Longing

This sermon was preached at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin on August 12, the 12th Sunday after Pentecost and is based on the lessons for the day, 1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34:1-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51.

I remember a conversation several years ago with a pastoral colleague. She and her husband deeply longed for children and yet remained childless. With each step along the road, with each new doctor visit and each new referral to an increasingly narrowly focused specialist, they became more and more discouraged; yet the longing was still there. Longing. I used to be pastor to the retired managing editor of Ebony magazine, one of the foremost magazines for the African American community. He was raised by sharecropper grandparents south of Memphis. We got together occasionally for conversation. He spoke with deep passion and grace about the longing of his community to break free from the systemic racism that has for too long bound our African American brothers and sisters. Longing.  One of the realities of living in Door County is that for many of us, family lives elsewhere. I long for face to face contact with my sons, their wives, and our new granddaughter. Longing.

To be human is to experience longing, yearning. Our lives are not perfect and our world is not perfect. We long for the perfecting of what remains imperfect. If I were to ask you to take a moment and write down three things that you yearn for, I doubt it would take you very long. What would you write down? Maybe more time with your children or grandchildren. Maybe a little less frenzy to your schedule. That trip to Australia that you’ve always wanted to take. To be released from the crush of household debt. To be free of the tensions in your marriage or with a parent or child or sibling. To be human is to experience longing.

In the first lesson, Elijah longs for deliverance. He has just won a contest with a group of false prophets over who could call down fire from heaven on their respective altars. Not only did Elijah win the contest hands down, but in the aftermath of his victory, all the prophets of Baal were slain. Now Queen Jezebel has been disgraced and she’s not taking it well. She places a bounty on Elijah’s life, intent on his assassination. In fear, Elijah heads off into the wilderness, seeking deliverance and safety. I imagine him exhausted, anxious, discouraged. At the end of his ability to cope, he sits down under the shade of a juniper tree. So much does he long for deliverance and safety that he asks God to take his life.

God does not answer that prayer. Yet God provides. Miraculously, a loaf of stone baked bread and a jug of water appear, not once, but twice. Elijah is told  to get up from his sleep — sleep that he is using to escape his predicament — and he is told eat. God was not promising to deliver him from his predicament, but he was promising strength for the journey. So, Elijah ate and drank, and was nourished and strengthened for the journey to meet God on Mount Horeb.

We hear that story in the context of yet another reading from the bread chapter of John 6. All through this chapter, hunger and thirst have become a metaphor for the existential human condition of longing. In the early part of the story, Jesus provided literal bread for a crowd of physically hungry people. Now as his sermon goes on, he offers himself as the living bread and living water that come in order to satisfy our deepest longings.

If it sounds a little too good to be true, then join the club. In today’s episode, Jesus gets a little pushback. “How can this be?” the religious leaders ask. “Isn’t this the son of the carpenter from Nazareth? He cannot be serious when he says that he is the one that comes down from heaven.”

So Jesus tries to clarify just what he’s getting at. What he’s getting at is that we often seek to satisfy our longings with things that will never ultimately satisfy. “Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died.” Those Israelites received momentary satisfaction that did nothing for the deepest longings. Before long, they were complaining again, forgetting the gracious presence and deliverance of God, and that God was actually in the process of leading them on a journey to the land of promise.

That’s the same game we play over and over. We long for relationship and we turn to social media or the vicarious relationships of television or cinema. We long for affirmation so we seek success. We long for security, so we put our faith in the stock market and economic growth. We long for novelty so we never stop shopping. We long to have our lives mean something so we fill them with never-ending activity.

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says. “I am that which will give life.”

Here we are. Here, with our longings. Here, perhaps without even knowing fully why we’re here or what we need. At God’s gracious invitation, we have gathered here again from the places of our deep longing. We come because we know God is here and God has what we need, even if we don’t fully know what that is.

Once again, in this place, that old person that seeks to satisfy longings in all the wrong places is drowned in the waters of baptismal remembrance, in the act of confession and the words of forgiveness. A new person rises from that saving fountain of grace to new life and to living bread and living water, to what will sustain us for the journey. We come again to Jesus. Coming to Jesus is the simplest description of the way humans come to life.

And the way Jesus describes it, it’s maybe not even that we come to Jesus but that God in Jesus comes to us. “No one can come to me,” Jesus says, “unless the Father draws him.” That’s precisely what is happening here this morning. In the declaration of grace your sins were forgiven. In the proclamation of the Word, God draws you into God’s love. In the eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine, Jesus comes to you to strengthen you for whatever lies ahead of you in the coming week, strengthening you that you might live in faith and trust in God’s goodness and answer your calling to love God and love your neighbor.

In the second lesson you heard a long list of New Testament proverbs about what it means to live as a Christian. Sometimes that seems exhausting.To live in the way of God is not a particularly easy or comfortable life. Yet we don’t go out there to live for God on our own strength. We go out, having eaten the living bread and drunk the wine of salvation. Our hunger and thirst are satisfied here and then we go out with God’s promise always to go with us. We come to realize that even the calling to live in love as Christ loved us is a gift of grace animated in us by the gift of the Spirit. I think that’s at the heart of our longing — to live life as God intends, and to do that is actually possible; that’s the gift of Jesus.

Several years ago when I was traveling in Europe with my son Chris, we were traveling light and cheap. Every morning we looked for a bakery so that we could have a bit of bread to keep with us so that even if we couldn’t find a restaurant later in the day that matched our budget, we’d always have something to eat. Those impromptu meals of bread and a bit of cheese, maybe a shared bottle of wine, often eaten outdoors in a park — those meals sustained us and those times are vivid reminders of all the good things about that trip.

Here we have come to rest under our own juniper trees and we receive bread from heaven. For whatever lies ahead of us, today, tomorrow, this week, this month, Jesus sustains us for the journey. Jesus is the living bread.

Taste and see, the goodness of the Lord,

Taste and see, taste and see.

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