“Receiving God’s Gifts: Grumbling or Grateful?” (Exodus 16:2-15; John 6:22-35; Ephesians 4:1-16)
There is a theme that runs through all three of our lessons today. Did you spot it? It is the theme of God’s gifts. In the reading from Exodus, in the reading from Ephesians, and in the reading from John–in each of those readings, God is busy giving gifts to his people. Our God is a gracious and giving God, there is no doubt about that. But how God’s people receive his gifts–how we receive the gifts God gives to us–now that can be quite another question. Do we recognize the gifts God gives us? Do we grumble about them, that they’re not what we want, and really, God, we’d rather have some other things instead of what you’re giving us? Or do we recognize and receive God’s gifts for what they are, which is, the best that God has for us for now and for eternity, even if we don’t understand why we’re getting what we’re getting? And so our theme this morning: “Receiving God’s Gifts: Grumbling or Grateful?”
Grumbling about the Lord’s gifts–that’s what the people of Israel were doing in the reading from Exodus. The Lord had brought them out of Egypt, out of bondage and slavery, in the Exodus event. The Lord had brought them out under the leadership of Moses, God’s appointed servant. The Lord had led them through the Red Sea, leaving Pharaoh’s chariots behind them, as now the Lord was leading them toward Mount Sinai. But how quickly the people forget all the amazing things the Lord had done for them. They began to grumble against the Lord and against his servant Moses. “What have you done, Moses, bringing us out into this wilderness to starve to death?” They were not trusting the Lord to supply them with what they need. They were taking it out on Moses, but in so doing, they really were grumbling against the Lord.
But the Lord was not going to let them starve to death. The Lord knew what he was doing. Even though the people grumbled, the Lord was still gracious. He gave them what they needed for their journey. He sent them quail in the evening, so they would have meat to eat. And in the morning, he sent them a bread-like food that came out of heaven and appeared on the ground. “What is it?” the people said when they saw it. And in Hebrew, “What is it?” comes out as “Ma-na?” or, as this food became known, “manna.” Manna from heaven, to sustain the Israelites as they traveled through the wilderness. Enough for every day–it literally was their daily bread–and they even got a double portion on the sixth day, so they could rest from their labors on the Sabbath and go to church. And when the people asked “What is it?” Moses told them what it is, namely, “It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.”
“It is the bread that the LORD has given you.” Recognize God’s gifts for what they are. Receive them with thanks. The Lord will supply you with everything you need for your journey. Grumbling is out of place. Gratitude, gratefulness, thanksgiving–this is the way to receive God’s gifts.
Now the Lord did the manna thing one better in the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. Remember, as we heard a couple of weeks ago, there were thousands of people out in a desolate place, having gone there to listen to this man Jesus. It was late, and the people were getting hungry, but in the rush to get out there, nobody had brought food. They could just scrounge up a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. But Jesus took that meager amount and multiplied it, making enough to feed the multitude. The people ate and were satisfied. And they thought, “Hey, this is pretty good! This Jesus fellow has got a pretty good thing going here! We like it when he gives us food for our bellies, and we don’t have to work for it or pay for it! Cool! Let’s get him to do this some more!”
But in so thinking, the people were looking past what Jesus was really aiming for, which was to satisfy their spiritual hunger, to deal with their sin problem. Instead, they were just focused on the free-lunch aspect, and they couldn’t see past the bread to the Giver and to their deeper need. “Just give us the free food, Jesus. That’s all we want from you.”
How short-sighted! How shallow their thinking! And how like us. True, isn’t this how we think all too often? “Just give me what I want, God, and I’ll set the terms for that, if you don’t mind.” “Do what I want, God, and I’ll decide what that is.” Like the grumbling Israelites, like the belly-hungry multitude, we too are not satisfied with what God wants to give us, and we want to set the terms–the demands, really–for how we want God to perform.
This is the lack of the fear, love, and trust in God above all things. This goes right to the very nature of sin: thinking we know better than God, that he isn’t doing a very good job of being our God. Oh, what sinful people we are!
But even so, God is gracious. He is a giving God. He showers us with gifts we don’t deserve. Not only does he give us our daily bread, the stuff we need to sustain us from day to day–food, clothing, shelter, and so on, and so on, and so on–not only so, he gives us gifts even greater. God gives us his own Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior.
Jesus says: “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” And again Jesus says: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”
Dear friends, here is the gift that keeps on giving, the Gift supreme: It is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ himself. God sent his Son into the world to give life to the world, eternal life to dying sinners like you and me. Jesus satisfies our deepest need, which is the forgiveness of our sins. For with our sins forgiven, then everything else opens up. Jesus opens the kingdom of heaven to all believers. His cross is the key that opens that door. For with the Son of God giving his own life as the sacrifice for our sin–every sin you have ever committed–then you come to God with a clean slate, and you are no longer condemned to judgment. Death itself is overcome, as Jesus demonstrated in his own resurrection, which he will share with us as the gift for our eternal future.
Friends, Jesus is the true bread from heaven. He is the bread of life that will satisfy our deepest hunger. With this bread of life sustaining us, we will have the strength to make it on our journey home to heaven. When you put things into this perspective, grumbling quiets down and gratitude arises. We begin to see the big picture. God’s will is always best, even if we don’t understand it at the time.
Jesus gives us the bread of life to sustain us on our journey. He gives us the bread of heaven even here in his Supper. In the Sacrament of the Altar, we receive Christ’s own body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins, to strengthen our faith for the journey ahead, and to point us to the heavenly banquet to come. How grateful we are for this gift! This is why we call the Lord’s Supper the “Eucharist,” which means “Thanksgiving.” Yes, give thanks to the Lord for the gift of this blessed sacrament!
How rich God is in his gifts toward us! In today’s portion of Ephesians, Paul can’t help rattling off these gifts, one after the other. These gifts come to us from the one true God, the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As Paul writes: “There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call–one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” In and through the church, through the church’s ministry, God showers these gifts upon us. Paul says that when Christ ascended on high, “he gave gifts to men.” And what are these gifts? Paul lists them: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers. . . .” Did you catch that? The called and ordained servants of the word–these are the gifts Christ gives to the church. Oh, not that these ministers are anything special in themselves. No, they are all too human and frail vessels. But these are the vessels that God uses to bring us the true treasure, which is the gospel of Christ, preached and taught and sacramented. Through the means of grace, which the ministers of Christ administer, God is doing his thing, God is giving us his gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. God is building us up in the faith, growing us and maturing us and uniting us as the body of Christ, the church.
So today we give thanks to God for all of his gifts! He gives us food, daily bread, to sustain us from day to day. He gives us the very Bread of Life, our Lord Jesus himself, who died and rose for us sinners, to give life to the world, to win our forgiveness, and to give us the sure hope of everlasting life. And through the church and her ministers, the men who preach and teach the gospel to us, God continues to give us his gifts, everything we need to lift us up when we fall, and to strengthen us for our journey.
How do we receive God’s gifts? Are we grumbling, or are we grateful? Dear ones, we can be grateful that when we do grumble, God is gracious enough to forgive us for Christ’s sake, and to turn us around–and yes, he even gives us the gift of a grateful heart! Thanks be to God!