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July 30, 2006 (Sunday 17 • Time after Pentecost)—“Follow the Sign”
Interim Pastor Steve Jensen
As today’s Gospel begins, we read that large numbers of people are becoming increasingly curious and excited about miracles that are being performed by this Jesus in their local area, among people known to them. Beyond mere curiosity and entertainment, what do these miracles say about Jesus and about what he might be able to do for them? There’s a sense that something portentous is happening, and they want to be a part of it.
All this prompts a growing throng of some 5,000 to press this new celebrity to do more miracles, to reveal more about himself and God’s plan. Imagine so many pushing for a view, talking over each other, straining to get close enough to hear, lifting children to be able to see. Things need to calm down. And Jesus is aware that people are so overcome with curiosity and excitement, they aren’t wanting to stop to pay attention to their own basic needs, much less pay attention to anyone else’s.
So more aware of their real and immediate needs than they seem to be, Jesus talks with his disciples about his concern and how so many can be fed. Phillip, the treasurer of the small band, advises that there is so little in their account, it would be impossible to buy enough food to feed so many. No other disciple, it seems, has any other helpful suggestion of note. Only Andrew steps forward, and at his side a small boy who has apparently heard the discussion about a need for food and offers all he brought with him.
Perhaps he was expecting this was for Jesus, who after all this walking around the countryside performing miracles must be physically exhausted. Or perhaps this little one heard the entire discussion and simply wanted to help as he was able, innocently unaware that his poor offering seemingly of itself could not meet so great a need.
Perhaps Andrew, too, aware of how small this offering was, simply wanted to bring this child to the attention of the Teacher, knowing how pleased he would be with one so young who would offer all he had to Jesus.
What, I wonder, was the unspoken communication between Jesus and the boy as their eyes met? Could the boy fully comprehend Jesus’ appreciation for his giving heart and act of sacrifice? Yet it seems the boy didn’t make his offer to receive recognition or appreciation. He did it because it was who he was. There was a need, and he could respond, so he did. How proud his family must have been when his act and the miracle were later recounted to them. But more importantly, how did this impact his life in the years to come? How did that empower him to give more to God to use as He saw fit in the years that followed? Is he one of the few whose faith was fed as well as his body?
But back to the crowd. Jesus has stopped moving, and his disciples are gathered close around him. Those closest note they seem to be gesticulating and looking around at the multitude, then turning back to Jesus and shrugging their shoulders. Is there going to be another healing, another miracles of some kind? “Why have we stopped? Can you see what’s going on up ahead? What’s he doing? I can’t hear what he’s saying, can you? Look, his disciples are starting to fan out. People are sitting down on the hillside. Good. Maybe we’ll be able to see and hear what’s going on better.”
What’s going on is that Jesus has given his disciples, his learners, an opportunity to discover if they individually or corporately could identify and meet a need for others with their own resources and abilities. It was abundantly clear they could not.
So the Son of God began to demonstrate for them and the multitude that the Almighty is intimately aware of the needs of his children, even when they are not, and can overrule even natural law to meet—and exceed—those needs. Jesus thus takes the meager but lovingly and trustingly offered sacrifice of the boy and calls on the Father to make it be more than sufficient to feed his people.
He then tasks his disciples to move from learners to apostles, those sent out to do his work. They must first get the attention of this eager throng of 5,000 and then get them to sit. Now they are to take the fish and loaves blessed and broken by Jesus, distributing them in such a way that all have opportunity to take what they want and are fully satisfied. Lastly, they are to gather the remaining pieces so nothing provided by the Lord (and the lad who offered it) is wasted.
“Okay, so now that we’ve eaten, can we see a miracle? What? We all ate until we were full from just 5 barley loaves and 2 fish? That’s good!...but not as dramatic as the other miracles. Is that all he’s going to do? Well, that was o.k., but I’m not really into fish, and that cheap barley, ugh...”
“What’s that you say? Oh, right... If he can make so little feed so many, what kind of sign is that? If you put it together with the healings and what they signify, maybe it means this is the anointed one of God we’ve been looking for. Hmm... Think about it. With such power from God, he could throw out the Romans and their lackeys. With the kingdom restored and God’s man on the throne, we’ll again be a powerful and wealthy nation. We’ll have everything we need and more than we could ever dream. Surely as our king he’ll feel responsible for us and grant whatever we ask. What are we waiting for? We’ve been waiting too long already. Jesus! King Jesus!”
How disheartening for Jesus. The crowd was on too low a plane, thinking of him as a prophet and of an earthly kingdom. He must distance himself from those who, from selfish desire, insist on trying to force such a role on him. 5,000 will soon dwindle to relatively few when Jesus attempts to explain the real meaning behind these signs and God’s plan for the Messiah. Not your will, God, but mine be done seems to be their refrain.
How often are we on too low a plane, looking for an immediate fix from a miracle worker to a temporary problem or concern, and not seeing Jesus, the Messiah, who offers a full life both now and for eternity in the Kingdom of God?
“Why do we follow Jesus?” Because of the good feeling we get? How do we grow from just consuming disciples (learners) to contributing apostles (those sent out)? Especially with a high sacramental understanding of worship and of the means of grace, we have to be “consumers”—Jesus weekly enters our lives through our mouths. However, at some point we also need to see ourselves as active parts of the body, doing ministry in Christ’s name, seeing the church not only as a place to get something, but also as a vehicle where one’s gifts and abilities can be used for others.
We may consider ourselves to be like the crowd sitting on the grassy slopes, receiving food from Jesus. However, they were not believers by and large. When Jesus stopped meeting their needs, they stopped following.
We need to see ourselves more like the apostles—the believers who were sent out, those called by Jesus to work. First, however, they needed to realize that they had no solution to the problem on their own, out of their own resources. The role of the apostles, the believers, is to be stewards of the bounty Jesus provided.
John’s account of Jesus’ discourse following the miracle connects these events with Passover and remembering the Exodus. There, too, God provided his people with manna from heaven, all they could eat; and yet they complained. Because he didn’t provide for them in the ways they wanted, many lost faith and never found their way to the promised land.
Jesus laments that in this case as well, people are trying to make him into something he’s not, with the expectation that he will accept responsibility for them and regularly give them exactly what they want, the way they want it, for as long as they want. They refuse to listen to his words of eternal life and go off searching for someone else to meet their needs.
Are there ways that we want to force Jesus into our image of a savior? And when he doesn’t conform, do we reject him and look for someone or something else to meet our needs? I know there have been and still are times in my own life when I’ve struggled with that... But each time we remember, “not my will, but yours be done,” we’re reunited with a loving God.
We participate in a miracle each time we partake of Holy Communion, the bread of life and blood outpoured. God comes in the gathering in Jesus’ name of sinful people. In that holy communing with God, both our needs and our wants are met. We are forgiven and made new—filled with God’s love, hope, peace, comfort, and joy. Time and again, Jesus is the perfect provider, giving more that we could ever hope for.
In response, we apostles, those sent out, are expected to give what we have to feed the starving—those starving for forgiveness, starving for peace, starving for comfort, starving for hope, starving for love.
We are to be sharing people, following Jesus the host, giving without the guarantee of receiving something in return. It is a miracle that Jesus came to satisfy us by sharing, and to transform us, that we might find our satisfaction in sharing with others who are hungry. Can you find yourself mirrored in the miracle? It’s worth looking into.
Copyright © 2006 Steven Jensen
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