Sunday, October 7, 2007

Sermon for October 7th: John 6:35

Soul Food

One of the most successful publishing phenomena of recent years has been a series of books entitled Chicken Soup for the Soul. These books had their beginning in the work of two motivational speakers, Jack Canfield and Mark Hansen. Canfield and Hansen were in the habit of sprinkling their motivational talks with a liberal dose of inspirational stories, and many people in their audiences suggested to them that they should publish these stories. Eventually they decided to act on this suggestion and they collected 101 stories for publication. The original title came from Jack Canfield’s grandmother who apparently claimed that her homemade chicken soup would cure anything!

The manuscript of Chicken Soup for the Soul was refused by no less than 140 different publishing houses before being accepted by Health Communications, Inc. It was published in June 1993, and by Christmas had become a huge favourite. By April 1994 it was at the top of all the bestseller lists in the United States and Canada, and it went on to win many awards including the prestigious American Booksellers Book of the Year award. The original book has since given birth to many children with names like Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul or the Fisherman’s Soul and so on. Altogether there have been 65 titles which have been published in 37 languages and have sold 80 million copies.

So I think it’s safe to say that in our culture we instinctively understand the idea of a hungry soul! We understand that it’s not just our bodies that need food, but our minds and hearts as well. And junk food won’t do – we need deep nourishment from something wholesome and solid.

Many people today are painfully aware that they are not finding that nourishment. A British newspaper columnist made these observations:
Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire, together with such non-material blessings as a happy family, and yet lead lives of quiet, and at times noisy, desperation, understanding nothing but the fact that there is a hole inside them and that however much food and drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and television sets they stuff it with, however many well-balanced children and loyal friends they parade around the edges of it… it aches.

I suspect that many of us will resonate with this columnist’s words. Many of us are looking for spiritual nourishment and know deep down that we haven’t been able to find it yet.

We never get enough money and possessions to satisfy our hunger. You know what happens: as our income grows, so do our expectations. Tim’s law about standard of living says, ‘Lifestyle will always expand to fill available income’! At first we were satisfied with a small house, but we soon get tired of that and want something larger. We aren’t content with one car any more; we want two, with four-wheel drive, GPS, and TV in the back seats. Things that twenty years ago were seen as luxuries are now necessities. And so it goes on. We never have enough, and no matter how much we have, the ache inside doesn’t go away.

We never get enough pleasure to satisfy our hunger. It’s a common experience with drug addicts that, whereas they began using drugs to be able to feel good, eventually they find they have to use them just to feel normal. They no longer get the same buzz from the drugs that they did at the beginning; they need more, and yet more, and so it goes on until one day they overdose and that’s the end for them.

We can never find a close enough relationship to satisfy our hunger. I have been blessed in my life with some wonderful long-term friendships and a marriage which has been a tremendous gift from God, but I have to say that, even though these relationships have been fulfilling, there’s still a lonely place in me that they don’t touch. And that’s not the fault of those relationships; no human relationship can touch that place. It’s not meant for human beings; Someone Else has reserved it for himself.

I would even go on to say that we can never get enough church to satisfy our hunger! You might think that as Christians the place we should be able to expect ultimate satisfaction is our church, but even in church people often come away feeling empty inside. I know of people who have been going to church for years - all their lives, even - but who have admitted to me that inside they feel a desperate emptiness and they don’t know how to fill it.

I’ve noticed that in our family there is a rather strange idea about what it means to be full. I’ve noticed that people will say, “I’m full” at the end of main course, but then when dessert comes around they miraculously have room again! When I ask about this, I’m told, “Well, you can be full of meat and potatoes and still have room for ice cream – everyone knows that!” And in the same way, we human beings can be full to the point of satiation with material and relational goodies, but still experience this empty place at a deeper level inside us.

Jesus says in John 6:35: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. This is an audacious claim. What Jesus is saying is “I am what you’ve been looking for all your life. I’m the one who will finally satisfy your deep inner hunger and thirst”. Why does he say that?

We think we’re longing for more things or more pleasure or deeper relationships, but those things are just surface concerns. Deep down inside, what we’re really longing for is a genuine relationship with the living God. All these other things and people in our lives are gifts from God, and today we want to give thanks to God for them all. But these things aren’t able to do God’s job in our lives, and if we ask them to do God’s job we end up making them false gods.

St. Paul tells us ‘God...reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God’ (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). In other words, Jesus is the go-between who brings us into a genuine relationship with the living God. And this relationship with the living God is our spiritual sustenance, our nourishment; this is where we get the resources to live our lives and to cope with the things that come our way day by day. Only this can satisfy our inner hunger and thirst. Chicken Soup is not enough. We need God, and if we don’t have God, nothing else can take his place.

How do we experience this for ourselves? Later on in the chapter Jesus uses some pretty graphic language about what’s asked of us. He says “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:53-54).

These verses are a metaphorical way of describing the spiritual reality of nourishing our souls on Jesus. Let me illustrate. We might be in a great crowd of people, all starving to death. We might be brought into a room where there is an enormous table piled high with the most sumptuous banquet we have ever seen in our lives. We can smell the wonderful smells; our mouths are watering in anticipation; we might laugh and clap one another on the backs and say “We’ve been saved! We’re not going to starve!” But neither this good news, nor the sight or smell of the food, is going to help us unless we each of us step forward, pick up some of the food, and eat.

And it’s the same in our relationship with Jesus. We can hear about him, we can read his message in the Scriptures, we can come week by week to the house in which his story is told and celebrated - we can do all this, but unless we step forward and personally appropriate what he has done for us, we will still be hungry inside. That’s what this symbolic language about ‘eating’ and ‘drinking’ is all about. This is what Jesus wants us to do, and he tells us how to do it in verse 35: ‘Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’. This is the language of trust and of personal relationship.

But some people will say “I’m a Christian and I still feel that hunger inside; why is that?” They might say, “I’ve been baptised” or, “I’ve accepted Jesus as my personal Saviour - aren’t I supposed to be finished with this hunger?”

Well, let’s take another illustration, this time from marriage. Someone might come to me and say, “I thought marriage was supposed to take away my loneliness. I got married; why do I still feel lonely?” And I might respond by asking him some questions: “Well, do you and your wife ever sit down and have a good long conversation with each other? Do you ever go out for coffee and give each other your complete attention? Do you do fun things together? Do you learn what pleases the other and try to do it?” And he might look at me with a mystified expression on his face and say “No - I didn’t know I was supposed to do those things, and anyway we both work twelve hour days with an hour’s commute each way, and there’s no time for them”. To which I would respond, “There’s your problem. A wedding alone won’t take away your loneliness; marriage is meant to be an every day, growing relationship”.

And it’s the same with our relationship with God. Jesus wants to lead us into a daily walk with God and with our fellow-believers; it’s not going to work if we’re only prepared to give it the leftovers of our time. Do you take time to pray regularly, by yourself, or with your spouse or family or fellow-believers? Do you listen to God’s voice in the scriptures and come together with your brothers and sisters in Christ to study the Bible? Do you turn to Jesus in moments of need and in moments of joy? When you’re faced with a decision, do you ask him to make his will known? You see, we don’t just ‘Come to him’ and ‘believe in him’ once; we need a daily coming and believing if we’re to enjoy all the benefits he promises us.

Today, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, we give thanks to God for all our blessings. We thank him for our daily food and drink, for shelter and transportation, for safety in a world where many live in daily danger. We thank God for our families and friends and all those we love. We thank God for our jobs and for our leisure activities. All these things are blessings from a generous Creator.

But even though we enjoy these blessings, we don’t expect them to satisfy that deepest hunger in our souls. Jesus alone is the Bread of Life; only he can provide us with food that will never perish. And of course the Holy Communion is a vivid picture of this. It’s easy to put our faith in Jesus when we receive Communion. As we stand with our brothers and sisters in Christ and stretch out our physical hands to receive the bread and wine, we simply stretch out the hands of our faith to Jesus at the same time. We may not feel that our own faith is very strong, and that’s why it’s so important for us to stand together with others who can help us when we’re faltering. Together, we look to Jesus as our true and living Bread. As he invites us in verse 35, so we come to him and we put our trust in him.

And then, when we leave this place, we’re invited to live in that relationship all week long, together with our sisters and brothers in Christ. We’re invited to trust him in every experience we have during the week, to consult him in every decision, to turn to him in every need. In this way, and this way only, will our spiritual hunger be satisfied with food that will never perish.


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