Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 2, 2008
St. John 6:1-15 “What We Really Need”
After these things Jesus went over the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. Then a great multitude followed Him, because they saw His signs which He performed on those who were diseased. And Jesus went up on the mountain, and there He sat with His disciples. Now the Passover, a feast of the Jews, was near. Then Jesus lifted up His eyes, and seeing a great multitude coming toward Him, He said to Philip, "Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?" But this He said to test him, for He Himself knew what He would do. Philip answered Him, "Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may have a little." One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to Him, "There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two small fish, but what are they among so many?" Then Jesus said, "Make the people sit down." Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. And Jesus took the loaves, and when He had given thanks He distributed them to the disciples, and the disciples to those sitting down; and likewise of the fish, as much as they wanted. So when they were filled, He said to His disciples, "Gather up the fragments that remain, so that nothing is lost." Therefore they gathered them up, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves which were left over by those who had eaten. Then those men, when they had seen the sign that Jesus did, said, "This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world." Therefore when Jesus perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He departed again to the mountain by Himself alone.
St. John 6:1-15
What is greater: to feed five thousand men or to feed billions of men? Clearly, to feed billions is far greater. But who pays any attention to that? Yet the miracle of feeding the five thousand evoked such a strong response that Jesus had to leave the crowd to keep them from using force to make him their king.
For all their lives God had provided them with clothing, food, house, and home. They had seen God’s hand in the regular cycles of the seasons. They had sowed and reaped and they had no power to make the seed do anything at all. They didn’t create the seed or the soil or bring the rain. They took it all for granted.
And so do we. But there is no Mother Nature. There is God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth. He governs what we call nature. The one who runs this world is the God who created us in his own image, male and female, and blessed us. It is the God who places us over this world as lords. The sun rises and sets by the will of God. If he didn’t will it, it would not happen. And he wills what he wills for this world for one overarching and underlying and ultimate purpose: to bless his holy Christian Church.
Jesus is the head of the church. We are the body. That is a wonderful picture of a wonderful reality. The Bible also compares Jesus to a bridegroom with the church as his holy bride. In today’s Epistle Lesson, the church is compared to a mother. Hagar was the mother of the slave boy, Ishmael. Neither she nor her son belonged to the family, but Sarah did and her son Isaac did. Sarah is a picture of the church. She appears barren, but she is fruitful. Just as Sarah could not have a child and Hagar despised her for it, the church must bear the shame of a lowly appearance. She doesn’t brag about herself, as Hagar did, strutting around as if she could take the credit for the child God gave her. No, the Holy Christian Church doesn’t look very holy or significant. But it was God who, on account of his promise, gave to Sarah a boy. This boy, Isaac, was a picture of Jesus, just as Sarah was a picture of Mary. Isaac was Abraham’s son, his only son, whom Abraham loved. Jesus is God’s only begotten and beloved Son. Sarah could not conceive because she was barren and too old. Mary could not conceive because she was a virgin. Yet Sarah did bear a child and she did so completely outside of the ordinary laws of nature. This showed that the God who binds himself to his promises to us rules over the natural world and the natural course of events in this world. Mary also conceived miraculously. What was impossible biologically was possible by God’s grace and power. Abraham offered up his son, his only son, born of a miracle, as a sacrifice on Mt. Moriah as God commanded him to do. But the Angel of the Lord stopped him from driving the knife into the boy. The Angel of the Lord was none other than Christ himself before he assumed flesh and blood in the womb of the Virgin Mary. This same Christ was offered up by the Father on the altar of the cross to bear the sins of the world. The Son, the only begotten Son of God, born of a miracle, was sacrificed by God to appease the wrath of God, and to wash away the sin of all humanity.
But before Jesus went to the cross to suffer for us and to fulfill the Scriptures, he taught the people by word and deed. He spoke and he did. What he did spoke volumes. Consider the miraculous feeding of the five thousand. Who is this man who takes five barley loaves and two small fish and with them feeds five thousand men plus women and children with twelve baskets of food left over? Who else can he be but God himself? He is the one to whom we pray, “The eyes of all wait upon You, O Lord, and You give them their food in due season; you open You hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” This invisible God who has always cared for the needs of his people for food and shelter is now standing before his people clothed in the same flesh and blood with which they are clothed. He is living in the same world, eating the same food, drinking the same drink, and depending on the same God. Yet he is God.
Praise to thee and adoration, blessed Jesus, Son of God!
Who, to serve thine own creation, didst partake of flesh and blood.
The Creator is joined to his creation. Why the miracle? To show them that the God who provides for their daily bodily needs is the same God who gives them his own flesh and blood for food. This is the sermon that follows this miracle in St. John’s Gospel. Reading through the sixth chapter we see how the crowds whom he fed went searching for him in order to be fed again. But Jesus challenged their desires and told them that they should desire the bread from heaven. He then clearly identified himself as the bread of life. He said, “He who comes to me shall never hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” What follows is an amazing conversation between Jesus and his critics. People who knew Jesus as the son of Joseph the carpenter could not believe that he was the Son of God. They couldn’t believe that he had the authority to give eternal life. Jesus offered and they refused. He claimed that his flesh and blood were real food, giving real and eternal life. But they wouldn’t hear the message. They didn’t want it and most of the crowd who had welcomed him as the bread king rejected him as the bread of life. They wanted to feed their bellies but they didn’t want the sacrifice of Jesus’ body and blood. They didn’t think they needed it.
There are reasons why people don’t think they need Christ’s body and blood given and shed for them. They may have no sense of their own sin so the suffering of Jesus for them can hold no meaning or importance. They may have little interest in God or God’s word because they don’t see how God has anything to do with them. Especially in our day, we see practical atheists who live and die as if there is no God at all. They do what they do, following more or less what will keep them out of trouble and give them the least worries, and they don’t concern themselves with theological matters. They assume that if there is a God somewhere he won’t care all that much about whether or not they acknowledge him, worship him, and give him thanks.
And they end up worshipping the creation instead of the Creator. This is what happens when people do not give thanks to their Creator. Ignoring God leads to denying him.
Jesus fed the five thousand in order to make some things very plain to us. He did this miracle to show us that it is God who feeds us every day. Such a miracle may be uncommon, but it is hardly a greater display of power and fatherly care than God shows us every single day when he give us our daily bread and everything that goes along with it. When God assumed flesh and blood he revealed himself as the Creator and sustainer and provider of all good things. We see God’s providential care in Jesus, not as an abstract doctrine, but as the personal concern our God has for every one of us. Jesus reveals the Father. He shows us very concretely that our Father in heaven richly and daily provides us with all that we need to support this body and life and that for this fatherly care it is our duty to give him thanks.
Jesus also fed the five thousand in order to show us that he will never forsake or abandon his church on earth. There is a reason, I believe, why there were twelve baskets left over. Twelve is the number of the church, and there will always be enough for the church. When we put God’s word and sacraments first we will always have enough daily bread.
Several years ago when I was serving in Racine, Wisconsin, I got into a conversation with a fellow who sent his children to the parochial school but seldom went to church. I told him that he needed what God gave in church. He told me that he had to work on Sundays. He was a man with much resentment, not the least of which was a resentment of people in the church who made more money than he did. He thought that they looked down on him. During the conversation he informed me that a working man has to make an income or he can’t pay his bills. He was quite open in his opinion that going to church was a luxury he just couldn’t afford.
He was wrong. Going to church is no luxury for the leisure class. It is the daily bread of the working men and women who are tired and hungry and struggling to get by. It is the place they need more than the money they earn because when we come here, brothers and sisters, we come to be fed with food that makes us live forever. We come to meet the bread of life come down from heaven to give his life for the life of the world. We come here with our financial worries and we confess them as sins of unbelief. We come here with our doubts about God’s providential care as we wonder how to pay the bills and provide for our future. Jesus meets us. He, who fed the five thousand and finished with more than he had in the beginning, knows our needs and never fails to meet them. He gives us his body and his blood for food and drink.
It is not possible that we could come here and confess our sins to God and come to this altar to eat and to drink and find that God refused us in our need. It is not possible. Jesus created the bread and the fish out of nothing – that is plain to see. There were only five loaves and he created more. There were only two fish and he created more. It was as in the creation at the beginning of time. He created out of nothing.
But the forgiveness of sins comes to us only through Christ’s dear purchase price. He bought the life he freely gives with his own sacrifice on the cross. He gave his body. He shed his blood. He paid the price to take away your sins so you could live forever in joy with God. He paid what you could not pay. He wants you to know today that your many sins are forgiven. Would this same God withhold from us anything we need to keep our bodies fed and clothed and sheltered from the cold? Of course not!
Rolf D. Preus