Lessons from the lesser to the greater

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Sermon for Laetare – Fourth Sunday in Lent 2014

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

There is more to life than what you see and experience. There’s more than getting up, eating, working, eating, studying, eating, doing stuff, and going to bed. Much more! There is a heaven and there is a hell. There is God and His holy angels, and there is a devil and his unholy demons. There is sin and spiritual death. There are greater spiritual realities all around us and divine truth to be learned. But we don’t see those things. We see earthly things, lesser things.

So God reaches down to us men and uses earthly things to teach us about heavenly things, and He doesn’t leave us guessing about the things we’re supposed to understand; His Word reveals exactly what He wants us to learn and know.

Look at the Old Testament. God used simple, earthly things to point people to greater spiritual realities. That forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden—such a small thing that God should command the man and woman not to eat of this one tree. But by their simple obedience to that small command, they would have shown something much greater: love for God and trust in God. By their simple disobedience to that commandment, they showed something greater, too: that love for God was replaced with love for self, and trust in God was replaced with unbelief.

We could go through practically every page of the Old Testament and find these lessons from the lesser to the greater. Noah’s flood—a great event in and of itself in which eight people were saved through water—symbolizes the greater event of salvation by Holy Baptism through which God saves us from death and hell. The Passover lamb and its saving blood point to the much greater salvation worked by the blood of Christ.

Or take our first two Scripture Lessons for today. Isaiah prophesies how God would first punish Jerusalem through the Babylonian captivity, which was to point them to the greater punishment their sins had deserved—the punishment of hell. But then in our first Lesson, Isaiah prophesies how God would rescue them out of captivity, which was to point them to the greater rescue of the Messiah, who would rescue Jerusalem from Satan’s captivity and save her from her sins and from everlasting destruction.

In the second Lesson, the Epistle for today, St. Paul does the same thing. He goes back to the Old Testament story of Abraham and shows how the son of the slave woman Hagar symbolizes the greater slavery of the Law given on Mt. Sinai and of all those who wish to be saved by keeping the Law, which included the earthly city of Jerusalem that rejected Christ and crucified Him. But Isaac, the son of the free woman Sarah, symbolizes the freedom of the Gospel and of all those who trust in Christ to be saved, which is us, the New Testament Church, the Jerusalem above. The earthly city of Jerusalem itself points to something greater, the Church of Christ throughout the whole world.

Now we come to today’s Gospel, the feeding of the five thousand, and we see the same thing—lesser, earthly things that point to greater, spiritual things—or, at least, they’re supposed to alert us to greater, spiritual things. But the blindness of unbelief often leaves people dense and dumb, like cattle staring at a new gate.

Great multitudes had followed Jesus to this mountain on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. John informs us why they followed Him: because they saw His signs which He performed on those who were diseased. Now, right there, you see two earthly things that were supposed to signal greater things.

First, disease itself. All human bodily disease points to the greater human malady of sin—sin that infects us all, sin that makes us sick and needy before God, in need of God’s healing which is the forgiveness of sins. The diseases of the people were to point them to their sin, so that they may repent.

Then, Jesus had been going around healing all these diseases. His healings are called “signs,” because they point to something greater. They point to Jesus as the divine Healer of the soul, as the One who came to heal sinners of their sins—not by getting rid of our sinful flesh in this life, but by applying to us the remedy of His blood which covers our sins before God, if we believe in Him. The people saw the signs of Jesus’ healings and followed Him to see what He would do next.

What He did next is such a gracious and compassionate thing that it endears us to Jesus all the more. He saw a bodily need that the people had, a need that wasn’t life-threatening or permanent, but a need, nonetheless. They had followed Jesus out to this mountain, and they had no food to eat. So Jesus took it upon Himself to satisfy their need. He multiplied the five loaves of bread and the two fish so that there was enough bread and fish to feed all five thousand men, plus the women and children, with 12 baskets-full of pieces leftover. But Jesus Himself didn’t hand out the food to the people with His own hands; He commanded His 12 apostles to be His ministers in handing out the food. What signs are we to find here, pointing to greater things?

First, we should take note of the Apostle John’s words that connect this miracle with the Jewish Passover: Now the Passover, a feast of the Jews, was near, John says. That’s a sign in and of itself, pointing the Jews and now pointing us to recognize that the Passover itself was pointing to something greater, to Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, whose blood cleanses us from all sin.

Second, hunger and the need for food—that’s a sign. That was a sign already for Adam and Eve before they sinned, pointing to the fact that we creatures of flesh depend on God to provide for us, and not just once, but constantly, repeatedly, every day of our lives. We need to eat, and God provides the food. But especially for sinners, physical hunger is to point us to our sin. We are creatures not only of flesh, but of sinful flesh that always rebels against God. We need the food of God’s forgiveness, and we need it constantly, or we will surely die.

Third, we see Jesus’ compassion in this small matter of the people’s need for bread. That signals His far greater compassion with regard to our sinful souls. He is willing to provide forgiveness and healing of our sin, even before we are aware of our need. He is compassionate and willing to help.

Fourth, we see Jesus’ powerful act of salvation in this small matter of bread. It was a great miracle, but it points to something far greater. It points to Jesus, who would say to the Jews on the very next day, My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. This same Jesus would shed His blood on the cross as payment for the world’s sins. By His life and by His death, Jesus became for us the food that forgives our sins, the food that saves us, the food that gives us eternal life, over and over again, and there’s enough for everyone in the world.

But this food must be handed out. There’s another sign. Jesus hands out the bread through the ministry of the 12 apostles. That points to the greater truth that all called and ordained ministers of the Word, all those who still carry on this apostolic ministry, are charged with handing out the Bread of Life in Word and Sacrament. When Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fish, He didn’t just make it appear in people’s stomachs. He gave it out through the apostles for the people to eat.

There’s yet another sign. The people ate “as much as they wanted” of the bread and the fish. The bread not only has to be handed out, but also eaten. That points to the greater reality of faith. When the ministers of the Word preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments, there is plenty of God’s grace and forgiveness for everyone, as much as anyone wants. To “eat the bread” is to repent of your sin and trust in Jesus’ promises of eternal life to all who believe.

Finally, there’s the sign of the joy and wonder of the multitudes when they had eaten the food provided by Jesus. That points to the greater joy of believers in Christ who receive from Him forgiveness and life and peace with God. That’s why today we celebrate Laetare Sunday! Rejoice with Jerusalem, all you who love her! Rejoice with the Church, all you who love her, who have been brought into the “Jerusalem above” by faith in Christ! Rejoice, because God has given His Son; His Son has given Himself on the cross, and now gives Himself to you through the ministry of the Word, and the result for you is peace with God and eternal life.

Those are the signs God has given us to notice in this Gospel. But tragically, the crowds who actually ate the bread Jesus provided never saw beyond the bread. They became so fixated on the miracle, on the bread itself, that John tells us they were about to come and take Jesus by force to make Him king. Why? Because all they wanted from Jesus was bread for their stomachs. They didn’t believe in Him as the One sent by God to heal them from sin. Sin? What sin? Eternal life? Who cares about that? We just want a king who will make this life better, who will satisfy our cravings in this life, who gives us free food and healthy bodies, and lets us do what we want.

Don’t miss the Holy Spirit’s urgent warning for you in this Gospel. You have come to Jesus; He is here in the ministry of the Word. What have you come for? If you have come only for some feeling of fulfillment, for some earthly blessing, if your sin doesn’t trouble you, if His salvation from sin doesn’t mean anything to you, then you will die of hunger—spiritual hunger. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on Him God the Father has set His seal. Jesus has come to give you greater things, spiritual blessings, heavenly blessings. If you come to Him in sorrow over your sins, looking to Him for those things, you will never be disappointed. There is more than enough of this Bread of Life for everyone. Amen.

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