Having an appetite for Jesus

(John 6:35-51)     

Sermon preached at Bramley St Peter, 8 August 2021
this can also be viewed as a video on the parish Facebook page

If you were here last Sunday, you’ll remember we heard the story about Jesus feeding five thousand people with rumbling tummies. Did that make you feel hungry?  Who’s got an appetite for food right now?  What do you fancy – a full English brunch (I’ve got some baked beans here) or something healthier (gluten free crispbread)?

I read recently of a man who had suffered a heart attack and his doctor asked about his diet. “Burgers, chips, pizza, and ice cream” were among his answers. The doctor told him to change: Low fat, low salt, vegetables, fish, grilled chicken and rice.”  His first reaction was, “This is going to be absolute torture!”  Later he told his friends, “At first it all seemed tasteless, but after a while I thought: ‘This isn’t so bad.’ I felt better, and I had more energy.  I don’t miss burgers as much as I thought. My whole appetite changed after about two months.” [1] His point was that while hunger is natural and unavoidable, appetite can be controlled. Change your diet and you will change your appetite. Get used to eating healthy food, and you will desire it.

Jesus seems to be saying something similar here. He’s using bread as a symbol because we all know what it is to be hungry, to have an appetite for food, and he had just settled the rumbling tummies of that crowd of followers. But he’s really talking about our appetite for God. Jesus says that when he satisfies this hunger, you’ll never be hungry again.  He’s still talking picture language, so he means that if we have our fill of him, we won’t be hungry for God.

But what is it like to feel hungry for God?  It’s something very personal so no two people will describe it exactly the same.  This is my experience. The first time that I heard someone describe the hunger for God was when I was about 16, the speaker was actually the school headmaster talking about having our spiritual emotions aroused.  That rang true with me and made me realise that some of the emotions I had, the sense of there being something more to life than I had already experienced, were in fact a desire, a hunger for God.  I started asking Christian friends about their faith. They took me along to church, and that was the beginning of my own Christian journey. 

A much more famous Christian, St Augustine famously wrote of the heart that is restless until it finds its rest in God.  I still experience that.  This sense of “feeling restless for God” can also be explained as “feeling hungry for God”. It takes the form of being unable to relax, even though there is nothing I could name that is causing me any anxiety or pain. Once I have spent time in prayer or praising God, then I can relax more easily.  

As with physical food, there is spiritual junk food – the time-wasting activities we can easily slip into – and spiritual health food – praying, listening to Christian music, reading the Bible.  As with the man who went on a healthy diet, the more often I spend time doing those things, the more spiritually healthy I am, the more I actually want to spend time with God, and the less attractive spiritual junk food seems.

Ideally, I would be praying and praising constantly, but as I’m not a monk, that’s not really possible.  The main thing is to realise when I feel that appetite coming on, and to know it means to turn back to Jesus to have my hunger satisfied. With him the fridge is never empty.

Your own experience may take a different form.  What matters is that we can feel this spiritual appetite for God when it comes, recognise it for what it is, and know that God will provide the spiritual food in Jesus to satisfy our hunger.

[1] Illustration – Colin S. Smith. UnlockingtheBible.org

Noah the novice boat builder

Text of a talk for the Diocese of Leeds ‘Creation Salvation’ course on the subject of adapting our church buildings to a changing climate, 16 June 2020.

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’

Genesis 9:8-17

Noah’s ark and the rainbow after the flood is probably one of the best known of all Bible stories, and not just because it lends itself to children’s songs and activities.  This tale of disaster and recovery comes to us from the mists of time, long before Abraham. So it’s not specifically a Christian story, or even a Jewish one, it’s a legend of unknown origin that found a place in the Hebrew scriptures because it speaks to us of eternal truths about God and his creation and our response to it. 

Yet it is a Christian story in that Noah is in some ways a saviour figure, a prefiguring of the Messiah.  What can we learn from this legend of a good man who saved not only his family, but the world, from the wrath of God, and received a new covenant by which we should live?

Firstly, Noah understood nature and read the signs of the times.  The story begins by telling us that “God saw that the earth was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth”. It’s not clear precisely how things were corrupted, but Noah was a righteous man and understood that corrupted they were. The Bible calls him a ‘man of the soil’ – a farmer. He understood ideas of sustainability and biodiversity – even if his language had no words for those concepts.  He understood by a prophecy that God was going to destroy all living things that he had created and he didn’t want that to happen.

Secondly, he responded by taking practical action.  He could have just resigned himself to his fate, but for the sake of his descendants and for all the animals around him, he decided to do something about it. Noah, let it be said, was not a boat builder by trade, he was a farmer as we have already seen.  But he was also a man of faith. When he understood the solution was to build a large ship, he and his sons set about doing just that.  They would have built wooden houses and barns before, so it was a matter of adapting the building skills they already had to new purposes for the benefit of others.   

It cost them, of course – it cost them the price of many trees’ worth of wood and cartloads of pitch, not to mention the value of the food they could have sold. How long was Noah on the ark? The ‘forty days’ is only how long it rained, starting on the 17th of the second month.  But they did not leave the ark until the 27th of the second month of the following year.  Much of the ark’s lower decks must have been taken up with food and fodder!  Peoples around the world whose land gets flooded today as a result of climate change will understand the implications of a year without sowing or reaping. But what is money for anyway, when the very future of life on earth is under threat? This was an investment of time and money in a sustainable future when the climate was at a tipping point – or rather, a tipping-it-down point.

Thirdly, as a farmer he understood the rhythms of life. When Noah’s family emerges from the ark, God promises – to use the words of John Bell’s paraphrase – “while earth remains there’ll be seed-time and harvest, summer sun and winter moon, the dead of night, the bright day”. Part of the rhythm of life for farmers is that of gathering in and sending out.  The harvest is gathered into barns, and the food, hay or silage is then distributed throughout the year to people and animals as they have need.  The ark fulfilled the same function in a unique way, gathering in pairs of animals against the coming deluge and keeping them safe and fed until they could be sent out to repopulate the earth. 

For us in the Church, our buildings have the same function – gathering people in from our community to experience the saving love of God, feeding them on His Word, and sending them out to fulfil God’s mission in the world. As we face a climate and biodiversity crisis no less drastic than that of Noah’s day, may our buildings be made as climate-proof as Noah’s ark, and likewise be the means by which the world can be saved anew through these rhythms of grace.