As we hear about Jesus feeding the five thousand, our thoughts turn to daily bread. It’s only natural. The crowd following Jesus, eager to hear His preaching, had no food. They were several days into the wilderness. No food could be purchased, even if the disciples had enough money to do so. Sermon applications for this Gospel Reading quite naturally turn to the things needed for daily life: food, money, and shelter. God will provide you food. Don’t be anxious about it. Trust Him.
Today we find ourselves in a strikingly similar situation. We need health, but it cannot be bought. Remember what Dr. Luther taught in the Catechism: health is part of the daily bread we ask for in the Lord’s Prayer. We woke up this morning, as we have for the few weeks to hear a modification of verses 5-6 of today’s Gospel: “‘Where are we to get health, so that these people may have peace?’ Jesus said this to test them, for He Himself knew what He would do.”
In the Feeding of the Five Thousand, food for the crowd was completely unattainable. Even if the disciples had enough money to feed the crowd, there was nowhere to buy the food to do it. Jesus led them to the wilderness with this predicament for a reason: to teach them not to live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God. 2020 is the same. God has put us into this predicament for a reason: to teach us not to live by health and peace alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
We need the Word of God because the devil, the world, and our sinful nature deceive and mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. That means closely connected to daily bread and our current global situation is another Petition of the Lord’s Prayer: Lead us not into temptation. Our temptation is to question God’s goodness, whether He really cares about us.
But that’s because, deep down, our feelings on how the relationship between God and ourselves is supposed to work is flawed. A little bit after today’s assigned Gospel Reading, we see the crowds direct a great deal of anger at Jesus. Most of the people walk away, and of those who stay, most of those will do the same later on. The reason? Jesus wasn’t acting in the way they thought He should act. That was teased at the end of today’s Gospel: “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by Himself.” They liked Him because He was a good preacher, but that was secondary. They liked Him because He fed their bellies. He gave them what they wanted. They wanted Him to keep doing that, to keep giving them bread and fish to their heart’s content. As long as He gave them what they wanted, the relationship was okay. But when Jesus made it clear that He had come to give them faith, to teach them to live by His Word and not by bread, they weren’t interested.
Jesus has come to teach us to live by His Word and not by health, peace, freedom to come and go as we please, and the like. We had a very comfortable life to which we had become accustomed. We could go about with our routines and were generally free to do what we wanted. Now one-fourth of our country is under some sort of state-mandated lockdown. Many more have chosen to self-isolate because of risk factors in their health or out of an abundance of caution. The virus has disrupted our lives completely, and it feels like it has disrupted our relationship with Jesus. He’s no longer our divine vending machine. His answer to our prayers for relief from this plague is “not yet.” Which makes our flesh incredibly anxious. That’s not the way it’s been! That’s not the way this is all supposed to work!
What Jesus did for the five thousand, and especially for His disciples, was to teach them to reorder their lives, to see Him as the bread of life instead of daily bread as the bread of life. He was the one thing needed. Our Lord is using this time to teach us that we have taken the availability of Word and Sacrament for granted, to teach us to remember that He is the needed daily bread, not toilet paper. Each of us, myself included, were so used to the relative comfort and peace of our lives just a few weeks ago. We knew the doors of the church would be open every Sunday and Wednesday, that we could come and go freely. Now that freedom has been limited by the spread of a virus and the fear that has gripped our world. It has left so many churches around the world without the same ease of gathering that they enjoyed before. How many congregations, just in our Missouri Synod, are closed today? How many are affected by government mandates to limit gathering sizes? Yes, many have switched to online-only versions, but the Church is not a digital gathering. The Church is incarnational, meaning it’s about the body. Communion cannot be distributed via the Internet. The consolation of our Christian family is not so readily received when the best we can do is call someone on the phone.
The world today sounds eerily like the prophecy in Amos 8: “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord God, ‘when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the Words of the Lord.’” What does famine do? It teaches you to highly value those things you have. This famine of being able to readily come together as the Christian congregation for Word and Sacrament teaches us just how essential the Divine Service is. As the virus spreads and the numbers of people infected climbs, we often ask “What good will God bring from this disaster?” I firmly believe this is it. God is reminding us just how valuable Word and Sacrament is, to tweak our lives so that church moves back to the forefront, that we don’t take Communion and preaching and gathering as a church family for granted. I pray that when God, in His mercy, withdraws this pestilence from us, we have to get creative about how to fit people in the building. May God in His mercy cause us to sound like today’s Introit, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’”
Every cross the Lord allows or sends works out for our good. In the beginning of John 6, Jesus caused the people to be without food and put them in a predicament where there was no humanly possible way for to keep themselves from dying of starvation. But by the end, Jesus had created such faith in His disciples that they said to Him words we know well: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the Words of eternal life.” No longer did they clamor for bread, for comfort, for stuff, but for the Word of God, that life-giving bread, no matter what the cost.
May God, in His mercy, cause that same result again today. We pray that He would mercifully spare us from plague and pestilence, from sudden and evil death. We pray that He would strengthen our faith to endure these days. And we pray, confident, that He will do all things according to His will, knowing that His will is not that any should perish eternally, but that all should be saved. We can face this shortage of health and peace confident that our heavenly Father will restore us again, that He will cause all things to work out for the good of His Church and for our eternal good.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.