Lent 4| March 31, 2019| Rev. Rolf Preus| 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
At first glance, it might seem that this Gospel reading does not belong to the season of Lent. Lent is about Christ’s battle against the devil. It is about his suffering and death for the sin of the world. It’s about repentance and the forgiveness of sins. What does the miraculous feeding of five thousand men, plus women and children, have to do with Christ’s suffering and death for the forgiveness of sins?
Everything in the Bible has to do with Christ’s suffering and death for the forgiveness of sins. Everything that God says about anything has to do with Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary to bear our sins, overcome the power of the devil, defeat our death, and make us righteous before God.
That is what this miracle teaches us. Make no mistake: Jesus wants to teach us. The signs he did never stood alone. They always pointed to his teaching. What does this sign teach us? It teaches us that Jesus is God. Only God can create something out of nothing. Five barley loaves and two small fish do not feed five thousand men, plus women and children. Jesus created. Only the Creator can create. Jesus is the Creator. He is God. This sign teaches us that Jesus is God.
This sign teaches us that Jesus, who is God, cares about the needs of our body. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us not to worry about what we will eat, or what we will drink, or what we will wear. He reminds us of how our heavenly Father clothes the grass of the field and feeds the birds of the air and we are worth much more than birds! Then he says, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33) Jesus fed five thousand men, plus women and children. Thousands of people went out to see him. He fed them because they were hungry. Jesus, who is God, cares about the needs of our body.
This sign teaches us that Jesus has food to give that is much more valuable than what we put into these dying bodies. He is the bread of life, come down from heaven. The bread of life is his own flesh and blood that he gives for the life of the world. This is the food we need above everything else.
To understand a miraculous sign we must look beyond the sign to what it signifies. St. John notes that the Feast of the Passover was near. During the Passover festival, the Jews would eat lamb. This lamb signified the Passover lamb whose blood marked the homes of God’s children in Egypt. When the angel of death visited that home he passed over the homes where he saw the blood of the lamb. The Passover festival taught the Jews that death passes over those who are marked by the blood. But the blood of an animal is not enough. Jesus is the true Passover Lamb, whose blood washes away sin. By washing away our sin, it takes away our guilt. By taking away our guilt, it turns aside the angel of death. The angel of death passes over those who are marked by the blood of Jesus. Death cannot touch them. They have received eternal life through faith in Christ, their Passover Lamb.
But that’s not what the people wanted. They wanted the sign; not what it signified. They knew what they needed. They needed food for their bodies. Jesus could provide them with what they needed. They decided what they needed. Jesus was there to give it to them.
A very influential religious leader in America during the 20th century was a man by the name of Norman Vincent Peale. His best-selling book, The Power of Positive Thinking, sold over 15 million copies. Peale wasn’t what you would call a serious theologian. His theology was dismissed as portraying God as the heavenly aspirin tablet. Got a problem? Take some God, and it will get better. While Peale was not taken seriously by professional theologians, his appeal to the people was huge. His theology, for what it was worth, was the theology of the men that Jesus miraculously fed. They wanted to make him into their kind of king. When sinners see God’s power they want to harness it for themselves. Let’s see what we can get God to do for us. This is what we need and he can give it to us. It’s like Neil Diamond sang in his hit song, “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,”
And when your heart is troubled,
You gotta reach out your other hand
Reach it out to the man up there
Cause that’s what he’s there for.
Get it? That’s what he’s there for. You got a problem? God’s the solution. He can fix it. That’s what he’s there for. This sounds almost pious. After all, God does promise to care for us and to watch over us. God invites us to himself. He promises to bless us. He loves us. But this begs the question. Who decides what you need: you or God?
John chapter six begins with Jesus feeding five thousand men, plus women and children. It concludes with most of Jesus’ disciples leaving him. They preferred food for their bodies over food for their souls.
We think we know what we need. We don’t. God does. Until we learn this we cannot be helped. Oh, God will provide. Jesus fed all of those people because they were hungry. Jesus said that our Father in heaven “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45) God provides for those who care nothing about him. He will surely provide for his own children. What his children need to learn is that he, not they, knows best what they need.
They wanted to make Jesus their king by force if necessary. To do what? To tell them to deny themselves? To preach to them the gospel? To feed them with the words of eternal life? Of course not! They wanted him to feed their bodies. And there is nothing new under the sun. Jesus is always twisted into somebody he is not. People remake Jesus into someone who will give them what they really want God to give them. They assume that they know what their deepest needs are. They don’t. We don’t. We must in all humility admit this. If we don’t, we’ll try to shove Jesus into a mold in which he doesn’t fit.
Jesus is our teacher. He teaches how the gospel of the forgiveness of our sins by his bitter suffering and death is at the very center of our lives. There is nothing in life that does not pertain to his suffering for our forgiveness and salvation. It is here that our faith is centered. It is here that our life is grounded. This is why when we gather together we eat and drink his body and blood, given and shed for us for the forgiveness of sins.
We compartmentalize. We put portions of our life into hermetically sealed containers, kept safely separate from other portions of our life. So we consider the compartments. I’m hungry. I need food. I’m lonely. I need a friend. I’ve got no voice. I need empowerment. I’m poor. Somebody somewhere has to give me more money. God is there to provide me with what I need and I’m the one who will decide what my needs are. If God is almighty to do whatever needs to be done for me, I will worship him, pray to him, and let him know what I need from him. But I don’t need a lecture. I know what I need. I don’t need God to tell me.
What fools we are. How could we know our needs as well as our Creator? And did not Jesus, who died for us and rose again, prove himself to be our Creator when he fed five thousand men, plus women and children, with five barley loaves and two small fish? Does not he know better than we what our true needs are?
It may seem that what we have lost is more than we can afford to lose. It may seem that unless God gives us what we’ve set our hearts on he isn’t taking care of us. But God knows what we need better than we do. Jesus knows we need his righteousness to cover us. We need to be robed in his innocence. We need the forgiveness of sins. We need the flesh and blood of the Son of God. When we have the living bread that came down from heaven we stand righteous before him. Listen to what the Psalmist writes about those who are righteous:
I have been young, and now am old;
Yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken,
Nor his descendants begging bread. (Psalm 37:25)
We worry. We worry about what we don’t have. We worry about what we have. We worry about food, clothes, house, home, family, job, inheritance, and we want God to understand how we feel, what we’re going through. We have our needs, God! Listen up!
Jesus withdraws from those who would use him for their own purposes. He decides what we need. We need him. With him we have everything. St. Paul wrote, “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32) Let us pray:
On my heart imprint your image,
Blessed Jesus King of grace
That life’s riches, cares, and pleasures
Never may your work erase.
Let the clear inscription be:
Jesus crucified for me
Is my life my hope’s foundation
And my glory and salvation.