The Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2012
“Rightly Interpreting the Signs”
St. John 6:1-15
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
God chooses the sign and God decides what the sign signifies. The sign is joined to his word. He promises something. He gives a sign to signify the promise. Consider the rainbow. He puts the rainbow in the sky as a sign that signifies that God will never again destroy the world by a flood as he did in the times of Noah. Or consider the serpent up on a pole. The people complained against God and God’s prophet, Moses. God sent poisonous serpents to kill them as punishment for their rebellion. They cried out to Moses for mercy from God. God told Moses to put a serpent up on a pole. Whoever had been bitten by a snake and looked up at the serpent on the pole would live. Jesus interpreted this particular sign to signify that he would be lifted up on a cross and whoever believed in him lifted up on the cross for them would not perish but have eternal life.
The feeding of the five thousand was a sign. It signified that Jesus is the Creator of heaven and earth. It also signified that Jesus is the bread of life who provides his flesh and blood for the life of the world. Just as Jesus provides food to feed the body, Jesus is the food that feeds the soul. The bread that we take into our bodies sustains our physical lives. We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and God gives us our daily bread.
We take for granted that God our heavenly Father provides us with our daily bread. We would think it odd were he not to do so. We think it is perfectly natural for God to take care of us because that’s what he’s been doing for quite some time now.
But we do not deserve our daily bread. We do not deserve the many blessings God showers upon us every day. God provides us with daily bread purely out of fatherly divine goodness and mercy. And when Jesus Christ personally created enough bread out of five loaves to feed five thousand men, he showed us that he and the Father work together to provide the same thing. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not three separate gods. They are one God. We do not confuse this person with that person, but neither do we divide God into three gods. There is only one God and we confess the unity in trinity and the trinity in unity.
Jesus is God, equal to the Father as touching his deity. Make no mistake about it. The man who was tired from his exhausting schedule and sought a place of rest only to be hounded by people who wanted more and more of what he alone among men could give them was not just a man. He was also God. As we confess in the Creed, he was begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
His signs signified just that. We call them miracles. The Bible calls them signs because they signify a truth beyond themselves. The feeding of the five thousand signifies the truth that Jesus is God. Feeding five thousand people is nothing unusual for God. He feeds billions of people every day. But the sign signifies something even greater. It signifies that the God of all creation, who rules over the sun, the moon, and the stars, who keeps the seasons in order, and causes the world to rotate on its axis as it makes its journey around the sun is a man, our dear brother, and our Redeemer.
Jesus did what only God could do. Such are his signs. They signify his deity. Only the Creator can create. This is not so hard to grasp. We need food, clothing, house, and home. We need decent jobs with decent pay. We need a sound economy where prices of life’s necessities don’t skyrocket and leave us destitute. We need good medical care when we are sick and facing life threatening diseases.
Jesus showed his ability to provide all bodily needs. He performed signs on those who were diseased by taking away their diseases. He fed five thousand people with five small barley loaves of bread and two small fish. He signified by these signs that he could and would provide us with all our bodily needs.
But see what happened. After Jesus showed, by his signs, his divine Lordship over creation, the people wanted to force him into being their king. They understood correctly that Jesus was the Prophet predicted by Moses. They reasoned from the signs he performed to his identity according to biblical prophesy. But that’s not enough. It is not enough to know Jesus as the promised Prophet. It is not enough to know Jesus as the promised Christ. It is essential that we know who he is. He is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and true man born of the Virgin Mary. This is what his signs signify. This is what we confess. This is necessary for a Christian confession. Anyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ is true God and true man – as his signs signify – is no Christian.
But that’s not enough. It is not enough that God became a man. It is not enough that he revealed his glory. It is not enough that he healed those suffering from demon possession, diseases, and various maladies of the body. It is not enough that he walked on water, stilled the storm, fed the five thousand, and showed by his miraculous signs that he was the Lord God of Israel become flesh.
More was needed of him, though the crowd did not understand this. They wanted to make Jesus their king. They would do so by force, if necessary (though it’s rather ridiculous for mere men to think that they can force God into doing anything at all). They figured it was up to them to interpret the signs. They knew what they needed. They knew what the signs signified. Jesus should be our king to provide us with the necessities of life.
Choose Jesus and become healthy, and wealthy, and wise! Make Jesus your king and prosper, make better friends, do better in business and school, and find your own little world a bowl of cherries set before you to enjoy. See the signs! He has the power. He wants to help. He has the skill and the will to do for you what you need done. So make Jesus the Lord of your life and watch your life improve!
And what does Jesus say? Later on in this chapter of St. John’s Gospel Jesus says:
Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” (John 6:47-51)
Jesus interprets his own signs. This we must understand. His feeding of the five thousand did indeed signify that he is true God and that he provides for all our bodily needs. But more important than that he provides for all our bodily needs, is that he gives us real life, spiritual life, eternal life. Jesus must be the One to interpret his own signs. He reminds us of the manna that God rained from heaven and points out that everyone who ate of that food died. Those who eat of the bread of life do not die.
What does this mean? It means that those who trust in his flesh and blood, offered up to God on the altar of the cross, do not die. Jesus speaks of faith as eating and drinking. Faith hungers for what God gives. Faith does not decide for God what God should do. Faith desires what God wants to provide. What God wants to provide for you and your family and your neighbors and the whole world is the flesh and blood of his Son.
Eating the bread of life is living on the word of God. We don’t fashion Jesus according to our wants. God knows what we want. He knows what we need. He knows what brings true contentment. Faith learns to subordinate our bodily needs to our spiritual needs. We treasure the word of God and his holy sacraments as greater and more beneficial gifts than the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, and the houses in which we live.
We gather together to hear God’s word, to eat and to drink Christ’s body and blood, to confess together the same saving faith. This is more important than whatever we think we need to do to pay our bills or solve whatever problem may be vexing us. Jesus is the bread of life. We feel our needs. We tell them to God. God knows them better than we do. He answers every prayer we pray. He speaks and he instructs. He explains to us what the signs signify. We take in his instruction as manna from heaven which, if we eat of it, we will never die.
The signs signify our need. We need washing because we have soiled ourselves. Baptism provides it. It provides it not only on the day we are baptized but throughout our lives. The absolution that the pastor pronounces on you places you right back at the font. You never need to be rebaptized. The sign signifies God’s faithfulness, even when you on your part are unfaithful. When you are, you repent of your sins and reclaim what God did for you when he gave you the new birth of water and the Spirit.
The signs signify our need. We need the body of Christ given up for us on the cross. We need that body to bear our sins or we will have to bear them ourselves. We need that blood shed because without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness and only the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, can take away our sin. So we eat and we drink the body and blood of Jesus. God gives us more than signs, for the signs, by the almighty power of God in his word, become what they signify. Bread is Christ’s body. Wine is Christ’s blood. God governs the signs and saves us through them.
We listen to him and adopt his values. That’s what faith is. It is adopting God’s values. Jesus likens faith to eating and drinking to teach us that, in spiritual matters, we are what we eat. Whatever God says we take in like sponges. He decides what we need the most in life. We need the living bread that comes down from heaven and gives his life for the world. We need his word and sacraments. He chooses to come to us graciously in these means of grace, imputing to us his righteousness, receiving us into his kingdom of grace. Receiving him who is our greatest good, we also receive the daily bread we need. He who by a miraculous sign fed the five thousand sees to it. Amen