07 March 2016

Homily for Lent 4 - Laetare

"He Multiplies and Provides"
Exodus 16:2-21; Acts 2:42-47; John 6:1-15

Listen here.

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Devoted themselves is pretty strong language. To devote yourself means that you make a firm commitment to something—not out of some sense of dreary duty that has to be done, but rather out of love. Think of a man who is a “devoted husband and father,” or a woman who is a “devoted wife and mother,” for example. So those first Christians first received Baptism on that joyous day of Pentecost. Then they devoted themselves—they made a firm joyous commitment—to the things of the Church. What are those things? The Apostles’ teaching, sharing in the Communion, that is, the breaking of the bread, and joining together in the prayers, the liturgy, the worship life. They committed themselves to living at the receiving end of God’s good gifts. Their lives began to shine with the love of Christ Himself. As a result they provided for the poor in need, and they did so out of new hearts that were both glad and generous. To put it simply: if they had Jesus in His Divine Service, they had enough; they had more than enough.

But then we might notice how they gave away all their stuff. We might shake our heads, and sigh, and think to ourselves: “Live like that? Sell our possessions and belongings? Give it all away? Just try it and see what happens to you!” Such is our American consumer mentality. Such is our unbelief! You see, those first Christians knew WHO they were living with. They knew WHO came to meet them in the Apostles’ words, in the Communion, and in the Prayers. They knew it was none other than Jesus. They knew that He knows how to multiply small loaves and little fishies. They knew that He knows how to provide His people with all that they need, and even more than they dream possible.

So in our Gospel reading our Lord tossed a hot potato to Philip to see if he’s learned anything yet. But instead of tossing it right back as he should have, he tried to hold on to it and handle it himself. And it burned his hands. Jesus asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” Philip began looking at the crowd, turned on the calculator in his brain, did the mental math, and came up with the answer: “Two hundred [days’ wages] would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Then Andrew joined the game, as if he wanted to take the hot potato from Philip’s hands and ease his discomfort: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?”

Picture the three of them: Our Lord looking at the two disciples; Philip staring into the huge crowd, mouth gaping open; Andrew shaking his head over pitiful amount of food. Neither disciple passed the test.

You see, our Lord does not send us tests to find out how bright and ingenious we are. He does not give us pop quizzes to test our willpower. No, He sends us tests so that we will toss them right back at Him, so that we will look to Him and expect from Him what is impossible for us.

Hard to believe? Look at what Jesus does next with the disciples. “Have the people sit down,” He said. Then HE took the meager portions of food, He gave big thanks over it, and then He handed the food to the Apostles to dish out.

Can’t you just see Andrew looking dumbfounded as he stares at the small piece of bread in his hand? And then Jesus says, “Go, give it away”? Can’t you just see Philip looking at the vast crowd and shaking his head? I wonder: how long was it before they realized what was happening? How long before they discovered that no matter how much they gave away, the Lord kept multiplying the food in their hands? I’m pretty sure they saw and felt only that little bit that the Lord first gave them. But by His blessing, they somehow found that little bit to be an inexhaustible supply. Even twelve baskets of leftovers! One for each Apostle. Twelve basketfuls out of the little amount they held in their hands.

Ah, but what if they had held on to it? What if they had not given it away? What then? They would not have had a basket full for each of them, but only a little piece in their grubby hands.

Do you see what’s happening? They saw. And that’s why those who devoted themselves to the Divine Service, in our second reading, took their stuff and handed it over to those in need. They learned that they were not impoverishing themselves. They learned from the Apostles’ teaching that you cannot “out-give” the Lord Jesus. He gives, and you simply pass it on to others. He multiplies and provides.

This miraculous feeding of the 5000 is a replay of sorts of how God fed His people in the wilderness, in our first reading. Each day He provided the fine, flake-like bread called “manna.” A mere two-quart jar full would feed the whole family for the whole day. And God promised to multiply their food for all 40 years of their wilderness wandering. One problem came when some thought that they had to hold back a portion of their daily manna for the next day. They just weren’t sure that God would provide for the next day without their own savings plan. But somehow their planning and saving bred only worms and the smell of rot. Another problem came when they chose not to trust God to provide for the Sabbath Day. Instead of gathering a double portion on Friday, they stayed away from the Divine Service on the Sabbath Day. They thought they had to work harder to get ahead with God’s things. But still God kept multiplying and providing. You cannot “out-give” the Lord!

The Prophet Isaiah also talks about the Lord multiplying and providing. Isaiah’s words certainly look forward in time to the miraculous feeding of the 5000: “They shall feed along the ways; on all bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them, for He who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them” (Is. 49:9-10).

In the eyes of the world, it makes no sense that you have more than enough even as you give it away. But remember WHO teaches this. It’s not an Edward Jones agent or a certified public accountant. It’s the Lord of Life. And He’s not giving some proven method to better financial stability. No, He is providing LIFE itself. Remember how He gave Himself away, not in portions and percentages, but in whole. He poured Himself out for you and for me and for all people. He emptied His life on the Cross so that He might forgive you and fill you with life. His blood blots out your sins; His death destroys your death. He gave Himself entirely and completely. And now you might think, “But if I do that, then there’s nothing left. I’d better hold on to what I’ve got.”

But Jesus’ resurrection shows that such thinking is a huge mistake. Jesus says, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Mt. 16:25) … that is, for eternal life. The One who did give His all is the One who lives forevermore. His resurrected, incorruptible body is now your very fountain of salvation. And He goes on giving Himself away, feeding you, His people, in the wilderness of this world—not with earthly food alone, but with Himself. He is the very Word of God made flesh to be your Bread of Life. Here at this table He dishes out a food that gives you more than you’ll ever need. So He frees you not to clutch tightly and hold to yourself, but to open your hand and give away. It’s not just what He did when He multiplied the loaves; it’s what He did when He went to Calvary’s tree; it’s what He did when He showed Himself alive to His disciples on the first day of the week; it’s what He calls you and me to join Him in doing now.

Then we will know first hand the joyful hearts of those first Christians on Pentecost. When we are devoted as they were to the Lord’s words, to the Lord’s Meal, and to the Lord’s Prayers, we find that our hearts are set free to give ourselves away entirely. We also find ourselves among that company to which the Lord adds day by day, the company of “those who are being saved.” Amen.

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