Sermon for Laetare – Lent 4
Galatians 4:21-31 + John 6:1-15
Every year we hear about the two times when Jesus miraculously fed thousands of His followers at once. During Lent we hear of the feeding of the 5,000, and during the summer we hear about the feeding of the 4,000. The feeding of the 4,000 emphasizes Jesus’ compassion for His believing people in providing for our earthly needs. Today’s Gospel of the feeding of the 5,000 emphasizes Jesus’ compassion for His people in providing for our souls.
Let’s consider the details of our Gospel from John 6.
Jesus had sought to get away from the crowds with His disciples for a little while. So He crossed the Sea of Galilee with them to a deserted place, as the other Evangelists inform us. But the crowds saw them leave and followed them on foot. This was a different crowd from the feeding of the 4,000, which would happen later. That crowd hung on Jesus’ words and listened to His teaching and stayed with Him in a deserted place, far from town, for several days. This crowd followed Jesus because they saw all the miraculous signs that Jesus was doing, and they wanted to see more. They were, as St. Mark tells us, like sheep without a shepherd. So Jesus had compassion on them. He was willing to be their Shepherd who would guide them into all truth and show them the path of eternal salvation—the path of repentance and faith in Him, the One sent from God to be the Savior of mankind.
At the end of the day, the apostles asked Jesus to dismiss the crowds so that they could go back to the city and get some food. But Jesus had one more lesson planned for the day, for His apostles, for the multitudes, and for us. He planned to feed them, not because they were starving—they’d only been with Him for the day, and they could have easily returned to the city to get food. He planned to feed them, not because they were poor or couldn’t afford to buy food—we have no idea how rich or poor any of these people were. No, He planned to feed them in order to teach them. The food was intended to be a sign pointing to much greater things.
First, it was a sign to teach them about their need, not for bread, but for Jesus. They were (again) like sheep without a Shepherd. They had a need to be rescued, because they all, like sheep, had gone astray. They had a need to be brought back into God’s sheepfold and to be guided and fed and protected by a Good Shepherd. They had a need that needed to be satisfied. And that need was caused by sin.
This is what God’s Law does. The Law doesn’t create sin. The Law simply reveals it. The Law doesn’t create death. It simply shows the reason for it. The Law reveals that what all people need, most of all, is the forgiveness of sins, and with it, the antidote to death.
But people live in denial of that sin. People imagine that what they really need is money. What they really need is friends. What they really need is a good education, a better government, a charismatic leader, a return to “the way things used to be,” material things so that we can have a better life on earth, a less painful life, a more prosperous life. In other words, people imagine that what they really need is bread.
- You need bread? Here’s bread. Bread for five thousand men, plus women and children, provided in an instant. Now, can we talk about more important things? Can we get past the bread? Can we talk about how your sins have separated you from God? How your obsession with earthly things is actually a symptom of your spiritual disease, how you don’t really fear God or love God with your whole heart or trust in God, but instead, you live for yourself and you trust in yourself and you think you’re doing fine, when really, you’re starving to death?
The second lesson Jesus was teaching the crowds, is that He was willing and able to satisfy their need. It’s what He came to do. He had righteousness enough to go around, as the One who would give Himself as a ransom for many, who would give Himself as the sacrifice for sin—the Good Shepherd, laying down His life for His sheep. As the sinless Son of God and Son of Man who would suffer and die on the cross, Jesus was doing the very things that would earn the forgiveness of sins for all men. He Himself was the living Bread sent down from heaven—as He would come right out and say on the next day—given to them to eat by believing in Him. And there would always be more than enough to satisfy their spiritual need, their need for God, their need for forgiveness, their need for a Shepherd to feed them and lead them and guide them. And, as the bread that Jesus provided on that day, it was all for free, not for sale. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.
The third lesson from the feeding of the 5,000: Jesus was teaching the crowds how—in what way—He, the Bread of life, would give Himself to men to consume, and not just on one day, but every day. How did Jesus have the bread and fish given out? He gave it to His twelve apostles to distribute to the people. It’s through the ministry of the apostles that hungry sinners receive the Bread of life. Through the preaching of the Gospel, through the administration of the Sacraments. This is how the Bread of life is given to us so that we can receive Him and benefit from Him.
And along those same lines, notice what all four Evangelists emphasize after the 5,000 were fed. There were twelve baskets full of leftover pieces of bread. One basket for each of the apostles, again, emphasizing how Jesus would continue to be given to people, how the Bread of life would continue to be distributed to the world until the end of the world, through the apostolic ministry, through the ministry of the Word which is still carried out by those whom Christ has called to do it. Through the preaching of the Gospel, through the administration of the Sacraments, Jesus will continue to feed the nations with Himself until He comes again at the end of the age.
Don’t imagine for a moment that you missed out on this great miracle that Jesus performed when He fed the 5,000. The whole point of the miracle was that men of all nations, including you, should know that Jesus, who once gave Himself on the cross, is now giving Himself to you so that you may benefit from His sacrifice, so that you may hear and believe in Him and be rescued and fed and guided by Him as your Shepherd all the days of your life, so that you may dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
There’s a final warning for us at the end of this Gospel. The 5,000, who actually ate the bread and fish that Jesus provided, didn’t learn the lessons Jesus was teaching. They saw the sign Jesus performed and were so impressed by it…that they wanted to come and take Jesus by force and make Him their king. “Yes, this is what we want, every day! Bread to eat! Healthy bodies! Victory over our earthly enemies! Prosperity! This is the kind of shepherd we want—who will give us all these things!” But what did Jesus do, since He knew their plan? He departed again to the mountain by Himself alone. He wanted to have no part in their plans for earthly prosperity with Him at the helm. That’s not what He came to give.
People often seek that earthly prosperity, that emotional high, from Jesus and want nothing to do with His Word and Sacraments and spiritual gifts. “What’s that, Jesus? You want to give us forgiveness of sins? You want to mend our relationship with God? You want to do this through the preaching and teaching of sinful men? You want us to keep hearing Your Word and receiving Your Sacraments? That’s it? You want to give us spiritual things and not give us free bread every day, and perfect health, and a comfortable, prosperous life on earth? You didn’t come for that? Oh. No thanks. (But, I bet we can find a preacher who will tell us what we want to hear!)”
That’s what happened the next day, the day after our Gospel took place, as the rest of John chapter 6 reveals. Most of those 5,000 abandoned Jesus from that time on. And that’s the world we live in, too, a world that doesn’t want a Shepherd who will feed them with Himself. They have other priorities, other wants, other plans, other hopes. So the flock of Jesus the Good Shepherd, that wants to hear the truth, that wants to receive Him for the forgiveness of sins, remains little. So what? The important thing is not how many sheep remain, but that the flock most surely remains, and that Jesus remains here among us as our Shepherd, now risen from the dead. And here He gives Himself in the Word, even with His true body and blood in bread and wine. This is our reason to celebrate. This is the reason, on this Laetare Sunday, for the Church of Christ, “the Jerusalem above,” as St. Paul called it, to rejoice. Amen.