For the disciples, the numbers don’t look good. Miles from the nearest town. At least 4,000 people. Seven loaves, a few fish. It’s not just an inconvenience. It is quickly turning into a humanitarian crisis. The entire population of Wheatland, plus at least 500 more, and no food in the town. The thought of closed roads, possibly for days or weeks, is why most people in town have a pantry that a good sized restaurant would envy. It’s not that we fear the imminent collapse of society. But over the years, from time to time, such food stoppages have happened. Even a full grocery store gets cleaned out pretty quickly when there are no trucks to replenish the shelves.
For Jesus and the disciples, it’s a real problem. The people are hungry – they’ve already run out of food. They are to the point of exhaustion. And yet, Jesus tells the disciples that food will be available for all.
Jesus isn’t very good with statistics, apparently. Seven loaves. A few fish. 4000 people. Too little to help with the enormous – and getting bigger every minute – problem. It really isn’t enough to even help a dozen of the people. Yet Jesus thinks it is enough to help them all.
The disciples don’t believe it. They see the numbers and know that there is no earthly way to solve this one. And they are right. There is no earthly way. And if they were with an earthly teacher, then it would be a problem. But Jesus is not an earthly teacher.
Even though they are in a desolate place, even though the people are faint with hunger, and the food supply list is meager at best, Jesus is not worried. Because he knows what he will do. God created the food – out of nothing – with a word. He can certainly multiply the food as he wishes.
Jesus has compassion on them. Three days of listening to Jesus teach. Quite the church service, quite the sermon. They’ve been there three days. It isn’t that they didn’t bring enough food. They brought food to eat. But after three days, there isn’t much left. They could have left earlier – well I’m getting kind of hungry, better be on my way. But they don’t. They stick around even after they are hungry. They don’t want to miss even a word. That’s a faithful crowd of churchgoers.
In the feeding of the 5,000 we are told that the people only followed him to see the miracles. Here, the 4000 go out to the middle of nowhere to hear the Word of God spoken. And, as Saint Paul tells us in the Epistle reading – he is giving them life in that Word. The wages of sin is death, the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. So, we have a crowd with no food, nearly dead, but receiving the word of Life. Because that is what is given by Jesus. That is what he gives his church – not just any old words – but His words. Not just moral improvement to make you a better person. Jesus knows that the Old Adam – the sinful flesh – can not be improved or reformed. According to Baptism your old Adam must be killed. We were buried therefore with him through baptism into death. And the sins committed can not be worked off – they must be forgiven outright. That’s why Jesus came. To forgive sins. To give you the gift of life. And so, Jesus teaches the people. He gives them the gift of life – three days he teaches. Had he sent them home after two days, all would have been well. But he doesn’t. He gives them one more day of his precious word – which is better than honey from the comb. And then, he tells the disciples to get food for the people.
He has compassion on them. They have been hungry to hear the word of God. He has fed them with that word. They have hungered and thirsted after righteousness, he has given them his righteousness. Now, they are faint with physical hunger. He will feed them for that as well. In every account of a miraculous feeding, Jesus takes the loaves, breaks them, gives thanks, and then gives them to the people to eat. It’s the same formula that is used for the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Of course, Jesus does not declare that the bread in our Gospel reading is his body. Had he done that, it would certainly have been. He doesn’t. His hour has not yet come. His time to die is not here yet.
But this does bring to mind the Lord’s Supper. In that blessed gift he gives his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. Here, the people have been taught by God according to his holy word. Now he has compassion on them, and feeds them so that they can return safely home.
Jesus isn’t establishing an earthly kingdom. If he were trying to do that, he’s going about it the exact wrong way. He has them ready to listen and learn. He should have started feeding them after two days. Then the third day, and every day after, they’d be his. And yet, instead of setting up a community in the desert, powered by his miraculous food, he waits until they are faint, saves them from it, and sends them home. They have been taught, they have been fed. The time to return to their callings has come. They must now continue according to the places God has given them in life. He did not come to just dole out food and money so we could sit and get fat, as if he were Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. He gives us work to do in this world.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t feed us. God did give this world as his creation – to feed us and sustain us. The curse of sin is that it now feeds us only grudgingly. Thistles and thorns it produces. Our lives are not without difficulty. Jesus came to undo the curse of sin. We see a glimpse of that here – he does feed them effortlessly. But not as an ongoing free soup kitchen. He does it so they will have strength for the way. And so also for us.
He feeds us with his word. We are given strength for the way. That’s the blessing after receiving the sacrament – that it would strengthen you in the true faith, unto life everlasting. Not that God would take away the troubles of this world – but that you would be strengthened to hold onto him ever more tightly as you face those troubles.
God has promised to take care of us. That doesn’t mean we never face trials. The people were already hungry – why hadn’t he given them free food on day two? They would have been better fed. But he waits until day 3. Now the situation is desperate. Yet he has a handle on it. It isn’t really a problem at all. Despite what the numbers say. Despite what it looks like from the outside.
He feeds them as the final thing before he sends them on the way. This will get them home. It will not create a kingdom on earth. Jesus isn’t remotely concerned about that – he created the earth. It’s his anyway, and we are told it will melt away. Rather, he returns them so they can fulfill their callings, now fed with the Word of God, now forgiven their sins. Strengthened in their faith against the attacks of Satan. That’s what he still does to this day. It’s why he gives his church – so that there would be a place you can go to be fed with the word of God, forgiven sins, strengthened in the true faith. So that you would also have the free gift of life that God gives through Christ Jesus our Lord.