heaven that will sustain us both this day and even forevermore!
When in verse 35 Jesus says that he is ho artos tes zoes, “the bread of life,” he’s saying more than that he’s just bread that’s alive. He’s also claiming that he’s the bread that gives life. Raymond Brown notes that verse 41 is the first example of John referring to the people of Galilee as “the Jews,” a term he typically uses to describe those who are hostile to Jesus in Jerusalem.
While the Lord of the Rings is not strictly speaking a Christian allegory (Tolkien was always careful to point that out), it certainly has theological images and allusions. Perhaps preachers can help those who listen hear how Lembas summons up echoes of Jesus as the “bread of life.”
Lembas is bread used for long journeys by elves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It has amazing powers to both sustain travelers and even bring healing to the wounded or sick. One piece of Lembas was enough to last a traveler a full day. Its delicious honey-flavor evokes images of the manna God provided Israel in the wilderness.
However, a quote from The Return of the King suggests Lembas has even more striking powers: “The Lembas had a virtue without which they would have long ago lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of elves had a potency that increased as travelers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind” (italics added).
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