Greater signs for greater needs

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Sermon for Laetare

Isaiah 49:8-13  +  Galatians 4:21-31  +  John 6:1-15

The multitude of people had been with Jesus all day. He had actually gone to this side of the Sea of Galilee to spend some time alone with His disciples, but the crowds found out about it and followed Him, “because they saw the signs that He performed on the sick,” which they took as a sign that He would continue to heal the sick. He did. He had compassion on the people and preached to them all day about the kingdom of God and healed their diseases. Before He sent them away, Jesus had in mind one more sign for the people, and for His own disciples, and for us. So we turn our thoughts to the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Consider the Gospel carefully, because most of the people who saw the sign Jesus performed that day missed the point of it completely, to their eternal ruin.

St. John tells us that Jesus wanted to test the apostle Philip. So He asked Philip: Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat? Remember, when God tests His people, it always involves some sort of hardship. Here are five steps for dealing with hardship in a God-pleasing way:

(1) First, consider your problem. What is it that you lack? In Philip’s case, the problem was a lack of food for the 5,000+ people. Not that they would have starved if Jesus had sent them back into the villages without feeding them; they weren’t that far out of town. But it was a need, nonetheless. They needed to eat.

(2) Second, consider what means God has provided to solve your problem. The answer may be as simple as going to your pantry, or going to the store, or going to your neighbor for help. In Philip’s case, God had not provided any earthly means of getting food for so many people. There was absolutely nothing Philip or the other disciples could do to solve this particular problem.

(3) Third, remember the mighty acts of God and the merciful character of God. Remember the power and the goodness of Christ. Remember how He has solved similar problems in the past, especially as recorded in Holy Scripture. In Philip’s case, he had a solid example from Holy Scripture, how God had provided food miraculously for His people Israel at the time of Moses, giving them bread from heaven every day for 40 years. What’s more, Philip was one of those early disciples who had been there with Jesus at the wedding at Cana when Jesus had turned the water into wine. Surely He could do something similar here.

(4) Fourth, consider God’s promises. What has He promised to do? Let’s say you think your hardship is not having cable TV. Has God ever promised to provide you with cable TV? No. So don’t trust in Him to give you that, when He has never promised that. What has He promised? He has promised you your daily bread—what you need to sustain your body and life today. In Philip’s case, there was a promise hidden in Jesus’ question to him. It was Jesus Himself who asked, “Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?” Since Jesus knew full well that they had no money to buy bread, Philip should have seen in Jesus’ question a promise to provide.

(5) And fifth, ask the Lord Christ for His help, based on what He has done and what He has promised to do, trusting in Him to provide what He has promised.

Keeping that in mind, what would have been the perfect answer on Philip’s part to Jesus’ question? “O Lord Christ, our money is useless to feed so many people. We have no earthly means of solving the problem. But God, through Moses, once provided bread from heaven for the hundreds of thousands of Israel. And You once provided wine for the wedding guests in Cana using only water. Would you consider performing a similar miracle for these people here?”

Now that would have been an answer! Instead, Philip got stuck on step #2: Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may have a little. He correctly assessed the problem; he knew what they lacked. And he knew that God had not provided enough money to buy bread. But that’s as far as Philip went. He forgot about God’s saving acts in the past, he ignored Jesus’ implied promise to provide, and he failed to ask Jesus for help.

Philip’s failure was turned around by Christ into a blessing for the 5,000, and it serves as yet another example for us of the power and goodness of Jesus as He took those five loaves of bread and two fish and miraculously multiplied them so that there was more than enough for all the people to eat their fill of bread.

In the miracle itself, Jesus shows His willingness and ability to provide for our earthly needs at any time, by whatever means necessary. He urges us to do what Philip didn’t do on this occasion: to remember His saving acts, to consider His saving promises, and to ask for His help in every time of need.

But we dare not stop there! The 5,000 believed in Jesus up to that point—up to the point of looking to Him to satisfy their earthly needs. But they remained unbelievers when it came to their soul’s salvation. See what it says at the end of the Gospel? Then those men, when they had seen the sign that Jesus did, said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Therefore when Jesus perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He departed again to the mountain by Himself alone.

The multitudes who saw the sign and benefited from Jesus’ miraculous gift of bread and fish wanted nothing more from Jesus than earthly bread. They failed to recognize their spiritual need. They thought they had the means to approach God on their own, by their own works. That becomes even clearer on the next day when they followed Jesus to the other side of the Sea of Galilee and then turned away from Him when He wanted to give them the greater gift of Himself as their Savior from sin.

So learn from Jesus’ sign of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Learn how to handle earthly hardships rightly. But more importantly, learn to look for greater signs than bread—greater signs for your greater spiritual needs.

(1) First, consider your problem. What do you lack? By nature, you lack God’s approval, God’s righteousness, God’s favor. By nature, all you have is sins, and you lack the ability to atone for them. Apart from Christ, your sins will condemn you. That’s a real problem, an urgent problem. As Jesus once said, What good is it for a man to gain the world yet forfeit his soul? What good is it if you have a good family and plenty of money if God is angry with you? You’re a sinner. That’s your problem.

(2) Second, what means has God provided to deal with this problem? God hasn’t provided any way for you to save yourself. All the good works in the world couldn’t make up for your sins. All you can do is admit that you are poor and needy before God, that you have sinned against Him and deserve only His wrath and punishment.

(3) Third, remember the mighty acts of God and the merciful character of God. Remember the power and the goodness of Christ. What has God done about your sins in the past? Remember Jesus Christ and Him crucified. For this He came into the world: to save sinners. To bear the sins of the world. To suffer for them. To die for them. To make atonement for them. For all of them. He did make atonement for them. It is finished. And He applied that atonement and forgave sins to all who trusted in Him.

(4) Fourth, consider God’s promises. What has He promised to do? For the sake of Christ alone, God has promised to forgive you your sins, too, to wash you clean, to save you and to grant you eternal life. For Christ’s sake God has promised to make you a part of that “Jerusalem above” that St. Paul talked about in Galatians 4, the Jerusalem above that is free, no longer a slave to sin, death, and the power of the devil. By faith in Christ you enter that spiritual Jerusalem, which is the Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints.

That’s a promise; it requires faith, which God has also promised to give through Word and Sacrament. He has attached His promise of salvation and forgiveness to water and called it Baptism. He has attached His promise of salvation and forgiveness to the word of Absolution. He has attached His promise of salvation and forgiveness to bread and wine and called it Communion. These are the greater signs God has given for your greater needs, your spiritual needs. And just as you need food for your body on a regular basis, so also you need these spiritual gifts on a regular basis. Even more so, because your body will eventually give out, no matter how well you feed it. But the spiritual food that God gives in the Means of Grace will prevent your soul from ever dying.

(5) Finally, ask the Lord Christ for His help, based on what He has done and what He has promised to do, trusting in Him to provide what He has promised. Seek His help, and not only with your bodily, earthly needs. Seek His forgiveness where He has promised to forgive: in the Means of Grace. Pray the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer—all of them—and know that you are heard for the sake of Christ. Approach this altar in faith, to be fed by your Savior from sin.

All that you need, Christ has provided, and will provide. Only be careful not to turn away from Him, as the majority of the 5,000 did on the day after they were fed. They didn’t want Jesus as a Savior from sin, only as a Savior from hunger. Keep following Him, and He will continue to give you the living Bread from heaven, even as He has already brought you into His holy Church and has caused you to “rejoice with Jerusalem” in the goodness and mercy of Christ our Lord. Amen.

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