Joy Amid Sorrow: A Sermon for Laetare

Feeding the Multitude icon

Sermon audio here.

As we journey ever deeper into the wilderness of Lent, today’s liturgy reminds us that there’s light—not only at the end of the tunnel—but even in the midst of darkness. Light has come into the world, and the darkness has not overcome it. In Christ, even the most dire circumstances become an opportunity to rest in Him and find refreshment, as we see in today’s Holy Gospel.

Things weren’t looking good for the crowd, which consisted of 5,000 hungry men, plus women and children. They were in a deserted place and all they had were five measly loaves of bread and two small fish. Jesus asked Philip where they could buy bread, but Philip knew that they could never afford that. Not even half a year’s salary would have bought enough food for everyone to have even one bite. The solution was obvious: “Send them away Jesus, let them fend for themselves.”  Andrew and Philip did the math, and math doesn’t lie: they didn’t have enough.

And that’s the point. We don’t have enough. And that’s okay. We’re not God; we’re not supposed to. But God always has enough and then some. The disciples’ math may have gotten an A+ at MIT, but Jesus isn’t impressed with fancy degrees and complex theorems. In our infinite wisdom, we doubt God’s ability to do the impossible. God doesn’t play by our rules. 1+1 normally equals 2, but God reserves the right to say otherwise.

And that’s exactly what He does in today’s text. He had every last one of them sit down—all 5,000 men plus women and children—and fed them all with provisions that were beyond meager. But it wasn’t like everyone got just a bite or two—they ate as much as they wanted. And when it’s all said and done, Christ has twelve baskets of leftovers for good measure.

As great a miracle as this was, when compared with some of God’s other works, this one actually turns out to be a little mundane. Here at least He had some bread and fish to work with. God had nothing when He created the universe. He spoke and it came to be. No less miraculous is His ability to turn even those who doubt His ability to do things like this into pure and holy children of God. If God can bring water out of a rock, He can turn stone-cold hearts into hearts of flesh.

Had we been there, we’d be saying the same exact thing. “What is so little food for so many people? Time to go, Lord. Don’t get us wrong, your preaching is nice, but we live in the real world and have real needs to attend to.”

Now there’s no doubt that the nails that pierced Christ’s flesh were excruciating, but what He finds even more unbearable is this indifference to His Word. The crowds were preoccupied with their bellies. Given the choice, they would have traded their salvation for a can of spam. No time to listen to Christ preach—they had more important things to take care of.

You couldn’t blame Jesus if He gave us what we wanted: “Okay, have it your way.  Go fend for yourself.” But He doesn’t. He has compassion. He dies to save you from yourself. Christ knows what you need far better than you. He fed the crowd despite their doubts and objections. What is five loaves and two fish for so many? To have faith is to trust God’s Word even when it doesn’t make sense.

The crowds were in a dire situation, but in Christ there’s always hope. You know how the story ends. Jesus lives, the victory’s won. He’s already overcome death and is present today to forgive, renew, and strengthen. There’s light at the end of the Lenten tunnel. Easter is just around the corner, as is the renewal of all things. Christ is coming quickly.

And He continues to provide in the meantime. And His provision for you today is no less miraculous then it was back then. His Spirit, flesh and blood refresh your soul with heavenly food. The daily bread you eat is no less gift of God than was the manna in the wilderness or the feeding of the 5,000.

Why is it that we consider the feeding of the 5,000 a miracle, yet the fact that God brings about entire harvests from a few tiny seeds seems like no big deal? The fault isn’t with God, it’s with our own blindness and hardness of heart.[i]

God works miracles constantly, from the beating of your heart to the daily rising and setting of the sun. The fact that these things happen every day doesn’t make them any less miraculous.

When, like the crowd, you find yourself in need, trust the Word of Christ. He has promised to take care of you and He doesn’t lie. It doesn’t matter how bad the situation looks. There is never a good reason to worry. Worry comes from unbelief, from doubting God’s promise to take care of you. Our Lord says:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life… Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”

God always gives you what is best. What God ordains is always good. It may not always be pleasant, but He works all things together for the good of those who love Him. The problem is that God doesn’t always ordain what you want. But if what God ordains is always good—and it is—that means you don’t always want what’s good for you. Repent. The problem isn’t with God.

Luther pointed out that the cherry tree doesn’t give up and wither away during the winter even though it stands there barren and in the cold. Months go by without signs of life, and yet the tree continues to wait, free of stress, for the promise of new life in the springtime.

And likewise, the field. It doesn’t despair even though it lies frozen and covered with snow all winter long, without one blade of grass for us to see. We should learn from these everyday wonders to trust in God and not despair. Even though your circumstances might not be as you would have them, God will continue to provide. He often uses the most difficult of circumstances to work the greatest good.[ii]

That’s what He did in today’s Holy Gospel. If you’re tempted to doubt that God can use even terrible things for His good purposes, consider Satan’s hatred of Christ. What could be more tragic than the vile hatred and blasphemy that our Innocent Lord endured on the cross? But God didn’t just take a bad situation and bring some good out of it. He took the greatest evil imaginable and used it to bring about the greatest good the world has ever known.

And through it all, Christ continued to trust in the Goodness of His Heavenly Father, who used His very last breath to cry out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”

And God was faithful to His promises. He raised Christ up on the Third Day so that you might rest in Him. Eat and drink your salvation. He is the Water of Life for the thirsty, Living Bread for the hungry, and forgiveness for the sinner. Whoever comes to Him shall not hunger, and whoever believes in Him shall never thirst.

Just as Lent will soon give way to Easter, so also the sorrows of this life will soon give way to eternal joy. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

Soli Deo Gloria

+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. John 6:1–15
Laetare, 2016: Joy Amid Sorrow
Zion, Summit
Immanuel, Hodgkins
Around the Word Bible Studies

[i] This insight comes from Luther’s 1532 sermon for Laetare.

[ii] Ibid.

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