by Jason Micheli
Psalm 78, John 6 (click to see Scripture text)
In his translation for the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the poet W.H Auden translates today’s psalm thus:
“Hear my teaching, O my people;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
The Lord worked marvels in the sight of their forefathers,
in the land of Egypt.
He led them with a cloud by day,
and all the night through with a glow of fire.
He split the hard rocks in the wilderness
and gave them drink as from the great deep.
But they went on sinning against him,
rebelling in the desert [of Sin] against the Most High.
They tested God in their hearts.
He commanded the clouds above
and opened the doors of heaven.
He rained down manna upon them to eat
and gave them grain from heaven.
So mortals ate the bread of angels;
he provided for them food enough.
He rained down flesh upon them like dust
and wingèd birds like the sand of the sea.
He let it fall in the midst of their camp
and round about their dwellings.
So they ate and were well filled,
for he gave them what they craved.”
Both Auden and the Psalmist render the story of Israel’s wilderness wandering more artfully than Moses felt obliged to bother with in the Book of Exodus. “You’ve brought us out here to kill us!” the Israelites grumble in Exodus 16.
God FREAKING DELIVERED THEM FROM CENTURIES OF SLAVERY in Egypt. They’re still damp from their deliverance through the Red Sea and they’re already griping about being hungry. All it takes is the munchies for their Bob Marley Exodus song to turn into Janet Jackson circa 1986: “What have you done for me lately?!”
“You’ve brought us out here to kill us! At least in Egypt we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted.”
Ungrateful or not, it’s a fair gripe because they’re not lost. No one took a wrong turn into the desert. It’s not Siri’s fault. From the Red Sea forward, God guided them, appearing in a pillar of cloud and fire, straight into godforsaken-ness.
They’re there in the Desert of Sin because God has led them there. And not only is it a justified complaint, it’s a correct complaint. God has brought them there to kill them.
(You won’t hear that from Joel Osteen! You’re welcome.)
God brings them to the desert for the desert to be the death of them.
Auden leaves that out of his artful translation of Psalm 78.
God brings them to the desert for their hunger to be the hospice through which God kills off their old selves. That they so fondly recall their bondage to Pharaoh is proof that they are not yet free. So God brings them to the desert for a different kind of deliverance. God answers their nostalgia for Egypt’s stewpots by upping the ante and providing quail every evening.
“He rained down flesh upon them like dust
and wingèd birds like the sand of the sea.”
Quail was considered a delicacy and according to Moses every evening at twilight this abundance of expense, quail, covered their camp. Wherever they were in the wilderness, it was there.
God responds to their petty, ungrateful griping with a gesture of unmerited extravagance. Even though they begrudge him their deliverance, God gives them the opposite of what they deserve.
Every day a feathered two-part message:
1) Lose your illusions about Egypt
2) I, the Lord your God, am not a Pharaoh.
“Quail covered the camp” Moses writes in the Book of Exodus.
“…like the sand of the sea…” says the Psalmist.
Every evening, fancy five-star fare. And every morning, under the dew of the desert, the opposite of extravagance. Manna. Bread from Heaven.
Because we put the loaves on the altar table instead of smearing the dough on foreheads at Ash Wednesday, it’s easy for us to forget. Bread, in the Bible, is not quail. It’s not food for a fancy feast. Bread, in the Bible, is a token of the Fall. Bread is a symbol for original sin. After God shows Adam the exit from Eden and God’s parting words to Adam: “Because you have disobeyed…by the sweat of your brow, you shall eat bread until you die.”
That comes right before the Ash Wednesday warning: “…for you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Before the Fall, Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Garden. After the Fall, bread becomes a kind of sacrament of their estrangement from the Garden.
And it’s work that requires work: harvesting and grinding and mixing and kneading and rising and waiting and folding and rising and waiting and folding and baking.
Bread is the work that marks their sin but, in the Desert of Sin, God gives it to them as grace. Every morning, what had been their work to perform is God’s grace to provide. Not on any morning is there anything for them to do except trust that wherever they are it will be there and it will be enough— just as God said.
God takes their work and God makes it grace.
All they have to do is take God at his word.
Which is God’s way of undoing what Adam did. Our original, originating sin, after all, wasn’t disobedience. It was disbelief. “Did God really say…?”
Our original sin was unbelief, not our failure to obey God’s law but our failure to trust God’s promise, to trust God’s promise that avoiding the tree in the Garden was for our good. And so in the Desert of Sin, every morning God gives them “the bread of angels” according to his promise.
The work that had been theirs to do becomes God’s work alone.
The symbol of their unfaithfulness becomes a sign of God’s faithfulness.
And God gives it to them as grace. There’s nothing for them to do but trust God’s doing. Anything other than trust alone in the doing of God and the bread of heaven breeds worms.
All their griping doesn’t make it into the Psalm’s whitewashed retelling, but the grumblers were absolutely right. God brought them there to kill them, to exterminate the old, untrusting Adam in them.
First, God gets them out of Egypt.
And then, in the Desert of Sin, God gets the Egypt out of them.
Because it’s slaves who ask “What must I do?” It’s slaves who ask “What do I have to do now? What should I being doing, Lord?” But it’s children who trust their Father to do everything for them.
It’s slaves who ask “What must I do?”
It’s children who trust their Father’s promise that it is done.
They might be cranky with the munchies and ungrateful as all get out, but the Israelites— they’re right. God has led them there to Sin to kill them.
Faith clothed only in the grace of God, trusting that there’s nothing for us to do but believe and receive, for those of us whose self-image is so determined by what we do, faith alone in the grace of God alone— don’t lie— it isn’t just offensive; it feels like dying.
BJ Miller is a palliative care doctor at a facility called Zen Hospice in San Francisco.
According to the New York Times, BJ Miller was a sophomore at Princeton University, one Monday night, he and two friends went out drinking. Late that night, on their way back, drunk and hungry, they headed to WAWA for sandwiches.
There’s a rail junction near the WAWA, connecting the campus to the city’s main train line. A commuter train was parked there that night, idle, tempting BJ Miller and his friends to climb up it.
Miller scaled it first.
When he got to the top, 11,000 volts shot out of a piece of equipment and into Miller’s watch on his left arm and down his legs. When his friends got to him, smoke was rising from his shoes.
BJ Miller woke up several days later in the burn unit at St. Barnabas Hospital to discover it wasn’t a terrible dream. More terribly, he found that his arm and his legs had been amputated.
Turmoil and anguish naturally followed those first hazy days but eventually Miller returned to Princeton where he ended up majoring in art history.
The broken arms and ears and noses of ancient sculptures helped him affirm his own broken body as beautiful. From Princeton, Miller went to medical school where he felt drawn to palliative care because, as he says, “Parts of me died early on. And that’s something, one way or another, we can all say. I got to redesign my life around my death, and I can tell you it has been a liberation. I wanted to help people realize the shock of beauty or meaning in the life that proceeds one kind of death and precedes another.”
After medical school, Miller found his way to Zen Hospice in California where their goal is to de-pathologize death; that is, to recover death as a human experience and not a medical one.
They impose neither medicine nor meaning onto the dying. Rather, as Miller puts it, they let their patients “play themselves out.” Whomever they’ve been in life is who they’re encouraged to be in their dying.
For example, the NY Times story documents how Miller helped a young man named Sloan, who was dying quickly of cancer, die doing what he loved to do: drink Bud Light and play video games. Talking about Sloan’s mundane manner of dying, Miller said this- this is what got my attention:
“The mission of Zen Hospice is about wresting death from the one-size- fits-all approach of hospitals, but it’s also about puncturing a competing impulse: our need for death to be a transcendent experience. Most people aren’t having these profound [super-spiritual] transformative moments (in their lives or in their deaths) and if you hold that out as an expectation, they’re just going to feel like they’re failing.”
They’re going to feel like there is something they must be doing that they’re not doing. They’re going to worry that they’re doing something wrong or they’re going to fear that they’re not doing enough. Perhaps even worse, they’re going to compare and judge their performance over and against another’s performance. We all fall short of the glory of God, but that doesn’t stop us from measuring distances.
In the Gospel according to John, no sooner has Jesus fed a hungry crowd of five thousand with only five loaves of bread and two fish than some grumblers in the mob start to measure this Messiah’s manna-hood.
Five loaves and two fish…that’s a nifty trick, Jesus. Good for you! Now Moses…he was something else. Like it says in Psalm 78— Moses fed all of Israel every morning with manna for forty years.
And Jesus replies (in my Southern passive aggressive paraphrase edition of the Bible): “Bless your heart.”
No, Jesus replies:
Moses isn’t the One who gave you manna. I AM the Bread of Life. I AM the Bread of Heaven, Living Bread. Manna is me, come down for you.
And then Jesus shifts metaphors:
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life and whoever does not will not.
Those who ate manna in the Desert of Sin, Jesus points out, still died of sin. So Jesus warns them: “Do not work for the food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life.”
Do not work for the food that perishes.
And what comes next in the Gospel according to John, it’s only two verses, it’s just thirty Greek words, but it’s one-hundred proof Gospel.
Martin Luther says you can know that what’s coming next is the Gospel because Jesus begins this discourse with an “amen gloss.”
“Truly, truly, I say to you,” Jesus begins, “Amen, amen…”
Whenever you find in scripture an amen gloss, Luther says, you know to look for the Gospel is around the corner.
First, they ask Jesus a question. They ask Jesus the question, the question that captives like us are always asking: “What must we do?”
“What should we be doing so that we are doing the works of God?”
Should we…and you’ve asked the question enough yourself that you can fill in the blank for them.
Should we pray more?
Should we study the scriptures more?
Should we serve the poor more?
Should we do something about what’s going on in the news?
“What should we be doing so that we are doing the works of God?”
And— notice— Jesus answers by correcting the grammar of their question.
He changes the subject of their sentence, from us to God: “This is the work of God…”
What we think is our work, our burden and obligation, to get right with God, to be reckoned to the good, to be justified before God, it’s the work of God.
That’s not a “we” kind of question, Jesus says.
It’s a God question.
It’s the work of God.
Jesus doesn’t just change the subject of their sentence. He changes the direct object of their sentence too. We put the question in the plural: “What should I be doing to be doing the works of God?”
What stuff should we be doing? How much do we have to do?
But Jesus answers in the singular: “This the doing of God that you trust the One sent by God.”
There isn’t any stuff we have to do. We do not have to do several many things, or even one good thing, to have a right relationship with God. There is only one thing to do, one work, trust.
Like manna under the desert dew, all you have to do is believe and receive.
All you have to do is trust that it’s all already been done.
All you have to do is trust what he has done.
Jesus Christ, this manna made flesh, has finished what the Father started in the Desert of Sin. He’s killed off the Old Adam in you, once for all, by drowning him in the baptism of his death and resurrection.
Where bread was given to the Old Adam as a sign of sin and punishment, this New Adam, the Living Bread of Heaven, has taken on all your sins and suffered punishment in your place; so that, the curse you deserve becomes the blessing you do not.
Don’t just do something, Jesus all but answers, stand there.
Stand still— relax, all you have to do is believe. Trust. Like manna in the morning, there’s nothing left for you to do but receive the fruit of the work I do for you.
As New Testament scholar Frederick Dale Bruner writes of this text, “This is the beginning of the great surprise of the Christian Gospel: that the right relationship with God for which we were created is not the fruit of several good things we do but it is the gift of the one thing God does for us.”
Actually the surprise of the Gospel is hinted at in verse seven of today’s psalm where the psalmist tells us that it’s placing our trust in God and recalling what God has done for us that empowers us to keep his commands.
Faith alone is the only work you must do.
And it’s not even your work to do exactly because, notice, Jesus changes the verb of their question too: “What should we be doing…?” they ask.
And Jesus responds: “This is the doing of God…”
This is the doing of God that you trust the One sent by God.
It’s God’s work.
The one and only work we must do, God does in us.
God works faith into us.
As the Small Catechism puts it, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has calls me by the Gospel.”
I believe I can’t believe apart from God working faith in me by the Gospel.
Here in John 6, Jesus does more with two verses and thirty words than he was able to do with five loaves and two fish. It’s the whole Gospel. You are saved by God’s grace alone in Christ alone, through the blood of the Living Bread of Heaven— and all of this is yours through trust alone.
There is only one sin you can commit agains the grace of God in Jesus Christ— only one dangerous thing you can ever do— and that is to refuse to believe…all you do by unfaith is to make yourself unavailable to the only Person who ever told you he had it all together.
It’s only two verses, thirty words, but it’s enough to puncture what BJ Miller calls the competing impulse within us.
“The dying are still very much alive and we are all dying,” BJ Miller tells the Times writer, “we die the way we live.”
We die the way we live.
Just as many die thinking that there’s something more spiritual or profound or meaningful they’re supposed to be doing and worry that they aren’t doing it or aren’t doing it right or doing it enough, we live with that same anxiety: “What must we be doing so that we’re doing the works of God?”
We think that Jesus came down from Heaven, cancelled out our debts upon the cross, but now it’s on us to work our way up to God.
The Golden Rule may not justify us before God but we sure think it makes a good ladder up to him. And we’re forever anxious that we need to climb it. Or that we even can.
The Book of Exodus says that way of thinking— it breeds worms.
What’s miraculous, BJ Miller contends, more miraculous than empty, contrived spiritual gestures— more miraculous, I’d argue than five loaves and two fish or manna every morning— is watching what the dying do with their lives once they learn they have the freedom not to do anything.
“My work,” Miller says, “is to unburden them from the crushing weight of unhelpful expectations.”
It says a whole lot about how far we’ve drifted from “the great surprise of the Christian Gospel” that it takes a triple amputee agnostic working at crunchy Buddhist hospice hospital on the Left Coast to point it out to us: this is the work of the Gospel too, to unburden you from the crushing weight of expectations.
The Gospel is that you are saved by God’s grace alone by Christ’s atoning blood alone and that is yours through faith— trust— alone.
The Gospel is like palliative medicine for the died in Christ.
As Robert Farrar Capon puts it, “The Gospel is the announcement that all the incomprehensible good news really is so: you are loved, you are vindicated, you are home. And you are all of that now just because he says so…even if you have no goodness at all. You do not have to know or feel that you are saved. You cannot do that anyways. You do not have to sweat and strain to be saved. You cannot do that either. You have only to trust that, in him, it is all handed to you on a silver platter. And that you can do, gladly: it’s the only really fun thing in the world.”
The work of the Gospel— our work as proclaimers of it— is to unburden you of the crushing weight of that question: “What must I be doing to be doing the works of God?”
No matter what’s going on in the world or in the news, this is our task, the work of the Gospel.
The Gospel unburdens you to ask a different question, a question that leads to something more miraculous and even more beautiful: What are you going to do with this faith of yours now you have the freedom not to do anything?
1 Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
2 I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
3 things that we have heard and known,
that our ancestors have told us.
4 We will not hide them from their children;
we will tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done.
5 He established a decree in Jacob,
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our ancestors
to teach to their children;
6 that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and rise up and tell them to their children,
7 so that they should set their hope in God,
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments;
8 and that they should not be like their ancestors,
a stubborn and rebellious generation,
a generation whose heart was not steadfast,
whose spirit was not faithful to God.
9 The Ephraimites, armed with the bow,
turned back on the day of battle.
10 They did not keep God’s covenant,
but refused to walk according to his law.
11 They forgot what he had done,
and the miracles that he had shown them.
12 In the sight of their ancestors he worked marvels
in the land of Egypt, in the fields of Zoan.
13 He divided the sea and let them pass through it,
and made the waters stand like a heap.
14 In the daytime he led them with a cloud,
and all night long with a fiery light.
15 He split rocks open in the wilderness,
and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.
16 He made streams come out of the rock,
and caused waters to flow down like rivers.
17 Yet they sinned still more against him,
rebelling against the Most High in the desert.
18 They tested God in their heart
by demanding the food they craved.
19 They spoke against God, saying,
‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness?
20 Even though he struck the rock so that water gushed out
and torrents overflowed,
can he also give bread,
or provide meat for his people?’
21 Therefore, when the Lord heard, he was full of rage;
a fire was kindled against Jacob,
his anger mounted against Israel,
22 because they had no faith in God,
and did not trust his saving power.
23 Yet he commanded the skies above,
and opened the doors of heaven;
24 he rained down on them manna to eat,
and gave them the grain of heaven.
25 Mortals ate of the bread of angels;
he sent them food in abundance.
26 He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens,
and by his power he led out the south wind;
27 he rained flesh upon them like dust,
winged birds like the sand of the seas;
28 he let them fall within their camp,
all around their dwellings.
29 And they ate and were well filled,
for he gave them what they craved.
22 The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the lake saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. 23Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ 26Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ 28Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’29Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ 30So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’ 32Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ 34They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’
35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’
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