Sermon for Laetare

Here is this week’s sermon, in which I exhort to church to be the church, and attend to the Word of God:

“Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do.” And that’s all we hear about testing in today’s Gospel. Historically, the first part of Lent is about testing and temptation. Jesus tempted in the wilderness, the Canaanite woman who is tested by Jesus and is an example for us of great faith, the people who try to test Jesus by demanding from him a sign. And now, Jesus testing the disciples by asking how to feed 5,000 with only enough food for a small boy. But there is no word of judgment against them. No rebuke for their lack of faith, as Jesus does to the disciples after the resurrection. Just the quick comment – he already knew what he was going to do. Jesus didn’t ask the question because he was lost and confused about what to do, but to test the faith of the disciples. Left unsaid is how badly they fail at this test. “We would need so much money!” “The food supply is limited, we can’t really do anything!”

Also left unsaid is how much it doesn’t really look like a test. We think of tests as great moments of decision or anguish. A loved one who is sick or dying. Loss of a job or failure of crops – or as we are seeing in Nebraska, perhaps as many as a million calves lost to flooding and snow. Those are great tests of faith. Will we cling to Christ ever tighter in times of trouble, or will we be so offended by difficult times that our roots wither for lack of water, and we dry up and bear no fruit in keeping with repentance? We think of Saint Paul, who asked  three times that his thorn in the flesh be removed, but was told each time, “My grace is sufficient…” Or of Martin Luther, who was given the death penalty for teaching the Gospel, and lived under that sentence of death each day.

Today’s Gospel reading is a test, but the test is “So, dinner plans?”, followed by a free meal. Even though the disciples don’t do well on this test, it is followed by a feast. Everyone had their full, with food to spare. If only all tests could be so easy.

Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent. It is a day of spiritual rest before diving into the season of the Passion. Talk of fasting and demons is finished. Next week we turn our attention to the cross. For today, it’s a day to rejoice, to hear of the goodness of the Lord, and to be reassured before Holy Week and the cross come on us. The readings are a bit lighter. The mood less somber. “The Lord who feeds us” is the theme of the day. And yet, even today is not without talk of testing and trial. We are still in Lent. The good news is that for today, the Lord does not rebuke. As the Old Testament reading for Ash Wednesday says:

Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?

Today we have the grain and drink offering of God – Jesus takes the loaves, gives thanks and gives it to the people. It’s a formula we hear often – the same words used when Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper. Oh, this isn’t the Lord’s supper. It’s mere bread and fish to feed the body, not the body and blood of our Lord which feeds and strengthens both body and soul to everlasting life. But it is still miraculous bread from heaven – just as God provided for the Israelites in our Old Testament reading.

God provides for his people. Even when it doesn’t look like he can. 2 million Israelites in the desert – daily bread provided on the ground, quail in the evenings – for forty years. Impossible food for the people to sustain them. So also in the Gospel, the people are in the presence of Jesus himself and they are hungry. No desert, there is much grass in that place we are told. But food – not so much. Jesus provides for them. Just as he always provides for us. Food each day for seven and a half billion, given by the creating hand of God. That’s why he tells us not to chase after the things of this world where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal. Not to worry about food that will spoil. But to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness – a righteousness that is given to you freely in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and received by grace through faith when water is poured, when the word of absolution is spoken, when the word of Christ is spoken over bread and wine and Jesus body and blood are truly present distributed and received. That is what we are to spend time seeking after. Because we know how to eat daily bread. We must learn each day to trust the Lord God, and to fear and love him above all things.

Jesus says seek the kingdom of God, and all the worldly things you need will be added unto you. Food or no food is really nothing to Jesus. It’s all the same to God. He created the plants and made them fruitful with a word in the beginning. So he can create food out of nothing. This is not a major miracle in that sense. This isn’t a cosmic struggle between life and death. No one is suffering terribly and constantly in pain. This is Jesus providing a meal for those who came to hear him teach. The important lesson of this Gospel reading is that God provides for us.

And, what a blessing, he allows a little boy to help. The boy’s food supply was insufficient. Jesus makes it sufficient. That’s how he works. Our sufficiency is from God. Not from our own struggles and efforts. God makes us sufficient. Our worthiness to receive the sacrament of the altar does not rest in our preparations, but in the most holy merit of Jesus. And that sacrament cleanses us so that we are holy and righteous in his sight. Jesus makes us worthy to receive the gift so we can be worthy to receive the gift. And he provides and makes sufficient what anyone in the world can see is clearly not sufficient. Forgiveness freely given by grace through faith, not by your works. The mind says it can not be so simple. I must do something to earn it, to have merit before God. Jesus says “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will not hunger, he who believes in me will never thirst.” It is all gift, and it is all multiplied by Jesus. Just as those 5 loaves and 2 Fish –  What good are they among so many? No good at all. But made good by the will and command of God.

It’s easy to think God will provide when the grain bins are full, and the prices paid are high, and the weather is good and the crops are bountiful. It’s harder to see that when things are tight. Like the disciples – who could not see past the physical elements available in those loaves and fish. They did not believe, even though Jesus was more than sufficient for the circumstances. He created food from nothing in the beginning. Multiplying it is easy – for him. To God it’s all the same.

So, when he provides, he provides abundantly, even though it seems like he can’t.

And there is a lesson for us in this. Questions are swirling throughout the church – not just here, not just in our district or synod but around our world – how can we continue. Dwindling membership and funds mean we might not make it. Churches are closing. What should we think of this.? First, we must believe that God will provide according to his mercy.

And, like the account in our Gospel, he allows us to be a part of this. The boy provided so little, and God did so much with it. So also, the church looks small and weak. But there is something you can do. The number one thing is to show up every Sunday. Yes, it’s a busy time of year a busy time of life. There’s a lot going on. But there are three important reasons to show up. First, and most importantly, you have great need to hear and learn God’s word. God’s word and sacrament are the medicine of immortality. How much time and money does our nation spend on healthcare? Christ, through his church, gives the medicine of immortality. Think about that – medicine that will make you live forever. How priceless a gift it is. And yet, it seems so simple and foolish to hear and believe and be saved, that we don’t really think of our need. Satan is always attacking – prowling around trying to catch you off guard and devour you. Your flesh is weak and can not even always see the danger. So, first you have great need of the forgiveness, life and salvation given here. Believe that word of God.

Second, it supports Christ’s servant in your midst. Yes, Pastors are called to preach regardless of the results. But pastors are human too. They get discouraged when people don’t come to hear. At one point Elijah was driven into the desert where he curled up under a tree and prayed for death. One of the pastors in the early church – a pastor named Gregory Nazianzen –  preached a holiday sermon where he began by saying, “It’s so wonderful to see everyone hear for the holiday service. It makes me glad. So much better than last week when no one showed up and I was sad because it seemed like no one cared about God’s Word.” Luther struggled mightily with this – all he wanted was for the church to listen to the Word of God. Instead they went chasing after Mammon and tried to kill him. It was a crushing disappointment for him, and he struggled with it all his life. So, showing up for church helps the pastor.

Even more than that, coming to church helps the people in the church. It’s discouraging for the members of the church to see empty pews. And if everyone made it a priority to come each week, we’d have fewer of those. The hymns would be a little louder, the encouragement we get from each other would be a little more. It also means that your brothers and sisters in Christ need not worry so much about your spiritual condition, whether you have been caught up in the cares and worries and pleasures of this life. Because when someone doesn’t show up, everyone asks, “Where are they? Is something wrong?” When you absent yourself from the house of God without cause, it hurts the whole church.

And so, like the little boy, who offered so little, and God turned it into so much, you can also offer your little bit, and let God turn it into something miraculously more. Not that you earn anything by it. That would be as ridiculous as that little boy going around at the meal and saying, “I provided all the food!” He knew he did no such thing. It was the grace and mercy and command of God that fed the people. So, we come to church not because we want or think we can earn anything, but because this is the place where the promise of forgiveness is given. The absolution – forgiveness of sins – itself is given to you here, without cost. The word of God will not be destroyed by the indifference of this generation. The free gift of forgiveness will still be given where and when it pleases God among those who hear and believe the promise. And that word will endure forever.

There was never a more concerted effort to destroy the church than under communism in the Soviet Union in the 20th century. Churches were closed, demolished in many cases. Pastors and faithful members were shipped to gulags where they were worked to death. And yet, after 3 generations of constant and systematic oppression, communism is gone, and the church flourishes.

It’s been said by some who are a little over-enthusiastic – that the church is always only one generation from extinction. The goal is to make you see the need to tell others about Jesus. But 3 generations of systematic destruction led to the destruction of those who would have destroyed the church. The Church continues, and even thrives. The Word of God will endure. Oh, it may be a remnant. It may not be the numbers we were used to in days of yore. But God will not leave us without consolation. And when it seems like there is no way to be fed, no way to be sustained, then he feeds us in ways that are nothing short of miraculous.

He may test us – but he will also feed us, and sustain us. In the Gospel reading today, the people were far from town, and the food had dwindled to just a few scraps. It may have been a small miracle, but it was a time when the people had great need of a small miracle. And in that time of great need, Jesus feeds the people. There’s another lesson for us – when Jesus offers to feed, we should know that there is great need. We should not neglect such a great gift. There is no risk of gluttony when it comes to receiving the Lord’s Gifts. He always gives according to his mercy, and yes, our cup runneth over. But then we must receive and drink from that cup as he gives it to us.

If he is feeding – we have a great need. So, he gives his body and blood in the sacrament to strengthen and feed us in body and soul, because of our great need. Let us not neglect the gifts which Christ gives, and let us pray that he ever help us to receive them rightly, according to his institution and mandate, and that we do it often, as he has said.

Amen.

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