Sermon for Lent 4 – Laetare
John 6:1-15 + Exodus 16:2-21 + Galatians 4:21-31
Laetare! “Rejoice with Jerusalem,” says the Introit for today, Laetare Sunday, a quote from Isaiah 66. But here’s the question: Why? Jerusalem is a war zone. It has been – almost continually – for over two thousand years. Why would Isaiah call on his people to rejoice with Jerusalem, and why would the Christian Church continue to quote Isaiah and rejoice with Jerusalem?
Many Evangelicals – and even Mormons, like Glenn Beck – would have you believe that the present-day city of Jerusalem holds some special place in the purposes of God. But Scripture teaches something else. Why did Isaiah rejoice with Jerusalem? Because God would bring its people back from captivity in Babylon. Why did Isaiah rejoice with Jerusalem? Because the Messiah would suffer, die and rise again there, and from there the good news would go out to the nations. Why else did Isaiah rejoice with Jerusalem? Because he saw beyond the carnal, earthly city of Jerusalem to the spiritual Jerusalem that is from above, the covenant of grace for those who have faith in Christ, just as the Apostle Paul told us today in the Epistle. We are not called on in the Christian Church to rejoice over that earthly city in Palestine anymore, but over the heavenly city of Jerusalem, the Bride of Christ, the Church redeemed by his blood. Those who get stuck dwelling on the earthly Jerusalem have no reason to rejoice, because that city will be destroyed one day together with every city on earth. Those who look to the heavenly Jerusalem that God has revealed in Scripture have every reason to rejoice, because it will never pass away.
In our Gospel today you see this same thing, an earthly reality that has a deeper, heavenly meaning. You see Jesus multiply five loaves of bread and two fish into enough food to feed over 5,000 people, with 12 basketsful of pieces left over. And that alone moves us to rejoice in the goodness, power and providence of Jesus. But you can’t stop there. God insists that you go further. If you don’t, then your rejoicing will not last, any longer than a loaf of bread will last. This account of the feeding of the 5,000 occurs in all four Gospels, and John’s Gospel, written long after all the others, emphasizes something in this miracle that the other Evangelists don’t, a deeper meaning, a heavenly truth. It’s perfect for this Lenten season and for this Laetare Sunday! It’s good to look to Jesus for bread, but the only ones whose rejoicing will last are those who look to Christ for more than bread.
It’s significant how John begins this account. He speaks of the great crowd of people who followed [Jesus] because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick. And right there John alludes to the problem that will become all too clear by the end of the account: this great multitude of followers were following Jesus for the earthly benefits they hoped to get out of it. And that’s all they were following Jesus for.
As soon as their stomachs were filled and they realized what had happened, John says they concluded that Jesus was the Prophet who was to come, the Messiah, sent from God! Right on! Except, they had a very earthly view of the Messiah – one who would give them a nice life on earth – a chicken in every pot, as it were, bread on every table, every day. And they were so eager to have a Messiah like that that they planned to take hold of Jesus and make him their king by force.
What did Jesus do with people like that – who sought in him an earthly Messiah, a bread king? He ran away from them. He abandoned them and withdrew from them. If you read on in John 6, you see that the people were amazed that Jesus would up and leave like that. But Jesus tells them the truth, “You came looking for me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate bread until you were full.” And sure enough, as soon as Jesus started teaching them about himself as the Bread of Life, sent from heaven, they didn’t want anything more to do with him. Bread was all they ever wanted from Jesus.
Jesus fed the 5,000 earthly bread so that, having this earthly need satisfied, they might recognize him as the One sent to fulfill their greater need – a need that was much more urgent than earthly bread, because earthly bread perishes, but the bread of eternal life is forever. They should have cared more about their souls than about their bellies. They should have looked to Christ for more than bread.
They should have seen the twelve basketsful of pieces left over and said more than, “Hey, there are twelve baskets of pieces left over!” They might have noticed, “Hey, aren’t there twelve apostles with Jesus, so that each one gets to carry a basket of the food that Jesus provided?” Then they might have asked Jesus about it and he would have explained to them that these men were called by him to take the Bread of Life to the world.
They should have noted, as John did at the beginning of the Gospel, that the Feast of Passover was near – a feast that God had commanded them to celebrate every year for the past 1500 years, a feast that focused on bread (of all things!) and a lamb. But maybe God was pointing them to something besides earthly bread and an earthly lamb in the Passover feast – to the Bread of Life who is without sin, to a heavenly Lamb who takes away the sin of the world!
But the 5,000 men from Galilee didn’t make any of those connections. And we can understand how they failed to make the connections for themselves. What’s unforgivable – literally! – is that they didn’t care enough to ask. Sin blinded them to Jesus’ real purpose, which was and is to redeem sinners with his blood, shed on a cross, to give forgiveness of sins, to provide eternal life, to feed people with himself, the true Bread from heaven, through the Means of Grace. Jesus wanted to give those people a loving Father in heaven and eternal rejoicing at the heavenly banquet. But all they wanted was bread. And so all they got was bread. Jesus rejected these people. He refused to accept their worship of him as bread king. He wanted nothing to do with them, and most of them would die in their sins, locked out of the heavenly banquet forever.
This serves as a strong warning for us, because the same sin infects us that infected those people, and the people of Israel in the wilderness, too, who first didn’t trust God to provide bread, and then when he did, all they could think about was how cool the bread was – they didn’t even care about God’s instructions regarding the gathering of that bread.
Look to Christ for more than bread. Earthly bread perishes – earthly everything! perishes. But the words of Jesus will never pass away. The body and blood of Jesus are the lasting gifts he came to give. And those who cling to him in faith will never perish. They are the true citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem. They are the ones who will spend forever rejoicing. Amen.