Not many years ago, when I was at a different college from this one, on the other side of Oxford, I had the opportunity – for which I was very grateful – to serve as the College Sacristan (in a Chapel very different from this one) under a sacramental Methodist Dean, who has since become a Roman Catholic lay man.
Each Christmas, for the three years that I was there, the College Christmas dinner – with about six hundred people – would come to an end, and most of those people would slur their way up the steps and into the Chapel for a semi-organised Carol Service. If you are imagining a drunken disaster, that is not far from what actually happened. The crowd – complete with wine glasses and cans of beer – would merrily sing the first line of each of the carols, before either changing the words to something a little more irreverent, or simply falling asleep propped up against the person next to them.
One of the main attractions which drew people to that service (as well as the fact that they just followed each other like sheep) was that the Dean gave an annual Christmas sermon, and the sermon was the same every year, and without all of the jokes, it went something like this.
The most important thing to remember about the Christmas story, is that when Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem, the people in the Inn had no idea that God was in their midst.
Tthinking about those strange Christmas nights on the other side of Oxford, the irony is that most of those people who cheered our College Dean along, had themselves no idea.
We know as ordinands who spend time out and about from the College, that that is a pretty dominant experience in many of the lives of those we meet. Sometimes when we discern God’s presence in a particular and powerful way, we find that those who we meet can speak more clearly about God’s absence, or at least his apparent absence, than about his presence. And I am guessing that sometimes in our own lives – or at least I know that in my life – although it is difficult to talk about it here, we feel more powerfully (on occasions) the absence of God than his presence in our midst.
More than that, I know in my own life, that there is a lack of remembering to search for God’s presence, and a lack of waiting on God in the normal experiences of life, in favour of getting on with my own busy-ness, and my own little projects. And that may be an experience which is unique to me in this place, but I think that it probably is not.
So as I turned to the readings which we have before us today, I found some little comfort in knowing that I am not the first person in the Judeo-Christian tradition to get things so wrong.
Our Old Testament reading this morning, carries on the story of God’s people, the people of Israel as they wander in the wilderness. And if we knew nothing more about that story than what we have heard today we might be in danger of thinking that the Israelites had a legitimate claim against God. Here they are, out in the wilderness with nothing to eat, all alone, instead of being back in Egypt where they had their fill of bread among the fleshpots.
The Israelites seem to have forgotten all that God did to bring about their liberation, and all that God did to maintain their liberation when they were being pursued by the Egyptians. Despite the fact that the Glory of the Lord is amongst them – in fact God is in direct conversation with Moses – the people feel abandoned, as if God has left them to die.
And God sees their need, and hears their petition and rains down food for them, both meat and bread, “the bread of angels” as our Psalm describes it. But we know the history of the people of Israel, that history which so often mirrors the history of our Christian institutions – and so we know that it won’t be long before the people have forgotten God’s goodness again and are seeking to find fulfilment without him.
At the heart of the good news of our faith, we find that when we forget God – when we ignore God in our midst – he doesn’t forget us, and he doesn’t give up on us. When we forget him, he goes on remembering us. And the life and death and resurrection of Jesus is a constant testimony to that which we believe.
We find Jesus in our New Testament reading this morning, faced with a similar issue of food. This time the people have had their fill – 5,000 of them in total – when Jesus provided them with more than they could eat, from just five loaves and two small fish. And now, the following day, there is something of a chaotic scene. The people cannot find Jesus, and cannot work out how he had left without them without them seeing where he went. And when they do find him, because he knows the secrets of their hearts, he is not very impressed with their motives.
There is a wonderful little cartoon which you can buy on a greetings card which shows Jesus being followed by a multitude of people, and the caption simply reads: “Jesus turned water into wine and the people followed him.” Anyone who can turn water into wine, or in this case a few loaves into a meal for all who needed it, is obviously a useful person to have around.
Jesus knows that that is what they are thinking. And he calls them to a higher purpose, to live not for their stomachs but for the kingdom of God, through which comes eternal life. And the writers of the Gospel of John record the response of the people, who ask what they must do to perform the works of God.
Jesus has given them enough hints as to who he is, he has made it clear that he is more than a magician-like baker, and the people still don’t seem to have understood. God is in their midst, calling them to himself, calling them to the work of the Kingdom, but they still need to ask questions. And in reply Jesus spells the whole thing out very simply: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent!”
But the people still do not get it. So they demand a sign before they will believe him, and they want a sign that at least equals the manna from heaven which the Israelites received. And in his reply to their request, it finally becomes clear to them. For God’s message in Jesus is about more than physical need. The true bread of heaven is that which gives life to the world, it is much more than God’s provision of food for his people in the wilderness, it is much more than his provision of food for the multitude who had none of their own. It is the life of his Son, come to offer a new way to live within the family of God.
The people, not surprisingly want that bread always, although it will not take long before some of them have forgotten all about it and are jeering at the Son of God as he hangs on the cross.
God is in our midst today, whether we remember it or not God is here. Whether we recognise God or not, he is at work. Not just in that bread which is his body here in this very Chapel. But in our lives, which are his body too, his body the Church.
And as God seeks us out in the ordinary things of our day, let us pray that we will be open to finding him, even in the most unexpected of places.