I want to start this morning with a quick quiz. What do these signs mean? The first is easy. What about this one? Easy again. The great thing about signs is that they’re universal. No matter where you are you know what this sign is telling you. Signs are all around us. They help direct us, they tell us where to go, or what to do. They communicate important things quickly, like be careful, this is hot and if you touch it you’ll get burnt. Or this floor is very wet and you might slip over! It’s important that we pay attention to signs because they often tell us what we need to know.
John’s gospel is full of signs. Not signs on posts, but rather in the form of Jesus’ actions, and words. John doesn’t use the language of miracles, or wonders, because he wants us to understand that these things point beyond themselves. They’re signs of God’s kingdom. It’s just as important that we pay attention to them, and that we understand them properly.
As we pick up the story in chapter 6, we read that the crowds are following Jesus on account of the signs that he’s been performing. The words John uses are continuous, they’d kept following, because they kept seeing the amazing things that Jesus kept doing. In verse 2, John specifies it’s on account of the signs that Jesus was doing for the sick. We’ve skipped over a bit since last week’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. But if you turn back to the end of chapter 4, we read heals a royal official’s son. Then in chapter 5, while back in Jerusalem he heals a man who’s been sick for over thirty-eight years! As incredible as these things are, they might not warrant a huge crowd following Jesus into the wilderness. But as John writes at the end of his gospel;
Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. John 20:30
John’s just picked the highlights. The two healing signs that are in chapters 4 & 5 are just a small sample of the incredible things Jesus’s been doing for the sick. It’s on account of these signs that the crowds are following him.
Now, sometime after this, Jesus takes his disciples off to the Sea of Galilee. It’s an area many of them would have been familiar with. Jesus takes them up one of the mountains and sits down with them. In the other gospels we read that Jesus took them there to escape from the crowds. They needed to be debriefed on all that had been going on, and to get some good old fashioned R&R! But no sooner has Jesus sat down with his disciples than he looks up and sees the great crowd that’s been following them!
In Mark’s account, we’re told that Jesus saw the crowds were like a sheep without a shepherd and he had great compassion for them, and he began to teach them many things. John tells us that Jesus’ compassion was also for their immediate physical needs. He looks out at the crowd, and even while they’re still gathering around he’s concerned for them. He turns to Phillip and asks;
‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’
Of the twelve disciples, Philip’s the natural one to ask, as he hails from Bethsaida, a nearby city. If any of the disciples know where they might get food for the crowd its Phillip.
John’s like someone telling a story who can’t help but give out spoilers, dropping hints about what’s going to happen. He’s probably not the kind of person you’d want to go and see a movie with! He wants us to be clear in verse 6, that Jesus already knew the answer to the question. We’re reminded of Matthew 6:8, that God knows our needs before we even ask him. Jesus is aware of our needs, and is more than capable of meeting them, even before we know what they are, let alone ask him. Even before the crowds gathered, before the question of food ever came up, Jesus was aware of the crowd’s need. Jesus already knew what he was going to do, but he asked the question to test his disciples, to see how far they’d come in their faith and understanding. It was a test; one they didn’t do so well in.
A few weeks ago when Sarah was baptized, she said a great thing, that she was still learning, still growing in her faith. It’s something we all do, we never reach the point of knowing everything, of having all the answers, but we persist in following Christ. It’s why we need to keep reading the bible, keep studying God’s word, and applying it to our lives. So it’s good to get these reminders that even the disciples had to keep learning and growing in their faith!
Philip’s stumped. He can only think of an immediate, economic, solution. It would take eight month’s wages, or two hundred denarii, about $30 000 in today’s money, to buy enough bread for the people. Even if they could find a bakery big enough, that much money would only be enough to buy everyone a tiny morsel, let alone a satisfying meal! The situation’s impossible! There’s no way it can be done!
Just then, another one of the disciples, Andrew, comes forward. Back in chapter 1, we read that Andrew brought his brother Simon Peter to Jesus. Now he’s doing it again, bringing someone to Jesus! It’s clear he’s learnt the lesson from last week’s sermon! Andrew’s been out canvassing the crowd, checking out what’s available. And he’s managed to find a young boy, the only one who’d had the foresight to pack a lunch! Not that what the boy has is much. All he’s got is five loaves and two fish. John makes mention that these are barley loaves. We might think it’s a pretty good meal. A nice little picnic that this boy has packed. When you think of barley loaves, you might picture a nice artisan loaf of bread. In fact, this week when I went to look for barley flour, I had to go to a specialty store and pay $8 a kilo! But in Jesus’ day, barley was cheaper than wheat, so barley loaves were the food of the poor. What’s more it wouldn’t have been loaves, but more like small rolls that this boy had. And it wouldn’t be a nice piece of salmon that he’d packed but some small, pickled fish to make the bread palatable. This isn’t a nice picnic lunch, it’s a basic, meager meal. It’s a pauper’s meal. But one that this boy, and indeed many in the crowds were familiar with. This wasn’t a rich region, simple, basic food, was all they had.
Andrew brings this poor boy, with his small, simple food forward, knowing it’s not going to go too far. It’s barely enough to feed one child, let alone the disciples, forget about the crowd of five thousand or more! Andrew’s driving home Phillip’s point. There’s no way they can feed the people. What little they have is laughable.
But Jesus is undeterred. He doesn’t laugh. He tells the disciples to get the crowd to sit down on the green grass. And then, quite simply, without pausing, without a concern, Jesus takes what little they have and gives thanks for it. The word John uses is eucharistein, from which we get Eucharist. But it’s not till next week that we’ll see that connection developed, when we look at the second half of this chapter. Here, John doesn’t make much of it. He doesn’t record the words Jesus said, though it’s likely to be a traditional Jewish blessing, something like; ‘Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who bringest forth bread from the earth.’
Then he starts handing the bread and fish out. And he keeps handing it out, and keeps handing it out! Everyone who’s there, all five thousand plus, get something to eat. Amazingly the food doesn’t run out. The crowd is fed, more than a meager portion, they eat their fill and are satisfied. As much as they wanted, they ate. They’re full to the gills, if you’ll pardon the pun! In fact, there’s so much here that not only to the people eat and eat, there’s even leftovers! Although the food was miraculously provided, it came from nowhere, it cost nothing, Jesus doesn’t let it get treated lightly. He doesn’t let good food go to waste, but rather commands that it be collected up. 200 denarii wouldn’t have given the people more than a mouthful each, but from the fragments of five barley loaves, from nothing, what’s left after five/ten thousand people eat, is an enormous twelve baskets! The twelve baskets might be symbolic of the twelve tribes, a sign of the new kingdom, but it might also be that there’s just one basket for each of the disciples! It’s an amazing sign of God’s compassion and provision for his people. Although the fare is somewhat planer, it’s like the sign of the water turned into wine back in chapter 2. It’s an image of the feast that awaits God’s people in God’s kingdom.
But there’s more to the sign than that. With such a great crowd, it’s unlikely that everyone saw or heard what Jesus did. But word travels fast, and you can imagine that as they ate the people started talking about what’d happened. They knew that something amazing had taken place. They knew this was a sign, and they understood what it pointed to. John gives us some clues to help understand what the significance of this sign. Back in verse 4, he makes what appears to be a throwaway line;
Now, the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.
The fact that it was near the time of the Passover, when many Jews would be travelling to Jerusalem, doesn’t just help explain why there’s such a great big crowd wandering the wilderness. It helps us understand what this sign was pointing to.
The Passover was the big Jewish festival. It was a celebration, a memorial of God’s amazing deliverance of his people. It was a time when the Jewish people looked back and remembered how God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt. When they told all the old stories of how Moses had led them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, into the wilderness. When they remembered God’s provision for them as they wandered in the wilderness, how he gave them manna, bread from heaven! We’ll look more next week at all these connections with the Passover, how Jesus goes from providing bread, to claiming that he is the being bread of life.
But the Passover wasn’t just a time for looking back and remembering, but also of looking forward. They would’ve remembered the promise God delivered through Moses in the wilderness, which we read in Deuteronomy 18:15-19;
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.
You can imagine them chewing over this in their minds as they chewed on their bread by the Sea of Galilee. You can imagine them making all these connections, starting to interpret this sign. They begin saying;
‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!’
Their expectations, their hopes were high. Here was the one Moses had promised. One who would follow in Moses footsteps, who’d deliver God’s people once again. These expectations were conflated with the hope for the Messiah, a King of David’s line. All of these hopes were turbo-charged around the time of the Passover. At that time the Jewish national pride was at an all time high. It’s like Australia Day, or more accurately Anzac Day. The air is charged with expectation, with energy. This recent sign is just the spark needed to set the crowd on fire! The five thousand men John mentions would make a sizable guerilla army. They’re ready to snatch Jesus, literally to violently seize him and make him king. They’re ready for him to ride point as they march into Jerusalem, throw out the Herodian pretenders to the throne and drive out the Roman infidels.
Of course we’d never seek to manipulate Jesus like this. We’d never squeeze him into our own little box. We’d never try to make him a king in our own image. Would we?
The crowds only got the sign half right. Jesus had come to be King, to deliver his people. But he came to bring an even greater deliverance than Moses. He didn’t come to physically deliver one nation, at one time. No he came to offer an eternal deliverance, for all people, in every age. He’s not about to allow the crowds to manipulate him, to force him to do what they want.
Instead he quickly sends the disciples off, so they won’t be caught up by the crowd’s wild thinking. After all Jesus knows what the disciples are like. They’re prone to arguing about who’s the greatest, they’re susceptible to temptation. So rather than having them jumping on the bandwagon, Jesus packs his disciples in a boat and sets them sailing across the Sea of Galilee, while he slips away through the crowds. He retreats to be alone on the mountain, presumably in prayer with his Father.
Jesus catches up with the disciples in the middle of the night. They haven’t fared to well. They’ve only made it three for four miles across the Sea of Galilee. They’re caught up in one of the storms or gales that the region is prone to. The sea is rough and they’re battling against it, when Jesus comes casually walking across the waves towards them! John says they’re terrified. Any thought of another connection to the Exodus, to the parting of the Red Sea, or Moses leading his people across the water is at the very back of their minds! They’re packing themselves! They can’t understand what they’re seeing!
Jesus knows their fear, he knows their confusion, and as he did with the crowds, he has compassion on them. He doesn’t play any tricks, he doesn’t walk up to the boat and say boo! He stills their fear with a word. ‘Don’t be afraid, it’s just me’ he says. The phrase John uses is, “I am”. It’s natural enough in this context, it’s a simple self-identification. But given the context, with all the parallels we’ve seen to the Exodus, it’s hard not to hear an echo of God’s self-identification to Moses. It’s almost like a subtle hint, that Jesus isn’t just the promised prophet, a second Moses. No he’s greater than that. He’s God! But again, more on that next week! Seeing the trouble the disciples had been in, knowing their need, Jesus performs another quiet miracle. As soon as he steps into the boat, they immediately arrive at their destination on the far shore.
As I’ve said throughout this morning, next week we’ll look at the rest of chapter 6. In it, Jesus unpacks and interprets these events. He helps the people understand the real significance of the bread. He offers them the bread of heaven, the bread of eternal life, which as it turns out is his flesh. But you’ll have to come back next week to find out what he means!
But this morning we’ve seen Jesus’ great compassion for the needs of the people. Jesus is the King who provides bread for his people, who knows the needs of the world, and calls us to join him in meeting them. If they’d had their way the disciples would have turned the crowds away to fend for themselves. But Jesus calls us to not shy away from the needs of those around us. He didn’t expect the disciples to solve the problem. He doesn’t expect us to single-handedly solve world hunger. Instead, he invites us to offer what we have, he promises to take what we offer in faith, and to trust him to use it to achieve great things.
Barley loaves and pickled fish is a meal hardly fit for a king. Yet, Jesus doesn’t shy away from it. Because he’s come to turn the world upside down. He’s not come to be King the way we might expect it. He’s the King who’s come to offer an eternal deliverance for his people.
And he challenges us to accept him as King. If we try to seek control, to shape Jesus to be the way we want him to be, to make him what we find comfortable, we’re likely to find he slips away. Instead we’re to allow him to be King, to allow him to rule over us, to direct and guide us.
Let’s pray that he helps us to do just that.