3. April 2011
St. John 6:1-15
It’s been a rough Lent. Death, lies, deceit, battles, curses, and demons have marked our observance this season. Is it difficult to handle? Can you bear another weak of mortification of your flesh, knowing that God hates your sin, Satan tempts you to keep doing it, and the torment this gives you each day? Excruciating, to say the least.
This isn’t the only message of the season of Lent. Lent is not intended to leave us in despair. Each Sunday is not in Lent but of Lent. Each Sunday we break our fast and sing songs of thanks to our Lord for all the great things he has done. The Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified is still our proclamation, although it is a bit more muted than the coming Easter.
Especially today, Laetare, we rejoice. That’s what Laetare means in Latin, taken straight out of the opening antiphon of the Introit. Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her! Rejoice, be joyful! Break the fast and rejoice!
How can we rejoice when we want to grumble and moan under the weight of our burdens? Even for those with house, job, and family, there are heavy loads to carry, perhaps from guilt over something we’ve done to hurt or harm our neighbor? Or perhaps the shame of those secret sins that we can’t even tell our closest friends?
There are two options to deal with the albatross hanging around your neck. One, you accept its horrible weight as a part of life and try to deal with it. The second, you confess that you can’t do anything about it and turn to one who can help.
The first option is unbearable. Anyone who has tried to deal with their problems alone knows that the situation rarely improves and usually gets worse. Self-help and self-improvement books may be popular but only because the last one didn’t work. Even if you do find some temporary relief, the issue is never healed and the problem reemerges with a vengeance. There is no security in yourself, except security in sin. Trying to deal with your sin alone will lead to more sin, even throwing out the Word and the Holy Spirit with it.
The Psalmist told us where to find relief from those millstones dragging behind us, everything we like to complain about. He told us where to find not only relief but joy! I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!” Within those walls of the new Jerusalem are peace and love. Inside the house of the LORD is security, where even the newborn infants of the faith can nurse and be satisfied in safety.
Jesus is the new Jerusalem, the kingdom of God among us. The shadow of his tent is where we dwell in safety. Under the protective cover of his wings, are we sheltered from the pelting assaults of the devil. He is the house of the Lord, where he feeds us with the bread of life, his holy Word. Or as Jesus says, Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give your rest.
That doesn’t stop us from grumbling. Life is hard. We’re too busy, too exhausted, and too weak to wait for the Lord. We struggle against our own bodies even to get out of bed on Sunday morning and drag ourselves into this sanctuary. Some days we’d rather be comfortable back in Egypt, where at least we could sleep as late as we needed to. After a week of late nights, we’d rather find rest in the comfort of our own beds that in the house of the Lord.
And it’s not wrong to grumble. Well, at long as you know who to grumble to. The whole congregation of the people of Israel got that part right. They went to their pastors Moses and Aaron and said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Now that’s complaining.
And the LORD listened! Rejoice! The LORD said to Moses, “Behold I am about to rain bread from heaven for you… At evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against the Lord.”
Manna, bread from heaven came to them, despite their grumbling. The LORD had mercy on them and fed them. Moses said to them, “It is bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” Good bread from the good Lord, even to grumbling Israelites. Rejoice!
We often forget to call upon God. We prefer to dwell in mock-safety, comfortable with our self-imposed rules, fanciful ideas of what life should be like, and blind-eye ignorance to the real misery we feel inside. We are taught to play dumb to our problems. We consider even death as natural, rather than the terminal disease that has infected every one of us. We don’t need daily bread since we do just fine on their own, thank you.
The other option is to go to the Lord and complain. The Lord hears your grumbling. We should complain to the Lord about sickness, his enemies, and even his own temptations. Don’t try to take care of them yourself but unload your cares and anxieties upon the Lord.
It’s when we expose ourselves to the Lord, relying upon his cure, that he is so eager to help us. When we are content to deal with our troubles without him, life gets miserable. Indeed, this is why life is so hard, so often. Trial is supposed to lead us to him. He wants us to tell him about it. He wants us to know we need him for all our wants. He genuinely wants us to come to his feet, pleading for mercy, begging for forgiveness, demanding even relief from our misery.
That’s what happened in the Gospel according to St. John. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews was at hand. Any devout and upstanding Jew would be in Jerusalem. They would have their Seder preparations made, unleavened bread and wine, songs rehearsed, dishes ritually pure, and the family gathered.
Why then are the multitude outside of Israel and Judea? They believed that the prophet greater than Moses has come into the world. Jerusalem can’t compare to him. The Lord had promised this long ago: I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him (Deut. 18:18). Everyone’s been waiting for him and now many think they have found them.
So many believed, that a large crowd was following him, even as Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias.
That’s about as far from Jerusalem as one can get. These folks have given up hope in their religiousness. They have kept the Passover for better or for worse. But, they and their loved ones are sick, possessed, lame, mute, dumb, and worse. Tradition is not what they need. They need a prophet greater than even Moses.
They are so desperate for the Creator’s touch that they follow him doggedly. They aren’t going to give up, even leaving behind their own land. If the Messiah is in the Decapolis, we’ll go there. If he’s in Ephesus, they’d follow him there. Even Rome isn’t too far to travel, to give Jesus a grumbling earful.
That is why they are so persistent. They all want to say a word or two to Jesus about their problems. They had heard and seen the signs that he was doing to the sick. If he is who he appears to be, then he can take care of my grumbles, too.
Desperation like this leads one to do ignorant things. They forgot to pack their bags. They didn’t stop the mail. The didn’t even turn the lights off. Why? They believed this guy Jesus is the answer. He is the answer to their constant grumbling, their lack of satisfaction, their craving for true religion. What’s worse, they didn’t even bring lunch!
There’s no rejoicing on an empty stomach. Now grumbling will come from their mouth and their gut. Before they even could complain, the Lord knew their need. Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip. “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do.
Just like with old Israel, Jesus listens. He cares. He hears the unspoken need of the masses. He hears the doubt in Philip. He hears the tentative trust of Andrew. These men need food, and they need faith.
Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number.
Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted.
Just like with Israel before them, the provider of every good gift has fed those in need. He has heard their grumbling and given them the best gift. Even barley bread, suitable only for the poor, when distributed by our Lord is a great gift. Even small fishes, the kind you get from a can, is a delicacy from the hand of the Lord. The Lord gives according to his good pleasure. Make no mistake, it’s always good.
When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the prophet who is come into the world!” Yes, a prophet greater than Moses. He fulfills their need without their even asking. He knows the grumbling in their hearts. And his Spirit speaks for them with groaning too deep for words. He knows they need not just barley loaves and fish, nor just healing and exorcism. They need him and the life he came to bring.
It is true; he is more than a prophet. He will also be the king and priest, reigning from the kingdom he establishes by his blood. But not yet. 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. First, he must suffer and die, then his kingdom will come. Perhaps even these who received bread and fish from his gracious hands will call out, “crucify him!” Perhaps this filling of bread will only last until the next meal. Then, it’s back to the grumbling, the doubting, and the self-help.
That’s to say, daily bread doesn’t bring anyone to faith, at least, not alone. Even a miraculous feeding is here today and gone tomorrow. Instead, trust comes through what the Germans call anfechtung that is, our trials, our suffering, and even our complaining. The burdens of this world are God’s instruments to call us to repentance, to turn back to him, to even pray like David, bemoaning our life and our trials. When we turn back in prayer, we hear his Word speak back to us. You are my beloved, my child, my Israel, my Jerusalem, he says. He is glad when [we] say to [him], “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
John’s throw-away line, “and there was much grass” should be cherished. Such a lawn is surely comfortable for a picnic. But there’s more. These are green pastures by still waters. Who has led them there? None other than the Good Shepherd himself. And what comes next is the clincher. They shall not want.
Here we are. With Jesus, in his house. His Word has spoken to condemn us of our sin but all the more to comfort our troubled conscience. He will not test us more than we can handle. He is indeed the prophet who knows our every weakness. He is the king who has purchased his kingdom with his own shed blood. He is the Good Shepherd, leading us on paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Here, he prepares a table before us, in the presence of our enemies. Here, he provides us with bread that never runs out, always abounding for those whom he has called to be his children. Now, we gather around Jesus, reclining at his table, receiving as much as we need. Here, we dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Rejoice!
In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church