Click here for this week’s bulletin: Fourth Sunday in Lent (everything is there if you scroll down)
Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4The Jewish Passover Feast was near.
5 When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” 6He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.
7 Philip answered him, “Eight months’ wageswould not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”
8 Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9“Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”
10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and the men sat down, about five thousand of them. 11Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.
12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
14 After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.
— John 6:1-15
Three weeks ago at the start of Lent we heard Jesus confess that “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” This was enough to stop the devil in his tracks, so that he had to try another temptation. It also taught us to lift our eyes from things only of this world to those things that are unseen, but no less real – His Word and His providential love and care for us. Today Jesus teaches us the same thing, but not by refusing to make stones into bread – He teaches us to value His Word by making lots and lots of bread. Even though we weren’t there on that day and we didn’t get to eat of that bread and fish, we have God’s Word, the food of our souls, before us today. Soon we will partake of the Sacrament of the Altar, where the true Bread that came down from heaven will give Himself to us. Let’s ponder and think on them now that our souls may be fed and refreshed.
Jesus had gone across the Sea of Galilee with His disciples, and the crowds had followed Him, drawn by His miracles. Jesus looks up, and He sees the crowds climbing over the hills towards Him and His disciples. Then Jesus turns to them and asks them a question. Jesus didn’t usually ask many questions. People asked Him questions, and He answered lots of questions, but He didn’t always ask them. Yet He asks Philip a question here: “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?”
Many times you’ll hear people say, “God will never give you more than you can handle.” It’s good to test such statements against Scripture and see if they’re true. Does that idea hold up here? Let’s see: this crowd of people numbers 5000 men, plus their wives and children, so it’s more like 15-25,000, roughly. The disciples don’t have enough food with them to feed everyone, and there’s no place around to buy food. They’re in the middle of nowhere, with no stores or markets nearby. There’s not even any food growing wild where they are that the people could eat, no berries or fruit. Jesus has just made His disciples responsible for feeding this massive group of people, and there’s no possible way the disciples can do what Jesus says here. That’s the main point of Jesus asking this question – so they’ll realize they can’t do what He says.
It’s not true that God won’t give you more than you can handle. Sometimes — fairly regularly, in fact — God purposefully gives you more than you can possibly manage on your own, for the same reason Jesus tells the disciples this: so that you will despair of taking care of the situation on your own, so you’ll give up on fixing things by yourself, and instead you’ll turn to God, cry out to Him, and wait on Him for help. Jesus wants you to see how much you need Him, so sometimes He lets you feel the weight of someone else’s need, or of your own.
If you’ve ever lifted weights, or watched other people lift weights, you’ll notice that many times there will be another person watching the person who’s lifting the weight. That’s so if the lifter picks the weight up and it’s too much, or their muscles get too tired, they won’t drop the weight on themselves and injure themselves. Sometimes a weightlifter will be too ambitious and pick up too much weight when they’re too tired. They’ll think they can lift the weight, but then they pick it up and realize, nope, I’m not moving that. Sometimes the other person, the spotter, will have to help them put it back down, they’re so weak or tired.
God does the same thing with us many times. He lets us feel the weight of other people’s needs, or our own, mainly so we’ll realize how little strength we actually have. Our children need clothing and shoes and food and an education and trips to the doctor when they’re sick, to say nothing of 24/7 love and attention and discipline if we want them to grow up right. Our spouses need our love and attention and help, and it’s not always in the way we think they do. Our families need a lot of help and care and time and attention, which we don’t always have. We ourselves need a lot of help and understanding and support from those around us, and it’s not always there because they don’t have much to give. The weight of human need in the people around us can be oppressive, and our resources are often so meager.
The solution is not in ourselves; it’s in God. Jesus proves that here with His words and His actions. Already when He asks Philip this question, our text tells us He already had in mind what He was going to do. Even before He asked the question and led His disciples to realize what they couldn’t do, Jesus knew exactly how and what He was going to do to fix the problem. That’s impressive and it should be encouraging to us, because Jesus knows exactly what you need and exactly how He’s going to give it to you. He is not unaware of your needs, and He has ways of filling them that you can’t even conceive of. Which of His disciples, or who among the crowds, could have imagined what Jesus would do next?
Jesus has everyone sit down on the grass, which must have told the disciples that something was going on, because people sat down to eat and there was no food yet. If the lightbulb didn’t go on for the disciples at that point it did in a moment. He took a little boy’s lunch – five small barley loaves, poor people’s food, and two small sardine-sized dried fish – and He gave thanks for it, to remind us where everything we have comes from. Then He begins to hand out the food to the disciples, and the disciples handed it out to the people. Jesus kept passing out the food, and the disciples kept passing out the food, until all 20,000 or so had eaten as much as they wanted. I don’t know about you, but five dinner rolls and two sardines wouldn’t go too far with me, and I’m just one person. Yet Jesus fed all those thousands of people until they all said, “Oof, no more for me, I’m stuffed,” to the disciples as they went around with the food. Then to cap it all off, and to drive home what He’d just done, Jesus told the disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted” – and they gathered twelve big baskets full of leftovers, when they’d started with not even enough food to fill half of one basket. It had to have dawned on the disciples, as they stood there each holding a full basket of scraps, what Jesus had done, and how easily He had fed thousands with the ancient Jewish equivalent of a Happy Meal.
So what are we supposed to learn from this miracle? We weren’t there, we didn’t eat the bread and the fish; what is Jesus teaching us here? First, that He truly will take care of us, and He has the power to do so! Whether it’s through ordinary means, like our own hard work, or even once in a while through miracles or unexpected means, Jesus takes care of us. We marvel at Jesus feeding the 5000, but every year the fields give their harvests, the trees bloom and bear fruit, the animals have their young and grow, and we don’t give it a second thought. The rain falls, the temperatures change with the seasons, and even if they’re not exactly what we think we need, somehow we always get enough to live on out of the whole deal. You’ve seen that. You know that for yourselves. God will take care of us, just as He always has – so why would we worry? “I have never seen the righteous forsaken, or their children begging bread,” David says in the Psalms. “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease,” the Lord pledged after the Flood, and His promises are still coming true for us today.
Secondly, Jesus shows us here how easily He can take care of us so that we’ll pry our attention off of the things of this life and give some thought to the things of God. We spend so much time thinking about “what are we going to eat, what are we going to wear,” and all the other concerns of earthly life. Jesus says that the pagans, the unbelievers, run after those things – but you, “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these other things will be given to you as well.” Not that we shouldn’t pay any attention at all to our physical needs – that’s not what Jesus is teaching us with this miracle – but that we shouldn’t pay all our attention to our physical needs. Jesus sets you free from constantly worrying and thinking about this life, so you can pursue life with God. You don’t have to be consumed with providing for yourself and your family; God has promised to do that.
After He does this miracle, Jesus says something that doesn’t seem to fit at first: “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” Why would He tell the disciples this, if He can just make more food? Because Jesus doesn’t want us to waste anything He gives us – not His physical gifts, and even more than that, not His Word. Here today God spreads a rich feast for you in His Word. You hear God Himself speaking to you through Scripture. He feeds your faith with His Word, and when you go home today, He’ll most likely give you another whole week of His grace – six more days full of opportunity to fill up on His Word; to ponder it, meditate on it, feed your soul with it. What will you do with all this great spiritual food Jesus is spreading out for you? Will you fill up your soul to your heart’s content and really learn to know your God? Will you gather up even the scraps, so that nothing is wasted? Or will you pick at His Word here today and then leave most of the food on the table the rest of the week? Will you grab all of His everyday, earthly gifts and ignore what you really need – His Word for your own heart? Take time this week to feed your soul — gather up the scraps, too. Let nothing be wasted!
In this Gospel Jesus gave bread to thousands in a miracle, just as He gives daily bread to all people every day. Here, today, you can have the most precious Bread of all – the Bread of life that came down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. His flesh is real food and His blood is real drink. Today Jesus gives Himself to you, all of Himself, to satisfy all the needs and longings of your soul. Will you turn away from this Bread, from God’s Son? Will you say, “Nah, no thanks, not hungry?” Or will you eat and drink and be satisfied? Jesus promises that if you come to Him, you will lack nothing. I pray that each one of us who is able will come to His table today, and see how true that is. Jesus gives you everything you need. Believe it and give thanks. Amen.