But what on earth are we doing with this great story of Jesus feeding the multitude in the middle of Lent? Isn’t Lent a time when we learn to fast, to discipline ourselves and our appetites, to prepare for Easter by restraining ourselves now so that we can feast later? Lent is not over yet, but today we get this story of God’s food?
On Ash Wednesday we began the stark season of Lent with our Lord Jesus talking about doing works of charity, praying, and fasting. On the First Sunday in Lent we heard how Adam and Eve chose not to fast but rather to indulge their appetite for the forbidden fruit. Because of their ravenous sin, we all suffer the disease of death. We also heard how Jesus defeated Satan’s temptations not by indulging His desire for food, but by fasting from it and relying on the “food” of God’s Word. Lent is a time to separate ourselves from relying on food, a time to reign in our appetites, a time to tell the body, “Body, you’re not my master; God is my loving Master.”
But now we get to rejoice in food, glorious food? With half of Lent still ahead of us?
The Latin name for today is Laetare—meaning “Rejoice!” It could be that in the early days of the Christian calendar this day was the final day of regular eating before the fasting time of Lent—something like “Mardi Gras” is today. Then the season of Lent developed into the “forty days of purple” we know and love so well. This Sunday called Laetare, or “Rejoice!”, has become a sort of Rest Area along the freeway. We get to pull off the long highway of Lent for just a brief pause—take a stretch, get some refreshment, and get ready for the final leg of the journey as we approach Passiontide, Holy Week and then arrive at Easter.
Yet even as we take our pit stop and look down the road where we are about to go—to the Cross and the Empty Tomb—we still get to live in repentance. Notice how the disciples worried and fretted over their food. Jesus asked them, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” You can almost see the anxiety on their faces. Philip said, “Uh, Lord, 200 days’ wages worth of bread would not be sufficient.” In the currency of our day, that’s at least $12,000 worth of food. Andrew spotted a boy with five barley loaves and two fish, or perhaps fish cakes, in his lunch basket. “But what are they for so many?” he asked with worry and doubt dripping from his words. Poor Philip and Andrew! Their eyes of faith just did not see Jesus, the Bread of Life, “God’s Food” in the flesh, standing there in front of them. Just like Adam and Eve in the Garden, they thought that they had only themselves to trust.
And we, you and I, are just like them. Sometimes we worry about our food. Will we have enough, or will we run out? Will it taste good? Will it be prepared just right? Other times our worries turn us to our food. My, how that glass of wine or that box of chocolates or that slice of pizza makes all of the day’s worries fade away! Another problem is how we use our food. Instead of simply eating to live, we turn it on its head: we think we must live to eat. That’s when you eat just because the food is there, or you “hear it calling your name” as you pass by the cupboard or the refrigerator. Oh, the power that food has over us! Food itself is not the problem; letting it and our appetite control us, though, is.
Our chief problem is that we do not look to Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, for our food. No, we look to ourselves and to Schnucks or Dierbergs or Shop N’ Save. We expect our paycheck to be there so that we can go grocery shopping. We can’t imagine not having a grocery store or a fast food place nearby. Since the disease of death infects us, we sin by looking to ourselves as the source of our daily bread. The power of food makes us think, as Adam and Eve did, that we can be “like God” by trusting ourselves, by indulging our own appetites.
When Jesus feeds the great multitude, He shows us the better way, the way He created us to live. Instead of pining for food, we may rely on our God and Savior. As Psalm 145 teaches us to pray, “The eyes of all look to you, [O Lord,] and you give them their food at the proper time. You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.” God certainly gave the Israelites their food at the proper time. Every day He sent manna from heaven, and every day just enough for that day. Except on Fridays. Then He would give enough for that day and the Sabbath Day. But it was a miracle of God’s food. A miracle that God provided it, a miracle that through that food, God sustained His people in their journey through the wilderness.
Our Lord Jesus performed just such a miracle of food for the multitude gathered on the mountain. It’s quite a miracle to feed over 5,000 people from a mere five loaves of bread and two fish. But remember the other part of the miracle. Through that physical food He sustained them for their journey with Him or their trip home. Yes, our Lord uses food, ordinary food, to show us that He is the Lord of life, that He is the antidote to our disease of death. And that’s true all the time, not just when you’re starving on a mountainside with Jesus. As Luther put it, “What he did here he demonstrates year in, year out, and day for day, with the trees, fields, meadows, bodies of water, and all creatures, so that apples, pears, wheat, barley, grass, fish, and all other things necessary to sustain life are produced. He does it that we might believe that he will sustain us” (Church Postils, I:348).
And let’s not forget the other miracle of God’s food before us today. We’d be remiss if we didn’t also think of the Lord feeding us in His holy Supper. After all, Jesus Himself connects His physical feeding of the crowd with the spiritual feeding He gives in His Body and Blood. Some may argue that this chapter, John 6, has nothing to do with the Eucharist. But listen carefully to the words of Jesus, listen to this miracle of food that Jesus gives us: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jn. 6:51). Not only does ordinary, everyday food sustain our physical life, but the food of Christ’s very Body and Blood, under the bread and wine, sustains our eternal life. Yes, the very Body pierced and broken on the Cross for you, the very Blood poured out from His sacred veins and side for you—they cure you of your disease of death. They heal you of your sins of worrying about food and over-indulging in it.
So, what we turn upside down and inside out, Jesus comes to set right. He says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood—eating and drinking in faith, of course—has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” And when we think that we just cannot fast, we just cannot do without our physical foods, Jesus gives us Himself, the Bread of Life, God’s food. He provides the food we need and when we need it, and with it He gives us His life. Amen.