In this sermon, based on John 6:1-21, I explore two of Jesus well known miracles; the feeding of the 5000 and walking on water. I then explore the common notion of trying to explain them away and why we should never underestimate the power of God.
You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
Most of you probably know that I’m a lover of movies…and I really have been since a pretty early age. I can tell you that the first movie I saw in the theater was Lady and the Tramp…and one of the earliest movies that I watched repeatedly was The Wizard of Oz…that 1939 classic which features a bunch of great quotes like “There’s no place like home” and “I’ll get you my pretty” and “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”
I was think about that last line quite a bit the other day…and how the line was intended to serve as misdirection so the 4 main characters wouldn’t realize the truth behind the illusion…that the wizard was just some guy with a projector and really loud speakers.
But that’s the thing about illusions isn’t it? All questions of misdirection and wonder aside…in our present time we no longer have magicians…we have masters of illusion…which speaks to the truth of the situation…that there’s nothing overly supernatural happening…but rather a trick…something done that only appears to be magical. (pause)
Now undoubtedly, when we are young, we still believe in the magic when we see it…but at a certain point as we grow up…the reality sets in and we accept that there’s a trick to it. But honestly…when we know the trick…isn’t it a little bit of a let-down? (pause)
I remember sitting in art class when I was about a freshman or sophomore in high school…and the art teacher was showing us various card tricks…and one in particular…it was the usual trick of being able to take a card out of the deck, put it back in, then cut the cards and still be able to find the right card…and as the teacher continued to show us this trick over and over again…one by one the various students figured out the trick…except me.
I could not get it…no matter how hard I tried and how many times he’d give me a pretty major hint, I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that if you already know what the bottom card is, then when the deck is cut, that bottom card will now be sitting on top of the right card…(pause then with flourish) ABRA CADABRA!!!
But finally I got it…finally I realized what he was showing me…and from that moment on…the trick just wasn’t as cool anymore. I don’t know why…but maybe we just like being fooled…maybe deep down we don’t really want to know the secret, because that removes the mystery…it takes away from the effect…it takes away the fun. (pause)
But isn’t that telling of the world that we live in these days? Truly we live in a society that loves to explain…everything. Advances in science and technology and understanding…it seems like we have done a pretty excellent job of explaining away the mystery of just about everything…and if we bump into a situation where we can’t definitively figure out what’s going on, then we’ll make our best hypothesis…we’ll present the most promising theory as a means explaining that which we can’t quite grasp.
I was thinking a lot about that tendency this week as I approached our gospel lesson…which as you heard a moment ago includes 2 different stories…both likely familiar…as Jesus feeds the crowd of 5000 people with a few loaves and fish…and then a little while later as he takes a hike across the surface of the water to get to the boat carrying his disciples.
2 amazing situations…2 moments that defy everything that we think can or should happen…2 experiences that can only be described as…miraculous…and here’s the thing…as I was working with the text of these two stories…I was quite surprised to read…in Biblical commentaries mind you…possible physical explanations for both miracles…or signs as John likes to call them.
First off, the feeding of the 5,000…the only miracle to be found in all 4 gospels mind you…when the disciples and Jesus face the immense need to provide food for this enormous crowd who have followed them out into the middle of nowhere…and all they have available is 5 loaves of barley…and 2 fish…and somehow…some way Jesus manages to provide enough for everyone to be satisfied, and then they pick up 12 baskets full of left over scraps.
Within the context of this story…two possible explanations were offered as to just how Jesus managed to pull off this amazing feat. First off that the tiny amount of food was used to give each and every person a tiny morsel…nowhere close to a mouthful…but because it had been given to them freely they were fulfilled or satisfied in the “spiritual” sense. (pause) Interesting theory…though if you listen to the language of the text and hear that everyone ate as much as they wanted, that seems to shoot a hole in this first theory…and so onto the second. (pause)
The second possibility…that once the small boy brought out his 5 loaves and 2 fish to willingly share…then everyone else was moved to share what they had…and in the first ever Lutheran Potluck supper…many different sources of food were shared in order to feed everyone…thus resulting in the 12 baskets of left overs…nothing miraculous…just inspiring…which sounds an awful lot like the story of Stone Soup…if you happen to be familiar. (pause) 2 different explanations…plausible? Perhaps…but miraculous? Well, not so much. (pause)
And so now…what about the second story of Jesus walking on the water…we find that the first story feeds directly into the second…as Jesus works to send the people away, the disciples head off in a boat to cross the sea…something that we hear of them doing a lot in scripture…and as the night passes…and the wind and waves pick up…we hear that the disciples have traveled a few miles, but that they are struggling against the oars…until Jesus comes walking out to them. (pause)
And once again…the commentaries attempted to explain it away…citing ambiguity in the Greek translation…that perhaps the disciples had been traveling along the shoreline…and that Jesus was approaching them from the shore line…or that he was walking IN the water…rather than ON the water…and that this explains why the instant he joins them at the boat they happen to arrive at their destination. (pause)
Now…is all this possible? (pause) Certainly…I wasn’t there…so who am I to say that these theories of explanation aren’t accurate…but if they are…and the miracles of Jesus can simply be explained away…then I pose the question…are they really miracles? (pause) Are they really signs performed by God to display His power…are they signs performed by God so that living breathing people can witness the power of God present here within our reality? (pause) Are they signs performed and then written down so that we as readers may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah…the Son of God, and that through believing we may have life in his name? (pause)
I don’t know about you…but honestly…I don’t want to know how Jesus pulled off feeding that crowd…because I’m afraid that if I witness the power of God at work, its going to be more than I can handle…because I believe that God is more than I can handle…at least now in this limited, frail human existence that I am living. And in all honesty…when I encounter an individual who wants to explain away the power of God, then I fear that I’m encountering an individual who’s sole purpose, whether they realize it or not…is to bring God under control. Because if we can explain how God does a miracle then we can stop it…and if we can stop it then we can control it…and if we can control it then maybe this work of salvation that Christ is up to in the world…this work of reconciliation between God and humanity…between God and Me…if we can control it…then I guess we don’t really need God do we…and perhaps what the atheists continue to profess is true…that we have this life and that’s it. (pause)
Well I don’t know about you…but I don’t buy it…because I have seen things in this life that point me towards a power that is bigger than me…a love in this world that is far greater than any unselfish grace filled love that I am capable of sharing…and I have stood in hospital rooms watching individuals literally breathe their final breaths and to see the look of joy and peace on their faces or to hear words describing what they are seeing as they cross from one existence into the next has left me with little doubt that there is more out there than what we are currently experiencing…and that there is power out there that is bigger than we can control or explain away. (pause)
Now does that mean that faith has given us all the answers? Of course not…and acknowledging that is to be honest about just what faith is…believing what is promised even without having physical evidence to support it…that’s faith. (pause)
And while I am saying all this perhaps you are asking the question of just what we are called to have faith in…and that’s a valid question…and as I think about it, I think this is why John chose to include the brief portion of today’s story about Jesus walking ON the water…because the rest of John chapter 6 is tied to the feeding of the 5000…first the miracle itself…and then Jesus teaching about it…talking about it…butting heads with people over it…and so why is this unneeded…seemingly unrelated snippet of a story included? Well…because Jesus reminds us…in this moment…just who he is. Many of you have heard me talk about John’s gospel and Jesus’ tendency to call himself I am…the name of God given to Moses…and you know what…John chapter 5 talks about Moses…and so does a lot of chapter 6…and in the midst of walking on water, Jesus doesn’t say It is I? He says in Greek…ego emi…translated literally I am.
Who is it that can take 5 loaves and 2 fish and feed 5000 in abundance…with an abundance left over? I Am. Who is it that can defy the laws of physics and walk on water? I am…Who is it that is willing to enter into our reality and die so that we might be with him? I am….that’s who.
And so, the next time you encounter someone who wants to explain away the miracle, whether its one recorded in the Bible…or a miracle that you witness within your own life, just remember…that whether we believe it or not…God’s power is not limited to our feeble explanations…and I don’t know about you…but I for one…am grateful that its not just some trick…that where God is concerned…there’s no man behind the curtain that we need to ignore…because through Jesus…we have a God who’s power is out here in the open for all to see. Amen.