Laetare (Lent 4) Sermon, 2018
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
Jesus is the kind of guy who, if He threw a party, we’d all like to be invited.
When we read that Jesus, at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, provided an abundance of the very best wine, part of us wishes we could see something like that—experience something like that—a sign, a wonder, a miracle.
And when we read that Jesus multiplied bread without sweat, feeding the five thousand—again, part of us desires the experience of seeing God work like that—breaking the laws of nature, miraculously.
Miraculous claims draw crowds.
Todd Bentley, claiming to be a Christian preacher, also claims to have raised thirty-five people from the dead in what he calls a “raising the dead” tent.
He did this in Africa, of course, and there’s no evidence of it—no witnesses other than Bentley himself.
And if you remember Oral Roberts, he, too, claimed he could raise the dead.
We can’t be surprised at the worldly success of these men. Bentley, I know, was a popular preacher. I don’t know much about him now, other than that he began a relationship with his second wife before he divorced his first wife—and his church still lets him preach.
Roberts, at the peak of his work, led an organization that made over $100 million dollars a year.
Miracles—even lies from false teachers—attract crowds.
So, we can’t be surprised that the real thing—Jesus, the Son of God—attracted crowds, too.
But listen to how St. John writes regarding the crowd:
“A large crowd was following [Jesus], because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick” (John 6:2).
That’s not a positive description of the crowd.
They’re only there to see a show—to attend a party.
But Jesus needs to show His disciples—He needs to show all of us, all who believe in Him—who He really is.
In chapter five, and you need to know the context of today’s Gospel lesson to understand the extent of things, in chapter five, St. John writes that “the Jews were seeking all the more to kill [Jesus], because not only was he breaking the Sabbath [according to the Jews, Jesus was breaking the Sabbath by healing on the Sabbath], but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18).
So, after that, Jesus went away and a large crowd was following Him—they saw the signs He was doing on the sick, and they wanted more.
It doesn’t seem important that the feast of the Jews, the Passover, was at hand (cf. Jn. 6:4), but that gives us another point of comparison.
How was God at work in the Passover?
The faithful gathered together, ate the flesh of the lamb, and were kept safe.
The Lord “passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared [the houses of Israel]” (Exodus 12:27).
Eating the flesh of the lamb became a tradition for the people of God after the first Passover.
They understood that even though they weren’t in slavery anymore, death still sought out victims while the faithful gathered together to eat the flesh of the lamb.
That St. John includes that detail, he wants us to know that the same thing is going on. The faithful will gather around the Lamb—and those who reject Him will die.
The whole of John chapter six takes up this point, but it’s in today’s Gospel lesson, too.
There’s just so much that has to be tended to.
The next thing Jesus does seems almost wrong—unless you understand that God does lead us into temptation.
“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?’ [Jesus] said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do” (John 6:5-6).
Leading into temptation is not tempting.
God tempts no one.
He does test us. He does allow us to be tempted.
Jesus didn’t want Philip to answer the way he does.
Jesus wanted Philip to realize that Jesus is the Lamb—that to feast on His flesh was to taste and see that the Lord is good.
But “Philip answers him, ‘Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little’” (John 6:7).
Another disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, responds in an equally unfortunate way: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish…”
That actually sounds promising.
Maybe Andrew will get it. Maybe Andrew will realize that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, who miraculously provides an abundance of all that we need for this body and life.
Maybe Andrew will get it. He says:
“…but what are they for so many?” (John 6:9).
“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. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten” (John 6:10-13).
On the one hand, you have people who followed Jesus for the show—for signs and wonders.
Jesus feeds them.
Knowing the story, we might want to say that they didn’t deserve it. And we might want to say that in such a way as to mean that we do deserve it.
We’d be wrong.
As far as Jesus being an example for us to follow, here’s how we see the feeding of the five thousand.
He fed those who didn’t want Him—they wanted the sign, the experience. They had a bucket list, and Jesus was on it.
They do say, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (John 6:14).
But they don’t understand that Jesus came into the world to die for it.
“Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, [He] withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (John 6:15).
On the one hand, Jesus teaches us to be merciful to people who don’t deserve mercy.
And that would be to all.
As God has loved you, love your neighbor.
As God has forgiven you, forgive your neighbor.
As God has provided you with daily bread, be the daily bread of those you love, who are in need.
On the one hand, you have that.
And on the other, you have the miracle itself.
This is not a miracle that teaches that Jesus can do a lot with a little.
That understanding of the miracles is out there—that as Jesus can do a lot with a little bread, imagine how much He can do with you.
That misses the point entirely.
The point of the miracle is this:
Jesus is the answer to the question Philip asks.
“Where are we going to get bread so that these people may eat?”
“Two hundred denarii worth of bread wouldn’t be enough for each of them to get a little.”
O, ye of little faith.
The time of the Passover is at hand.
We’re gathered around the Lamb to hear and learn and to do and love.
We’re gathered around the Lamb to eat His flesh and drink His blood unto life everlasting.
Jesus has prepared a place for us at the Feast of the Resurrection—I won’t call it a party.
Jesus, with His hands, provided an abundance of wine and bread and fish to feed the hungry and give joy to the world.
He did that, the miracles, to show us the abundance earned by His hands, pierced and bleeding, upon the cross.
With that sacrifice, he feeds the hungry and gives joy to all who believe.
He won’t draw the crowds that the false teachers who claim miracles will.
But He has the words of eternal life.
And we hear them and believe.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!