Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

John 6:1-15

We have forgotten the profound meaning of “abundance.” Even a cursory study of history makes clear that we live in an age of almost gross abundance, virtually flooded with whatever we want. You can buy calorie rich food for cents, let alone dollars. If a crop yield is low, we just import it. Whatever fruit or vegetable you want with few exceptions is available, regardless of whether it is in season or not. Many foods are not remotely natural to our region, yet they fill the shelves of the grocery stores, like citrus fruits or avocados, and meats are available that to people of the past would have been rare or unattainable financially, like beef (rich man’s disease).Conversely, most people in history lived with the thinnest thread separating them from life and death. If there was a drought, or a harsh winter, or an influx of pests, it could mean a bad crop, and therefore possible starvation. A normal diet was simple, consisting of self-grown vegetables and grainy breads, with protein being harder to come by (chickens). There was no way to preserve most foods, so grain was the one consistent staple. War could also destroy food sources, and that could come at any time. Food, the very sustenance that carries human life forward, was nowhere near a given.

John 6 requires us to hold that context in mind as we approach this account, providing us with the social understanding that bolsters the theological significance of “abundance.” The other piece of context we need to hold together with that is the timing: “Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.” Together, these two things turn on the light and help us see this passage as more than just a neat miracle to feed a crowd, but as a deep theological message about the nature of Christ and what he will accomplish for his people.

“Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.” Jesus himself thus sets up the scenario in order to be able to perform this great Sign, one of 7 in John’s Gospel, to reveal who he is, particularly in his role as the sacrificial, Paschal Lamb for all time and all people.

Passover was near, the second of three times it is mentioned in John, and we have to take note of that timing. Consider again the setting: a group in the desert, in the heat of the day, hungry but nowhere near a ready source of food. Then Jesus, seeing their need, took what amounted to nothing, and by his divine power multiplies it in an unforeseen and mysterious way, so that all can eat their fill. As John describes this, and given that later in the chapter is an explicit connection drawn to Exodus, wilderness wandering, and manna, I think we are to see this as a sort of re-enactment of God’s provision in the Exodus. To review, Israel had been taken out of Egypt, but were then wandering through the desert, with no food, no water, nothing. But God miraculously provided manna for bread, birds for meat, and water springing from a rock, all seemingly out of nothing. We have the mountain, the sea, fish, murmuring, the question of food, and the provision of bread from heaven, and Jesus providing for those following him here, God the Son giving them the food they need as a demonstration of divine power and act of mercy.

But the connections do not end there. Let’s consider the Passover; how was it that God’s people were brought into the desert, where he would provide them with food? By the final judgment against Egypt, the killing of any firstborn who was not protected by the lamb’s blood upon the doors. And in vs. 51, Jesus will point to himself as the fulfillment, the true lamb who takes away sin: I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Jesus, the lamb, and the manna, and the one who provides both.

There is, however, one aspect of this event that points in a different direction, forward, not back, towards the conclusion of God’s work, and not the beginning. If Jesus is the Passover lamb that is to be slain, and the bread that is to fall from heaven, then there is one difference that is significant, and that is that there are 12 baskets of food left over. That is significant because, in the Exodus story, any manna collected beyond what was needed went bad the next day; Israel was to rely on God fully, not on storing up for their own security. So the presence of this abundance is strange, given the connections we’ve already drawn.

That is because, I think, the abundance points not back to the Exodus, but forward to the New Creation. Abundance of food, you see, is a sign of God’s blessings, a thing received in the land of rest. To sit at a table, to share food, is a sign of peace with another. It is also a Sign of plenty, of prosperity (see Ecclesiastes). It is a Sign of the blessing of God’s people in the Promised Land, as we are told in Deut. 8 and 11, and of spiritual blessings in Jer. and Ezekiel. To sit and eat, most importantly, is the image used of us in the final state, our final rest. Think of it, a hard day of work or school, and nothing is more restful than sitting down to eat. Revelation 19:9 tells us, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage Supper of the Lamb,” that is, Jesus.

The abundance of the baskets leftover points us to the promise of God, that Jesus is the redeeming God who will usher in the abundance of the New Creation. Our senses are dulled, but to most people in the human story, true abundance was a thing only God could accomplish, because it was surely not attainable in this life. 

Jesus has to depart at this point, because the people misread the sign; they were going to take him and set him up as the wrong kind of Messiah, the king who reigns with military might, and not one who would give up his own body, his own life, his own flesh, to secure our future. Jesus is the one to whom we must all turn and believe, because his provision transcends that of finite goods and is the wellspring of life itself, the very source of all things, God’s own self.

You will find yourself in times of famine. It may be of food, like Holland and I when we moved to PA; it may be a famine of relationship, where you are lonely and bereft of human love; it may be emotional or psychological famine, discouragement and depression and anxiety; it might be a famine of health, where infirmity or illness wears you down; it might be a famine of hope, feeling as if you are in a rut and nothing will ever change; it may be a famine of fear, not knowing what the future holds for you or a loved one. You will be in a place of famine, someday, because as John Steinbeck once put it, “To be alive at all is to have scars.” In your times of famine, therefore, I urge you brothers and sisters: Believe in Jesus. He is the lamb who was slain, he is your very bread from heaven even now, at this table, and his giving of himself is an abundance that will never run out. Know he is good, and that at the end, all will be well, for what we really need, what we really ache for, is life, and life abundant, and that we have been most assuredly promised, through Christ our Lord with the Father and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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