John 6:24-35: The Illusion We Live By


A sermon preached on August 5th, 2012 based upon John 6:24-35.

You might have thought Jesus would be pleased. The people can’t seem to get enough of him.  But Jesus almost seems like he’s trying to get away.  He heads out to the far side of the Sea of Galilee, and this huge crowd of people follow him there.   Out in the middle of nowhere, the people don’t have anything to eat, so Jesus perform whereby he fed 5000 people with no more food than one wee little lad offered up.   At that point, the people get it in their heads to make Jesus their king, but Jesus gives them the slip, going up to the top of a mountain to be alone while he sends his disciples ahead on him in the boat to cross back over the Sea of Galilee.   In the middle of the night, Jesus walks across the sea to his disciples on the water.  Now I know that this miracle probably has all kinds of profound meanings, but it reads as though it pulls this trick so as to make his getaway unseen by the crowd.

When the huge crowd of people receive word that Jesus has been spotted back on the other side of the lake, they too make the trip in order to find him, which brings us to the conversation we heard in our Gospel lesson.

The arrival of the adoring crowds doesn’t seem to please Jesus. He says to 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.” The larger meaning of the miracle Jesus had performed feeding 5000 people was to reveal the presence of God.  What impressed the people though that their bellies had been empty, grumbling for food, and Jesus had done something that had taken away the grumbling and filled their bellies.

The full feeling didn’t last, of course.  The next day their bellies were empty again, grumbling once more for food.   So their thought was, “If we can just keep Jesus close at hand, he can keep filling up our bellies.  Then we’ll have it made.”

Now feeding hungry people is no small thing.  It’s a good thing – something Jesus commands us to do.  Being hungry is a serious hardship.   And for the folks who were trying so hard to get to Jesus, going hungry was a real possibility – much more so than it is for pretty much all of us sitting here today.  (The same can be said for the possibility of not having access to clean drinking water, which calls to mind another story in John’s Gospel:  the one where the woman at the well gets excited about the possibility that Jesus might make it a whole lot easier for her to get water to drink.)

So we can’t criticize them for being pretty impressed by the miracle.  But the problem is that they are under the illusion that if they could only get a hold of what Jesus seems capable of providing them with – that is, a reliable source by which they could fill their bellies every day without all the work and struggle that filling their bellies typically meant, well, they’d have it made!  They’d be perfectly content – not a care in the world.

But you and I, and most everybody else in America who isn’t living on the streets – we are the living proof of the fact that having the problem solved of getting our bellies full every day is no guarantee that we will be content.   If the people who were pursuing Jesus could have travelled in a time machine to see how easy it is for us to put food on the table, with such variety and abundance, it would have blown their minds as to how well off we are.

But strangely, there is plenty of evidence that our level of contentment is less than people commonly have in parts of the world where there if more of a possibility of actually going to bed hungry at night.   My daughter, for instance, was struck when she went to live with people in rural Tanzania that they often seemed happier than most Americans.  She didn’t encounter the all too familiar sense of anxiety and restless discontent that so typically characterizes our lives.

Although freedom from the threat of starvation hasn’t made us content, it hasn’t stopped us from believing that there is some quick fix out there somewhere that will provide the contentment that seems to be missing.   There are lots of places we look, but probably the most common place being in money:  If we could just land the job with the big pay check.   Or better yet, win the lottery!  Take a look at big time lottery winners a couple of years down the road, and more often than not they have become less happy than they were before. The success of the lottery in terms of taking people’s money is directly connected to the thing about human nature that led all those people to follow Jesus around the Sea of Galilee.

But there are plenty of other places we look as well.

Some people search and search for the perfect lover who will finally bring contentment.  A good lover is a great gift, but in and of itself it doesn’t bring happiness.

Many of us imagine there is some kind of success, some level of honor and respect we might achieve, in which we would finally rest contentedly.  Or fame perhaps, in spite of the fact that there are so many famous people who are obviously not very happy.

Others imagine it’s the dream house that will make them happy.  Once they get the dream house, then the dream becomes figuring out a way to keep the house perfectly clean and tidy.

Or maybe having a child will be the thing, and though children are great blessing, they don’t in and of themselves give contentment.   Discovering this, perhaps we imagine contentment will come if these children grow up to accomplish great things.

I’ve been enjoying watching the Olympics, as I’m sure many of you have.  I wonder sometimes though if all of the hype around the importance of winning the gold isn’t connected to this illusion that we human beings so commonly fall under.  We hear these touching stories of how these young athletes have sacrificed so much all for the sake of being able to reach this point of competing for the gold.  The impression you get is that it will all have meaning only if they win the gold, and that if they do, they will have reached a plateau in life which will bring contentment for the rest of their lives.

Having won 18 gold medals, well Michael Phelps should abide in bliss for the rest of his life, right?  Well I suspect there will come a day when Michael Phelps asks himself, “Is this all there is?”  Unless he learns what it is Jesus is trying to teach in this morning’s lesson, Michael Phelps has no better chance of finding contentment than anybody else.

Jesus goes on to say to the people, and to us as well in our mistaken quests for contentment, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”

At this point the people think Jesus is selling a new religion, and they’re ready to sign up.  “What must we do to perform the works of God?” they ask.

Religion is one of the most common places in which people imagine they can find the elusive contentment.  The thought is, if I can just learn how to believe the right way; if I can just get the rules and rituals down correctly, pray right – that kind of thing, then God will be pleased with me and work it out so I’ll get the things I need to be content.

In response, Jesus says a puzzling thing to them: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom God has sent.”  It sounds too simple.  That’s all?  And it’s not really what we think of as a “work.”  When we think of work we think of something we do out in the world to impact our environment somehow.  But believing in Jesus is something that takes place outside, rather, it happens on the inside.

Generally speaking, “work” is something we do out in the world to impact our environment somehow.  Believing in “him whom God has sent” – believing in Jesus – is something that takes place not on the outside, but rather on the inside.

Which is where contentment is found, if it is found at all:  on the inside, rather than somewhere outside of us.  The evangelical language of “receiving Jesus into your heart” speaks to this.  As long as we are focused on some change that we think needs to take place on the outside, we will avoid facing up to the change that needs to take place on the inside in our hearts.

In my experience, there is a sense in which believing in Jesus is a kind of work.  My heart is so susceptible with being taken over by so many states of mind that make contentment an impossibility; things like anxiety and fear, guilt, anger, envy, jealousy.  Believing in Jesus means believing what Jesus said regarding these things on a day by day basis, or more accurately, minute by minute.

To remember when contempt either for myself or for somebody else threatens to take hold of me, that Jesus said he had only one commandment for us, and that was “Love one another, as I have loved you.”  Remember that I am already loved, fully, by Jesus, and remembering this, find the freedom to love others.

To remember when I feel scared to remember how Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid” in situations as threatening as being in a boat at night with the waves threatening to sink you.

To remember when I feel anxious in face of the endless series of problems we face in the course of life Jesus saying, “Be not anxious, little ones, your Daddy in heaven knows what you need.”

To remember when I feel like my life will be incomplete because I can’t afford some enticing creature comfort that others are enjoying how Jesus told me not to put my heart in such things, for they are just so much food that perishes.

When I feel guilty because of the little voice inside says I haven’t done enough to justify my existence, to remember that Jesus has told me I am forgiven, and that there isn’t anything I can do to make me any more loved by God.

And when my heart starts to harden because of some wrong that has been committed against me (real or imagined) to remember the emphatic things Jesus had to say about the absolute necessity of letting it go by forgiving the one who has wronged me.

There is a kind of work involved in intentionally slowing ourselves down so that we become aware of the places where we are tempted to give our hearts over to such things.   With practice, we can get better at this, and we find that a sense of contentment with life begins to settle in.

And yet, even with our best efforts, there will be times when fear or guilt or anger take us over.   In the end, this is how it has to be, because otherwise it would mean we can save ourselves by our own efforts, fortifying the pride that imagines us to be gods unto ourselves.  In the end, we have no choice but to put our trust in the gracious God that Jesus has revealed to us, who is working in our hearts through the Holy Spirit in ways we have no awareness of.

Our inevitable stumbling humble us, and when we become aware of the fact that we have lost our way, to pick ourselves back up by God’s grace and try again, knowing that a new beginning is always offered to us right here, right now.