The 6th Sunday After Pentecost June 30, 2013
231, 331, 36, 50
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
When Jesus heard it, He departed from there by boat to a deserted place by Himself. But when the multitudes heard it, they followed Him on foot from the cities. And when Jesus went out He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick. When it was evening, His disciples came to Him, saying, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food.” But Jesus said to them, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” And they said to Him, “We have here only five loaves and two fish.” He said, “Bring them here to Me.” Then He commanded the multitudes to sit down on the grass. And He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to Heaven, He blessed and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitudes. So they all ate and were filled, and they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments that remained. Now those who had eaten were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
In the Name of Jesus Christ, who said, “I am the Bread of Life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst,” (John 6:35) dear fellow-redeemed:
Math has always been considered one of the hardest of “hard sciences.” That is, unlike “soft” sciences such as sociology or psychology, math is generally thought of as a discipline of hard facts—things you can prove. One plus one equals two. Most people view that as a simple fact that can never change. Sainted Immanuel Lutheran College Professor James Pelzl once pointed out, however, that one plus one doesn’t have to equal two. In fact, he said, you can build an entire system of mathematics on the premise that one plus one equals three. All the sums will come out, and all the formulae will work; but it would certainly be a different kind of math than we’re used to using!
Our text for today is also about a different kind of math—God’s math. In the account before us, five plus two equaled five thousand. Five loaves of bread and two small fish transformed by God’s grace became food enough for a multitude. This account has profound lessons for us—lessons that show us how God provides both for our physical and spiritual needs. One thing is clear: When God enters the equation of your life, things don’t always add up the way you thought they were going to! That’s why our theme for today is: GOD’S MATH IS DIFFERENT — I. Man takes a need, adds his human reason, and comes up with zero, and II. God takes our need, adds His grace, and provides us with lavish abundance.
Jesus’ feeding the five thousand is a familiar text, and it’s a very important one too. It is the only miracle of Christ recorded in all four Gospel accounts—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It’s important for a lot of reasons, but mainly for what it tells us about ourselves, and for what it tells us about our Savior.
As the account opens, Jesus needs some time to Himself. He and His disciples had just heard the news of the brutal murder of John the Baptist by Herod. “When Jesus heard it, He departed from there by boat to a deserted place by Himself.” [v.13] He traveled by boat to a place He probably knew well, a grassy wilderness some distance from the town of Bethsaida, on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. But as so often happened, there was no rest for Jesus. Usually this place was deserted, but not today. For “when the multitudes heard it, they followed Him on foot from the cities. And when Jesus went out He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick.” [vv.13-14]
Jesus spent the day, not serving Himself with the rest He so sorely needed, but serving others. It was ever thus. Jesus once said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28), and thus the day passed. But as the afternoon wore on, a problem arose. At least to the disciples it seemed like a problem—a big problem: “When it was evening, His disciples came to Him, saying, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food.’” [v.15] For the disciples this equation didn’t add up. A large crowd with no food, late in the day, far from the nearest town. To the disciples this equaled an unsolvable problem, and this is what happens so often, man takes a need, adds his human reason, and comes up with zero.
By the way, have you noticed how often Jesus’ disciples did that? I mean trying to send needy people away and dismissing out-of-hand those who had come to Jesus and desperately needed His help? They did that a lot! It happened, you recall, with those women who brought their children to Jesus for a blessing. The disciples rebuked them (Luke 18:19) and tried to send them away. It happened with that Canaanite woman who wanted Jesus to help her daughter. The disciples said, “Send her away, for she cries out after us!” (Matthew 15:23). It was the same here. “Send the multitudes away,” they said, “that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food.”
Have we done that? Sent people away from Jesus? Are there certain people, or even certain classes of people, whom we consider not worth the effort, who aren’t worthy of the Gospel? Heaven forbid! Keep in mind, every single person you meet, or see, during the course of every day is a soul for whom Christ died. Someone who needs Jesus every bit as much as you yourself do!
The disciples suggested Jesus send the crowds away. Jesus replied, testing them, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” [v.16] But that made no sense at all to the disciples. “They said to Him, ‘We have here only five loaves and two fish.’” [v.17] The disciples had done the math. They’d penciled it out, and for them it just didn’t add up. A young boy had come forward with five meager barley loaves and a couple of small fish. That’s all well and good, “but what are they among so many?” (John 6:9), the disciples said hopelessly.
Philip had another idea. He talked about the disciples going somewhere to buy food for the people, but that wasn’t going to fly either. He said to Jesus, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may have a little” (John 6:7). This is what happens when we try to solve our problems ourselves, using our human reason. The disciples said, in effect, “Even if we had the money, and even if we had time to go and buy food, it wouldn’t be enough for a crowd this size. This problem has no solution!”
A lot of your problems are going to seem just like that. Whether it’s a financial need, a sudden illness, the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one—whatever it is—if you try to overcome those challenges on your own using your human reason, you’ll come up empty. So often it seems that there simply is no solution to the problem facing you in your life. But God’s math is different. God takes our need, adds His grace, and provides us with lavish abundance.
After testing the faith of the disciples and finding them wanting (as usual), Jesus calmly takes control of the situation. “They said to Him, ‘We have here only five loaves and two fish.’ He said, ‘Bring them here to Me.’ Then He commanded the multitudes to sit down on the grass. And He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitudes.” [vv.17-19]
Somewhere between Jesus’ blessing and the disciples’ distributing, a mighty miracle occurred. Food barely enough for a family became food more than enough for a mighty multitude. “So they all ate and were filled, and they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments that remained. Now those who had eaten were about five thousand men, besides women and children.” [vv.20-21]
This week I read a sermon by a well-known Seattle pastor. He tended toward the familiar view expressed by many Bible skeptics down through the ages that nothing supernatural really happened that day in the wilderness of Bethsaida. According to him, there’s a perfectly natural explanation. When the young boy brought out his bread and fish to share, that inspired the other people to share the food that they had brought along but had selfishly kept hidden up to this point. “After all,” this preacher asked, “What’s more miraculous? Creating food, or melting selfish and stony hearts?” Well, I can answer that. Creating food is. Calling into being, out of thin air, enough food to feed over 5000 people is more of a miracle than convincing folks not to be selfish. You can convince someone not to be selfish if you’re persuasive enough. But if I ask you to produce a loaf of bread out of thin air, you might have some trouble. Only God can create out of nothing. Only God, says the Apostle Paul, “…gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did” (Romans 4:17).
The fact is that this passage, like Jesus’ turning water into wine, like Jesus stilling the storm, healing the sick and raising the dead, is evidence for the deity of Christ. He was not just a good man, a fine moral teacher and an example to us all. He was, and is, true God, Creator of the universe, coequal with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. We don’t come here on Sundays to think kindly thoughts about a good man who lived long ago. We come here on Sundays to bow ourselves before Jesus Christ, the living God who is seated even now at the right hand of the Father in Heaven. Jesus Christ is the God of all the universe and the Savior of our souls! Here we worship the One of whom Scripture says: “Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11). Jesus is true God. This text and many others prove it. The miracle of the loaves was just that—a miracle, performed by God.
We also need to talk a bit about the measure by which Jesus satisfies our wants and needs. Once again, God’s math is different. Our text simply says, “they all ate and were filled,” but that’s kind of an inadequate translation. The Greek in this passage is very explicit: Everyone had all they could eat. There was no one left who was the least bit hungry. Have you ever finished a terrific meal and said, “I couldn’t take another bite”? That’s what it was like. The needs of these people were completely satisfied.
How typical of Jesus, and isn’t that the way that He always works in our lives? So often we face a difficult challenge and we apply our human reason to it. We calculate to the last decimal exactly how much we need God to give us in order to get by. We have the math all worked out! But God’s math is different. And what is it that so often happens? We’re overwhelmed with His grace! We’re expecting just enough, and what we get is a windfall. We’re expecting a bare sufficiency, and what God blesses us with is lavish abundance! Why should we be surprised? What were we expecting? When are we going to learn? God’s math is different. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).
God takes our need, adds His grace, and provides us with lavish abundance. It’s true about our physical needs, but it’s even more true about our spiritual needs, and they’re so much greater! You can get by on a minimum of food, you can survive with substandard clothing and inadequate shelter, but without an answer to sin, all is lost. If you can’t escape the Judgment to come, then nothing else matters. So God has given us the answer to sin. It’s the answer of His grace toward us in His Son Jesus Christ!
We read this passage and of course we focus on the miracle of the loaves and fishes. But you know, that wasn’t the first blessing He bestowed upon the multitude that day. It wasn’t even the first miracle. We’re told that He healed their sick. He dispensed miraculous gifts of healing to those among the crowd who were feeble and ill, blind and lame. But there was something even more important than that. The most important thing was the Word of salvation that He preached to them. The parallel account in Mark tells us that, when Jesus saw the multitude He “…was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep not having a shepherd. So He began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). Yes, He taught them many things, but I suspect that the main subject He taught them that day was math! The miraculous math of God. How God provides a solution for sinners like you and me, people with a huge debt of transgressions and offenses against God’s Law. There’s no hope of us ever repaying that debt with good works. That kind of math always comes up with zero, as Paul reminds us, “By the deeds of the Law shall no flesh be justified in His sight” (Romans 3:20).
But God’s math is different. God took our hopeless problem of sin and added grace to the equation. In His undeserved love for us, “He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). By giving His innocent Son into death on the cross, God made the impossible math come out. Irretrievably lost sinners like you and me are retrieved, and saved, and justified in God’s sight. We stand righteous before Him through faith in Christ. Scripture says, “Let the wicked forsake his way, And the unrighteous man his thoughts; Let him return to the Lord, And He will have mercy on him; And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:7).
Are your sins great? Have no fear. The Bible says, “Where sin abounded, there grace abounds much more!” (Romans 5:20). By virtue of your faith in Christ, you too will hear those blessed, inviting words on Judgment Day, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world!” (Matthew 25:34).
Emmy was a fifth-grader who lived in the town of Princeton, New Jersey in the late 1930s, and Emmy had a problem. Her problem was math—the one subject in school that she never seemed to be able to get. One day she learned that a nice old man had moved-in down the block and that he knew a lot about math. So every day after school she would take her problems to him, and he would help her. Her mother finally found out about it and was astounded to learn that the kindly old man was none other than the renowned physicist Albert Einstein. She went immediately to apologize for her daughter bothering the great man. But Einstein cut her off. He said, “She has not been bothering me! When a child finds such joy in learning, then it is my joy to help her learn! Please don’t stop Emmy from coming to me with her school problems. She is welcome in this house anytime.”
My dear fellow Christians, the problems that face you in your life may seem unsolvable. When added up in the calculus of your own human reason, there may seem to be no solution at all. But have courage! Remember, God can solve your problems more easily than Einstein could solve 5th-grade arithmetic. God’s math is different. Man takes a need, adds his human reason, and comes up with zero. But God takes our need, adds His grace, and provides us with lavish abundance. Let us rejoice in the lavish blessings—both physical and spiritual—that our gracious Lord is showering upon us. It is a rejoicing that will continue into eternity! AMEN.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.