Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 1, 2021
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.
As some of you know, my family adopted a dog that used to belong to Mike and Joanne, some members of our church. We’ve had Emma for nine months now, and we all just love her.
And apparently, she loves us too! And I don’t mean to brag, but she especially seems to love me. Whenever I’m home, she is totally my shadow. She follows me from room to room, always wanting to be where I am. Even when I’m doing laundry and going up and down two flights of stairs again and again in our tri-level home, she goes up and down those stairs with me, which is a lot for an arthritic, eleven year-old dog. I’m so touched by it.
I like to joke with the rest of my family that Emma likes me the best, that I’m her favorite, but again and again they point out that what has really been going on is that I’m the biggest sucker in the family. I’m the biggest pushover when it comes to this dog. I’m the one who “accidentally” drops meat on the kitchen floor when preparing dinner. I’m the one who lets her lick my ice cream bowl when I’m done. Once I even found myself cooking her an egg. Nobody else was having eggs. I made one just for her. I don’t know why, exactly. She just seemed like she wanted an egg.
So, does this dog follow me around because she loves me, or is it because I’m the biggest sucker? Does she follow me around because I am her favorite, or is it because I’m the one who gives her treats?
Last Sunday we heard the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. We pick up in our gospel reading today right where we left off with that story last week. The people who got that free picnic of fish and bread were following Jesus alright. They saw that Jesus had left in a boat, and so they all hopped in boats and went looking for him. They wanted to be where he was. When they found Jesus, they acted all casual, like they had just bumped into him, but Jesus was onto them. “Very truly I tell you,” he said, “you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”
These people were following Jesus out of faith, at least not the kind of faith Jesus was looking for. They weren’t following Jesus because they understood that the free food they received was a sign of something bigger. They weren’t following Jesus because they knew he was their savior and Lord. They were following him because he gave them free food.
This is a perennial problem. People regularly get the wrong idea about Jesus. They miss the signs pointing to who he really is and come to see him as nothing more than someone who slips them goodies from time to time. I was reading a sermon by Martin Luther on these very verses, and he complained about Christians in his own day who misunderstood Jesus and the Gospel in this way. He writes: “Even today the Gospel finds disciples who imagine that its teaching affords nothing but the gratification of the belly, that it brings all manner of earthly delights, and that it serves solely the wants of this temporal life.” Luther said that such people see Jesus as the one who has come to gratify their every wish. They treat Jesus more like a genie in a bottle than the crucified and risen savior of the world.
This is a problem in our own day too, specifically in those branches of Christianity teaching the prosperity gospel, which promotes the idea that Jesus came to make you wealthy, healthy, and successful, to help you live your best life now, and so you follow him in order to get those treats.
But it isn’t just a problem in those Christians. It is a problem for all of us as we are tempted to turn God into a candy machine, expecting him to dole out whatever our sweet tooth is desiring at the moment. It is a problem for all of us when we adopt an attitude of “what have you done for me lately” towards God.
C. S. Lewis described the problem in an interesting way. He argues that in treating God this way, we set our expectations far too low. Our human appetites actually cause us to expect too little from God. In his book The Weight of Glory, he writes: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
This is exactly what is happening in our gospel reading. The people are following Jesus merely for the free fish sandwiches, when what he is really offering them is the Bread of Life! “Do not work for the food that perishes,” Jesus tells them, “but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Jesus had come to do so much more than fill their earthly hungers. He had come to do so much more than grant their silly wishes. Jesus had come to give them eternal life! He had come to offer them infinite joy! He himself was the bread from heaven that gives life, a life with God that begins now and continues forever.
It wasn’t too long after we got Emma that I took her to a routine appointment with her vet. They told me she needed to lose weight, so I had to stop giving her snacks. Those eggs gave her bad gas anyway. But you know what? She still follows me around.
The vet knew Mike and Joanne and their situation. They knew that Emma had been in a kennel for a while at one point, and then with the Brocks for a couple weeks. She also knew I was Mike and Joanne’s pastor. So, towards the end of the appointment, the vet asked me: “Are you Emma’s forever home?” I smiled and said, “Yes. Yes, we are Emma’s forever home.”
Jesus came to do more than grant you wishes. He came to do so much more than gratify your earthly desires and give you the wants of this temporal life. Jesus came to give us more than free fish sandwiches. Jesus isn’t a genie in a bottle, and he isn’t a sucker who gives out treats to those who look at him with puppy dog eyes.
Jesus came to give us not necessarily what we think we want; he came to give us what we need the most. He came to die for our sins and to rise again to give us eternal life. He came to give us infinite joy through a restored relationship with God.
He came to give us a forever home.
That is what he has done for you, and that is why we follow him.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church