If man is to be saved, God must do it, through Christ alone

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Sermon for Laetare – Lent 4

Galatians 4:21-31  +  John 6:1-15

We started Lent with Jesus’ refusal to eat bread, or any food at all, for a full 40 days. He refused to fill His own stomach, to turn the stones into bread at the devil’s urging, because it was His Father’s will that He suffer hunger in order to be tested, to be proved either obedient or disobedient, either self-reliant or God-reliant, either self-serving or God-serving. He proved to be obedient. God-reliant. God-serving.

In today’s Gospel, we see just how easy it would have been for Jesus to provide bread for Himself. With no trouble at all He takes what was enough food for maybe five or ten people and miraculously makes it more than enough for 5,000 men, plus women and children. He did it, not just to do a nice thing for the crowds, not just to fill their stomachs, but to be a sign pointing to something much greater: That Jesus is God, from whom all good things come. That human beings have a great spiritual need before God. But that human strength is worthless to address that need. That, if we are to be saved, God must do it. And He will do it, freely, because of His mercy, through Jesus Christ, and through Him alone, without human works, without human contribution. That’s what Jesus would have you learn through the feeding of the 5,000.

Or, you can be like those 5,000 men who were fed that day, who still thought at the end of the day that it was about nothing but getting a nice free meal out of Jesus.

The crowds followed Jesus out to the far side of the Sea of Galilee, because they saw His signs which He performed on those who were diseased. Already we see that these people were infatuated with Jesus’ miracles. That’s why they followed Him. He was doing these signs and wonders that no one had ever done before. As we learn at the end of this account and again on the next day, they weren’t that interested in being taught by Jesus or in learning the truth about God from Jesus. They were interested in seeing a show, a spectacle.

Still, Jesus tries to teach them and plans this friendly miracle for them, to teach them that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. You remember, Jesus quoted those words from the Old Testament to the devil when the devil tried to tempt Him with bread. Now Jesus would have the crowds learn the lesson that Moses once taught to the Israelites.

He asks Philip, Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat? John tells us that Jesus was testing Philip and His disciples with this question, to teach them as well as the crowds. Philip answered correctly, for the most part. Money is not the answer. Money will not solve this problem. There are too many people for us to buy bread. There is no human way for us to feed so many people. He might have added a bit more, though, because as he left it, it seems like, if there is no human solution, then there is no solution. If human powers and human reason can’t provide what these people need, then nothing can be done for them.

Andrew comes along, and he, too, seems to be determined to find a human solution. He has found a boy who has five loaves of bread and two fish! It’s something, right? But not nearly enough. Jesus will teach His disciples to look beyond what their human reason and human powers can provide.

He has the people sit down on the grass. He takes the loaves and the fish, gives thanks to His heavenly Father for His bountiful goodness, and distributes the food to the disciples, so that they can distribute it to the people.

Giving thanks seems like a small thing, but notice, Jesus is here acknowledging His Father as the Provider of the food that man needs to live. He’s giving thanks out loud, so that His disciples should recognize that, too. And He’s giving thanks. He’s not asking His Father for permission or power to multiply the food for the people. He doesn’t need to. He knows His Father’s will. It is the Father who wills that the people should eat, and it is the Son of God who, as always, carries out His Father’s will.

The way Jesus hands out the food by the hand of His disciples seems like a small thing, too, but take note of it. Doesn’t it remind you of something else? Isn’t it exactly the same way Jesus has set up His Holy Sacrament, where He provides more than bread and wine? He gives His very body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. His body and blood are miraculously multiplied and distributed to all who eat and drink in the Sacrament. And yet, He doesn’t hand it out directly to anyone, but Has assigned His ministers the task of distributing this heavenly food.

Now, the multitudes eat as much as they want, and there are still twelve basketsful left over. That’s impossible, of course. At least, human reason and the laws of nature say it’s impossible. Matter cannot be created out of nothing. And yet, that’s exactly how God brought the universe into existence. Out of nothing, God made everything. This was the creative power of God, who didn’t take millions of years to allow loaves of bread to evolve, just as He didn’t take millions of years to allow the universe to evolve. He spoke and it was. That’s power! That’s love and care and concern!

And more importantly, that’s a sign! A sign that teaches something, that points to something greater. It points to Jesus’ divinity. But even more than that, it points to Jesus as the Savior, as the only One who can give the heavenly gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation to men—to men who can’t earn those gifts by being good or by doing right or by being obedient enough. If we are to be saved, God must do it. And He will do it, freely, because of His mercy, through Jesus Christ, and through Him alone, without human works, without human contribution.

That’s the same thing the apostle Paul was teaching the Galatians in the Epistle today in that allegory about Hagar and Sarah, Ishmael and Isaac, Sinai, Jerusalem below and Jerusalem above. Just as Jesus used the free providing of bread to point to Himself as the source of God’s free grace and favor, so God, throughout the Old Testament, used certain people and certain situations to point to the same thing: that doing good and obeying the rules is not the way into God’s kingdom, because all men are sinful from birth; that God’s plan of salvation has always been about God giving away something for free by sending His Son into the world to bear our sins, to suffer and die for them, so that we might live by faith in Him.

The 5,000 who ate the bread and the fish that Jesus gave away as a gift never went beyond the bread and the fish. John tells us that all they wanted at the end of the day was to lay their hands on Jesus and force Him to be their King, so that He could keep providing bread for them, keep doing signs for them, keep entertaining them, and give them a glorious earthly kingdom. They wanted Him for an earthly champion. But not for a Teacher, not for their God, not for a Savior from sin.

This Gospel is God’s way of reaching out to sinners and showing them His grace in the Person of Christ. It’s great comfort for the sinner who knows His neediness before God. It’s all been taken care of by Christ, and forgiveness, life and salvation will continually be handed out through His ministers to all who seek them from Jesus.

But there is a warning in this Gospel for the fickle followers of Christ, for those who follow Jesus for something other than free grace and salvation from sin. There are many who think of Christianity as primarily a social service organization. They think the Church exists to provide food and clothing and services to the community, and they’ll even praise Christian churches for their community programs and the fun activities they offer. But the same people reject Jesus as the Son of God. They don’t want to be taught by Him or be bound by His Word. They don’t want His Church telling them what’s right and what’s wrong. And they don’t want His sacrifice and His works of obedience to count for them before God.

If you’re following Jesus in this Lenten season or in your daily life for earthly blessings, for earthly comfort, or for earthly success, then you will be not only disappointed, but put to shame on the Last Day. Jesus has come to give you the bread of life, to give you Himself for a Savior and for your God. Listen to His words. Devote yourself to His teaching. And believe in Him for everlasting life. Amen.

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