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Watercolor painting by E. J. Kirsch

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Jul 29, 2018

“Prophet Spotting” 7-29-18

2 Kings 4:42-44; John 6:1-21
10th Sunday after Pentecost
July 29, 2018

The feeding of the 5000 by the Lord Jesus is the one miracle from his public ministry recorded in all four gospels.  Of the four accounts, John’s is the most detailed and, in particular, provides us with the response of the multitude to this mighty demonstration of the power of God.  That response was two-fold.  Upon observing what Jesus had done, they conclude that Jesus was, in truth, the Prophet who was to come into the world.  Moreover, seeing the hand of God at work so powerfully in Jesus, and fervently longing for one who could deliver them from the power of foreign oppression, they resolved to take Jesus by force and make him king.

As we look at this miracle in the broader sweep of John’s own telling of the gospel story, it is important to make two introductory observations.  The first is to note that it is specifically characterized by John as a sign.  New Testament scholars have long observed that John’s gospel falls into two sections.  The first is called a “book of signs” that concludes at the end of chapter 12.  The second book traces the last days of Jesus life, offering the extended discourses that he shared with his disciples as they observed the Passover, his high priestly prayer in chapter 17, followed by his trial, crucifixion and resurrection appearances.  Both sections of the gospel of St. John advance his purpose of leading his readers to faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The attention paid to signs in chapters 1-12 is part of John’s way of exploring the mystery of faith.  The disciples see signs, for example, and they believe.  Others, however, see signs and believe in a way, but their belief does not lead to true discipleship while still others see signs and are hardened in their unbelief.  This is John’s verdict as he draws the “book of signs” to a close in 12:37.  “Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe him.”  The signs in John’s gospel ultimately point us to the sovereign work of God in bringing people to true faith.  The sign of the feeding of the 5000 leads the crowd to a true persuasion that Jesus is the anticipated Prophet like Moses that God would raise up for Israel.  Hence, the title of the sermon is “Prophet Spotting.”  I will elaborate that shortly.  However, we note here that their intent to make Jesus a king by force shows that the sign does not lead them to true faith in God, or in Jesus as his true Son.

The second introductory observation that we can make about the sign of the feeding of the 5000 in John is that it fits with John’s over-arching purpose to magnify the grace of God.  The prologue to John’s gospel draws toward a conclusion in 1:16 with these words, “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.”  The idea here is of abounding grace that cannot be contained.  It cascades, as it were, into our lives, pushing aside the grace that was there with even more grace.  The ultimate secret and source of this abounding grace is that we are brought into union with God the Father through Christ the Son.  The prologue concludes in 1:18, “No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart who has made him known.”

The first of Jesus’ signs in John’s gospel powerfully points us to this same abounding grace.  Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding in Cana.  Gallons and gallons of water are transformed into the choicest fruit of the vine by his word of power.  It is a picture, a sign, of abounding grace.   The same is true of the feeding of the 5000.  A multitude is fed with five barley loaves and two fish, provided by a boy and blessed by the Lord.  The apostles each gather a basket full of leftover fragments so that nothing is wasted.  It is a beautiful picture of the marvelous grace of God.  God’s grace is lavish.  God’s grace is prodigal.  God’s grace abounds with “grace upon grace.”  Yet God’s grace never goes to waste.

The same theme comes to expression in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in John 4.  The truly human, Jewish Jesus, thirsty and tired from his journey, asks the Samaritan woman for a drink.  She is surprised by his request, since Jews would not even drink from the same cup as a Samaritan.  Jesus, however, tells her that if she knew who he was, she would be asking him for a drink since offers water that permanently satisfies a person’s thirst.  (As the story unfolds, and it becomes clear that Jesus knows things about her that he could not know by ordinary means, the Samaritan woman also becomes a prophet spotter.)  Finally, Jesus makes the same offer of thirst-quenching water in John 7:37-38, on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, inviting anyone who is thirsty to come to him and drink.

In John 10, Jesus the Good Shepherd declares that he has come that the sheep might have life, and that they might have it in abundance.  Time and again in the book of signs we are reminded that God’s grace is not a just-enough-to-get-by “begrudged” grace, but a lavish grace that in the midst of our trials and conflicts and struggles and sorrows provides us with the possibility of deep joy and gladness, a foretaste of a heavenly banquet.  All of these expressions of abounding grace anticipate the communion with the Father and Son spoken of in the promise of the Spirit in John 14:23, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”  Jesus prays for this same union in 17:21, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”  This union and communion with the triune God is abounding grace to the disciples in the midst of a world in which they will have tribulation, even as they wait for Jesus to return and take them unto himself.

Let us return now to the crowd’s identification of Jesus as the Prophet.  When we see how it is that they reach this conclusion, we are reminded of the ministry of the prophets in Israel and also provided with an important lesson about how theology should inform our reading of the scriptures.

The miraculous multiplication of food sealed the crowd’s conviction that Jesus was the Prophet they were awaiting.  A little reflection on the lives of some of the great prophets shows how this was a warranted conclusion.  Our Old Testament lesson recounts a time when Elisha fed a large group with less than adequate resources.  We can also recall Elijah and the widow of Zarephath.  For her hospitality to Elijah, her jar of meal and jug of oil did not run out during three years of famine.  And, of course, there was the miraculous provision of manna when Moses led Israel through the wilderness.  Well over a thousand years later, Jesus provided the people with bread in a wilderness.  In the Old Testament, prophets were associated with the miraculous provision of food.

Of course prophets were also used by God to heal the sick.  The crowd in John 6 followed Jesus because “they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.” (vs.2)  There is no need to multiply examples of Old Testament of prophets doing this.  One of the most striking that comes to mind is the story of Naaman the Syrian general who seeks out Elisha to be healed of his leprosy.  The narrative in John 6 shows a culmination of evidence in the minds of the crowd leading them to identify Jesus as the Prophet.  It was not just that he had performed a few miracles here and there.  No he had performed many.  To cap it all off, he had provided a table in the wilderness.  What more evidence would people hoping for a reappearance of Moses need?

Prophets were people in whom, or through whom, the power of God was at work.  This is important as we think about the way our theology—and our doctrine of Christ in particular—should inform our reading of the gospels.  John’s gospel opens with a theological prologue that ultimately identifies Jesus as God.  “The Word was God.” (1:1) Based on this, it is not uncommon for Christians to read on in the gospel and, upon encountering a miracle, to attribute it to Jesus’ divine nature.  “Jesus is God.  That’s why he could multiply loaves of bread or walk on water.”  However, that is clearly an oversimplification.  The Old Testament prophets were “miracle workers.”  (Not, of course, that they did these things in their own power, but rather in the power of the Spirit.)  To attribute Jesus’ miracles to his divine power as the Eternal Word, the only begotten Son, looks too quickly past the mystery of the Word made flesh.  The glory that he has as the only begotten Son (1:14) is veiled.  His eternal life, which is the light of the world, shines in the darkness. (1:5) Very strikingly, when John explains the seeming “failure” of the signs beginning in 12:37, he quotes Isaiah 53, “Who has believed our message?” and Isaiah 6:10ff, “He has blinded their eyes…”  The seeming failure of the signs lies in the mystery of God’s sovereign purpose, but John says that Isaiah spoke this way because he saw Jesus’ glory!  In John’s gospel, Jesus’ crucifixion is his exaltation.  It is in darkness and defeat and shame that the hidden glory of the Word is to be sought.  The doctrine of Christ’s full deity is the heart of our theology.  It leads us to deeper worship and guards us from error.  But, we should be careful not to use it in ways that potentially diminish the mystery!

Before leaving the text, it is important to observe the irony and warning in the intent of the crowd to take Jesus by force and make him king.  There is irony here in that that people who are powerless to overthrow the Romans believe that it lies in their power to subdue Jesus to their wills.  The irony is sadder and deeper still when we realize that by this misguided intent they lose the true blessing of following Jesus as king!  Yet their intent is not at all uncommon.

The crowd that witnessed the miracle of the loaves and fishes had an agenda for Jesus.  Now it is almost an irresistible temptation, in some form or other, for us all to devise an agenda for Jesus.  In this, sadly, we run the subtle danger of falling into the heart of idolatry.  The goal of all pagan, idolatrous religions was to find a way to relate to the gods that worked to the worshiper’s advantage.  This, however, is because belief in the gods does not translate into faith in the gods.  Idolatry assumed that the gods could not ultimately be depended on.  They were like the forces of nature—capricious, destructive, and dangerous—and a lot like us.   Idolatrous religion was a way of managing this danger.  Israel’s God, though, the Father of Lord Jesus Christ, is a God of abounding grace.  We may be confident that he will “be God to and for us.” 

The crowd in the wilderness cautions us to examine our hearts for “agendas” for God that arise from a lack of faith--for “agendas” in which we want him to follow us and fulfill our expectations.   What is it that we are hungering for that we hope God will in some way supply?  Jesus’ own “agenda” was to dwell in communion with the Father and do his will.  Jesus invites us into that same communion so that we may experience the Father’s abounding grace.  In that communion we need not fret inordinately about slipping into empty strategies of bending Jesus to our own wills.   Amen.

 

Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906