“You’ve brought us out here to kill us!” I grumbled to my wife a couple of weeks ago when I realized what little water she’d packed to hike Joshua Tree National Park.
So I can empathize with the recently-rescued Israelites who lodge the same complaint against God.
Still, it sounds a little ungrateful considering they’re still damp from the Red Sea through which God FREAKING DELIVERED THEM FROM CENTURIES OF SLAVERY. Really?
All it takes is the munchies for their Bob Marley Exodus song to turn Janet Jackson circa 1986: “What have you done for me lately?!”
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 because God has led them there.
And not only is it a justified complaint, it’s correct.
God has brought them there to kill them.
(You won’t hear that from Joel Osteen! You’re welcome.)
God has brought them to the desert for the desert to be the death of them, for their hunger to be the hospice through which God kills off their old selves. That they recall their bondage to Pharaoh fondly is proof that they’re 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.
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 and 2) I, the Lord your God, am not a Pharaoh.
“Quail covered the camp” Moses writes. Every evening, fancy 5-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 Adam and Eve distrust God in the Garden and disobey God’s only law, God shows them the exit to 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 and fall from grace but now, in the Desert of Sin, God gives it to them as grace. Their work- the wages of their sin- becomes grace.
And it’s all God’s work. There’s no harvesting or grinding or mixing or kneading or rising or waiting or folding or rising or waiting or folding or baking. There’s nothing for them to do but receive it. 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.
God takes their work and God makes it grace because God has rescued them from Egypt in order to return them to Eden. God has delivered them from the despot Pharaoh and delivered them into the Desert of Sin in order to undo their original sin.
Our original, originating sin- it wasn’t disobedience. It wasn’t picking the fruit of the tree in the Garden. That would be a stupid story. Our original, originating sin 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 manna 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. From dirt you came and to dirt you will return.
Whether they knew or not- the grumblers were absolutely right. God has brought them there to kill them, to exterminate the old, untrusting Adam in them. God has gotten them out of Egypt and now, in the Desert of Sin, God is getting 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.
It’s children who trust when they’re told “It is finished.”
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. I heard Miller give a TED Talk a couple of years ago, and this winter I read a story about him in the NY Times.
When 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.”
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.
In the Gospel according to John, no sooner has Jesus fed a hungry crowd of 5,000 with only 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish than some grumblers in the mob start to measure this Messiah’s manna-hood.
“5 loaves and 2 fish…that’s a nifty trick, Jesus. Good for you! Now Moses…he was something else. Moses fed all of Israel every morning with manna for 40 years.”
And Jesus replies (in my Southern paraphrase edition): “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 2 verses, it’s just 30 Greek words, but it’s everything.
It’s the sum of St. Paul’s message. It’s the core of the Protestant Reformation. It’s the reason we’re not worshipping at Good Shepherd Catholic Church this morning.
It’s only 2 verses, just 30 Greek words, but it’s everything.
It’s the Gospel.
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? Spend less at Christmas?
“What should we be doing so that we are doing the works of God?”
And 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. Alone.
Jesus doesn’t just change the subject of their sentence. He changes the 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 things, or even one good thing, to be justified before God. There is only 1 thing to do, 1 work: your 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.
The old untrusting Adam in you has been crucified in him; so that, now, in him, in the New Adam, (present-tense, no conditions or qualifiers) the Gospel promises that you are a New Creation.
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- all you have to do is believe and receive.
Like manna in the morning, there’s nothing left for you to do but eat.
Eat this promise.
Trust that you are the pearl of great price that the King has bought by giving away everything. Trust that you are the prodigal child for whom the Father did not wait to come home to him but has sought you out in his only Son.
All you have to do is trust the doing of God.
Trust that God made him to be sin who knew no sin; so that, you might become the righteousness of God. Trust that you who were dead to your trespasses have been made (past perfect tense) alive in Christ. Trust that your slate is wiped clean because your sins have been washed in the blood of the lamb. All you have to do is trust.
Trust that in all the ways and places you’ve been unfaithful, your manna molding, the Bread of Heaven has been faithful. He has done what you could never do.
He alone is righteous and by grace alone God reckons his righteousness to you. He credits your account with Christ, such that there’s nothing left to do but trust that it’s all been done.
Faith alone- that’s all there is for you to do because the righteousness of Christ imputed to you is already and will always be overflowing.
Faith alone is the only work you must do.
And it’s not even your work to do because, notice, Jesus changes the verb of their question: “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: trust.
God works faith into us.
The one work we must do to respond to what God has done in Jesus Christ, God also does in us.
It’s just 2 verses in John’s Gospel: 6.28 and 6.29.
It’s just 30 Greek words in John’s Gospel, but it’s the Gospel:
You are saved by God’s grace alone
By Christ alone
By the blood of the Living Bread of Heaven
Through faith alone.
It’s only 2 verses, 30 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 5 loaves and 2 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.
What’s miraculous 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.”
Today is the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation–
And it says a whole lot about how far we’ve drifted from it that it takes a triple amputee agnostic working at crunchy Buddhist hospice hospital on the Left Coast to point it out to us, BJ Miller’s work-that’s 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. The Gospel is that you are forgiven and justified and loved exactly as you are…FULL STOP.
The work of the Gospel is to unburden you of the crushing weight of that question: “What must I be doing to be doing the works of God?”
The Gospel unburdens you to ask a different question, a question that leads to something more miraculous and even more beautiful.