Sunday, July 30, 2006

Eighth Sunday of Pentecost
2 Kings 4:42-44
Psalm 145:10-19
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus unto all generations for ever and ever. Amen.

There is a commercial on television for a new type of ice cream. It is supposed to be creamier than anything the company has produced due to the processes used to make the ice cream. The commercial shows a grocery store employee standing near the front doors with a tub of the ice cream in his hands. He is spooning it into his mouth, enjoying every bite. The store manager unlocks the door, steps inside and locks the door behind him. He sees crowds of people approaching the door and asks, "Where are they all coming from?" The implication is that the employee and the manager are concerned about opening the door because they do not have enough of the ice cream to go around. It is so good the customers will clean them out the moment they open the door and those who can't get any will tear them apart.

Sadly, I've seen people tear people apart trying to get the latest, greatest deal. It has happened at Christmas-time when parents go in search of the hot toy of the season that their child insists he or she must have to be happy. I've seen it happen when a store has had the "sale to end all sales" as people will stampede to get that one television at an incredible price. I've seen it happen at the gates of the popular theme park when everyone wants to be first in line at the new exciting ride that has just opened. It is almost frightening to offer something to a crowd that is moved by their desires because you never know what a hungry and desperate person might do.

We can see that fear in the question of the man from Baal-shalishah, "What, should I set this before a hundred men?" The unnamed man is a righteous man, one who is obedient to the Law of Moses, doing as he is commanded to do. He has taken his first fruits to the prophet of God, Elisha, despite an unrelenting drought and a home in a pagan place. The king and the priests in the temple of the north were corrupt and apostate, so he gave his meager gift to the one whom he believed would lay it before the God of their forefathers. He did not expect to have to feed a hundred bodies with his offering, only that he should give according to the expectation of the Law to the one who was from God.

It is interesting to note that we do not know the man's name but we know from whence he came. He came from a town called Baal-shalishah. The word baal means 'lord' and the word shalishah means three. Three is the number of the Trinity, the fullness of God. It can also be representative of multiplicity. Thus, the name Baal-shalishah can mean "the lord who multiplies." Now, it was a pagan place and their faith would have been in a false god they believed would multiply their blessings. Yet, this unnamed man took the offering to the true God, the Lord who truly multiplies. When he took his offering, he did not expect that it would be multiplied in such a miraculous manner.

Elisha told the man to give it to the people to eat. He had twenty small loaves made of barley. These were probably no more than a few bites each. Barley bread was the food of the poor. His sack of fresh ears of grain would hardly seed a field or make enough bread for a meal. It was a generous gift considering what he had, but it was not nearly enough to supply the needs of so many. It could have been a very frightening moment. Almost certainly they were hungry – everyone is hungry during a famine. And this company of prophets was not under the care of the king or the temple. They had to rely on God and the gifts that came from those who believed.

Elisha told him a second time to give it to the people to eat. "…for thus saith Jehovah, They shall eat, and shall leave thereof." Elisha told the man to trust in God, for God has promised that they will be satisfied. The company of priests would be satisfied by the meager gift given in faith. So the man set the bread before them and they ate until they were satisfied. God's word was true. There were even leftovers, just as He said.

We hear a very similar story in the Gospel lesson for today. In this case, however, we don't even know if the people are hungry. Jesus had just crossed the Sea of Galilee, and though His reputation preceded Him, this is a new crowd who are awed and amazed by Jesus' miraculous healings. He had compassion on them as we heard in Mark. He healed their sick and told them about the kingdom of heaven. They followed Him. We are told that the Passover Feast was near. The Passover Feast was a reminder of God's saving grace to His people. It must have been on the minds of Jesus, the disciples and the people for John to specifically identify the timing of this story.

Jesus went up a mountainside and sat down with His disciples. When He saw the multitude coming toward them, He recognized it as a perfect teaching moment. Turning to Philip, Jesus asked, "Whence are we to buy bread, that these may eat?" Jesus was not really meeting a physical need – no one had yet appeared to be hungry. In the other Gospels, the disciples tell Jesus that they are in a remote place with no place to buy food, and ask Him to send the crowds away so they can go get something to eat. There may have been grumbling tummies, but no starving people yet.

In John, Jesus asks Philip where they can get bread so that the people can eat. He is testing Philip, because we are told that Jesus already, "…knew what he would do." Philip was blindsided. I imagine that the disciples had been wondering already where they would get food for themselves, let alone for such a crowd. Perhaps Philip was on his way to ask Jesus to send home the crowds when Jesus asked him, "Where will we get bread?"

Philip, a practical sort, knew that eight month's salary would not be enough money to buy enough bread for so many people to have even one bite. While that is a great deal of money, I wonder if that is how much the disciples had with them in their money bag. We know that Judas kept a purse, so they had some petty cash. Philip's answer to Jesus is practical. "Even if there were someplace to buy bread, we do not have enough to buy enough for so many."

Andrew appears to have more faith, but it is almost a ridiculous idea he offers to Jesus. "Look, Lord, here's a boy with five loaves and two fish." There is no way such a meager meal could feed so many. As a matter of fact, it was probably barely enough to be a meal for the boy. Andrew adds, "…but what are these among so many?" I can almost hear Andrew repeating the words of the man from Baal-shalishah, "You want me set this out in front of so many people?" Again we see the use of barley loaves – the bread of the poor. Just like the man from Baal-shalishah, the boy had little to give, but the Lord who multiplies gives abundance.

Jesus blessed the bread and handed it to the people. The way John tells the story, it appears that Jesus served them all Himself. He did the same with the fish. He gave them all that they wanted, until every person was satisfied. Even if Jesus handed the food to His disciples or others to serve to the people, they received the bread at the hands of Jesus. They received the bread directly from the hands of the Lord who multiplies.

The people don't make the connection. Instead, they see Jesus as the answer to their prayers for a savior, but they weren't looking for the type of Messiah found in Jesus. This miracle was proof enough to make them ready to force Jesus to be exactly the Messiah they wanted – a king who would fill their bellies and save them from their earthly troubles. Jesus escaped the crowd and went to the mountain by Himself.

Meanwhile, the disciples went to the lake and got into a boat. Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus sent them away in the boat. John's variation leaves room for wondering if the disciples should have waited for Jesus. They set off in the boat even though Jesus had not yet joined them. The miraculous feeding must have been particularly hard on them, particularly Philip, because they saw a side of Jesus that they were not yet ready to acknowledge, and they saw in themselves a lack of faith. Were they afraid of what they were beginning to see? Were they running from the truth?

The boat got nowhere. The wind and the waves kept it from going very far. They rowed and rowed and rowed, but only managed to get three and a half miles from the shore. Suddenly, Jesus approached the boat, walking on water. The disciples were terrified, and rightly so. The One in their midst was no mere man. We can almost write away the feeding miracle – after all, if one small boy had along a lunch, perhaps others also had food. The cynical might claim that it was more of a potluck meal, nothing miraculous about five thousand people sharing their food. But the response from the crowd indicates that there was something very unusual and special about that meal. The disciples knew it – five loaves and two fish would not have fed the twelve of them and Jesus.

So, the disciples were already in a state of confusion. "Who is this? Who is He really?" Then Jesus walks across three and half miles of open water to meet them as their boat flounders in the storm. Yes, I think I would run, too.

Jesus said, "It is I; be not afraid." An even better translation would be, "I AM, be not afraid." Jesus identified Himself with the LORD who multiplies, the LORD who provides for His people through times of difficulty, the LORD who walks with them through the storms. "I AM" Jesus said and they were willing to take Him aboard. Just as they were ready to receive Jesus as He revealed Himself, the boat arrived at the place toward which they had been heading. Even as we begin to recognize the potential power in Jesus, He reminds us of His authority.

We want God to be God, but we have a hard time dealing with a God that is bigger than we can ever imagine. The man from Baal-shalishah had faith enough to take his offering to the prophet of God, but he was not willing to lay it before a hundred hungry men. Philip was prepared to use their resources to buy bread but was unwilling to set the amount of food bought with eighty day's wages in front of five thousand people. Even Andrew had faith enough to offer a meager meal to Jesus, but was not willing to set it before so many. We know God will take our gifts and use them according to His purpose, but we never think we have enough to do any good.

And when we do see God do miraculous things, we become afraid. I don't want God to accomplish the miracle from one person at my front door, because I am afraid that it will bring crowds of people for whom I have no resources to serve. We don't go forth in faith recognizing that the Lord who multiplies will take our meager meals and make it grow. It is not that we waste what God has given to us – we use them the best we can. But that's just the point – we use our own energy and our own abilities to accomplish the task without asking God to bless it and make it bigger. We keep our resources close, thankful that God has blessed us so abundantly, but unwilling to reach out beyond our immediate needs to the possibility of the miracle. We are afraid. It is much easier to praise God and call Him king than to see that He is so much more.

Jesus is not just one to be glorified. He is to be approached in trembling and awe. Paul writes, "For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father…" Paul is writing to the Ephesians and telling them about the potential found in the life of Christ. In the midst of his trials, Paul has been given the most incredible task – to preach Christ to the Gentiles. He has been asked to take the Word of God given to the Jews and spread it far beyond the borders established between people. He is to give God's grace to those who do not deserve it by virtue of their heritage or family ties.

He bows his knees to the Father, "from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named." This family, every family is one family – the family of Christ. Paul is referring to the communion of saints, every body that is part of Christ's body both dead and alive, Jew and Greek, young and old, male and female, all who are named by His name – Christ. This is, in itself, a most frightening opportunity. How do you take the Lord who multiplies to people who may worship a god like Baal-shalishah? How do you take the gift given to your people and share it with outsiders who have always been separate for very good reasons? This God that loves the Gentiles as He loves the Jews is bigger than we expect, and He is scary.

However, God reveals that He is more than we expect so that we will take our meager meals and share them with others. We have nothing about which we should be afraid because God is always there to provide for our needs. Jesus gave food to a crowd of five thousand who were not really even hungry. He revealed Himself to the disciples in a most miraculous manner so that they would know that He is more than they could ever imagine.

Paul bows before God to pray for the Ephesians, and for us today, that we might know the boundless love of Christ. "that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, that ye may be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inward man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; to the end that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be strong to apprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that ye may be filled unto all the fulness of God."

Paul is not seeking from God an intellectual knowledge of Christ, or even a knowledge of God that can be explained with our minds. He asks God to grant us His Spirit, the indwelling Christ, so that we will never be alone. This knowledge of the heart is something that is far beyond our imaginings, far beyond our ability to comprehend. His love is bigger, wider, longer and deeper than anything we can describe.

Finally, Paul writes, "Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus unto all generations for ever and ever. Amen." We approach God and the work He has called us to do with praise on our lips. God has given us just enough, but we need only share it to discover that there is an abundance beyond our comprehension. Out of the riches of His kingdom we have enough and more than enough to give beyond our borders.

The man from Baal-shalishah and the boy with the meager lunch never expected to see such an amazing abundance from their gift. We can't expect anything to come out of our gifts. What we can expect, however, is that God will be true to His promises. Elisha heard the word of the Lord that those loaves would feed a hundred. Jesus knew what He was going to do for the five thousand. We may not know the ways God will provide in our lives and in our ministries, but we can know one thing. He is with us. He dwells among us, in our hearts by His Spirit. His power is greater than our power. And just as we think we can do it on our own, He will appear to us and remind us of His authority over all.

The psalmist writes, "The eyes of all wait for thee; And thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest thy hand, And satisfiest the desire of every living thing." God is the Lord who multiplies. While it may not seem that way sometimes, particularly when we are in the midst of famine, we can trust that God will provide according to His purpose, and His purpose is founded in love for His people. Thanks be to God.

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