Of Grumbling and Grace

August 13, 2012 at 9:24 am Leave a comment

The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III, STS
Proper 14 (Pentecost 11) Year B
St Stephen Lutheran Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
12 August 2012

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

The word ‘complain’ in our Gospel today
can also be translated as ‘grumble.’
I like that translation a lot better.
That’s an onomatopaeia,
a word that sounds like what it’s trying to describe.
Grumble – you can almost hear the rumbling noise a group of grumblers make
when they hear something they don’t like.
‘Murmur’ is another onomatopaeia and might be another way to translate that word.
Complain, murmur, grumble –
it is never a good thing when you hear that word in Scripture.
Last week we heard about the Israelites grumbling in the desert
about the lack of meat in the desert –
Apparently it was not enough for God to bring them out of slavery in Egypt –
God had to become a short-order cook as well.
Jesus’ opponents often murmur or grumble against him
when he does something that defies their expectation of him.
And here Jesus’ opponents grumble about his saying,
‘I am the bread of life that comes down from heaven.’

One would think that after seeing what they had seen,
thousands of people fed in the wilderness,
they might be a little bit more likely to take Jesus’ words at face value.
But seeing a miracle very rarely creates faith.
Even in the cases where a seemingly miraculous occurrence sparks a person’s faith,
the well of unexplainable occurrences quickly runs dry,
because a faith that sails on the sea on the miraculous
must quickly run aground on the shoals of cold, hard reality.
A hunger goes unsatiated,
an evil spirit goes unexorcised,
a child dies and stays dead,
and faith must be based upon more than what can be seen with the eyes
or understood with the mind.

The story of Elijah is instructive in this regard.
In the first lesson, set hundreds of years before Jesus’ time,
the prophet Elijah accomplishes a great victory over the prophets of Ba’al,
a rival god to the God of Israel.
However, in doing so, he runs afoul of Queen Jezebel,
who is a worshiper of Ba’al,
who threatens to do to him what he did to her god’s prophets.
When we meet him, in the middle of this story, Elijah is on the run for his life.
Perhaps (and this is only a perhaps)
Elijah thought that his great victory, his miraculous victory,
would convert the entire people of Israel,
King Ahab would stop listening to the wife that did not worship the true God,
and finally pure religion would be restored.
But instead his victory seemingly has served only to stir the ire of the Queen,
and his support melts away like the morning dew.
Despondent, he asks God, the God who has brought him this far,
the God who made the water-soaked altar burst into flame,
to take away his life.
His faith, based upon what can be seen, runs aground
upon the shoals of the hard, cold reality of sin, death, and evil.
And yet God is not done with him.
God draws him, God calls him, God sustains him on a journey to God’s holy mountain,
where he will encounter God and receive a new mission.

Hundreds of years later, Jesus says, ‘I am the bread that comes down from heaven,’
and Jesus’ opponents’ faith runs aground on the stone-cold shores of reality.
They respond in a literal fashion –
‘We know this person’s parents, we understand who this person is,
and he cannot be who he says he is.’
Sounds an awful lot like what we heard earlier this summer,
about Jesus’ reception in Nazareth.
There he could do no miracles because of their unbelief.
Here their limited understanding of reality
becomes the stumbling block to an understanding of who Jesus is.

This question, ‘Who is Jesus?’
is the question throughout the sixth chapter of John,
indeed throughout the Gospel of John and the other Gospels.
Is he the son of Mary and Joseph,
who has brothers and sisters,
and lived and died long ago,
or is he that and more;
the one who came from God his Father
to show us God his Father?
No miraculous sign will convince us one way or the other;
even if thousands today were to be fed with a few loaves and fishes,
a hundred different interpretations would instantly arise,
and we’d soon get tired of loaves and fishes anyhow
and begin to grumble,
and ask Jesus to prove himself to us yet again.
After all, imagine what anyone who could do such things with loaves and fishes
might be able to provide in the way of a great cut of beef and good wine.
And why would he hold out on us, if that’s what we really really wanted?

No, God the Father himself must lead us to this understanding of Jesus,
that he is living water, light of the world, and bread of life.
If this seems to be a cop-out,
that there is no certain proof of Jesus’ divinity and meaning for our lives,
we must take into account our predilection to grumble.
If Elijah would or could not accept the sign of the fire from heaven,
if Jesus’ contemporaries would or could not accept the sign of the bread that fed multitudes,
what sign would we accept?
Jesus gives us the one great sign,
his flesh given on the cross for our sake,
and in the resurrection gives us a glimpse of our future,
when he will raise us to fully share his divine life.

Until then, we live as those being drawn, being called, by the Father,
who speaks to us in his Word,
through his Son calling us to believe in Him,
the One who we cannot see but whom Jesus sees.
He calls us to know the Son who knows him,
through him receiving the ability to believe.
For if seeing a miracle rarely creates faith,
being given faith and trust brings with it the ability to see miracles,
the ability to see on the horizon the day when all evil must give way
to the God who gives himself as bread from heaven
in Jesus Christ our Lord.


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