21 July 2009

Sermon on feeding the 5000 (John 6:1-4 with Eph 3:7-21)

This sermon is not the one I worked on all week. This is the one that rewrote itself Saturday afternoon. It is something they needed to hear, but nothing something I would have planned to say as a pulpit supply; but I am told the Spirit was in it's delivery. I came out thinking it never really came together, but many who heard it say it did. God is good. The Spirit does indeed have our backs in the pulpit. This is also (of course) not exactly as delivered.

Jesus has been performing miracles and teaching to the crowds, but he has pulled away with his disciples to get in a little teaching time with them, away from the crowd. There are still many things they need to know, things he can’t say in front of the crowds, so they go up a mountain to get away. But that isn’t to be. The crowds have had a taste of miracles and they want to see more. They’re intrigued by this teacher, this prophet, and they wonder if he could be the promised one. Remember, Israel is occupied by the Romans, and they want to be free. Civil and religious writings tell us there were many messiah pretenders in the time before and after Jesus; most advocating revolt against the political power of Rome. The crowd wonders if this might be the one. So they follow.

It is also important to know the time of year. Our passage tells us that it was close to Passover. Passover – when the Jews celebrate liberation from Egyptian domination. When God caused the plagues and parted the Red Sea, then cared for them for forty years in the desert feeding them miraculously every day as God rained down bread from heaven. The great Prophet Moses had told them that one day there would come a prophet like him. These people’s imaginations were looking for that promised “prophet like Moses”. Jesus had just said (in verse 5:46 ) “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.”

Maybe this miracle worker was the prophet Moses wrote about. Maybe they’d finally be free of the Romans! So they follow and crowd around. But it’s getting late. And no one has food. And there are no parkway plazas or fast food restaurants to stop in. As a matter of fact, the crowd is bigger than most villages nearby. They wouldn’t have resources to feed that many extra people. So what is Jesus to do? Ah, a prime teaching moment. He turns and asks the disciples.

Jesus has set up the context. It is Passover time. He spoke of the fact that Moses wrote about him. What presumption! And they’ve gone up the mountain to receive teaching – like Moses went up Mt Sinai. Now the hungry masses need to be fed like God fed them at Moses’ request when they were in the wilderness. Jesus is gearing up for the punch line. To see if the disciples have started to understand what he’s been teaching. Jesus turns and asks the disciples. He knows what he’s going to do. And he knows He can do it. but do the disciples get it? Jesus turns and asks the disciples.

In the other gospels, the disciples recommend that Jesus send the people away to find their own food. Now there’s a solution. Punt. Walk away from the entire predicament. “Not my problem. They brought it on themselves when they didn’t pack a lunch. Send them away, Let’s get back to that special teaching you had in mind, Jesus.” They chose to ignore the plan.

Jesus didn’t accept that proposal. That wasn’t His plan. Jesus turns and asks the disciples.

Phillip sees the enormity, the impossibility of the task. It would take more than 6 months’ wages to buy enough bread to give them a little, let alone actually FEED them– and that’s assuming they could even find that much to buy. Phillip sees all the reasons it won’t work and starts listing them. He laughs at the plan.

Jesus didn’t accept that, either. He had a plan, he knew what he was going to do. Jesus turns and asks the disciples.

Andrew doesn’t understand either, but he trusts Jesus to know what’s going on. So, he says, here’s a kid with his lunch. Just enough for the one child. “what is that among so many?” Maybe he was discouraged, maybe he was hopeful, maybe he was daring Jesus; we don’t know. But Andrew chose to give the information Jesus to see what he would do with it.

NOW Jesus acts.

of course, Jesus could have done it without the child’s lunch. In the temptation stories, Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread, so he must have been able to. So Jesus could have taken that route. But he didn’t. God, throughout history has worked primary through people. Even parting the Red Sea, God had Moses hold up his staff. God doesn’t do all the work while we sit back and watch. He expects us to play our part, to make our contribution.

Ah, there’s the rub. We’re supposed to make our contribution and there are some common mistakes we make when God asks for our contribution.

The first mistake we tend to make is when, like Phillip or the other disciples, we try to take over the plan. God asks us to play a role and we try to come in and direct the play. "Lord, you can’t really mean THAT, this would be so much more practical." Or "This is how we do things here, so just move over and I’ll show you." "God, this thing I’m comfortable with would be sooo much better than what you’re planning on doing."

Sounds kinda silly when I put it that way, but come on, be honest. We’ve all done it sometime.

Sometimes we do this here in the church, because, we think the plan is to be and do what we’ve always been and done even though the neighborhood and the world and even we are very different; we’ve quit listening and we’re working on old instructions. Sometimes we think the plan for our church is to be just like that church down the road, as if different churches and different people didn’t have different jobs assigned in the kingdom. In either case, we come to God with a list of what WE think our programs and outreach should be instead of listening for God’s plan. Sometimes instead of listening to God, we listen to what the media and culture tell us church should be. We end up being like the disciples who didn’t want to participate, or like Phillip who just criticized the plan.

God knows what God is going to do: here at [our church], and in each of your lives. Just like Jesus knew. He asked the disciples as a test. And they didn’t do too well. Hopefully we’ll do better; because if [our church] is to be a healthy Body of Christ it won’t get there by following our plan. Not by following [Pastor]’s plan or even session’s plan. We have to follow God’s plan; get our plans in line with his, then we will succeed -- because we got on board with the winning plan.

A second mistake we make when God asks for our contribution is by withholding what we’ve got. Not giving what he asks of us. Maybe that’s from selfishness. After all It’s MINE, I earned it! Sunday Morning is my only time to sleep in, I deserve that.

And what does scripture say about that? In Psalms, God says that “every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills.” God created this earth and everything in it and on it belongs to Him. You are given the responsibility to watch over some of God’s world (and some of God’s children); but you’re just the steward, the caretaker, not the owner. James tells us “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father”. And Job told us “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” And don’t forget the Parable of the rich man who built extra warehouses to store all his wealth. “God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”

Everything we have, and everything we are belongs to God. Ever wonder why we use the term, “I gave my life to Christ”? He has a plan to use you, your life, this church, but he asks for your willing contribution.

Sometimes we withhold our contribution because we fear it is so little. Look back at our storey, Barley loaves and fishes – dinner rolls and anchovies (the fish would have been pickled so they didn’t spoil, and little fish like anchovies were common in that area) – a poor boy’s box lunch. And look what Jesus did with that!

Another guy who called himself the least of men, the greatest of sinner, was described by one contemporary writer as “a man little of stature, thin-haired upon the head, crooked in the legs, of good state of body, with eyebrows joining, and nose somewhat hooked.” This man didn’t deserve anything, had little to commend himself, but became the great apostle to the Gentiles, speaking in the great Greek halls of learning, because Paul gave what he had to the Lord.

So, instead of complaining about what we do not have, or using it as an excuse for not following God’s plan, we need to give thanks to God for what we do have, and God will make it go farther; just like those barley loaves and fishes.

I went to a concert on Friday night, and heard a song about this passage by a man who, 13 years ago, was given 6 months to live. After surgery to remove the brain tumor, he says he was reading the parable and thought, “pretty good for 5 loaves and 2 fishes”, so he asked God “what can you do with a brain tumor and a guitar?” the answer: 12 year (so far) recording and concert career; a chance to tell people all over the world about the hope he has in Jesus, even though his cancer has recurred.

But letting go is scary. Letting go of our plans and searching for God’s plan is scary. But we are free to give because Jesus loves us; and perfect love casts out fear. If we know the all-powerful God loves us and wants the best for us, we don’t need to protect our own interests. Sometimes it hard because we don’t understand, because, by human standards, things are NOT going well. But still, as Christians, we place our trust: our lives, our talents and our money in the hands of a God who loves and cares for us.

A God who dwells in our hearts through faith. As Paul says, “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, we can let go of our own agendas and get on board with God’s plan to be the people and the church He wants us to be. All the different gifts and skills needed to accomplish God’s plans for [our church] are here in [our church]. But God leaves it to us whether we will bring them forward. God knows there’s not enough in what we bring to accomplish his plan, but God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, will multiply our gifts to fulfill his plans. Look what he can do with 5 loaves and 2 fishes, or with a guitar and a brain tumor, and who on earth knows what he will do with your gifts.