3/27/22 – Laetare (Fourth Sunday in Lent) – “Bread in the Wilderness” – Exodus 16:2-21 & John 6:1-15

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

1. In our Old Testament and Gospel Readings for today, we see two similar accounts of bread being provided to feed a large group of people in the wilderness. We’ll take a few moments to examine each of these stories before we consider how the Lord provides bread for us on a daily basis.

2. First, we consider the Old Testament Reading from Exodus 16. Now, to get our orientation in the biblical story, it’s important to note that this is only one chapter removed from the Lord’s dramatic saving of Israel at the Red Sea. We don’t know precisely how much time has passed since that event took place, but it can’t have been too long. If you look at the first verse of Exodus 16, we see that it has been just over a month since the Israelites left Egypt. Based on the time that it took Israel to reach the Red Sea from Egypt, the events of our reading for today can’t have been much more than a couple of weeks following the dramatic crossing of the Red Sea. That’s significant to note, because the entire congregation of the people of Israel has witnessed this dramatic miracle quite recently. They have also experienced the miracle of the bitter water being made sweet at Marah in the previous chapter. Yet here the Israelites are complaining to Moses and Aaron: “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” (Exodus 16:3). The people are being a little bit over-dramatic, to say the least. At the same time, you can understand why they might at least have some concerns. They’re wandering in the wilderness with no real sustainable source of food to eat. Most, if not all, of them have children to worry about who were probably hungry and grumpy as well. It’s one thing to be concerned, but it’s their lack of faith which is the real problem here. They don’t believe that the Lord who delivered them from the hand of the Egyptians (both in Egypt and at the Red Sea) can or will do anything to help them. They don’t believe that the Lord who provided water for them at Marah can or will do anything to help their hunger now. The lack of faith that the Israelites demonstrate in the face of real bodily troubles shows that they don’t trust in the Lord to provide for all their needs. But even though they don’t trust in him, the Lord provides for their needs and gives them bread to sustain them through the rest of their wandering through the wilderness.

3. With this text in mind, we turn to our Gospel Reading from John 6, which has a remarkable number of parallels to this Exodus 16 account. First, we see that in the chapter previous to this one in John’s Gospel, the disciples have witnessed a dramatic miracle where Jesus healed an invalid who had been unable to walk for 38 years! Now, just a short time later, Jesus has led his disciples and a large crowd out into the wilderness. The reason for this great crowd following Jesus was that they wanted to see him do more miracles. But ironically the very disciples who seen Jesus perform so many miracles would demonstrate a lack of faith in the face of real bodily troubles. And let’s not miss the fact that this was a real bodily trouble. This was a massive crowd! In the parallel account of this story in Matthew’s Gospel, we’re told that this crowd consisted of “about 5,000 men, besides women and children” (Matthew 14:21). It’s not out of the realm of possibility to suggest that this was a crowd of at least 10,000 people. That’s not a crowd I would want to have to feed when they got hungry! And if you fill in a few more details of this story from Mark’s account, we see that Jesus could have easily done something about this long before the massive crowd got hungry. Yes, Mark tells us that these events happened in “a desolate place” (Mark 6:32) where there would not have been any markets at which to buy food, even if they had the money to do so. We’re also told that it was around Passover time, which is in the spring. So, there wouldn’t have even been any significant amount of wild edibles which could be foraged. Yet, Jesus still could have done something about this. Mark tells us that Jesus “began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34), which suggests that this teaching went on for some time. It’s not as though Jesus lost track of the time because he was so into his lecture that he forgot about dinner time. Jesus knew full-well what he was doing. He was setting these people up for a situation where they would be in the wilderness without food and have no other option but to trust him to provide for their bodily needs. And Jesus is setting the disciples up too. Will they trust that he can provide for their own needs as well as the needs of this crowd? It sure doesn’t seem like they trust that Jesus can or will. He tests them, and both Philip and Andrew seem to think that it’s an impossible task to feed this many people. And humanly speaking, it sure would have been. But Jesus already knew what he would do. He took the 5 small loaves and two fish that the disciples had managed to scrounge up and he distributed them to all the people until everyone had eaten their fill. And then amazingly, he has the 12 disciples gather baskets full of the leftovers—one for each of them. There was significantly more bread in one of those 12 baskets of leftovers than there was to begin with. This is an amazing point, especially when you compare it with the Exodus 16 story. Notice how in Exodus 16, the bread from heaven didn’t last. If the people tried to save it until the next day, it would breed worms. And whatever they didn’t gather from the ground would melt when the sun came out. When God provided for his people in the Old Testament, he provided a temporary bread in the wilderness which did not endure. But now Jesus has done something even better. Jesus has provided bread in the wilderness for his people, but this is a kind of bread which endures.

4. It’s difficult to consider these two readings without also considering the implications of the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. In that petition of the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that the Lord would “give us this day our daily bread.” When we pray that petition of the Lord’s Prayer, we are in essence asking that the Lord would repeat these incredible miracles in our lives. In a lot of ways, our lives aren’t all that different than the people in these two stories. Christians for ages have thought about our life on this side of eternity as a sort of “wandering through the wilderness.” And as we wander through the wilderness of this life, we too need to be given daily bread to sustain us. In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther considers what all is included in “daily bread.” He writes: Daily bread includes everything that has to do with the support and needs to the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like. Did you catch that? Daily bread includes everything that goes into making it possible for you to have bread. You can’t have bread without a grocery store to shop at. You can’t get to the store (and neither will the bread) without gasoline and a vehicle. The bread can’t get to the shelf without a worker to put it there. It won’t get to the store in the first place without a truck driver to deliver it. For that to happen, we need the road systems to be maintained. We need law enforcement to maintain good order on the roads. We need good weather to allow travel to even be possible. And we haven’t even begun to discuss all that goes into growing the food in the first place, much less all of the other details involved. But Luther provides one final insight in his Small Catechism regarding daily bread which is important: God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving. This is the main point of all of this. You’re going to have food whether or not you stop to pray for it beforehand. Our prayer as Christians, though, is that the Lord would help us to be different than the people in our readings for today. Our prayer is that he would help us to have faith that he is the one who upholds the universe and allows us to have bread to eat and everything necessary to make that happen. Our prayer is that we would have hearts to receive this with thankfulness, rather than the self-entitled, negative attitudes that we so often see in our world today. If it wasn’t for God constantly providing for us, we would starve to death, and most significantly, we would have to pay for our own sins according to what justice demands. And this is where we recognize God’s true goodness towards us. We are so often ungrateful, dis-believing people who don’t trust in the Lord to provide for us. But even though we don’t trust in him, the Lord provides for our needs and gives us bread to sustain them through our wandering through the wilderness of this life. He sustains us in body through the bread on our tables, and he sustains us in soul through bread from the altar. May the Holy Spirit lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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