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Sermon for Laetare (Lent IV)

by Rev. Brian Hamer ~ February 27th, 2008

Sermon on St. John 6:1-15

Lent IV (Laetare)

Rev. Brian Hamer

Redeemer Lutheran Church

Bayside, NY


+ Jesu Juva +


Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her (Is. 66:10).

It may seem strange to come to church in the midst of Lent and discover the title of the Sunday is Laetare, “Rejoice,” which comes from the first word of the Introit in Latin, “Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her.” Rejoicing in the middle of Lent? Yet today’s gospel lesson, the feeding of the 5,000, is the only miracle of our Lord done before Holy Week that is recorded by all four Evangelists. It is a profound and rich lesson on the person and work of Christ, giving us great cause to rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad with her.


St. John tells us that a great multitude was following Jesus, watching the signs that He was doing on the sick.  Miracles draw attention to this Jesus of Nazareth and say that He is important, indeed, that He fully God and fully man. They invite people to listen to His teaching and to follow Him in faith to His cross and empty tomb. So it was good that this crowd was following Jesus. It was a chance for Jesus to preach the gospel and to save their souls from eternal damnation. No wonder Jesus sat down on a mountain. Sitting was the position of authority at the time. One always sat, for instance, to preach in the Jewish synagogue, while the hearers stood to listen attentively. (We have reversed this practice, making the preachers stand and letting the people literally sit down on the job, but so it goes.) The scene is set, then, for one of the most beloved and popular miracles of Jesus.


And then what happens? Jesus, seeing the crowd, said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread that these may eat?” The question was intended to test the faith of the disciples and to teach them to look to the Lord as the Divine Provider of all things, including daily bread. Philip, not perceiving the test, answered correctly, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may have a little.” Maybe two hundred denarii was what the disciples had in the treasury at the time? Or maybe it was a reasonable amount for two or three disciples to buy and deliver food from the nearest town? In any event, even two hundred denarii worth of whole grain bread and smoked salmon would not be significant for this throng of thousands. Andrew, also not perceiving the test from Jesus, noticed a boy with five barley loaves and two pickled fish.  But Andrew also missed the underlying message that Jesus can feed this multitude since He is the Creator of all things.  Andrew lived by sight, not by faith. What is this small boy’s sack lunch among so many people?


Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” The word rendered “sit down” is actually “recline,” the position of feasting and banqueting in Jesus’ day. This is a hint that the Host is about to feed the host. And another clue follows: “Now there was much grass in that place.” This is not just a passing reference from St. John to assure us that the people were not getting dirt stains on their clothes. Rather, the grass in that place suggests life, creation, and even paradise. One thinks of Psalm 23, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” The lush pasture is the opposite of the desert, the place of temptation, suffering, and death. So five thousand men plus women and children reclined in Jesus’ presence, in the grass, waiting for Jesus’ next move. And Jesus took the five loaves and the two pickled fish, gave thanks, gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the multitude. And how far will one young boy’s sack lunch go among these thousands? As far as the Creator Himself can extend His hand of grace – as much bread and fish as everyone wanted, a true “all you can eat” buffet. Plenty for seconds, thirds, and even fourths. There’s always plenty of daily bread to go around and more, especially when the Creator Himself is hosting the meal.


And then what happens? Jesus said to His disciples, “Gather up the fragments that remain, so that nothing is lost.” This does not mean that Jesus was a first century environmentalist, but rather that He wished to demonstrate to this multitude that He would gather His people to Himself to give them the gifts of salvation. John’s gospel pictures Christ as the center of the New Jerusalem and the believers being gathered around Him. Jesus said, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” Christ will be lifted up from the earth on the cross. And the power of forgiveness in the preaching of the cross will draw all the faithful the crucified One to receive the feast of life. The gathering of the leftovers, then, says that this Jesus will not lose any of the elect whom the Father has given to Him. He will gather them as the disciples gathered the leftovers that none of them will be lost. Some marveled at the “sign” which Jesus worked that day. Is it possible that the “sign” they noticed is not just the feeding of the 5,000, but the ingathering of the leftovers as a preliminary sketch that Jesus would gather His people to Himself in the lively promulgation of the Gospel?


And how did the crowd respond? “This is truly the Prophet who is come into the world.” The phrase “the prophet” comes from Deuteronomy, where Moses’ promised that the Prophet, one greater than Himself, would come into the world. The crowds got the words right, at least at face value. Jesus was the Prophet, the one who spoke for God, and He was greater than all the prophets before Him, for this Prophet not only spoke for God; He was God. But the crowds did not yet understand Jesus’ prophetic office in light of the cross. They secularized the title, interpreting the word “prophet” in worldly terms, perhaps looking for a military hero. But Jesus would not be deterred from the road to the cross. Knowing that they secularized His identity, He withdrew to the mountain by Himself alone.


What does this mean? In John’s gospel, the miracles – what John alone calls “signs” – are the mile markers to the cross and empty tomb. And there are certain signs in this gospel lesson which will help us deeply rejoice in the gifts of the gospel on this “Rejoice” Sunday.


The miracle itself is a sign in the overall flow of John’s gospel. Six times in his gospel, St. John tells us that Jesus worked a sign and manifested God’s glory. It began with the miracle at Cana, turning water into wine. “This, the first of His signs, Jesus did at Cana in galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.” So also the healing of the official’s son, the healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda, the feeding of the 5,000, the healing of the blind man, and the last and greatest sign before Holy Week, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Each of the signs, arguing from the lesser to the greater, tells us that this Jesus from Nazareth is God. And the appropriate response to His signs is repentance and faith. Hear Jesus’s preaching and repent of your sins. Behold the life-giving cross and believe in the salvation that lies within. Many will react to the signs in unbelief, just as may today do not believe in the modern-day miracles of salvation in baptism, absolution, and the Lord’s Supper. Later in John 6, you will discover that after listening to Jesus’ claim to be the living bread from heaven, the multitude reacted in disbelief and deserted Jesus. He was left alone on the mountain, where Peter spoke for all faithful disciples, saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”


The mountain is a sign. A mountain says that this is an important event. Recall the mountains that have appeared in the gospel lessons thus far in the church year: Mount Olivet, the place of Jesus’ triumphant entry; the hillside near Bethlehem, where the angels announced Jesus’ birth to the shepherds; the Mount of Transfiguration, where Jesus manifested His glory to prove that He was the Son of God; and the temple mount, the place for one of Jesus’ temptations from Satan. And there are more mountains to come in the church’s year of grace: Mount Olivet again, the place where Palm Sunday begins; Mt. Calvary, the place of redemption; and the Mount of Ascension, the place where Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit to abide with us forever. Today’s Tract (a Lent verse sung along with the Gradual) draws all these mountains together for us and says: “As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the Lord is round about His people from henceforth even forever” (Ps. 125:2). As the mountains, the sites of Jesus’ miracles, surround and protect the city of Jerusalem, so the Lord surounds our church as our fortress and protection forever. Without this mountain, we would be forever lost to the temptations of the devil, the assaults of the world, and to eternal death itself. But with the Lord surrounding and protecting us, we are safe from the assaults of the devil, the world, and even our own sinful flesh. As the hymn writer said, “With salvation’s walls surrounded, you may smile at all your foes.”


The Passover is a sign. Did you notice the reference to the Passover in today’s gospel lesson? “Now the Passover, a feast of the Jews, was near.” This is more than a historical footnote. The reference to the Passover says that the feeding of the 5,000 teaches us something about Jesus’ final Passover during Holy Week. The feeding of the 5,000 happened just before the Passover one year before Holy Week.  The connection between the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’ final Passover is Jesus’ identity as the Bread of Life, something which occupies the rest of the sixth chapter of John’s gospel. In the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus provided daily bread in abundance. On the cross, at the Passover, Jesus would provide the Bread of Life itself by giving His life into death for our sins. See how Jesus uses the imagery of bread from this miracle as a hinge to the greater miracle of salvation in Christ: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and who believes in me shall never thirst.” And He also makes this comforting promise: “Everyone who looks at the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”


Finally, Jesus’ actions with the bread are a sign. St. John says, “Jesus took the loaves, and when He had given thanks He distributed them to the disciples.” It sounds like the Words of Institution: “Our Lord Jesus Christ . . . took bread; and when He had given thanks, He brake it and gave it to His disciples.” To be sure, Jesus was not celebrating the Lord’s Supper in the feeding of the 5,000. But this miracle is a hinge to the Lord’s Supper through “Eucharistic overtones” in John 6 — language that reminds us of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus said, “My flesh is true food, and blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks on my blood abides in me, and I in him.” What happens by faith in the feeding of the 5,000 also happens in the Lord’s Supper. Jesus takes bread, gives thanks, gives it to His servants (whether disciples or pastors), who in turn give it to His people. And we, who die eternally apart from this bread, eat that we might have life and have it to the fullest. So whether you’re on a hillside by the Sea of Galilee in Jesus’ day or gathering in a sanctuary today, it’s the same Jesus with the same gifts, all given through the common food of bread.


So should the church rejoice (Laetare) on this so-called “Mid-Lent Sunday” (22 days down, 18 to go)? Absolutely! There is much cause for rejoicing in the feeding of the 5,000. It teaches us more than we can pack into one Sunday about this Miracle Worker — both who He is and what He has done. He is the Living Bread from heaven, and those who feed on Him shall hunger no more; for there is always more forgiveness, more life, and more salvation than we can eat in one lifetime. And so the church prays today, “Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her!” 

+ INJ + Amen.

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