Sunday, August 8, 2021

Sermon: “I’m Hungry, God!” 1 Kings 19:2-8 /John 6:26-27, 33-35, 41-51 (August 8, 2021)


Human beings have a pretty tentative grasp on knowing exactly what it is what we need. All too often, we assume we need one thing when we actually need something else entirely. How many times have you ever thought to yourself, “I’m hungry; I need a snack,” only to open up the (fully-stocked) fridge or pantry and decide that there’s “nothing to eat”? It turns out you weren’t hungry after all; maybe you were thirsty instead, or just bored. Some things are universal, and this is one of them: one of my favorite passages of scripture is in Numbers, where the people complain to Moses, “There’s no food or water [here in the desert], and also we detest this miserable bread!” Some things never change.

This does tend to be a “first-world problem”. People for whom hunger is a daily reality would never mistake it for anything else, but those of us fortunate enough to have our needs (and often even our wants!) met regularly can sometimes struggle to identify them accurately. What usually happens is that we let our emotions take over, and emotions are notoriously bad at discernment. For example, Elijah was (rightly) terrified at Jezebel’s threat. But instead of thinking, “Okay, what can I do to prepare my body for the challenge ahead of me?” he sat down and decided that what he needed was to die. Not particularly rational, Elijah, and more than a little bit dramatic.

Fortunately, God is in the business of giving us what we actually need, whatever that might be, and God is much better at identifying what that is than we are. Sometimes, it *does* wind up being food—after all, God was the one who made us physical beings who require nourishment. When Elijah’s fear leads him to conclude that death is his best option, God sends a messenger to tell him, “Have a snack. Take a nap. You’ll feel better.” When, in the verses immediately preceding today’s gospel reading, a crowd of 5000 hungry people gathers to hear Jesus speak, he takes a break from his lecture to tend to their immediate need.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches about God’s provision, saying, “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” When we need is bread, God WILL give us bread. This usually works out pretty well for everyone; few of us will argue when told that our problem can be easily solved by a sandwich. But what happens when we ask to be fed, but we’re not actually hungry for food at all? What happens when we ask for bread, but God says, “No, you don’t need that,” and offers us something less immediately gratifying and tangible? What will we do then?

When I was growing up, we used to spend a lot of time with some family friends, including a boy that I’ll call “Ryan”. When Ryan was about 3 or 4, he had a peculiar habit. Whenever he was in the car and they drove past a McDonald’s (which, as you know, happens every few blocks) Ryan’s parents would inevitably hear a plaintive whine rising up from the backseat: “I’m huuuuungryyyyy…” It didn’t matter when he’d last eaten, how long they’d been driving, or where they were going. Whenever he saw the golden arches, Ryan was sure to let his parents know about his desperate “need”. It was such a frequent occurrence that it became somewhat of a running joke among friends and family.

Ryan’s parents knew, of course, that he wasn’t REALLY hungry. Most of the time, he was just angling for a Happy Meal and a new toy, and he certainly didn’t NEED that. On the few occasions that he really might have actually been hungry, they knew that fast food wasn’t the best solution—that they could offer him healthier options AND the family connection that comes with a shared meal around a kitchen table. Either way, what he really needed was something different from what he thought he needed. But that didn’t stop Ryan’s determination to get those sweet, sweet nuggs—no matter how many times his parents denied his request, he persevered. As a three year old, he just didn’t get that his parents understood his real needs better than he did.

There were no McDonald’s in the first century middle east, but Jesus also faces a similar challenge in John’s gospel. After being miraculously fed by five loaves and two fish, the crowd continues to follow him, seeking more. “I’m huuuuungryyyy,” they seem to cry. They certainly don’t need immediate nourishment at that point, since they’d already eaten their fill of bread and fish, yet they’re still determined to access the food on demand that Jesus can provide. They want assurances of never-ending provisions, so that they can eat as much as they want, whenever they want.

Now, Jesus can certainly sympathize with that desire. These are people for whom the next meal is never guaranteed. But he also knows that this isn’t what they really *need* right then. For starters, they should know that God always provides them with exactly what they require, exactly when they require it—the “daily bread” Jesus teaches us to pray for. “The birds in the sky don’t sow seed or harvest grain, yet God feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are?”[1] There are repeated scriptural admonitions to “only take what you need” and not to hoard resources, and the crowd’s demand seems to forget that.

But beyond their not actually needing an unending supply of food, Jesus knows that they DO desperately need something else. In Christ, God offers them something far better, and they can’t see it even though it’s right in front of them. “Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last,” Jesus responds, “but for the food that endures for eternal life.” I have a better gift to offer, he insists. I can offer you direct access to a relationship with God that will feed your spirit and make your life even fuller than you could possibly imagine. I’m not going to give you McDonald’s because you don’t need it, and I have a banquet waiting for you at home.

But the crowd doesn’t get it, and in their misunderstanding, they assume that Jesus is offering them a stone when they asked for bread. They become adversarial, and for the rest of John’s gospel, the Jewish authorities are increasingly hostile towards Jesus’ ministry and message. Jesus never stops offering this superior “bread of life” to the people…but he encounters refusal at every turn.

When we think we need one thing and God offers us something different, we grumble, too. Because it’s not the bread that we asked for, we behave as if God had given us a stone to eat. Because we want a Happy Meal and we’re offered a home-cooked meal, we behave as if we’ve been betrayed.[2] We forget that our judgment is faulty. That our desires, even our deepest desires, aren’t the same thing as our needs. We forget that no matter what our emotions might tell us, God would never offer us a stone, even when we don’t get the bread we ask for. And so, we complain, we protest, we rebel, we lose faith.

Yet in spite of our tantrums, God continues offering us what we really need, what will actually give us life. God never becomes weary of our ignorance, nor does Jesus ever stop providing for us just because we demand something else. Although our daily bread only appears when we need it, the bread of life is always right in front of us. We just need to receive it.

After a very difficult year and a half (that continues to be difficult in a myriad of ways), many of us are turning to God to demand what we think we need: a “normal” school year. A permanent end to masking. A family vacation. An in-person Bible study. A dinner party with friends. We insist that we NEED these things. For the sake of our economy, our relationships, our mental health. And our demands aren’t restricted to things related to the pandemic; we pray for all sorts of things that we think we need. More money. Greater understanding. A different job. Healing from illness. “I’m huuuuuungry, God. I need this bread!”

God doesn’t mind when we ask for these things, even when we’re whiny about it. Frankly, God’s probably happy for the opportunity to be in conversation with us. But we have to figure out how to be okay with not getting what we ask for if God determines that it’s not what we need. We have to trust that if God doesn’t answer our prayers the way that we hope, there’s probably a good, loving reason. Instead of accusing God of giving us stones when we ask for bread, we should try to figure out what better thing God is trying to offer us. If we stop complaining for long enough, we’ll be able to hear Jesus’ patient voice: “This is not a stone, but the bread of LIFE. With THIS bread, you will NEVER be hungry. I offer you this instead.”

Just because we’re not getting chicken nuggets doesn’t mean that we’re being starved. We might have to wait a little bit longer—maybe even a lot longer—but we can count on the fact that God has something much, much better for us in store. Not food that will give us indigestion and a toy that we’ll lose, but a meal to share with those we love that will nourish our bodies AND spirits. Not manna that will spoil, but bread that will banish our soul-deep hunger forever. Not a king to rule a nation for a time, but a Lord to rule the world forever. Things that we can’t even imagine, but that are entirely possible through Jesus Christ.

We ARE hungry, God. But you know better than us what we’re truly hungry for. Feed us with the bread of life, we pray—and help us to eagerly receive it in thanksgiving when you set it before us. Amen.


[1] Matthew 6:26.

[2] For the record, Ryan rarely—if ever—threw a fit when denied McDonald’s. He’d just wait for the next one to pop up along the road. I don’t want to impugn his character in the name of my sermon illustration.

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