#4: “Blessed Are Those who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness” John 6:22-35 and Matthew 5:6 (NRSV)

Today we are continuing our look at what it takes to live a blessed life – what it means to be truly happy. And we have discovered that the door to happiness in life is locked, and to open it, we need special keys. These “keys” are the eight Beatitudes Jesus gave as he began his Sermon on the Mount. They all begin with the words: “Blessed (or happy) are…” The first key, you will recall, is “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” The next key, “Blessed are those who mourn.” Last week we received the third key, “Blessed are the meek.” All of them seemed like unlikely “keys” to happiness because they all run counter to what the world tells us will make us happy. But as we have tried each Beatitude-key in the locks, we have found that they fit! Today, true to form, Jesus surprises us again: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.”

There was a man who took his wife out to a buffet restaurant. The wife was concerned about all that he was eating, and said to her husband, “That’s the fifth time you’ve gone back for fried chicken. Doesn’t that embarrass you?” “Not at all,” he replied, “I keep telling them I’m getting it for you!”

In America, most of us are like that man. We don’t have the slightest clue as to what it means to “hunger and thirst.” Most of us have never experienced real hunger or thirst – and those few times we have to miss a meal, we think we will die!

Way back when I was in seminary, we were challenged during the season of Lent to fast from food one day per week. Fasting is a spiritual discipline designed to help us focus on God, and so I decided to try it. We were asked to fast on Fridays.

On the Thursday before my first fast day, I laid out my plans to survive this fast day – I made sure to eat my dinner Thursday night at 11:30 p.m. – and all the next day, I still felt as if I would faint dead away before the fast ended at midnight the next night. I was so famished, I ate my Saturday breakfast at 12:01 a.m. Friday night! At that time, I decided that God didn’t really want me to fast! (I know, that’s a cop out!). The truth is, I was doing it all wrong – and so I need to try it again this Lent – doing it with the right attitude this time!

The biggest problem in America for most of us is not that there is too little food, but too much food! Sure, some people are hungry, and I’m proud that our church has a wonderful food pantry ministry. A number of you volunteer to help, and many of you donate food our cash to support it. We want to make sure no one in our neighborhood has to go to bed hungry. Jesus understood that people need to have their physical hunger met before they can address their spiritual hunger. In our first lesson, a huge crowd came to hear Jesus preach, and what did Jesus do? He filled their stomachs before he filled their souls.

Those who come to our Food Pantry for groceries also have a spiritual hunger that only God can fill. Through our other ministries, we offer them spiritual food, as well. And that’s why we are developing fresh expressions of church, like our bike trail ministry, to share spiritual food with those in in our community.

Yes, there are folks who know what it means to be hungry. But for most of us, we eat far more than we should – and our waistlines prove it! We are spoiled. When we feel the slightest pang of hunger, we just go to the refrigerator for another piece of cheesecake!

Several years ago, I was a part of, what is called, “The Generative Leader Academy” in our Annual Conference, a training opportunity designed for pastors launching new congregations, and those like me who were serving churches going through revitalization. They do this every year, and I was honored to be chosen to participate. (By the way, this program is an example of our church’s apportionment giving at work – the cost of this training is covered 100% out of the Conference Budget.)

Anyway, one of the thins a presenter said at the retreat came to mind as I was thinking about my sermon this morning – especially about how our life-experience determines our perspective about hunger. The presenter was talking about Jesus’ parable of the “Prodigal Son,” which is the story of a boy who asks his father for his inheritance early so he can set out on his own. And you remember that things do not go well for the boy, and he begins to starve. He ends up in a pig sty, tempted to eat the pig’s slop.

Our leader then told of a study that was done about perspectives and how they shape how we see things. He said that researchers asked American Evangelical Christians, “Why did the boy end up starving in the pig sty?” How would you answer? “He squandered his inheritance with irresponsible living.” This is true – it says so in the text. Then they asked Russian Evangelical Christians the same question, “Why did the boy end up starving in the pig sty?” Do you know what they said? “There was a famine in the land.” This also is true – the text says that, as well. Finally, they asked African Evangelical Christians why the boy ended up starving in the pig sty. They said, “Why, it’s obvious. No one gave him anything to eat.” And yes, this also is what the text says.

You see, perspective is everything. Those who know what it means to be hungry – really hungry – will hear this Beatitude of Jesus more profoundly than you or I ever could. We don’t know what it means to be starving.

The experience of people in the ancient world was much more similar to those today in Africa than to us in America. The people to whom Jesus spoke were well acquainted with hunger and thirst. When they ran out of milk, they couldn’t run down to Publix to pick up another gallon. When they were thirsty, they couldn’t just turn on the tap. Remember – there was no refrigeration, so food when it was abundant quickly spoiled. Food often was scarce and had to be rationed: adult males ate meat once day per week – women and children got meat even less often.

Life in the ancient world meant living on the edge of starvation. They were at the mercy of the weather. Throughout the Bible, famine was a common experience – in fact, the Bible is filled with stories of migration to flee famine, stories that shaped the Biblical narrative in profound ways. For instance, the central story of the Old Testament about the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt would never have happened, had it not been for the fact that Jacob and his sons, 400 years before – way back in the Book of Genesis, migrated to Egypt to avoid a famine. Famine was a frequent occurrence in the ancient world, and even so today. Yes, those to whom Jesus spoke knew hunger and thirst first hand – it was a constant threat.

It’s true – you and I may not hunger and thirst for food and drink, but that does not mean that we are satisfied with life. There is a hunger that goes deeper, and in some ways is more painful than an empty stomach. We have a longing to fill a spiritual void in our life. We hunger, not for food, but for meaning in life – for purpose – for joy – for love – for God.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta once made this profound observation: “In India, people are dying of physical starvation. In America, people are dying of emotional starvation.” Yes, we can stuff our faces all we want, but our real hunger won’t go away.

And in an attempt to fill the emptiness of our lives, we feed on spiritual junk food.

Several years ago, there were disturbing reports coming out of North Korea about a desperate famine in their land. It got so bad that people were actually feeding on grasses and hay – anything to make their hunger pangs go away – even though what they were eating gave them no nutritional value. In the same way, we will try anything to satisfy our spiritual hunger – fame, success, power, sex, cults, psychics – only to discover that they are spiritual junk-food and contain empty calories – and quickly our spiritual hunger returns.

And of course, that Prodigal Son I spoke of a moment ago tried all those worldly things to find fulfillment in life, squandering his inheritance with riotous living. In the end, his life was empty and he was desperate. Of course, his physical hunger was symbolic of a deeper hunger. He fed on the pig slop, when he could have been feasting at the banquet table of his father.

You and I are a lot like that foolish boy. We are starving spiritually. Yet, for some reason, we prefer to be filled with the pig slop the world offers rather than returning to Our Father’s house and feed at the banquet table our Father has provided! And we wonder why we are still hungry!

The issue is obvious. God states it plainly, through the Prophet Isaiah (55:2): “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” And Jesus says the same thing in John 6:27: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”

And what is that “food” that can fill us? What is the water that can quench our thirst? Jesus. Only Jesus.

As we sing in one of our favorite choruses: “Fill my cup, Lord. I lift it up, Lord. Come and quench this thirsting of my soul. Bread of Heaven feed me till I want no more. Fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole.”

Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty…. Whoever drinks of this water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” It is only Jesus who can satisfy our hungry hearts, only He can give us living water to quench our parched souls, only He can make us righteous in God’s sight. That is why Jesus gave us this Holy Meal!

Friends, before us is the Banquet Table of Our Heavenly Father, filled with spiritual food and drink – nourishment for our souls on our journey through this world, and beyond. It is there for the receiving – all we have to do is come to the table and ask God to feed us with the spiritual food we need for life’s journey.

As Jesus said, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”