Pentecost 13B 2018
Wilderness and the Bread of Life
Fr. Dale Matson
Our Lectionary Gospel Lesson for this Sunday states, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.” (John 6:35, NASB). St. John’s Gospel further states, “Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." (John 6:49-51)
When the Israelites were in the wilderness, they lived a day-to-day existence. They depended on God literally for their daily bread and for the water they drank. Imagine an entire nation in the wilderness being provided for on a daily basis by God through Moses. This process went on for 40 years and their clothing did not wear out as they traveled in the wilderness. They had shelter and clothing to protect them from the elements but still found it easy to grumble. “Oh, that we had died at the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3)
In the wilderness, one must provide for and carry with one, the basics of life. In the Sierra Nevada Mountains, one must be able to keep warm, dry, hydrated and fed. This amounts to carrying a backpack of a minimum of 30 pounds even for overnight trips and providing a way to purify the water you drink. A backpacker is kind of like a street person in the wilderness. Our backpack is our shopping cart. The difference is that we want to be there. Even mountain water may have bacteria or viruses and the water must be purified whenever you resupply. Sometimes the water sources are further apart than you anticipate and dehydration is a real possibility in the dry mountain air. Additionally, one must have the necessary navigational skills to travel safely.
Sharon, Carlos, Carol, and Christina and I returned from a 3-day 2-night backpacking trip this past Thursday. We began with a four-mile drive on a Jeep trail up Laurel Canyon near Mammoth Lakes, which is a white knuckle four-mile drive on a single lane gravel road to the trailhead. My trusty Tahoe 4X4 hauled five adults and camping gear up this one-hour boulder field. This route is not for the faint of heart. A Fresno doctor perished when his jeep plunged off this road into the canyon far below in 2015. I asked Carlos to drive down when we finished and I’m sure his level of enjoyment was quite the opposite of my concerns driving up.
As soon as we got to Genevieve Lake, we set up our tents which was a good thing since a tremendous thunderstorm rolled in with heavy rain and hail. There was almost no time between the lightning flashes and thunder. Sharon said she could feel the tingling of the electricity in her feet. This is the wilderness experience when it is most intense. There are times when you are overwhelmed by the beauty and solitude but this was a time when have no choice but to surrender to God’s mercy. You have no control over the storm. In the tent, I thought about the time Jesus calmed the storm and how frightened his disciples were.
One also may encounter wild animals like bears, mountain lions and rattlesnakes that require a prudent and respectful response. On my Rae Lakes Loop hike five years ago I encountered a huge male black bear coming down the trail switchbacks as I was going up. Fortunately, he was courteous and moved below me only to reappear behind me on the trail as he continued downhill.
God stated in Ezekiel, "I will make a Ezek 16:60; chapter 20:37; chapter 37:26covenant of peace with them and Job 5:22, 23; Is 11:6-9eliminate harmful beasts from the land so that they may Jer 33:16; Ezek 28:26; chapter 34:27, 28live securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods.” (Ezekiel 34:25). Thank You Lord!
In Fresno We are blessed to be within one hour of the Sierra National Forest, Yosemite and Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Parks. I believe it is no accident that God is frequently depicted as being in the mountains or the wilderness. Although many of you may have gone on a spiritual retreat, probably fewer of you have actually spent time alone in the wilderness. It can be a singular experience to hear only the sound of your own breathing. The wilderness can be stunningly beautiful and also brutally and tragically unforgiving if you are there unprepared. Be properly prepared, for the mountains make their own weather.
The wilderness in Scripture is referred to often. It can be a location where God’s people are tested and learn obedience. “How often they Ps 95:8, 9; chapter 106:43; chapter 107:11; Heb 3:16rebelled against Him in the wilderness and Ps 95:10; Is 63:10; Eph 4:30grieved Him in the Ps 106:14desert!” (Psalm 78:40).
The wilderness can also be a judgment from God “I will Ezek 32:4-6abandon you to the wilderness, you and all the fish of your rivers; you will fall on the open field; you will not be brought together or Jer 8:2; chapter 25:33gathered I have given you for Jer 7:33; chapter 34:20; Ezek 39:4food to the beasts of the earth and to the birds of the sky.” (Ezekiel 29:12).
The wilderness is also a state of barrenness we are brought to, where we once again yearn for God. “O God, Ps 118:28You are my God; I shall seek You  earnestly; My soul Ps 42:2; chapter 84:2; Matt 5:6thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, in a Ps 143:6dry and weary land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1).
The wilderness is a place for a fresh start. “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness  Acts 13:24preaching a baptism of repentance for the Luke 1:77forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4).
The wilderness is also an intentional destination where there is an expectation of encountering God. “But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and Matt 14:23; Mark 1:35; Luke 6:12pray.” (Luke 5:16).
The wilderness is even a place where we can discover grace. “Thus, says the LORD, “The people who survived the sword Num 14:20found grace in the wilderness--Israel, when it went to Ex 33:14; Num 10:33; Deut 1:33; Josh 1:13find its rest."
Whatever reason that may appeal to you, consider the possibility of time spent alone in the wilderness. The wilderness is not just a destination. It is a state of mind also. Wilderness living is kind of like choosing to be a street person in the woods. Instead of a cart, you have a backpack with all of your goods. It is monastic living without the monastery.
I understand how God used the experience in the wilderness to demonstrate to Israel that He would provide for and protect them. They could not enter the Promised Land until God had properly prepared them to live a life of obedience and faith. The Promised Land for Israel is a type of heaven. For us this same wilderness preparation is going on with our Moses, Christ our Lord is also our salvation. The Spirit of the Lord is our pillar of cloud by day and our pillar of fire by night.What is our daily bread In Luther’s catechism speaking on our Lord’s Prayer, Luther defines it thus:
What is meant by daily bread?--Answer. Everything that belongs to the support and wants of the body, such as meat, drink, clothing, shoes, house, homestead, field, cattle, money, goods, a pious spouse, pious children, pious servants, pious and faithful magistrates good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.
I believe it is here that Luther misunderstands what Jesus is teaching us in the Lord’s Prayer by understanding our daily bread as support for the body. That is the kingdom of this world. Luther is interpreting our daily bread in the sense of the Old Testament wilderness experience of the manna God provided daily for sustenance for the Israelites. That is not however what Christ is referring to.
In Matthew chapter 6, Christ provides both His prayer and the context for understanding our daily bread. Following his presentation of the prayer (6:9-13), He then discusses the unnecessary and material concerns of the world in verses 19-32. “So, do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. These are the material concerns that Luther incorrectly refers to as our daily bread. In verse 6:33 Christ states, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” The daily bread Christ is referring to is the daily bread required for sustenance in the Kingdom of God. He is referring to Himself.
“Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever." (John 6:57-58).
Christ knows that we too are in the wilderness. We need our spiritual water, food, and shelter. As Christ told the Samaritan woman, “…...If you knew the gift of God and Who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked Him and He would have given you living water. (John 4:10). Everyone who drinks this water (from the well) will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)
And what is our shelter in this wilderness. Our shelter is the mystical body of Christ, the church. It is there we find protection. It is there we find fellowship and it is there we come together to thank and praise Christ for His provision and protection in this wilderness in which we live.
My brothers and sisters, there is no purer gospel than this. Christ has brought us back within reach of the Garden of Eden our heavenly home. We again may partake of the tree of life. He continues to feed His people the church with His body and blood and has done so for two thousand years. In the Eucharist, we are given the bread with these words spoken, “The body of Christ; the bread of heaven.” When we are given the chalice, we are told, “The blood of Christ; the cup of salvation.” In Him we have eternal life and in Him we are more than conquerors. Just as Yahweh provided daily manna in the wilderness to the Israelites, Christ offers himself as our bread daily in the Kingdom of God. Lord, give us this day our daily bread. Amen