Text: John 6:1-15
Date: Lent IV + 3/18/07
This is Laetare Sunday, “Rejoice” Sunday: “Laetare Jerusalem,” “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her.” With the lightening of Lenten purple to a rejoicing rose hue, it is a little like a rest stop about halfway along the freeway in the long, forty-day penitential journey of Lent. We could also call it the original Mother’s Day according to a related ancient tradition that, on this day, Christians would make a return visit or pilgrimage to their “mother church” where they were baptized. More important than where you were baptized, however, is what happened then and there. For there and right then God claimed you for his own, washed you with his forgiveness, dressed you in the white robes of Christ’s own righteousness, made covenant-promises with you of eternal life and equipped you with the mighty gift and “shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one” [Ephesians 6:16 (ESV)]. It is that struggle and battle of faith that we’ve been hearing about in these Sundays in Lent, beginning with the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, then the testing of the Canaanite Woman’s faith and, last week, the accusation that Jesus was in league with the devil. Today, with the account of the feeding of the 5,000 in the wilderness, we are to learn the real difference faith in Jesus makes both when we are confronted with our daily trials but especially when the question is about our eternal destiny. For a lot of times we have our priorities backwards, fretting more about daily bread and less about being saved from sin and death. As a wise Christian man once said, “Our chronic weakness is not that we expect too much from God, but that we trust him for too little.”
Two illustrations of that truth present themselves in the persons of the two disciples mentioned in today’s Gospel, Philip and Andrew. We’re familiar with the account of the event when Jesus in the wilderness fed 5,000 people. We recall that day when Jesus with the twelve escaped the crowds across the Sea of Galilee to an area of wilderness where they could be alone. But the people who had seen the signs that Jesus did on those who were diseased were not to be denied. Looking out across the northern seashore toward Capernaum, Jesus saw them coming, this throng of people eager to see more of him, and eager to hear more from him. The problem that their presence posed presented Jesus with an opportunity to work a miracle that is not immediately evident. Evident, of course, was that he fed five thousand people in the wilderness, a number that does not include the women and the children, but this is not yet the biggest miracle. The miracle that’s not immediately evident is the miracle of trust that Jesus worked in the hearts of his disciples.
Trust. “Where will be buy bread,” the Savior asked of Philip, “so that all these folks can eat?” And this he asked, says St. John, not because he stood there wringing his hands in anxious stress and wondering what to do, for Jesus knew what he would do. But he asked young Philip as a way of testing him. Philip might be called the facts and figures man, always with calculator in hand, the banker in the loan department with his fingers on the cold, hard economic facts. “Cha-ching! 200 denarii would not be enough to buy a little for each person,” Philip answered with cold objectivity.
Then Andrew quickly to the rescue; “We have a young lad here who has five barley loaves and two small pickled fish!” And you can just imagine Philip at that point turning with a look of disgust toward Andrew. You know the look because you’ve seen it many times yourself, I’m sure, when you said something stupid. And then Andrew, catching that disgusted glance quickly realized what a nonsense answer he had given and added, “But what are they among so many?” Back to reality.
In these two we see ourselves, in our own homes as well as in our home church—fretting about how the calculator doesn’t lie when income minus expense always seems to end up in red figures. We’re the ones wringing our hands, asking the stressful question “Where will we buy bread?” precisely because we do not know what the Lord will do. We continue to pray before our meals because that’s what you’re supposed to do. But have you noticed how the words, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,” sound more like a question than a prayer when they’re said through clenched teeth?
This miracle is reported in all four Gospels. What is unique about St. John’s account, however, is that, where Matthew, Mark and Luke say Jesus took the loaves and fish and gave them to the disciples to hand out to the people, John says “[Jesus] distributed them to those who were seated.” Now, John is not contradicting the others. The twelve were involved as waiters in the distribution. It’s just that in John’s Gospel the disciples are invisible. That is, the emphasis, the spot light is on Jesus. The miracle lay in his hands and in none other. So, likewise, this is how we should rightly honor and view Christian pastors when they preach and administer the sacraments: nearly invisible, or as St. Paul said it, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” [1 Corinthians 4:1 (ESV)].
Now what are we to conclude regarding this miracle? John first tells us the wrong conclusion. “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!’” Then they had in mind to come and take Jesus by force and make him their bread-king. Think what would have happened had he let them do that—“his majesty, the King, King Jesus, at your beck and call.” “The deep freeze is empty, Jesus, we need a new supply.” “The 1995 model chariot has broken down, we need a new one.” “The eyes of all wait upon You, O Lord (Psalm 145:15), so open your hands and give us what we want, when we want it.” Speak of invisible! To such a “faith” Jesus Himself fades into the background and disappears. “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Their eyes weren’t on the Lord, they were on the bread.
Oh, the crowd was right—to a point—when they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world.” They were referring to the ancient promise of Moses, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” [Deuteronomy 18:15 (ESV)]. Yet even Muslims say this too! But Jesus is more than just a prophet. He is the new and improved, the complete Moses. But where Moses was just a man, Jesus is the self-same God who led Israel from Egypt, who sustained them with food in the desert, and through centuries of crises and convulsions has now made himself incarnate in human flesh. As flesh of our flesh he knows hunger and need, poverty and want. He even knows temptation, mourning and death. As God, however, he continues to be the host at every table, the God who spreads the harvest and who provides a haven and healing for the sick, the burdened, and the dying. He reveals that our growling, empty stomachs are only symptoms of the true hunger and thirst for righteousness, and that, as he is able to feed more than 5,000 from the meager resources of five loaves and a couple of fish, so is he able to free the whole world from the grip of sin and death by the seeming humiliation of his crucifixion and death.
Did you notice John’s little comment? It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of this story. Verse 4, “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.” At the Passover every year God’s people remembered the deliverance of their fathers from slavery in Egypt, from hunger and thirst in the wilderness, through a sacramental ritual of God’s Word that brought the power and effect of the ancient Exodus into the present so that each generation would be enabled to say, “God delivered me from bondage.” To make the connection between Jesus’ feeding the 5,000 in the wilderness and the account of the manna in the wilderness under Moses is but the beginning. It is when you make the greater connection that Jesus is the designated sacrificial Lamb of God, the new Passover of communion in His body and blood that not only cleanses us from all sin but makes us a new, imperishable and immortal creation, that saving faith is borne and you become the true sons of Abraham.
That wise man was right. “Our chronic weakness is not that we expect too much from God, but that we trust him for too little.” In Jesus Christ our expectations are adjusted and faith finds its fulfillment as we trust in him both for daily bread and for the life of the world to come.