August 9, 1992

THE BREAD OF LIFE

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will not go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” John 6:35

Do you ever feel hungry for something–you feel like there’s some particular snack you want–but you’re not quite sure what it is?  Strange feeling, isn’t it?  You go to the kitchen, you look through the cupboards and the refrigerator, but all the while you don’t know quite what you’re after.  Finally you grab an apple or a cookie or whatever; but even as you’re munching, you know it wasn’t really what you wanted, and when you gulp down the last bite, you’re not satisfied.  You’re still hungry for something, and you still don’t know what it is.  You do know that whatever it is, it’s not what you just finished eating.

That happens to me once in a while, and when it does, I feel a little silly.  It’s really no big deal, of course, and frankly, I don’t spend much time worrying about it.

But there’s another hunger, a deeper hunger, a hunger we perhaps can’t quite identify, and this hunger is the story of our lives.

Take Elvis Presley.  Elvis had the looks;  he had the talent;  he had the money;  he had millions of fans who worshiped him;  he had gorgeous women throwing themselves at him.  Who could possibly want anything more?  Apparently, Elvis did.  He had everything under the sun, and yet he turned to pills and capsules.  He needed something to help him deal with the hunger gnawing at him.  Elvis had everything we dream of, but the dream turned out to be a nightmare.  Finally, Elvis Presley died, his body bloated and his spirit empty.

Earlier this year, the U.S. mail service took a poll to find out whether people wanted a stamp with a picture of the young Elvis or the old Elvis.  Actually, the old Elvis wasn’t really very old at all;  he just looked old.  But anyway, the contest was between a dashing, youthful sex symbol, and the puffy, overweight, disillusioned man he turned out to be.  It really wasn’t much of a contest:  the young Elvis won by a three-to-one margin.  Who wants to look at the swollen face of a drug addict taken shortly before he died?  We’d rather not face the fact that our idol fell with a crash.  We’d rather not face the fact that this man who had it all was still hungry inside.  Some people don’t even want to face the fact that he’s dead!

Well, if you don’t like the old Elvis, you probably won’t like Ecclesiastes, either.  Ecclesiastes is a book of the Bible that records how one man faced his hunger, and how he tried everything he could think of to satisfy it.  Elvis was nicknamed “the king,” but the author of Ecclesiastes really was the king.  He was fabulously rich and very powerful;  he could afford to try anything he wanted.  You name it, he tried it.  He tried laughter and comedy;  he tried booze;  he tried political power;  he tried money;  he tried the latest music;  he tried sex with hundreds of women;  he tried wisdom and education;  he tried work and career achievements.  He tried everything under the sun.  And what did it get him?  No matter what he tried, he came up empty.  He still wasn’t satisfied.  He said that it was all empty, it was all meaningless, it was like chasing the wind.  Not a pretty picture.

Why don’t we like reading Ecclesiastes or looking at the old Elvis?  Because they show us the painful truth about ourselves.  These men tried to satisfy their inner hunger by eating everything in the refrigerator, but they remained as hungry as before, and we’d rather not face the fact that we’re doing much the same thing.

We keep trying various things to satisfy our hunger, to make ourselves happy and fulfilled.  We try everything under the sun, and where do we end up?  If we’re honest, many of us could echo the old hit by the Rolling Stones:  “I can’t get no satisfaction.  I try, and I try, and I try, and I try.  I can’t get no satisfaction.”  It’s been a while since the Stones first began howling those words, and it’s been a lot longer since Ecclesiastes was written, but still today many of us keep singing the same song, different verse.  We try and we try and we keep on trying, but we “can’t get no satisfaction.”

Everybody’s got a hungry heart.  Why is that?  Where does this hunger come from?  The Bible traces it to the way God made us.  Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God “set eternity in the hearts of men.”  Every girl and boy, every man and woman, has eternity in the heart.  Everybody’s got a heart the size of eternity, and nothing under the sun can fill that eternity-sized space.  God deliberately made us in such a way that we’ll never be satisfied with anything smaller than eternity.  And there’s nothing the size of eternity except the Lord himself.  Each of us has an appetite that only God can satisfy, an emptiness that only God can fill.

Everybody’s got a hungry heart, and this hunger is much more real and much more important than the vague feeling that moves us to get up at night and raid the refrigerator.  It’s the most basic and significant fact about every person.  Everybody’s got a hungry heart, and there’s only one kind of food that can satisfy this kind of hunger:  the bread of life.  We can try all sorts of other things, but we’ll remain frustrated, we’ll remain empty, we’ll remain hungry, until we feast on that bread.

One of the most striking things Jesus Christ ever said about himself is this:  ‘I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will not go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).  In that one astonishing statement, Jesus says that he can fill the emptiness, he can satisfy the hunger, of every human heart.

Shortly before he said this, Jesus had filled an awful lot of stomachs.  You can find the story in the Bible at the beginning of John 6.  Thousands of people had heard about Jesus and had come to see the man everyone was talking about.  They found Jesus out on a hillside, sort of in the middle of nowhere.  Meal time rolled around, people’s stomachs were starting to growl, and they hadn’t packed lunch for themselves.  Jesus knew the crowd was getting hungry, so he asked his friend, Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?”

Philip didn’t think it was a very smart question.  No way could they buy food for all these people!  “Lord,” Philip said, “Eight months’ wages wouldn’t buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”  Philip couldn’t come up with enough to pay for even a mouthful per person, let alone an entire meal.

Another of Jesus’ disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

The way Andrew figured, it wouldn’t help much that one kid had brought his picnic basket.  But what did Jesus do?

Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.”  There was plenty of grass in that place, and the men sat down, about five thousand of them.  The crowd was so large they didn’t have time to count the women and children. (Matthew 14:21)  Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were seated as much as they wanted.  He did the same with the fish.

When they had all had enough to eat, Jesus said to his disciples, “Gather all the pieces that are left over.  Let nothing be wasted.”  So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.  (John 6:5-13)

What a picnic!  You start with a small boy’s lunch, you sit on the grass with thousands upon thousands of famished people, you all eat until you’re completely stuffed, and when you’re done, you have to figure out who gets the leftovers.

Needless to say, the crowd was delighted, and they began to discuss how to make Jesus king.  But while they were still wiping their mouths on their sleeves, Jesus slipped quietly away.

The crowd was disappointed that Jesus was gone, so they went looking for him.  The next day, they found him again, but when they started talking with him, Jesus seemed to be on an entirely different wavelength.  They got into quite a discussion.

Jesus told them that they were looking for him for the wrong reason.  Their main motivation was that Jesus had somehow given them plenty to eat, and they were interested in an unlimited source of free meals.  They didn’t understand that the miraculous meal was a sign pointing them to something even more important.  They were looking only for the food that fills hollow stomachs, not the food that satisfies hungry hearts.  Jesus told them,

“Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.  On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

Jesus answered, “The work of God is this:  to believe in the one he has sent.”

Well, they said, if Jesus wanted them to believe in him, he’d have to do something to earn it.  Back when Moses led the people out of Egypt, he’d given them manna, the miracle food, bread from heaven.  The manna had fed an entire nation every morning for forty years in the desert.  Could Jesus top that?  So far, he’d provided only one meal for a few thousand people.  He’d have to do better than that!

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who 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.”

“Sir,” they said, “from now on give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”  (John 6:26-35)

A little later, Jesus explained this even further.

I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life.  I am the bread of life.  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.

Jesus says that he’s the only bread that can satisfy the eternity-sized hollow in our hearts.  His flesh is the only bread that can make us live forever.  Try anything else, and you’ll find that it’s not enough, not even if it’s a gift from God himself.  When God gave the people manna in the wilderness, it wasn’t enough.  Their bellies were full, but their souls remained empty.  When Jesus gave bread to the 5,000 men and their families, it wasn’t enough.  Their bellies were full, but their souls remained empty.  Today, when God gives us food and clothes and technology and whatever else, it’s not enough.  Our bellies are full, but our souls remain empty.  The only gift of God that can satisfy our hunger for eternity is the gift of himself.

According to Jesus, his flesh is the bread we need.  Jesus said he would offer his flesh for the life of the world.  He did this when he was nailed to a wooden cross near the Jerusalem garbage dump.  Somehow, this one person’s offering of himself has been multiplied through God’s miraculous power to nourish eternal life in countless people.  Just as one small boy gave up his lunch and it somehow fed thousands of hungry stomachs with plenty to spare, so Jesus gave up his flesh and somehow feeds millions of hungry souls, and there’s plenty left over yet today to nourish anyone who still needs eternal life.  The bread of life is available to anyone who wants it.

It’s not enough, however, simply for this bread to be available.  Bread doesn’t do you any good unless you eat it.  Jesus didn’t say, “I am the bread of life.  From now on, fulfillment is automatic for everyone.”  He said, “I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”  Bread is nourishing only to those who eat, and Jesus is nourishing only to those who come to him in faith.

We won’t come to him, though, unless we give up on our chances of finding satisfaction on our own.  We’ve got to be set free from our habit of trying to fill the emptiness with other things.  We think that if only we were more sexy, we’d be satisfied.  If only we were more famous, we’d be satisfied.  If only we were filthy rich, we’d be satisfied.  If only we were as sexy and famous and rich as Elvis Presley, we’d be …  well, what would we be?  We’d be dead.  The young Elvis lives only on a postage stamp.

We try, and we try, and we try, and we try.  We can’t get any satisfaction.  Everybody’s got a hungry heart, and that’s why the Lord says in Isaiah 55:

Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?  Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.  Give ear and come to me;  hear me, that your soul may live.

That’s an invitation to enjoy some real food, not the stuff that never satisfies.

Ever eat cotton candy?  As soon as a puff of that spun sugar touches your tongue, it melts down to nothing.  It’s all sweetness and no nourishment.  A little cotton candy tastes fine once in a while, but if you try to make a meal of it, your stomach remains hollow, and before long the sugary stuff gets sickening.  When you’re really hungry, what would you rather have:  a hearty sandwich or an entire room stuffed with cotton candy?  A sandwich isn’t as sweet, but it’s a lot more satisfying.

Too many of us have been stuffing our hungry hearts with cotton candy, and we still can’t figure out why we feel sick and empty.  Much of what we do is driven by our unconscious desire to fill the eternity-sized hollow in our hearts.  But we might as well face it.  We don’t need more cotton candy;  we need the sandwich.  We need the bread of life.

Unfortunately, when we’re not trying to fill up on fluff, we’re trying to pretend we’re not hungry.  We try to avoid thinking about our hunger altogether.  That’s why most of us try to avoid silence.

When you’ve got a spare moment at home, what’s the first thing you do?  If you’re like most people, you turn on the TV to see what’s on, and even if you don’t find a program you really like, you may still sit through something just to kill the time.  And if you don’t want to do that, you can always rent a video.  (I’m told that according to the latest surveys, the average American adult watches 4 hours and 40 minutes of television per day.)

We avoid silence like the plague.  When you get into your car, what happens the moment you turn the key?  Your radio starts talking and singing to you, protecting you from silence.  When you’re waiting in the office of a doctor or dentist, what do you do?  You grab a magazine so you won’t have to “just sit there.” Can you even jog in silence?  Or do you need some headphones to fill your skull with noise?  Maybe you can’t even fall asleep at night without a TV or stereo to lull you to sleep.

Most of us, it seems, can’t stand silence.  We need something to do, something to watch, or something to listen to.  Why is that?  Why are we so afraid of silence?  The most obvious answer is that we don’t like being bored.  But really now, what is boredom, except another word for emptiness?

We can’t stand to be alone with our thoughts.  Why not?  Perhaps we’re afraid of what the sounds of silence might tell us.  Take away all our noise and distractions, and what do we have left?  We’d rather not know.  We’re afraid to face the fact that we feel empty, that our lives are boring, that we’re hungry for something and we’re not quite sure what it is or where to get it.

The bread of life is freely available, but it’s not going to do us much good if we keep pretending we don’t need it.  Somehow, each of us needs to somehow come to terms with the fact that we’re empty and hungry.

This isn’t something we can do on our own.  Every one of us suffers from a deadly spiritual eating disorder, a sort of spiritual anorexia.  Sinful people simply can’t stomach Jesus.  When Jesus first said he was the bread of life, many people didn’t believe him, and still today, many don’t.  We refuse the bread even when it’s offered for free.  We’d rather do almost anything than live in total dependence on Jesus.

So how can we develop a healthy appetite?  We can’t.  Only God can.  Jesus himself said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).  God is the one who provides the bread of life, and he’s also the one who gives us an appetite for it.

When God draws you to Jesus, he shows you the truth about yourself.  He shows you that he didn’t design you to be a man who is satisfied as long as you’ve got good food, good sex, a good house, and a good job.  He didn’t design you to be a material girl in a material world.  He made you with an eternity-sized space inside of you, and you will ache with hunger until you eat the bread of life.  Like it or not, that’s who you are.

God’s the one who put eternity in your heart in the first place, and he’s the only one who can arouse your appetite for eternity and point it in the right direction.  God shows you who you are, and at the same time, he shows you who Jesus is:  He’s the answer to your hunger.  He’s the bread of life.  So you eat.  You believe in Jesus as the source of your life, you trust in his death and resurrection, you live in daily dependence on him.

Next time you wake up hungry, think about what you might really be hungry for.  Is it possible that you’re hungry for eternity?  Are you hungry for purpose, for zest, for forgiveness, for satisfaction, for joy, for significance, for a life nourished by the eternal?

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will not go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”  Have you eaten that bread?

PRAYER

Father in heaven, make us hungry, really hungry, and once we’ve got a healthy appetite, satisfy us with the bread of life.  Forgive us for looking anywhere else for satisfaction, and fill us with more and more of Jesus.

Thank you, Jesus, for offering your own flesh for the life of the world, for covering our sins and filling our emptiness.  You are the bread of life, O Lord.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.