“A large crowd was following [Jesus], because they saw the signs that He was doing on the sick” (John 6:2). It’s important, today, to begin with that verse, because a large crowd was following Him—because—of the signs He was doing on the sick.
It wasn’t that they hoped He’d perform signs and miracles.
It wasn’t that they had heard rumors about Jesus having done signs or miracles at some point.
Rather—a large crowd was following Him, because they saw the signs that He was doing on the sick.
It’s important to start there and to have that repeated in our hearing, because the disciples believe only what they can see.
“Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?’ He said this to test him, for He Himself knew what He would do. Philip answered Him, ‘Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.’ [And] one of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?’” (John 6:5-9).
One thinks of cash.
The other thinks to count.
But both think of numbers, and thinking in terms of numbers is where the faith goes to die.
The crowd follows the signs, and in this case, that’s exactly what they should be doing. Signs give information, and the signs that Jesus is doing proclaim liberty to the captives, the Truth of the Word of God, that which sets you free from sin, death, and devil.
It’s true that numbers never lie, and if there were five-hundred people in attendance today or this past Wednesday, do you know what that would mean?
That would mean that five-hundred people were in attendance.
And if there were only five people in attendance, today or this past Wednesday, do you know what that would mean?
That would mean that five people were in attendance.
You must—for the sake of your own salvation and the well-being of this congregation—stop right now thinking that successful churches are the ones that are full.
Successful churches are faithful churches.
And that has nothing to do with numbers.
It is a failure of the disciples to see the signs that Jesus is doing on the sick and to yet be blinded to the reality of who He is on account of how many people are present.
One thinks of cash, of course he does.
And a lot of people eat a lot of bread.
In their case, if only there were fewer people, then we could feed them all. We certainly don’t want to leave it to God to provide daily bread like He promises.
In our case, if only there were more people, then we’d have more money. It’s certainly not the case that we hoard wealth claiming poverty so the scale never requires us to pay full price.
We certainly don’t want to leave it to God to provide daily bread like He promises.
On Tuesday, I opened my Bible and I read the Gospel lesson appointed for today, and then, confining myself to those two pages, I looked at what the disciples would have known, what they would have seen and heard.
There was the sick man, afflicted for thirty-eight years. Jesus said to him, “‘Rise, take up your bed and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked” (John 5:8-9).
After that, Jesus calls God His Father, saying, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17).
And after that, Jesus says, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify of me, yet you are not willing to come to me that you may have life” (cf. John 5:39-40).
So get this—Jesus heals a man who was afflicted for thirty-eight years.
He calls God His Father and states that both are working now.
He says that the Old Testament testifies of Him and implies that if we follow Him we have eternal life.
Then—today—Jesus feeds the five thousand, but faith dies when the numbers are most important thing.
After today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus walks on water, and when He walks out to them He speaks pure comfort to those who believe only what they count and see.
In a rough sea, walking on water, Jesus says, “It is I; do not be afraid” (John 6:20).
It’s just Him—and that’s enough.
If there are five-hundred people present, don’t rejoice only that there are five-hundred present.
And if there are five people present, do not be dismayed only in that there are five present.
Rather—rejoice that Jesus is there, if He is.
And if He’s not—flee.
Martin Luther likened the pure teaching of the Gospel to rain that was here one minute and gone the next.
He said, “Let us remember our former misery, and the darkness in which we dwelt. Germany, I am sure, has never before heard so much of God’s word as it is hearing today; certainly we read nothing of it in history. If we let it just slip by without thanks and honor, I fear we shall suffer a still more dreadful darkness and plague. O my beloved Germans, buy while the market is at your door; gather in the harvest while there is sunshine and fair weather; make use of God’s grace and word while it is there! For you should know that God’s word and grace is like a passing shower of rain which does not return where it has once been. It has been with the Jews, but when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have nothing. Paul brought it to the Greeks; but again when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have the Turk. Rome and the Latins also had it; but when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have the pope. And you Germans need not think that you will have it forever, for ingratitude and contempt will not make it stay. Therefore, seize it and hold it fast, whoever can; for lazy hands are bound to have a lean year” (LW 45:352).
“Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little” (John 6:7).
“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” (John 6:9).
As though God, who created out of nothing all things that are by speaking simple words, who is at work here and now, as though God can’t buy without silver.
As though God can’t feed without already having an abundance.
Let me tell you, God bought the world away from Beelzebul, the prince of demons, and He did it not with gold or silver but with the holy, precious blood and the innocent suffering and death of Jesus Christ His Son.
What’s two hundred denarii, or two hundred thousand, to that?
And let me tell you, God needs no impressive amount of bread and fish to feed the world.
Stale, tasteless, three-quarter inch pieces of bread and dollar-per-gallon wine are His body and blood because He says they are—and they forgive sin and strengthen and preserve you in body and soul to life everlasting.
God needs no impressive materials to convey salvation. Thanks be to God!
Today—He used water and the spoken word to claim my daughter as His own, and I rejoice to have it so.
The Lord has given—who knows if He will take away?
She abides in Him—and He in her.
And though the devil and a thousand worlds be against them both, the victory remains with life.
Jesus says, “It is I; do not be afraid” (John 6:20).
Faith holds to Jesus alone—not numbers.
And Jesus is enough.
Laetare (Lent 4), 2021
The Baptism of Vivian Elise Holt
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt