I’m tired of hearing pastors preach that “believing in Jesus” means I’ll never be spiritually hungry again.
I’m tired of churches claiming that Jesus is the answer to our existential emptiness, and that once we “accept Jesus,” we’ll never feel distant from God again.
Sometimes I’m not just tired of the put-on cheerfulness of church. Sometimes, (gulp), I’m even tired of the Bible.
Jesus said to them,
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty… Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.”
John 6:35, 48-50.
Scripture doesn’t always resonate.
When the words of Jesus don’t feel true, church doesn’t always help. The Christian Cheerfulness Machine tells us that believing in Jesus is the way to happiness, the solution to meaninglessness, and the end of spiritual thirst. Cliché is piled on cliché like cheap frosting on a supermarket pastry, an imitation Gospel preached to an exhausted choir who already bought what the church is selling, and is still hungry.
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.
“Jesus is the answer!” Maybe that’s true. I’m a Christian, so I sure hope it’s true. But it doesn’t always feel true. Not every day, and in some seasons of life, days turn into weeks. And when the Bible, and Christ’s words, are wielded as to-do lists and peppy bumper sticker slogans, it makes our emptiness worse. Now we’re not only hungry, but ashamed that we’re hungry. If only we loved Jesus more… if only we believed Jesus more… if only we were better Christians… we wouldn’t feel so hungry. We wouldn’t feel so forsaken.
But thank God, there’s more in our Bible than cheerful assurances.
The lectionary for this week doesn’t leave us with Jesus dropping pleasantries on a well-lit hillside. The lectionary also gives us the dark gift of the Psalms.
Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.
I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord,
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
Psalm 130:1-2, 5-6
While Jesus stands on a hillside declaring that you’ll never be hungry again, the Psalmist cries that she’s starving to death.
Out of the depths I’m cry out to you, God! Lord! Listen to me!
In the Hebrew Bible, the “depths” are the dark waters where God feels absent. The Israelites were a desert people, and the sea was a place of chaos and unknown forces. The Psalmist taps into that fearful imagery, her soul lost in the chaotic ocean of God’s absence. While Christ calmly drops metaphors about how He is the Bread that will keep us spiritually filled, the Psalmist weeps – forsaken.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
Form critical scholars aren’t sure how to categorize Psalm 130, unsure if it’s a lament psalm or a psalm of thanksgiving.¹ The Psalmist doesn’t neatly organize suffering and thanksgiving, keeping them from touching like a picky child’s dinner plate. She straddles the lines of hope and doubt, suffering and redemption, wrapping them all together in a poem that is hopeful and forsaken all at once. The Psalmist looks at our blithe religious clichés and promptly abandons them, because she knows that you can’t preach manna without the wilderness.
No Manna Without the Wilderness
I’ve written before about the Israelites in the wilderness, and the mystical provisions of a God who breathes bread out of the sky and draws water out of rocks. In John 6, Jesus takes these wilderness stories and sings them back with new rhythms, beckoning us into sacred time and sacramental imagination. But if we preach the spiritual feast of Christ’s words without acknowledging the hunger of the Psalmist, we are only preaching through half of life.
Life is a mess of suffering and hope and despair and celebration that are constantly bleeding into each other. We are in the desert, we are provided for. We are in the depths, we are redeemed. We’re waiting for sunrise, and morning is already here. Life is a jumble of enoughness and scarcity and separation and connection.
And believing in Jesus doesn’t change that.
I Am the Bread of Life
Believing in Jesus doesn’t mean that you’ll never be hungry again. Believing that Jesus is the Bread of life doesn’t mean we will never feel forsaken again.
Coming back to this apparently blithe hillside sermon, with the eyes of the Psalmist, we see a different Jesus.
We see Christ on the Cross, speaking words of yet another Psalm written from the depths. My God. My God. Why have you forsaken me.
“The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
There is nothing flippant about Jesus on this hillside. Christ is our Bread not through party tricks with extra food on a brightly lit hillside. Christ is our Bread because of the God-forsaken day that the sun went dark at noon and Christ dropped Himself into the depths with us.
And here is the mystery of faith. Here is the mystery of Immanuel, “God with us.”
Christ was God, and was also forsaken by God. In the sacred “God became flesh,” God-forsakenness itself is also God-with-us. God doesn’t just know the chaos of a soul that has been abandoned, God is paradoxically inside those moments of God-forsakenness.
In Christ on the Cross, God breathes sacred withness into forsakenness itself.
Maybe this all sounds like word-weaving and spell-casting. The Cross is enchantment, though, not algorithm. Amen for that, because our carefully organized algorithms descend into pat answers for suffering that don’t do justice to the jumble of hope and fear that we live with every day. If our faith is not enchanted, our faith will not survive.
We walk up to the Table and proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. We speak God-with-us, even in God-forsakenness. We sing the Psalms from the depths while we walk to the Table.
Together, we proclaim the mystery of faith.
The Body of Christ. The Bread of Heaven.
- The Wikipedia page on the Psalms is a helpful overview for the interested on scholarly categorization of the Psalms. In this piece, I rely most heavily on the fabulous work compiled by Brent Strawn and Roger Van Harn, Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary.