The Fourth Sunday in Lent (Laetare)—14 March 2021

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

Our text is today’s Gospel (John 6:1–15):1 After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias.  2 And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick.  3 Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples.  4 Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.  5 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?”  6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do.  7 Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”  8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him,  9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?”  10 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.  11 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.  12 And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.”  13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten.  14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” 

15 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. (ESV)

Have you ever noticed how God loves to provide His people with food? When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, God instituted a feast in which God’s people ate the Passover Lamb. In the wilderness, God sustained the Israelites for forty years with manna. And now, up on a mountain, Jesus provides a feast from fives loaves and two fish as a sign that He is God-in-the-flesh, who in the past feasted His people on lamb and manna and Who now has come to lay down His life in order to spread before sinners a feast of forgiveness.  

God loves to provide His people with food, but so often His people have failed to give the proper response. God, in His grace, gave the Israelites manna in the wilderness. And here is how they responded: the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat!  We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost — also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.  But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Numbers 11:4-6).

With manna, God fed the Israelites in the wilderness for forty years. But in spite of God’s abundant provision, they found reason to complain. And the Israelites are not the only ones to complain. We, too, have a fondness for complaining. Maybe we don’t always verbalize our complaints; nevertheless, we often have complaints tucked away in the secret recesses of our hearts. God wants our hearts to be filled with praise and adoration for Him, but so often our hearts are filled with complaints about the people, work, and suffering in our life. So often our hearts are not content with the blessings God has given us. Each one of us needs to pray: “God, forgive me for having a complaining heart; give me a contented heart filled with praise for Your holy Name!”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus knows He is going to provide a feast, but He wants to see if His disciples will remember how He had previously given an abundant provision. At the beginning of His ministry, the disciples had witnessed Jesus changing over 120 gallons of water into wine (John 2:1-11)!  But the abundance Jesus provided at the wedding at Cana seems to be completely forgotten now; at any rate, the disciples do not believe that Jesus can provide an abundance on this mountain. Each in their own way, Philip and Andrew say, “Lord, it’s impossible; we don’t have enough resources to feed all these people”. But Philip and Andrew are forgetting that the Lord who had abundantly provided in the past can also provide abundantly now.

Throughout our lives, God showers us with abundant blessings. God blesses us with [our bodies and souls],…[our] reason and all [our] senses, and … takes care of them. He also gives us clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, [spouse] and children, … and all [we] have. He richly and daily provides [us] with all that [we] need to support this body and life (First Article of the Creed: Small Catechism). We all have been abundantly blessed by God. But when troubles come our way, don’t we often forget that the Lord who has abundantly provided in the past can also provide abundantly now? Instead of trusting God to take care of us, we doubt His promises. Instead of praying, we worry. Instead of thanking and praising God for His many blessings, we become anxious and depressed. Each one of us needs to pray: “God, forgive me for forgetting Your past acts of provision and for doubting Your ability to provide for me now in my present need; help me to trust You to take care of me according to Your lovingkindness!”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus provides an abundant feast to a crowd of thousands! Having been fed abundantly by Jesus, the people try to make Jesus king by force. But the sad truth is that they do not confess Jesus as Lord. They simply want Jesus as a Bread-King. We too are sorely tempted to make Jesus into a Bread-King, who always gives us what we want. But Jesus is our Saviour who gives us what we truly need. Our greatest need is not food and drink; nor is our greatest need to have a healthy, prosperous, trouble-free life. Our greatest need is to be forgiven, reconciled with God, and thus to receive eternal life. 

God is so gracious that He not only forgives us but He also provides us with abundant earthly blessings. But these earthly blessings are of secondary importance compared to the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. All earthly blessings are temporary. Thus, in this Valley of the Shadow of Death even Christians eventually lose the earthly blessings of health and life. Yet so often, we place more value on God’s earthly blessings than on His heavenly blessings which last forever. Each one of us needs to pray: “God, forgive me for seeking first Your earthly blessings; help me to treasure above everything else the forgiveness and eternal life which You have graciously given me in Christ!”

Our gracious Father loves to give us, His children, an abundant provision of earthly and heavenly blessings. But today, each of us comes before the Lord guilty of not responding properly to His abundant provision. And how does our Lord respond to our failures, to our sins? Does He reject us? Does He turn away from us? No, not at all. Rather, our gracious Lord invites us to another feast. He invites us to eat His body and to drink His blood, the same body and blood which was shed on the cross on Good Friday. Our Lord invites to His table those who trust His words, who repent of all sin, and who set aside any refusal to forgive and love as He forgives and loves us, that they may show forth His death until He comes. In this feast of Holy Communion, our Lord gives us forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Think of it, the very body and blood of Christ which was given and shed on the cross now becomes a feast of forgiveness to those who repent of their sins!

As long as we live in this fallen world, our Lord Jesus is ever calling us to partake of His Holy Supper. And when we die, our Lord will invite us to yet another feast. This feast will last forever, and at this feast people will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places (Luke 13:29). At this feast, God will wipe every tear from our eyes [and] there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Revelation 21:4). What a feast that will be!

Today’s Gospel tells of Jesus making a little into a lot. He takes in His hands five barley loaves and two fish. The barley bread was the cheapest bread on the market–it was the food of the poor–and the fish were just small pickled fish which served as hors d’oeuvres. And yet Jesus takes this meager lunch and transforms it into an all-you-can-eat banquet for over 5,000 people. On that day, Jesus made a little into a lot.  

There was another day when Jesus made a little into a lot. On Good Friday, Jesus died on the cross.  Just one Man. Just one death. But that one Man’s death made enough forgiveness to save the whole world. Jesus is true God and true Man, and so it was not merely a man who died on Good Friday; God the Son Himself was nailed to the cross. And His death has made enough forgiveness for us all. He has redeemed us, lost and condemned persons, purchased and won us from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death (adapted from Second Article of the Creed: Small Catechism). From our human perspective, it doesn’t seem that one death could save so many, but it is only this one death of Jesus that makes possible the forgiveness of all our sins.  

In today’s Gospel, did you notice that there were leftovers? Now these leftovers are very important to you and me. You see, it is not that the people left twelve baskets of crumbs for the disciples to pick up. Rather, it is that Jesus provided more food than was needed, so much food that the people needed doggie baskets! That’s the way Jesus is. Through His death and resurrection, He gives us an over-abundance of grace and forgiveness, so that His forgiveness is always greater than our sins.  And so with the psalmist we can say: My cup overflows.  Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever  (Psalm 23:5-6).  Amen.

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Now may the peace of God, which passes all understanding,

keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting.  Amen.