July 19, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES? A CROWD IS FED
The second in a series of four.
A few nights ago I was watching “America’s Got Talent”. One of the contestants did a card trick. It involved Howard Stern placing a cell phone call to his mother. There was no way that trick could have been possible without magic. I was convinced. So was Howard Stern and the other judges. It was truly amazing. I found out later there is a YouTube video that shows you step-by-step how he did it. So it really wasn’t magic after all.
Were the miracles Jesus did magic tricks? We mentioned last week that a lot of people have a hard time believing in miracles. This may be why. There’s no such thing as magic. A good magician might fool you into thinking so. But anybody with half a brain knows that there is an explanation. You won’t get it from the magician. But you know there has to be an explanation and the explanation is not magic.
So was Jesus just a very talented magician? Did he just do some very clever tricks and fool some very gullible people into thinking they were real?
I thought it might be good as we start today to say something about the difference between miracles and magic. Magic is something human beings do to make things happen or appear to happen that ordinarily never would happen. The purpose of magic is to get what we want or to impress other people or both. We are in control (at least the magician is) when it comes to magic. We are never in control when it comes to miracles. God is. Miracles are done by God for reasons known only to God. Miracles may benefit us and usually do, but miracles are not about us. They are acts of God.
Helen and I had a friend years ago who had a very deep faith in God. I remember her telling us how she would go downtown on a busy shopping day praying to God for a parking space. She would drive past all the cars parked bumper to bumper and then, miraculously, the car parked just ahead of her would pull out and there was her place to park! God is good. I admired her faith in God. I didn’t admire her theology of miracles.
Last week we talked about Jesus turning water into wine. This sounds a first glance like a very impressive magic trick. But remember we were told it was a sign. It wasn’t done to impress or to please the people. It was done as a sign that pointed to Jesus. The people who were there saw this sign and therefore they saw his glory and they believed.
There are seven signs in John’s Gospel. John calls them signs, not miracles. Because Jesus is not a magician. God is at work here, God is in control, God is helping us see who Jesus is. There are also seven “I Am” statements in John’s Gospel. We’ll send you a list of all seven of each. Just request it on the back of your Connection Card. So, seven signs and seven “I Am” statements. You would think there would be one “I Am” statement to go along with each of the seven signs. That would make too much sense. That would make my job too easy. Today we look at a sign that does have a corresponding “I Am” statement. Jesus feeds the multitude and then Jesus says, “I am the bread of life”.
There was no “I Am” statement to go along with last week’s sign. After Jesus turned water into wine he did not say, “I am Cabernet Sauvignon”. But he did say, “I am the bread of life” after feeding the 5,000.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all four tell us about this. This is the only miracle other than the resurrection that is in all four gospels. In fact, you could say that this same story is told six times, not four, because Matthew and Mark report the feeding of the 5,000 and also the feeding of the 4,000. Maybe they weren’t sure if these were two versions of the same story or two separate stories. So just to be safe, they included them both. This is a story we come upon again and again.
Here is the setting. Jesus is trying to get away from the crowds. Obviously, he is not very successful. His popularity is on the rise. We’re told it’s because of “the signs which he did on those who were diseased” (John 6:2). He’s getting a reputation as a miracle worker. People are following him wherever he goes. So he travels clear over to the far side of the Sea of Galilee. We’re told it’s “a lonely place” (Matthew 14:13, Mark 6:32). Well, it was a lonely place. Then Jesus got there. Now we have a crowd.
How big is the crowd? About 5,000 men. But that literally means 5,000 men. Not counting women and children. So a conservative estimate of the total number present would be just about the same as the seating capacity of the Idaho Center. About 10,500.
That’s a lot of mouths to feed. That’s the first thing Jesus thought of. “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” (John 6:5). Philip, his disciple, does some quick math. “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to have a little” (6:7).
So let’s do a little quick math ourselves. Steve Hatch did some excellent research for his recent sermon on the Parable of the Talents. He told us that one talent is 6,000 denarii which is worth $600,000 in our money. So one denarius would be worth $100 and 200 denarii would be worth $20,000. Philip says 200 denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to have a little. Well, take $20,000, divide it by 10,500 people and we get $1.90 a person. How would you like to try to feed a hungry crowd on $1.90 a person? So Philip had a pretty good grasp on the magnitude of the problem.
There’s a detail here you may have noticed. It’s an editorial comment right after Jesus expresses concern about feeding all these people. “This he said to test him because he himself knew what he was going to do” (6:6). In other words, Jesus is not the least bit concerned. He has it covered. No problem. He just lets on that he’s concerned because he wants to see what his disciples will do next.
This is typical of the way John writes his gospel. He emphasizes the divine side of Jesus much more than Matthew, Mark, or Luke. So did Jesus really only pretend to be concerned about feeding all these people? That’s a judgment call we each have to make as we read the Bible. The guidance that has helped me is to remember that the Bible as a whole and also the Church down through the ages agree that Jesus was both fully divine and also fully human. So, for what it’s worth, I think the human side of Jesus was showing itself a little more than John lets on. I think Jesus really was at least a little worried about, “How are we to buy bread, so that [all] these people may eat?”
But there is one present who does not seem worried in the least. It’s a child. A little boy who had brought with him five loaves of bread and two fish. More than he could eat. Not nearly enough to feed this crowd. But he brought what he had to Jesus, and he believed.
This little boy reminds me of a little boy in another story. A special church meeting was held to pray for rain. This was a farming community and the extended drought was getting very serious. The little boy attended this prayer meeting with all the grown adults. They did all the praying. But he was the only one who had come to the meeting with an umbrella.
Jesus took the bread the little boy had brought forward with such faith. He gave thanks to God. He took the fish. He gave thanks to God. This is sounding very much like the Last Supper. And then he gave the fish and the bread to the people. They all got all they wanted. All they could eat. And there was way more in leftovers than they had to begin with.
One way make sense of this without having to call it a miracle is to say the little boy’s willingness to share started a chain reaction of sharing and it turned out that all the people put together really did have all the food they needed without any divine intervention. One of my clergy friends says we tend to get “all loop-holey” when we talk about these miracle stories. But the way the story is told, all six times it is told, there is no hint this is anything but a miracle. Or a sign, as John calls it. “When the people saw the sign which [Jesus] had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world'” (6:14).
Only John tells us what happens next. The whole rest of the chapter is about what happens next. First, the crowds are ready to mob Jesus, carry him away, make him their king. Miracle workers tend to get very popular. Especially if the miracle involves food. If popularity was what Jesus was after, he had found it. But popularity was not at all what he was after, so he ran away from them as fast as he could get away. “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” (6:15). Remember, he was looking for solitude in the first place, but the crowds had followed him. Now at last he had the solitude he was after. I’m wondering if it took another miracle for him to get away.
Another miracle was soon to follow. His disciples rowed back across the Sea of Galilee and got caught in a fearsome storm. Jesus was alone on the mountain praying. Maybe God told him his disciples needed them. But their boat was miles from land and about to go down. So how did he get to them? He walked across the water (John 6:16-21).
The next morning the crowds were back. They wanted more from Jesus. They were addicted to his miraculous signs. They couldn’t get enough.
This was exactly what he had feared. Remember last week when his mom was hinting that he needed to do something about the wine that had run out at the wedding? He was not at all eager to get involved. He said, “My hour has not yet come.” He knew that once he started down this path he would have a hard time staying true to God’s plan. God’s plan was not for him to give the people what they wanted and become an overnight sensation. It was not for him to be a magic man and do acts and tricks and performances. God’s plan was for people to see God in him. The only reason for these miracles, these signs, was to point people toward him and through him to God.
So Jesus had a conversation with a few of them. He talked with them about what they were looking for from him as opposed to what he was looking to give them. And soon we come to the first of the seven “I Am” statements found in the Book of John:
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes
to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall
never thirst” (6:35).
Spiritual food, not physical food. Faith, not magic. Repentance, not arrogance. Obedience, not stubbornness. Self-denial, not self-promotion.
You read on and you see that what Jesus was offering was not what they were looking for. “After this, many . . . drew back and no longer went about with him” (6:66). Once people realized that Jesus was asking something of them and not just catering to their every whim, the crowds were no longer so big. It was no longer such a challenge for him to find time to be alone. And he began talking openly for the first time about his death. He could have been king but he chose a harder and a humbler way.
The bread he had fed to the 5,000 wasn’t magic. It wasn’t even bread. It was meant to be something more. It was meant to be the Bread of Life. It was meant to satisfy a hunger deeper than our hunger for food.
We have a crowd here this morning. I wish I could say we have nearly this many every Sunday. That this is just a minor bump in our typical worship attendance. That would not be the truth. We have three Sunday services here and on a good Sunday we’ll have 200 at all three combined. I wish we had twice that many. I wish we had as many as we have today. I wish we needed to rent the Idaho Center each week to accommodate all the crowds who want to worship at Nampa First United Methodist Church.
Then I think of all those people who were following Jesus everywhere he went. As long as he fed them, as long as he gave them what they wanted, they were there. As soon as they figured out that it wasn’t going to be that fun or that easy, they were gone.
Sometimes preachers justify low attendance that way. At least you are here! The truly faithful few. We don’t really care about the rest.
I never want to say that. I never want to say or even suggest that low attendance is something to be proud of. It cuts both ways. Sometimes attendance is low because people don’t care. But sometimes attendance is low is because people aren’t being fed.
When people are fed, people show up. That’s true with the food we eat. Helen and I have an 18-year-old son. He’s an independent kid. He chooses not to come to church with us. We thought we’d have him today with Marie Osmond visiting. But he’s 18 years old. He’s barely heard of Marie Osmond. However, if we were serving a full meal after worship today, we would have had him, I’m pretty sure. When people are fed, people show up.
That’s also true with the food Jesus offers that we need even more than the food we eat. The Bread of Life. Spiritual food. When that is offered, people line up. Parking lots fill up. You can’t keep the people away. People are hungry for this kind of bread. And whenever you have hungry people and you also have what they are hungering for, you will have a crowd.
Jesus is the Bread of Life. Those who come to him will not hunger. Those who believe in him will never thirst. Jesus did a miracle when he fed all those people with aching, empty stomachs. Jesus does a miracle as he feeds people today, you and me included, with aching, empty souls.
We don’t come to church to come to church. We don’t come to church to meet Marie Osmond. Although that’s not a bad reason to come to church. That would have gotten me here if I wasn’t planning to be here already. We come to church for one reason that supersedes all the others. We come to church to meet Jesus. Because only Jesus satisfies. Only Jesus offers us the Bread of Life.
Dear Jesus, we hunger for you. We can have all the food we want, all the things we want, all the status, all the security, all the pleasure, all the worldly things that are supposed to satisfy us, and yet, Jesus, without you we are still empty. I pray that this might be a moment when some who don’t know you will just pray with me this simple prayer: Jesus, I invite you into my heart right now. I invite you into that place deep within where I am aching because I am so empty. Fill that empty place, fill it to overflowing, that the love you give me will flow out of me to others. Thank you, Lord Jesus. Amen.