Sunday, March 22, 2009

Lent 4

Sermon on John 6:1-15
For Our Savior’s Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
March 22, 2009 (The Fourth Sunday in Lent)

You know, multiplying fish are not all that unusual. All of us know about catches of fish that are bigger when you tell others about them than they were when you first caught them, and about fish that are bigger in your memory than they were against a ruler. Fishermen seem to have this knack for making fish grow and multiply between when they catch them and when they tell their friends about what they caught. But there are differences between these multiplying fish and the multiplying fish which our Lord distributes in the Gospel lesson. The fish our Lord multiplied are real, not “fish stories.” Also, our Lord didn’t multiply these fish in order to brag or show off. He did this out of love and service to His people who needed to be fed at that time.

With the huge crowd that had gathered, it was probably a big question in just about everybody’s mind how Jesus could possibly provide food for all these people. In fact, neither Philip nor Andrew thought it could be done. But they had simply forgotten Who they were dealing with. They were concerned that they did not have enough money, and then, when they found a little bit of food they did not think that it could be used by God to feed that many people. And, of course, what Philip and Andrew were thinking was no doubt quite reasonable. They had neither enough money nor enough food to feed all of those who had come out to hear Jesus speak. Ordinarily God does indeed work through things in this world like jobs and money and the grocery store to provide us with our daily needs. And so it seems perfectly reasonable to look for enough of those sorts of resources to feed these people. When these kinds of ordinary ways that God provides for us are functioning properly, that is, when he gives us enough money by means of our employers to buy what we need, when the production and distribution network of our nation are in good working order so that the products we need arrive in good condition to convenient locations where we can purchase them, or at the very least when we are able to grow or hunt or fish what we need—when all of these things are happening the way they are supposed to, it is easy to forget that behind all of this is God, fulfilling His people’s prayer to “give us this day our daily bread.” It is easy to think that it is really our own hard work that is behind the fact that we are well-fed and well-clothed. And then when we encounter a need which is not covered by these ordinary means, it is tempting to despair and believe that since we don’t have the resources to meet this need, whether its expensive medical care or the loss of a job or whatever, the need will not be met; we will not be provided for.


What Philip and Andrew forgot, and what we so often forget, is that He who is the Provider of all our needs is right here with us. Christ in our Gospel lesson had stopped to teach these people even though He Himself was very tired precisely because He had compassion on them. Now they needed food. He is God, the One who provides them with food and clothing and everything they need. Is it really conceivable that He will simply abandon them in their need simply because the ordinary, natural means of providing for that need have given out? No way! Likewise with us when we experience hard times and difficulties in providing for our sustenance. He who gives His own body and blood for our eternal nourishment will sustain us even when the ordinary means of such sustenance have given out, whether through some extraordinary providence or through the charity of our fellow Christians, or even in the worst case, by taking us to that place where we will never hunger nor thirst again. God does provide.


There is, of course, another error into which we can fall as we consider how God provides for the needs of His people. This is the error of forgetting God’s priorities, of trying to make God into some sort of “bread king.” We must remember that He provides for us in His own way and in His own time. Is a king who is made a king against his will really a king? Is he really a ruler? Or is he a prisoner who happens to be wearing nice robes and living in a big house? The problem with what the people wanted to do to Jesus was that they wanted Him to be their king on their terms and for their reasons, and in so doing they were making themselves into the real kings, the real gods. They would have destroyed the entire purpose for Jesus’ coming to earth if they would have had their way, because Jesus had more important things to do than to sit around multiplying bread and fish. He had to die. He had to give His life for the forgiveness of sins. If he had followed the will of these people He would have maybe made their lives easier here but He would have destroyed their lives, and ours, in eternity.


There are many in our world today who like to “shop around” for a Church. When they move to a new city they evaluate the various Churches not on the basis of their faithfulness to God’s Word but on the basis of whether there are the right kinds of activities and services offered by the church such as a large Sunday School, bible classes that meet their interests and their age group, maybe even an aerobic exercise class or babysitting during the services or whatever. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with having a large number of activities and services within the Church, and for the Church to be sponsoring a number of activities and programs for the benefit of the entire community. The problem is when these things overshadow the one thing needful, when the desire for such programs and activities becomes more important to people than the pure doctrine in teaching and preaching, and the rightly administered Sacraments which are our food for eternal life. Where God feeds His people for eternal life, there the Church will also help out those in need in this life as well. But where the programs and aspects of the Church’s life that relate to this world are seen as more important than the things that relate to eternal salvation, then there is a problem. Then the programs and activities are no longer God’s eternal gifts breaking into our time, they are just simply men trying to help themselves. Another way of saying that is that when the priorities of the people or of the Churches become unbalanced, then human works and human activities become our gods. In effect, when this happens we make idols out of ourselves.


In our text, despite the people’s trying to make Jesus into their captive “bread-king,” He escaped and went on with His ministry. He went to the cross, to suffer and die and to rise again, to win salvation for us. His most important provision for us was accomplished by winning eternal life for us. He became the first one to rise from the dead, and His body which was given for us and His blood shed for us is the beginning of an entire new creation, a new heaven and earth. Instead of staying to give people only the food which perishes, He gave all of mankind the food that does not perish by giving Himself on the cross. He now gives us that food at the altar, where His body and blood are presented to us to nourish and strengthen us, not just for this life, but for eternity.


Of course, the fact that Jesus refused to stay behind does not mean that He was unwilling to help people in their needs for this life. It just means that everything needs to be kept in proper perspective. After all, He did provide miraculously for their hunger on this occasion, and healed and fed and otherwise miraculously provided for people on other occasions. What happened in our text, and the other times that Jesus did miracles, is that a little bit of what will happen in eternal life, leaked into our world. In heaven nobody will hunger or thirst, nor will there be any disease or death. Being in heaven means being where God is, being where we can perfectly praise and worship Him and where He can lovingly provide all our needs. Where Christ is present, both in first-century Palestine, and today in His Real Presence in the Word and the Sacrament, there heaven has come to us. Many, many hospitals, schools, retirement homes, and other charitable organizations were founded by churches for this very reason.


Where Christ’s presence in Word and Sacrament as the crucified and risen Lord is the center of the Church’s life, of course there will be other activities and institutions founded, because where He is, there He will provide for His people. We need not doubt in tough times that He will be with us, even when we don’t have the obvious means to get by. Even the Church itself can sometimes have tough times. This congregation is smaller now than it once was, and it is often tempting to worry and wonder what will happen to it if the trend continues. But do not worry and do not fret. He redeemed us; He will provide for us in His own way, in His own good time. Of course, I’m not saying we should simply sit back and relax; he does expect us to confess Him before our friends and neighbors and invite them to share in His gifts. But that would still be true even if this congregation were bursting at the seams. What he tells us not to do is worry or doubt His providence and care for us. There is always the temptation that the other things that flow from Christ’s presence, either in their abundance or in their lack, will distract us from the one thing needful, Christ Himself. But Christ is still present in His Word and His body and blood to call us back to unity with Him. He is the one thing needful, and, having Him, we have everything we truly need, for this life, and eternity. Amen.


✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

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