“I don’t know what to do.” Paralyzed by our problems, sometimes no real answer appears. So we stare at the screen, stare off into space, throw up our hands and cry, “I don’t know what to do.”
We’re all broken in some way. One person feels out of place, unaccepted. Another struggles with lust. Broken bones, broken hearts, broken marriages, broken promises, broken lives. And I’d like to tell you everything will be okay, but that’s a lie. You’re going to die.
Once again, we have a Gospel reading with Jesus in the wilderness. Three weeks ago, He was there alone. Just Him and the devil. No food. No angels. No crowds of people. He was hungry, but He resists the temptation to turn stones into bread. He’s offered a way around the cross, a way to grasp the thrones of this world without suffering, but He resists.
This time, in John 6, Jesus is in a wild place, a place without food. The crowds have followed Him there, hungry for a miracle, hungry for solutions to their problems. And the immediate problem is food. “Where shall we buy bread,” Jesus asks His disciples, “that this great crowd may eat?”
It’s a test. Phillip doesn’t need to fish out his laptop and fire up the spreadsheet application to know that the budget won’t allow for a meal for 5000 men plus their families. “There’s not enough money,” comes the despairing reply, summing up every Voters meeting, every budget meeting, every trip to the store, every review of the checkbook register or investment report. “There’s not enough money.” Phillip doesn’t know what to do.
He is gripped by despair, anxiety, fear. An ancient hymn summarizes Phillip’s feelings:
“But you, on beholding the multitude, are
And you do not consider the One who
provides abundantly.” [Romanus Melodus]
Despair. Anxiety. Fear. “I don’t know what to do.” And that is because we, like Phillip, do not consider the One who provides abundantly.
But then, the miracle. The crowd quickly falls into the opposite ditch. They see the abundance, Jesus the Bread Bestower, and they lust. An endless supply of bread is an endless supply of gold. In Jesus is a miracle cure. With Him there is wine from water, and the sick are healed. It’s the promise of free healthcare without website troubles or Supreme Court challenges. “All our problems are solved! Let’s make Him king!”
Nobody understands. Not Phillip. Not the crowd. The disciples despair. The crowd lusts. And Jesus goes away, by Himself, to pray. No doubt He prayed for Phillip. And the crowd. And us fools, who somehow stumbled into a Lutheran church a couple of millennia later with the same basic problems and questions. We lust. We doubt. We don’t know what to do.
What’s really going on here? Is there any solution to your own weaknesses, your lust and greed, your anger, your cancer, or just not knowing how exactly you’re going to get through this week with your work done, enough sleep, and your family intact?
On one very simple, basic, human level, Jesus is just providing for the people. They need food, He’s the Creator, He gives it to them. This is just like what I said when last we heard a creation-miracle in John’s Gospel, on the Second Sunday after Epiphany. When Jesus turned water into wine, it was the same thing as this multiplication of the barley loaves and fish: God is doing quickly and grandly what He does all the time all over the place. All of creation is a miracle – a miracle that evolution cannot begin to explain: that something came from nothing, and in matter is the power of life, we live on a privileged planet in a finely tuned universe with complex code in the very cells of our bodies.
The Word of God, made flesh, speaks and creation springs forth. Every time wheat comes from the ground, it is a miracle. Jesus who did not make bread for Himself makes it now for His people. That’s who God is. That’s what He’s like. So that’s the basic level of what He does here.
But it all points to the greater miracle when Jesus attaches Himself to the bread of John 6 and the wine of John 2. You lust for wine, you are worried about bread, but you do not consider that your lust and your worry point to the underlying contagion. Your lust and your worry are signs of the death that creeps in you, the death that pervades now this creation, so beautiful but marred and infected with the curse spoken over our ancestors.
Consider anew the familiar words describing the miracle. Jesus takes bread and gives thanks. Two questions: Do you say a table prayer? And if so, is it perfunctory? Every sip of coffee, every morsel of chocolate, every drop of wine, every speck at the bottom of the cereal box should, if we rightly considered it, provoke jubilant hymns of thanksgiving sung at full volume in our kitchens, yes, even at dawn’s early light when the sleep is not yet rubbed from the eyes. The haste of our mumbled prayers damns us as thankless brutes.
Jesus takes bread and gives thanks, and gives it to His disciples. He gives. That’s the Gospel in two words. He gives. That’s the nature of God, He is the giver and forgiver. The heart of it we confess about the Spirit in the Nicene Creed: “The Lord and Giver of Life.” He gives. That’s what God does, that’s who He is, and the more we are in Him, the more we give away what we have received, recognizing that nothing is ours, nothing do we possess, but it passes through our hands, from God to our neighbor.
We don’t get the bread of heaven, the body of Jesus, directly from Him, just as the people in today’s Gospel didn’t get it from Jesus directly. They got it through means, the instrumentality of the disciples. That’s the doctrine of vocation that we spent the last few months talking about in Scripture Study. God gives His gifts through means, through people. He feeds children through parents, He heals people through physicians and pharmacists, He loves people through you, even as you get the bread from my unworthy hand.
And that’s the final point, the place where the whole Gospel of John, the whole season of Lent, is driving us toward: Holy Thursday, when the same words will be spoken again, Jesus taking bread, giving thanks, giving it to the disciples, with the culminating words, “This is My body, given for you.” And then Good Friday, the body abandoned on the cross, the words of the Baptist finally hitting home, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
When the water splashed on Liam’s head, that’s the road he was starting down. When the water splashed on your head, that’s the road you were starting down. The road through the wilderness, haunted by demons, tormented by lusts, filled with doubt and despair, stupid pride and insidious cancer. And all we really see in this life is the cross. The dead body on the tree, confused disciples and greedy people always clamoring for more, looking for the next guy to make king hoping they’ll get free stuff.
But it doesn’t end there. Not for Jesus. Not for you. It ends with the words we gave Liam this morning: the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Stop clinging to your doubts. Stop clinging to your pride. Cling instead to the death and resurrection of Jesus. When you don’t know what to do, look to Him, and see everything is done already.