The Fourth Sunday in Lent: Bread in the Wilderness
March 19, 2023

The Fourth Sunday in Lent: Bread in the Wilderness

Passage: Galatians 4:21-31, John 6:1-14
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The Fourth Sunday in Lent: Bread in the Wilderness
Galatians 4:21-31 & St. John 6:1-14
by William Klock

 

I expect Jesus often got tired of arguing with people.  Not because he didn’t expect it, but because it was just so discouraging.  Think of the arguments you’ve got into on the Internet—or if you’re wiser than most of us and know better than to get into arguments on the Internet, think of those arguments you’ve found yourself in, maybe with people at work or even with family.  We all know that there are certain topics that we won’t agree on.  There are certain things you know before you even say them, will get people’s hackles up.  But we say them anyway and before long everyone’s piling on.  And it’s frustrating because—we know—they’re wrong.  And they won’t be convinced.  But the fact is you knew better.  You stepped on the rake.  You can’t really blame it when it hits you in the face.  And you just have to walk away, maybe with your pride hurt a little bit.  But it’s a whole other thing when the argument comes from people you didn’t expect it to come from—from people you thought knew better.  That’s discouraging—especially when you have to walk away knowing that you haven’t convinced them of something they should have been convinced of already.  I suspect Jesus felt like that a lot.  It would have been one thing to get into arguments with Canaanites or Greeks or Romans who laughed at the idea he was the Messiah—who laughed at the very idea of the Messiah.  They didn’t know better.  But to be rejected by your own people—even the people, many of them your relatives, in the very synagogue you grew up in—people who knew the scriptures so well, people who longed for the promised Messiah.  To be rejected by them was something different.  That was discouraging.  And it’s not like Jesus didn’t know it was coming—at least to some degree—because he knew those same scriptures and he knew the Messiah had to be rejected by his own, but still—it revealed just how lost his own people were.  Not only that, but just how obstinate they were in their lostness.  They didn’t even want to be found.  At the end of John 5, Jesus had to walk away saying, “If you’d believed Moses, you’d be believing me now.  I know you think you believe Moses, but you don’t, and that’s why you don’t believe what I’m telling you.”  Jesus never doubted his mission or who he was, but that didn’t mean these encounters weren’t frustrating and discouraging.  He trusted what his Father was doing, but I expect that just as he would weep over Jerusalem later in his ministry, he wept over his people pretty regularly too.  This might have been one of those times.  And so he left and John says, as our Gospel today from Chapter 6 begins, Jesus went with his friends to the other side of the Sea of Galilee—away from the towns and into the wilderness.

 

But not everyone was so dismissive of Jesus.  Matthew writes that Jesus and the disciples took a boat to the other side of the sea, but when they got there a crowd had already gathered on the shore.  People had seen the signs he was doing: giving sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, showing his power over the devils, preaching good news to the poor.  As I said last week, it was all more than a little confusing, because he wasn’t at all like the Messiah they expected, and yet he was.  He was doing so many Messiah things and the Lord was so obviously with him.  So seeing Jesus sailing off across the sea, people followed along the shore and as they travelled, others came out from the towns and villages and turned into a crowd and the crowd got bigger and bigger.  These people weren’t there to argue with him.  They came full of faith, ready to believe, and pretty soon Jesus was doing all those Messiah things in their midst: healing the sick, casting out devils, and preaching good news.  And then he looked out from the hill he was sitting on and saw just how big the crowd had become.  He’d healed and preached and still they were there.  They wouldn’t go home.  And Jesus just then realised how hungry he was; surely all the people were hungry too.  Many of them were far from home and there was no way the little farms and villages nearby could provide food for all these people.  And that’s when Jesus decided to do another of his acted-out prophecies—one of those things he did so often to remind the people of the story of the God of Israel and his people, and to show the people their place in the story and his place in the story.  So John says it was the Passover.  That’s not just an incidental detail.  Jesus knew it was the Passover.  So did all the people.  In fact, this is the context for all of John 6: the Passover.  It was the Passover and Jesus decides to do a Passover thing right there on the hillside overlooking the sea.

 

He starts by leaning over to Philip.  “We’re hungry.  These people are hungry.  We need to feed them.  Where can we buy bread for everyone?”  Philip looked at Jesus like he was crazy.  Not only was there no place to buy bread to feed the crowd, even if they had a pile of money—which they didn’t—they could never afford to buy enough bread to give everyone a crumb.  That was the wrong answer, but Jesus wasn’t surprised.  He only asked the question to make a point—to set the stage for what he was going to do.  Again, it was Passover and what was Passover?  It was that annual feast where Jewish families would join together to share in a meal that recalled their Exodus from Egypt and their deliverance from Pharoah and his bondage.  That meal reminded them that they belonged to the Lord, that he had made a covenant with them.  That he was their God and they were his people and that he was with them and they with him.  It recalled his promises and his faithfulness and it gave them—or it should have given them—renewed and stronger faith in him.

 

And when we think about that we should realise that Jesus didn’t lead the people out into the wilderness on the other side of the sea, into a place with no food, accidentally.  This was all to make a point.  Again, it was the Passover.  Jesus was in the place of Moses, leading a crowd of hungry people who had nothing to eat.  Philip should have known better.  He knew the stories about hungry people and the Lord’s provision of manna in the wilderness.  He should have put two and two together, but in his defence, it seems like it took everyone there a bit to realise what was happening.  Andrew brought a boy to Jesus who’d had the sense to bring a lunch.  But five loaves of bread and two fish, “What are they for so many?” Andrew asked.  I’ve wondered what Andrew was thinking.  Did he think Jesus might find a way to make do with the boy’s lunch?  I suspect Andrew was really just highlighting how hopeless the idea was that they could feed the crowd.  But Jesus knew this is how Philip and Andrew would react and, again, he had a point.  He wanted the realisation of just how hopeless the situation was to really sink in.  So that’s when he had everyone sit down.  John say there were about five thousand men.  That’s just the men.  Who knows how many women and children were with those men.  And they all sat down to eat.

 

Now imagine showing up at your favourite restaurant only to find it closed.  You knock on the door.  The manager eventually shows up and explains that the truck delivering the day’s food broke down and never showed up.  There’s no food.  But you insist on going inside and you sit down at your favourite table ready to eat anyway.  That’s about what’s happening here with these people.  You’d be silly to sit in that restaurant waiting for someone to bring you food, but remember that these people were there, because they’d seen what the God of Israel was doing through Jesus.  And they’d seen it for themselves.  That man over there had been blind just this morning and now he can see.  That little girl over there was crippled this morning, but now she can walk.  And that woman over there had seizures her whole life, but now they’re gone.  They were ready to see what Jesus would do.  I expect at least of a few of them were starting to think of the manna in the wilderness.  And so they watched as Jesus took those loaves of barley bread and those fish, lifted them up to the Lord in thanksgiving, then started breaking them into pieces and his disciples put them in baskets and started carrying them out to the crowd.  Jesus just kept breaking off pieces and breaking off pieces and somehow the bread and the fish never ran out.  It went on for minutes and then minutes turned into hours and his disciples kept going back with empty baskets and he kept filling them up so that everyone could eat.  And it was no stingy meal.  It may have been simple—just bread and fish—but it made people think of their ancestors in the wilderness and the simple manna that the Lord had provided without fail day after day and year after year—just like Jesus kept breaking off pieces of bread and fish and the food kept going out to the crowd.

 

But there was one big difference between the Lord’s provision in the wilderness of Sinai and his provision on this Passover.  The manna the Lord provided back during the Exodus was always just enough for the day.  It wouldn’t keep.  People tried and it stank and bred maggots overnight.  But it taught the people to trust in the Lord’s provision, especially when it somehow kept from Friday to Saturday so they wouldn’t have to gather on the Sabbath.  But this bread from heaven is different.  Everyone had more than enough and there were twelve baskets of bread left over.  And Jesus made a point of telling the disciples to gather it up so it wouldn’t be lost.  Not only was there more than enough for the day, this was bread that would last.  This was Passover all over again, but the people realised that day, it was a better Passover than Israel had ever known.  The manna in the wilderness was about to become the great kingdom feast everyone expected the Messiah to bring—the feast celebrating the Lord finally setting this world to rights.

 

And so, John says, they cried out, “This is the prophet who is to come into the world.”  This is a reference to Deuteronomy 18 and the promise that another would come, like Moses, to set Israel to rights, to lead the people from slavery to freedom.  The people recognised that in Jesus, the Lord was acting to fulfil his promises.

 

Now, the appointed Gospel ends a little unexpectedly right at that point.  I think it does that specifically to highlight the messianic part of the story.  But the story goes on for one more verse.  Jesus, John says, suddenly withdrew up the mountain—again, looking an awful lot like Moses.  But why?  Because he realised that if he didn’t the people would take him by force to make him king.  They believed.  They had faith.  They were full of faith that day after seeing and hearing everything Jesus had done.  Clearly he was the Messiah, even though he wasn’t doing the things everybody expected, namely riding into Jerusalem like King David to bust Roman heads and to take his throne.  But now they were ready to make that part happen themselves.  But, Brothers and Sisters, that’s not how Jesus was to become king.  Jesus was never meant to become king by being carried into Jerusalem on the shoulders of the crowd or with an armed insurrection or even by a peaceful people’s revolution.  The people never would, they never could never make Jesus king.  Friends, Jesus is king because the crowd rejected and crucified him and because the Lord raised him from the dead.  The devil had tempted him to take the easy way to his throne and here the crowd was ready to take him straight to the throne again.  But that wasn’t the way.  The way to the throne lay through and only through the cross.  Jesus knew that, he knew it would not be easy, but left the crowd behind and trusted in his Father, the very God who has shown over and over that if his people will trust him, he will provide in abundance.  If we will pass through the water in faith, he will care for us in the wilderness and finally see us to the promised land.  And Jesus knew that better than anyone.

 

But life in the wilderness isn’t easy.  Even with God in our midst, even as he provides for our needs, we are so easily dissatisfied.  As the Israelites got bored of his miraculous manna, we too easily become bored of the means of grace: of word and sacrament and prayer and being daily faithful in small and ordinary things.  We look back to Egypt and forget that those weren’t really the good old days.  And we stop looking forward to the promised land in which we once so eagerly hoped and our vision (and our affections) fall from the things of heaven to the things of earth.  And troubles come and instead of trusting in the one who has so many times proved himself faithful, we trust in other things and cease to be obedient.  This was the problem in Galatia when Paul wrote to the Christians there.  The pressure was on.  Many there had eagerly put their faith in Jesus when they heard the gospel, but then things got difficult.  For a time they forgot that Jesus had led them into the wilderness, but now the reality was sinking in.  They were rejected by friends and family.  Even though most of them seem to have been gentiles, they were still—at first—closely connected with the synagogue and now they were being kicked out.  Even the pagans thought they were crazy.  Think back to our study of the seven churches in the first chapters of Revelation and the persecution they faced.  Galatia wasn’t that bad, at least not yet, but it still wasn’t easy to be a Christian.

 

And then some missionaries from Jerusalem showed up and told them that what Paul had taught them was all wrong.  Paul had taught them that through faith in Jesus, they’d become children of Abraham and heirs of God’s promises to Israel.  But that, these new folks said, wasn’t enough.  Paul hadn’t given them the full gospel.  (Brothers and Sisters, always beware the folks to claim to have the “full gospel” in contrast to everyone else.)  No, they said, faith in Jesus is great, but you can’t just call yourselves children of Abraham so easily.  Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and so you’ve got to become Jews—you’ve got live by torah, most importantly, you’ve got to be circumcised.  Faith, they said, wasn’t enough, you’ve got to have torah too.  These “full gospels” always and inevitably end up preaching that faith itself isn’t enough.  So Paul writes to them in Galatians 4:21 and says, “Tell me, you who desire to be under torah, haven’t you listened to the torah?”  And then he goes on to tell them a story they surely knew.  It’s the story of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael and Isaac.  In Genesis 15 the Lord had promised a son to Abraham, a son through whom he’d fulfil his promises to make him a great nation.  The problem was that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, was barren and ninety years old.  So—and it may seem weird to us, but it was the custom of the day—she sent her maid, Hagar, in to Abraham.  Hagar’s son would legally be Sarah’s.  And it worked, or so they thought.  Hagar bore Ishmael to Abraham, but it all backfired and fell apart.  That was not how the Lord had intended to fulfil his promise to Abraham.  Hagar and Ismael were cast out.  (But don’t worry, the Lord took care of them, too.)  And eventually Sarah bore her son, Isaac, the heir the Lord had promised.

 

So since the Galatians had become all about who was and who was not Abraham’s child and how one claimed that status, Paul reminds them that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and one by the free.  More importantly, the “son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through the promise”…or we might say “by faith”.  And whereas these Judaising missionaries were trying to say something like that these gentile converts were like Ishmael, born outside the covenant, Paul uses the story allegorically to illustrate the old covenant and the new—in effect, to shift the story from the old exodus to the new.

 

You see, in light of Jesus, Hagar and Ishmael, her son born of the flesh, is like Mount Sinai—like the torah.  Paul says, like “the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.”  The present Jerusalem had become representative of unbelieving Israel—of the Jews who had continued to obstinately reject Jesus.  They couldn’t wrap their heads around being the people of God by faith in Jesus.  For them, being God’s people was tied to observing torah: being circumcised, keeping Sabbath, eating the right foods, and all that.  But, Paul’s reminding them, Jesus has set his people free from that.  What had once meant deliverance from Egypt’s slavery, now, apart from Jesus, has become a new form of bondage.

 

In contrast, he writes in verse 26, “The Jerusalem above”—the kingdom Jesus has inaugurated—“it’s free, and she is our mother.”  Why, he’s asking, would you go back into bondage?  For people of the new covenant to return to the old is like the Israelites wanting to return to Egypt.  For the Israelites to return to Egypt was to forsake what the Lord had done for them in the first exodus and now, for new covenant people to return to torah, to the law, was to forsake what the Lord had done for them through Jesus and this second exodus.  Why would you do that?  No, he says, rejoice in the freedom Jesus has given you.  He quotes a song from Isaiah 54:

 

“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;

         break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!

For the children of the desolate one will be more

         than those of the one who has a husband.”

 

No, again, Paul stresses to them: “You, Brothers,” because you are in Jesus the Messiah, “you are like Isaac, children of the promise.”  And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  You are children of Abraham and through him children of God by faith, not by works of the flesh.  That’s how it is and that’s how it always has been.  And so he tells them, don’t let these folks enslaved by the works of the flesh persecute you the way Hagar persecuted Sarah and Ishmael persecuted Isaac.  "What does the scripture say?” he asks.  “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.  So, Brothers, we are not children of the slave, but of the free woman.”

 

Cast them out!  They preach a false gospel that will take you back to Egypt and put you in bondage.  Cast them out of your church!  Remove their influence form your midst.  But even more importantly: Remember that in Jesus and by faith in him, you are free, heirs of Abraham, and children of the living God.  He has filled you with his Spirit and the Spirit will accomplish in you what the torah was powerless to accomplish in Israel.

 

Again, life in the wilderness, life between the Red Sea and the promised land is difficult.  For those Christians in the Galatian churches, being circumcised and submitting to torah—effectively become Jews—was attractive.  It meant the other Jews would accept them.  And when it meant that they could fly under the radar of Roman persecution, because Jews were a tolerated sect.  If they did this, it could mean keeping their family and friends or their jobs or their position in the guild…or later it could mean escaping death in the arena.  But it also meant compromise.  It meant a return Egypt and to bondage.  Ultimately, it meant forsaking Jesus himself, because no matter how much you talk about faith in Jesus, so long as you mix that faith with the flesh, so long as you hedge your bets with the false gods and kings and systems of the world, you’re not really trusting in Jesus.  And how often are we just like that?  We claim to trust Jesus, but we let the challenges of the wilderness drag us away.  We trust in Jesus, but we’re often distracted by other things.  We trust in Jesus, but we become very quiet about him when to do otherwise might mean trouble.  We trust in Jesus, but when life throws us a curve, we go scrambling to fix it, we become anxious, we worry, like Philip in the Gospel, we look to Jesus and say, “We can’t afford to feed all these people and even if we could, there’s nowhere to buy that much bread.  We can’t do it, Jesus!”—I’ve been convicted of that these past few weeks.  Instead, we need to trust in him—trust in the one who provided manna in the wilderness and who fed the five thousand and who died and rose again for us.  I don’t know how, after all that, we so often stop trusting, but we do and we shouldn’t.  I don’t know how we get bored and blasé about this good news, but somehow we do.  This season of Lent is a time every year to set aside all those other things and distractions that compete for our attention and our loyalties and that draw us away from trust and devotion to Jesus.  Lent brings us into the wilderness so that we can fast from everything that distracts us just be fed by Jesus with the manna of his word, and to be reminded of the faithfulness of God and the glories of the gospel, so that when Easter comes and we see the cross and then the empty tomb, we’re again ready to glory in Jesus and Jesus alone, to remember the commitment—the covenant he has made with us with his own flesh and blood—and to give him our all in return.

 

Let’s pray: Almighty God who has made a covenant of unspeakable grace and mercy with us in Christ Jesus, and conveyed unto us therein an heavenly inheritance upon sincere obedience to his commands, which is our reasonable service; grant that we may evermore rejoice in you, and walk worthy of our holy calling, through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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