Sunday, March 11, 2018

Laetare - The Fourth Sunday In Lent

John 6:1-15; Galatians 4:21-31; Exodus 16:2-21

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
You’ve heard the saying, “Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish, and he’ll eat forever.” In case you’re wondering, however, that isn’t in the Bible. In fact, it’s really a very non-Christian saying. Knowing how to fish won’t keep you eating, or living, for a single day or longer than the LORD wills to grant you life, let alone forever. It’s a very humanistic saying, focusing the individual back to herself and her efforts, knowledge, and wisdom. It’s actually very similar to another popular saying that’s not in the Bible: “God helps those who help themselves.” Nothing could be further from the teaching of the Scriptures, the teaching of Jesus, and the teaching of the Apostles thereafter. You are not called to become more and more self-reliant, but you are called to become less and less selfish and more and more selfless. The chief way in which you make this regression, which is really progress, is by dying to yourself and living in Christ. That is to say, by realizing your spiritual (and physical!) helplessness and dependence upon God in Christ, you become ever more receptive to His gifts, life, and spirit lived in and through you, for man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
Thus, your Lord teaches you to pray for daily bread – literally, bread for the present day. This was the lesson of the manna in the wilderness. The children of Israel were commanded to collect only enough manna for their families for one day. If they collected less, providentially they had enough for all to eat and be satisfied. And, if they collected more, the surplus spoiled and bred worms. What about tomorrow, then? Pray again for daily bread, if the LORD should grant you a tomorrow. The lesson is this: Trust in the LORD who provides bread for the day, namely all that you need to sustain your body and your life each and every day He grants them to you.
“But, Pastor, you’ve still got to do something, right? You’ve got to collect the manna, right? You’ve got to work and earn money and buy your bread, right?” Yes, of course you do. Adam and Eve were created to work the Garden. Yet, still, the LORD provided them fruit from the trees, crops from the field, water from the stream, and all else they needed for their bodies and their lives. The point is that the LORD provides what you need through the hands and the hearts, the labor, and the efforts of the creatures He has created and given you as a gift. Thus, you are a vital and necessary part of the system the LORD has created to provide for and to sustain His creatures. You must do what you have been given to do – this is your vocation, – but do not put your faith and trust in your efforts, your work, your merit, and in your presumed independence, for this is a lie of the devil and it leads you away from God to death for yourself and for others who suffer for your failure to live your vocation in service of others to the glory of God.
The feeding of the five thousand was a test of faith, faith in God’s Word of Promise, faith in God’s providence despite what the natural eyes see and human reason and wisdom think. The great crowds that followed Jesus were not there because of faith but because of the wondrous signs He had performed. They were like the children of Israel, who were mighty impressed by the LORD after the wondrous signs of the Exodus, but when they found themselves in the wilderness without food and hungry, how quickly their disposition changed. “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” Jesus asked Philip. He said this to test him, for He Himself knew what He would do. Philip answered Him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” That was merely a statement of fact. Philip had no delusion that they could provide bread for the crowds in a natural manner. So far, so good. But, then, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” That was also a statement of fact, but there was a just a twinge of despair in it. Contrast Andrew’s statement to Mary’s, the Mother of our Lord, when they ran out of wine at the Wedding In Cana – Mary simply stated that they had run out of wine. However, she fully believed that Jesus was capable of fixing the problem. Andrew? Not so much.
Similarly, the children of Israel grumbled in the wilderness. Despite the wondrous signs they had witnessed by the LORD in their Exodus out of Egypt, when they began to be hungry and their resources and resourcefulness were depleted, how quickly they began to despair and disbelieve. The crowds on the mountaintop were no different. And, sadly, we are often no different either. When we have plenty, and things are going well in our families, our nation, and our church, we tend to credit ourselves for our success. But, when things begin to go south, someone or something else is to blame – maybe even God.
Thus, the feeding of the five thousand is not just another wondrous sign. That’s what the unbelieving crowds wanted. It is likely that, if that was all there was to it, our Lord Jesus would not have granted the sign at all. But, what is key here is that it was just before the Passover. Though the Passover involved the children of Israel eating and being sustained throughout their time of pilgrimage, it’s central purpose was to foreshadow the atoning work and sacrifice the LORD would make in the death of His Son Jesus for the sins of the world. The visible reality was that there was not enough bread for every man, woman, and child to get a crumb. But, the greater reality was that the Bread of Life, whom the manna in the wilderness represented, was among them to care for and to provide for them. As the LORD provided the children of Israel daily bread throughout their wilderness pilgrimage to the Promised Land, so the LORD has provided His Son, Jesus, the Bread of Life and the Passover Lamb of God to sustain and redeem all the world in body, soul, and everlasting life.
Jesus blessed the bread and the fish and had His disciples distribute them to the crowds. There were only five loaves and two fish. That’s all there was. According to physical reality, what the eyes could see, what human reason could understand, the situation was hopeless. Yet, as the food was distributed, there was enough – there was simply enough. Just as Elijah promised the widow of Zarephath, “The jar of flour shall not be spent and the jug of oil shall not be empty.” No one saw it happen. Jesus didn’t make a big scene, waving His hands in the air, speaking in tongues. He simply blessed the food, giving thanks to His Father, and had the disciples distribute the goods in their normal, vocational way. The LORD continues to provide for and sustain you today in the same way. In fact, you are an important, necessary, and essential part of His means of distribution.
The lesson is that things are not always what they appear. What we value according to the flesh and world is not always truly valuable. What appears to be weak and humble, even despised, can be pressed into service to do wondrous things. Very soon, Jesus would go to the cross for the sins of the world. He would look weak, helpless, and pathetic. The religious leaders of the Jews, the Romans, even Satan and his demons would think they had won. His disciples would despair saying, “We had hoped that He was the one to redeem Israel.” Thus, the feeding of the five thousand is a test, training, and preparation for that day and the days that would follow. We walk by faith and not by sight. We must have eyes that hear and ears that see. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ.
Like Moses in the Exodus, Jesus has come to lead you out of slavery and into freedom. That is what St. Paul would teach you in his Epistle to the Galatians. The two women, Hagar and Sarah, are like two covenants, the Law and the Gospel, and two mountains, Mount Sinai and Mount Zion. “Abraham had two sons, one by [Hagar] a slave woman and one by [Sarah] a free woman.” St. Paul says that these women can be understood allegorically as two covenants, “One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar,” and “she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.” The other, Sarah, corresponds to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, and is free. It is Sarah, the new covenant, the heavenly Jerusalem, the Gospel that St. Paul says is our mother.
Your life comes from the Gospel, not from the Law. But, your flesh both loves and hates the Law, at once boastfully believing that it can keep it and do it, but then cursing it when you fail. The temptation you continually face is to strive to fulfill the Law like the slave children of Hagar, Mount Sinai, rather than to live in the Gospel freedom of the children of Sarah, Mount Zion. Your temptation is to put your fear, love, and trust in signs and wonders and in your own works rather than in the Word and Promise of the LORD fulfilled and kept for you in Jesus Christ. Signs and wonders are fine and good, should the LORD choose to grant them. But your faith and trust must not be in these. As our resurrected Lord spoke to Thomas the Sunday after Easter, “Have you believed because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Your Lord Jesus calls you by His Spirit to a living faith – a faith that lives, not by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God. This is the Gospel and it brings true and lasting freedom, for you are saved, not by works, and not by signs and wonders, but by faith in the Gospel Word and Promise of God fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Yet, because of your flesh and humanity, which God created good and redeemed from sin and death, He also gives you bread and wine and water that you may eat and drink and be forgiven. These elements, when the Word of God is attached to them, deliver what His Word of Promise says: They give the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation to those who believe these words, “Given and shed for you.” Receive and believe what the LORD gives, provides, and delivers, and you will remain free in His grace and live.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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