Are any of you fans of Black Friday shopping? Will any of you be standing in line at 4am, waiting for stores to open to catch some deals? I don’t mind confessing that I actually really enjoy buying gifts for people. I like doing my Christmas shopping. Now, maybe I don’t love crowds and parking lots that are full and people that become rude and angry in the name of spreading Christmas cheer. But I like getting gifts that I know my friends and family will love. And I’ll admit, that when I was younger, before I became a total night owl, when I actually still got up pretty early on a regular basis, one of my dear friends and I used to hit the Black Friday sales every year. We’d go out for an extremely early breakfast, and then hit our favorite stores. And we had a great time doing it.
These days, though, I’m sure I won’t even make it out of my house before the special sales are over on Friday! But I still enjoy checking out the ads beforehand, seeing what the best deals are. Isn’t it interesting how stores try to motivate you to come and shop? If you buy a $25 gift card for someone else, you also get $5 bonus gift card for yourself! Purchase this, and you’ll also get a free ornament! We like to know we’re getting a little something extra in life, don’t we? We’re motivated by a sense of a bargain, a deal. We love the free gifts, the bonus items that companies or business will give away just to motivate us to choose their product or service over others. Banks, for example, compete by offering joining gifts - $75 free dollars for opening an account, or a free tote bag. Department stores will give you a special holiday teddy bear if you spend a certain amount on shopping. There’s just something about feeling like we’re getting something extra, getting a bargain, getting something for nothing, that we love, that motivates us to take the deal. In seminary even, I was part of a new organization on campus, and we were really trying to get people interested in coming to our meetings. Usually the only good time to get people to come to meetings was during lunch, but we didn’t seem to be drawing much interest. We decided that we would use our organization’s budget, then, to offer free lunch. Soon, we had a regular, steady attendance. The free lunch seemed to be the trick to motivating people to attend. What motivates you? What inspires you to act when you otherwise might not? Perhaps we’d like to think that we are motivated or inspired by some noble ideals or sense of duty or purpose. And I’m sure sometimes we are. But our human nature seems to result in us often being motivated in much more self-interested ways.
The crowds in our gospel lesson today seem also to be motivated by the prospects of getting a little something extra. Sure, they would follow Jesus around, and listen to his teachings and preaching, but there was always the prospect of getting a little something extra. Perhaps a healing – a cure for an ailment. Immediately before tonight’s passage in John’s gospel, Jesus even fed the crowds – 5000 had enough to eat because of Jesus, with baskets left over. Apparently, this new bonus prize of getting a good meal from Jesus was a motivating factor – they crowds get into boats and go to Capernaum to find Jesus and the disciples who had provided them with such a meal. When they get to the other side of the sea and locate Jesus, they seem a bit interested in pinning down his plans and schedule. “Rabbi,” they ask, “when did you come here?”
Jesus calls their heightened interested in his movements for what it is – self-motivated interest. He says to the crowds, “very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” He challenges them, pushes them. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Jesus wants them to understand that he has something better, deeper, more completely filling than any meal they could get.
But the people misunderstand – they want to know how they can do such miracles too, like a miraculous feeding. “What must we do to perform the works of God?” They want to know what they have to put in – the terms of the agreement perhaps – what must they do to get the reward again, the bonus. They want Jesus to explain the details. He answers that the work of God is to believe in the one sent. The people still don’t understand what Jesus is saying. “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?” If Jesus insists on them believing in him, and won’t teach them how to do his tricks, perhaps they can get him to do another sign, and get something more out of him before they are willing to believe him, commit. And perhaps trying to tempt Jesus into a bit of miracle-performing competition, they remind him that with Moses in the wilderness their ancestors got daily manna from heaven. Can Jesus top that? It reminds me a bit of the commercials on TV that promise borrowers that you can have banks competing over who gets to give you a loan. The crowds, it seems, are trying to work out a similar deal. What is Jesus gonna give them to claim status as their savior? How much is he willing to work for it?
Jesus quickly puts things in perspective, reminding them that it wasn’t Moses who provided the manna, but God who gives true bread from heaven. And this true bread isn’t just a tasty meal – the true bread from heaven gives life to the world. Ah, finally, and offer the crowd is ready to accept. “Sir,” they say, “give us this bread.” And finally, Jesus lays it out for them – “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believe in me will never be thirsty.” If that’s the offer on the table, who needs a free tote bag on top of all that?
Jesus continues to talk with them about this bread, later in the chapter, but here we can see the confusion of the crowds so clearly in their pattern of question after question. They seem to be looking for the best deal they can get, and when Jesus offers them the very best, they seem to be looking for loopholes, wondering what exactly the fine print will bind them to, not wanting to agree to anything where they have to give what they don’t want, or where they get less than they came for. We certainly can relate to this attitude, this approach, in the marketplace. As consumers, we are careful, wary of getting taken in. And despite our love of the bonus gift, we won’t accept it, or the main attraction, if it sounds too good to be true. We’re wary consumers, motivated by the desire for the best deal, the best bargain, but suspicious and hesitant too.
But, I think, we also have this dilemma when it comes to matters of faith. Our motivations for seeking out a relationship with God are many. What motivates us in seeking God? Hopefully, for all of us, some of the time at least, our motive for seeking God is the desire to fill the deepest longing of our heart with this grace and love God offers. But I think, for all of us, some of the time at least, our motives are completely different. We are sometimes motivated by guilt over sins or mistakes or other things we’ve done or think we’ve done wrong. Sometimes we’re motivated by a need to belong to a community, to have a social circle, to have companionship that comes with the fellowship of a congregation. Sometimes we’re motivated by a sense of obligation. There are many circumstances that bring us to a time and place where we are seeking God’s presence in our lives, and some of them are more pure and some more selfish.
Luckily, God is good and God is gracious. No matter what less-than-perfect motives get us to God’s house, to God’s table, open to God’s message, God is still willing to give us the best of the best, the best offer, the best gift. No matter why the crowds came to Jesus, and no matter what would have been the ideal motive for their seeking him out, Jesus still offered himself to them as the bread of life. He still offered them life-giving bread, no matter what brought them to him that day. And this gift is still offered to us. In Christ we find an offer of full, complete, abundant life, right now. Ours for the taking, free of charge, no matter why we’ve come. Unconditional love. Of all the gifts for which we give thanks, there’s nothing better than this.
We can react like suspicious shoppers. But you can examine this deal, ask questions, scrutinize the offer all you want. There’s no fine print. No shipping and handling charges you weren’t aware of. No cut off date. No “while supplies last.” Just a gift, freely offered, for you, beloved of God. Come, and receive God’s best offer. Thanks be to God. Amen.