Sermon for Laetare
Isaiah 49:8-13 + Galatians 4:21-31 + John 6:1-15
We have this little oasis set before us today on Laetare Sunday as we draw closer to Holy Week. Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love her! That isn’t talking about the capital city of Jerusalem anymore—the city in the nation of Israel. As you heard the Apostle Paul say in the Epistle reading today, the earthly city of Jerusalem is in bondage, like a slave woman, because for the most part its children, its inhabitants, are still under the terrible demands of God’s Law, still under wrath, still condemned by God for their sins. Whereas the Jerusalem that is from above is the Christian Church, in heaven and on earth, whose children, whose inhabitants trust in the promise of free remission of sins and grace for the sake of Christ Jesus. It’s for her peace that we pray. It’s with her that we rejoice. Rejoice with her and be glad, because by faith in Christ we are children of that holy city, and we have every reason to rejoice in the mercy and love of Jesus, our heavenly Bridegroom.
We see His mercy and love on display in our Gospel. He receives nothing from the multitudes but gives everything—tirelessly, lovingly and miraculously. He feeds His people with bread, and He promises far greater things, too, greater blessings and better bread, for those who want it from Him.
Thousands of people had followed Jesus, a good long walk away from the towns and villages of Galilee. They had seen His miracles and wanted to see more. Many of them were also interested in His words and teaching. And after feeding them all day long with His words, Jesus Himself is the first one to think about their need to eat, their physical need for bread. Jesus was the first one to care and be concerned about them, before any of His disciples gave it thought, before the multitudes themselves even noticed.
This is the kind of God you have—not a God who sits around in heaven minding His own business until you disturb Him with your prayers and requests and needs. Jesus reveals to us a God who knows what you need even before you do and is thinking about it and planning for it without any worry or anxiety required on your part.
But Jesus wants to test and teach His disciples at the same time. He wants to teach them not to doubt in the midst of scarcity and want, but to trust in Him and look to Him for help. He asks Philip, “Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?” Now, what would have been the answer of faith? The answer of faith would have sounded like the Apostle John in Revelation when an angel asked him a question. John’s response, “Sir, you know.” Philip might have answered that way. “Lord, you know how best to provide for these people.” Or, “Lord, there is nowhere to buy bread for so many, but that’s no obstacle to You.” Instead, Philip relied on his human reason and concluded that it was impossible to feed so many.
Andrew looked for the best option he could find, which wasn’t much—a boy with five loaves of bread and two fish. “But what are they among so many?” Kind of a childish question when you’re talking to the very Son of God.
The Holy Spirit has recorded these words for us to highlight the imperfections in Jesus’ own apostles, because you’re bound to find the same imperfections in your faith, too. Jesus doesn’t cast them away, does He? He doesn’t even answer them harshly. He teaches them that they’re foolish not to trust Him by giving them yet another reason to trust Him. This is how He exercises their faith, and He does the same thing for us.
You’d think that by now we would have learned to trust Him in every need, in every trial and affliction. But in our weakness we stumble and somehow start to think that Jesus just might prove less reliable this time. No, watch Jesus again. Watch Him take those five loaves of bread and two fish and turn them into thousands of loaves and thousands of fish, without breaking a sweat. Jesus feeds His people with bread until they’ve eaten and are satisfied, and there’s still bread left over.
When the 5,000 men saw this miracle, they did come to the right conclusion. “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” They were right about that, not only because they saw this great miracle, but because this miracle coincided with Old Testament prophecies like you heard today from Isaiah 49, “In an acceptable time I have heard You, And in the day of salvation I have helped You; “They shall feed along the roads, And their pastures shall be on all desolate heights. They shall neither hunger nor thirst, Neither heat nor sun shall strike them; For He who has mercy on them will lead them, Even by the springs of water He will guide them.”
Jesus is more than a miracle-worker. He is the promised Christ. The whole history of the world from the creation until that moment was pointing to Him, was taking place for the sake of Him and this coming in the flesh. The tragedy is that those very people who saw Him and ate His bread and heard His words stopped right there. They stopped at recognizing Him as the Prophet, or as the Christ-who-gives-us-free-bread. To them, the “day of salvation” meant not having to go home hungry that day, which is why they wanted to take Jesus and force Him to be their earthly king. But God intended so much more!
Because those people needed so much more. You need so much more. You need more than a Christ who provides temporary fixes to your broken lives. You need more than a Christ who makes this world a better place. You need so much more than a handout of bread.
What you need is for someone to come and provide to God the righteousness and obedience that His holy law requires, because you haven’t provided it. What you need is for someone else to be punished for your faithlessness and rebellion and sin, and to suffer God’s wrath so that you don’t have to. What you really need is bread for the soul, a constant supply of the forgiveness of sins, a shepherd, a guide, a God, a Savior.
Now hear again the words of Isaiah:
“In an acceptable time I have heard You, And in the day of salvation I have helped You.” The Apostle Paul writes, “Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation!” Not just there on that mountainside where Jesus provided a meal to those 5,000 people, but now, now as you hear the Word of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Son of Man, who provided righteousness where all you provided was sin, and who suffered for your sins so that you might be saved. Now is the day of salvation.
Now Jesus provides other bread, a better meal—one that will sustain, not just your bodies, but also your souls; one that will grant you, not just a release from hunger, but a release from sin. It’s offered only to the hungry, to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and who look to have their hunger filled by Christ alone.
Did you notice in our Gospel that, for no apparent reason, the Apostle John made sure to mention that this feeding of the 5,000 took place just before the Jewish Passover? The Passover meal was truly a meal of deliverance, a meal of salvation, both physical and spiritual. Soon the Jews would be slaughtering their Passover lamb and eating that meal of deliverance whose main course was lamb and unleavened bread. The timing is no coincidence. While they have this Passover meal of deliverance on their minds, they should be hearing Jesus and recognizing Him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And they should be looking to Jesus for the real bread of deliverance: His body sacrificed so that they could go free.
Did you notice the similarities between John’s language in our Gospel and the language of the Lord’s Supper? And Jesus took the loaves, and when He had given thanks He distributed them to the disciples, and the disciples to those sitting down. And suddenly, that which was impossible—for five loaves of bread to feed 5,000 people—was made possible by the Word of Christ.
So it is, too, that this meal foreshadows the Meal you are given to eat and to drink in the Sacrament of the Altar, where Jesus does the impossible and gives His body with the bread and His blood with the wine—enough to give eternal life to all who eat and drink, from the time of the first Lord’s Supper until the day of His return.
This is your bread, O children of Jerusalem. This is your time to be fed by Jesus, who is the very Bread of Life. Jesus feeds His people with bread. Jesus feeds His people with Himself. And since He is the Righteous One, since He is the Son of God, since He is the death of sin and the Lord of Life, when He gives Himself to you, you take into yourself all that He is. And you have every reason to rejoice. Amen.