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You Can’t Always Get What You Want

August 26, 2012, 7:00 pm & 10:30 am
Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Andrew D. Ruth

1 Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69;

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When my sister and I were kids, my dad would drive us to school every day. As an entrepreneur, he knew that it might be the only time he’d see us for the whole day. I can still remember him starting the car early, so that the A/C could cool off the hot leather seats. Then 15 minutes before school started, we’d load into the car and back to the end of the driveway, and he’d turn to us and say, “Where are we going again?” We’d giggle and say, “We’re going to school, Daddy.” “School?! You sure you’re old enough for school?” Again giggles, “Daddy, you know I’m old enough!”

Then he’d pull down his black Ray Ban sunglasses and yell, “Ok then...Let’s Jam!” as he’d turn the stereo up as loud as he thought our elementary school ears could handle. Then we’d bob our heads and snap our fingers all the way to school, like Jake and Elwood Blues on a mission from God.

Every morning we’d jam out to the likes of the Doobie Brothers, Arlo Gutherie, the Boss, the King, James Brown, James Taylor, Jimmy Buffet, Marshal Tucker, Bob Dylan, the Dead, and of course, The Stones.

I don’t know if Dad knew it or not, but we were definitely on a mission from God. Those songs of my childhood, that kept me tap dancing on the floorboard, still provide the proverbs and framework I pull on to interpret my experience. These rock and roll folk stars became my teachers. You might even say everything I need to know in life I learned on my way to kindergarten.

As a fourteen year old highschooler, I started to fall in love with Jesus, thanks to the faithful ministry of my parents and church, and, as I did, I had this crazy inclination–to read the Bible–and, low and behold, it changed my life. Well, I guess I should clarify. First, it was confusing. I’d read things and I’d understand some of it, but there would be large portions that I simply didn’t get. They’d go over my head, like the humor in “Seinfeld.” But as I kept reading and kept asking God to help me understand what I was reading, stuff started to click...but it did so in a strange way. I’d read a story in Scripture and it would remind me of a song. I’d read the Bible and find myself singing Dylan.

I have a friend, who, when teaching about “listening prayer”–hearing from God–and prophecy, always says, “God speaks to people in ways they understand.” So, God talked to Daniel in dreams of dragons, and speaks to me in the lyrics and tunes of rock and roll. In a miraculous way, Jesus used the Boss and the Stones to teach me how to read and understand and learn from Scripture.

So, it’s not uncommon for me or for my father to read Scripture and think of a song. Reading the words of Scripture this week, I couldn’t help but hear the Rolling Stones sing, “You can’t always get what you want.”

You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might find ...You get what you need.

From their 1969 Smash Hit, the Stones taught me that what I want and what I need are not always the same thing. Moreover, I learned that I don’t often even know what I should want. In fact, I regularly want things that will not satisfy me, but will instead lead to and hurry along my physical, emotional, and spiritual destruction. Far too often, I want things that are actually bad for me and harmful to those around me.

Like a little child, I want meals of cotton candy and extra crispy bacon, with a chocolate explosion milkshake to drink; for every meal. I’m sure that those things will satisfy my deep-seated hunger, when, in reality, they merely aggravate my intestines, rot my teeth, clog my heart, and lead to diabetes. What I need is a well-cooked steak with fresh veggies and a few extra cups of water.

I’m thankful that my parents fought the tough battles of love, and gave me what I needed more often than what I wanted. It would not have been loving for my parents to feed me candy incessantly, or to allow me to play with razor blades when I liked them, because they’re shiny. There is very little love demonstrated by the parent who allows a kid to play in a busy street, in order to avoid hurting the child’s feelings.

I was reminded of all these lessons as I read our Scripture lessons for this week. I was reminded while reading that the Christianity I want and the Christianity I need are not the same–that the ways God operates don’t always match the ways I wish God would operate–that perhaps a loving God doesn’t bend to my every whim.

Look with me back at our John 6 reading. Look at verse 60. The crowds around Jesus respond to the teaching he gives them by saying, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Can you hear the folks turning to one another saying, “I didn’t sign up for this. This is not the Jesus I signed up to follow. This isn’t my type of religion. I was down for the miracles and the free meals, but this is not what I ordered. This isn’t what I want from a Messiah, from a King, or from a God?”

Previously, the people had seen something in Jesus they wanted. Look back at verse 15. There it says that Jesus had to withdraw from the crowd to the mountain to prevent them from making him king by force. The people then wanted him to be their king and deliverer, but now, a few verses later, the very next day, verse 66 tells us that almost all of them left, because Jesus refused to meet their desires for what the Messiah should be.

I think it will be helpful to examine what they wanted out of a Savior, because, like the Jews in John’s Gospel, very often the Savior we want and the Savior we get are two very different people.

To understand why the crowds are so disappointed at the end of the chapter in our reading for today, we need to look back at the desires expressed by the crowd throughout the chapter. I wish we had time to read it, but alas you all are used to sermons of half my normal length.

We’ve already seen that, in verse 15, the people want a King. They expect the Messiah to be a deliverer like King David, who would throw off the Roman domination and reunite the twelve tribes of Israel into a single, powerful, influential, and affluent country. In wanting and even expecting a King, the Jewish crowd is merely claiming God’s promise to King David. We just read this promise in 1 Kings 8:25.

“There will never fail a successor of David to sit on the throne of Israel.” Israel knows that God is faithful to God’s promises, and God promised David an heir to rule Israel. But for those of you who are new to the Bible or may have forgotten, a David king hasn’t appeared for more than a thousand pages, and several hundred years. So for centuries people expect the return of a king to Israel who will restore the wealth, power, fame, luxury, and cultural prowess of Israel–a king to raise the GDP and lower the national debt, to create jobs and protect them from foreign exploitation. This is the Savior they want. They want a geopolitical savior that favors their country and provides for them full bellies, cultural entertainment, expense accounts, and a safe place to raise a family.

When we’re honest, this is who we want Jesus to be. We want a Savior that benefits us with health, wealth, and a safe place to raise a family. We don’t often ask for a Christian king to rule America, but just think of the ways we define a blessing. We look at our homes and bank accounts and the stack of take-out menus next to the phone, and we think, “Man, I am so blessed.” Because the Savior we want blesses us with money, good food, and long health. That is what it means to be blessed, to be provided for by our Godly king.

But verse 15 tells us that Jesus will not be that type of King. When people try to force him to be what they want, Jesus doesn’t object, he just disappears. He will not be the King they want. He will be the King they need.

Dejected and confused, starting to anger, the people once again come to Jesus, now on the other side of the lake. Jesus will not be the King they want, but he continues to teach the people about the God he calls Father. Jesus claims to know a great deal about God, as if he has direct conversations with God, and this reminds the Jewish crowds of the greatest figure of their tradition, Moses. Perhaps if Jesus will not be a Messiah King like David, he will be a Messiah Prophet like Moses.

In the Old Testament Histories, no one outshines Moses. Moses led the people out of Egypt, provided for the people’s physical needs, and led the spiritual, civil, and military life of the community. Because he so thoroughly shaped the foundation of Israel’s understanding of God, Moses is credited with writing the first four books of the Bible. Moses was not just the people’s leader. Moses was God’s representative to the people. If God wanted to tell the people something, Moses was his messenger. Likewise, if the people wanted to complain to God or to ask God a question, they did so by complaining to or petitioning Moses. Moses was like their telephone operator, communicating between God and the people. In crass terms, Moses was the one who did business with God on the people’s behalf.

In conceiving of a new Moses, the Jews in John chapter 6 seem to envision a Savior that proclaims the word of God to them, and explains to them what they need to do to make God happy. In addition, this new Moses-like Savior will provide countless miracles to prove that his or her words are, in fact, representative of what God wants to say to the people. This is why they ask for a sign like Manna. If Jesus is going to lead like Moses, then he needs miracles on par with miraculous bread from heaven.

I think this is the Savior our world and our city most want. This is the Jesus we want so badly. This is the Jesus that does business with God on our behalf, so that we don’t have to worry about it. Jesus is kind of like our Spiritual stockbroker, who handles our spiritual accounts with God, so we can forget about them until it’s almost time to die and then we can call and enjoy all the benefits he’s acquired for us. We want a Savior that talks to God on our behalf, so we can get back to doing whatever the heck we feel like. A Savior who occasionally sends us dividend checks and calls to say, “Yeah, everything’s looking good, but you really should change some of your habits if you want to have enough in the account to get into the Retirement Home in the Sky.”

But you can’t always get what you want. No you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.

Notice how Jesus responds. They say in verse 30, “What sign are you going to show us then...our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” To which, Jesus brilliantly responds in verse 49, “Yeah, your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness...AND THEY DIED. Every single one of them, they died, not one of them got out alive.”

You want manna, you want bread, food, full bellies, and the promise that you will always have exactly enough, but you’re problems are much bigger than bread can fix. You want manna, but I gave you bread yesterday and you’re hungry today. You don’t realize how serious your condition is. You are dying. Bread is not what you need.

Friends, the real problem in our lives is not a lack of bread, but a lack of righteousness. We are infected with self-seeking to the point that even our spirituality bears the marks of our “what’s in it for me.” Even the request for Manna reveals this and reveals the same sinful pride that says, “Just give me the resources, God, and I can figure out how to fix the problem.” But the problem is bigger than you or I understand. We are dying, and there is nothing we can do to fix that.

Do you ever wrestle with the inconceivability of that? That you are dying and no doctor in the world can stop the process?

Here, Jesus is not offering a remedy for our hunger, but for our decay. Jesus certainly doesn’t abandon our bodily needs or health; in fact, he heals and feeds thousands, but he recognizes that apart from something more, these will be little more than giving a lollipop to a cancer patient. Our battle is not against hunger, but against death. And that’s what Paul is saying in our Ephesians passage. Not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places. But this isn’t a battle we can win on our own, and Paul knows that, so he quotes Isaiah 59. There, in Isaiah 59, God is still sitting on his throne and sees a world that looks like post-atomic bomb Hiroshima–a world decimated and desolate–in utter chaos. People are abused and abandoned by one another. Everyone turns to their own interests, regardless of the carnage that might ensue. And God’s heart breaks. It breaks to see something once so beautiful now in so much pain. It breaks, and God thinks that someone has got to do something.

But there is no one righteous, no one who does good, no one who loves mercy. There is no one who can accomplish God’s will on earth. There is no one God can turn to in order to set the world right, to remedy the pain, and cure the disease of sin, and stop the death.

So what does God do? God does it on his own. Isaiah 59 says that God put on righteousness like a breastplate and placed the helmet of salvation upon his head. God wrapped himself in a mantle of fury and descended to the earth to vanquish the powers of evil and oppression, the strongholds of death and decay, to rescue those who repent and call out for mercy.

This is the David King we need. Not one that overthrows Rome, but one that overthrows Death. Not a geo-political nation-state but the Kingdom of God, which exists in Spirit and Truth. Jesus is this David King, this Warrior God with a breastplate of righteousness and helmet of Salvation that vanquished our greatest enemies on our behalf, when he went to the cross and died for our sins, descended into hell and three days later rose from the dead. This is the Savior we get and there is no other. Whether we like it or not, this is the Savior we need, one who saves us from ourselves and our sins.

To eat of his flesh is to believe this, to savor this, to enjoy this much more than a great glass of wine or a brilliant French bistro. To eat Christ’s flesh is to say, I trust that what you give me is what I need, even when it’s not what I want.

Friends, this Jesus will not be a spiritual stockbroker or simply a telephone messenger that relays messages from human beings to a distant or removed God. Instead, Jesus will be Emmanuel. Jesus will be God with Us. Jesus says, “I cannot be Moses, because I am he. I AM. I can tell you the truth about God, because I am, in fact, God. I can tell you the truth about the Father because the Father and I are one and the same. If you want to know the Father, look at me. If you want to know what the Father has to say or know how the Father feels, or what the Father is like, look at me. There is nothing more fundamental to whom God is than this right here. If you’re looking for a God to worship, if you want to worship the God who keeps covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who spoke by the prophets, then this is it. If you are dissatisfied with me, then don’t look for some other avenue to the Father–there is none, and if there were, you would be dissatisfied with the Father when you find him, because He is, in fact, Jesus-like.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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