"Hungry World" is part of series our church's preaching team did in the fall of 2010. The series was called "Full of Grace and Truth: Jesus' Seven Signs and Seven Talks," based on the material in the first 12 chapters of John's gospel. The series came out of two things: my deepening fascination with John's portrait of Christ, and my sense that our church needed some straight up exposition of one of the Gospels.
Using the seven signs and seven discourses framework divides John 6, which really stands as a unit, into three separate sermons: Jesus feeding the 5,000 (the fourth sign), his walking on water (the fifth sign), and his discourse on the bread of life (the fourth discourse). I was scheduled to preach the first two sermons on John 6 but not the third. That posed a challenge, since the fourth sign is connected with the fourth discourse: first Jesus feeds the people, but when they come looking for more, he challenges them to "work for bread that lasts." I made the decision not to engage the back half of John 6 at all, but to treat his feeding the 5,000 as a stand-alone.
I wanted to capture the full weight of the predicament: these people were not just a tad peckish; they were deeply, desperately hungry. Hunger was their constant companion and nemesis. The story takes on a darker hue, and Christ's compassion a brighter radiance, when this is understood. And I wanted to be realistic about the magnitude of the task. The disciples' resistance to Jesus' line of questioning wasn't simply peevishness on their part: they were grieving, exhausted, and indigent.
The point that drives the sermon is the gap between what Jesus asks and what the disciples answer. Jesus asks a "where" question, and they respond with a "how" answer. Where can we buy bread? Jesus wants to know. How can we afford it? Philip retorts. That misalignment of question and answer is crucial. It's fueled the argument churches have had with God ever since. Jesus wants to know where he can find one person crazy or desperate or daring enough to trust him and to join him in what he "already has in mind to do," and we squabble and stall over budgets and logistics.
To make the sermon more poignant and current, I made reference to a ministry our church had launched a few months earlier on the Native reservation. The Sunday before, we had shown the church a video of what was happening. We had delayed launching this ministry for over two years because, we claimed, we needed first to have in place some expensive equipment and a well-trained team. But the ministry, it turns out, is mostly about showing up and loving kids. We could have been doing that years back. Somehow, we'd turned Jesus' where question into a how question, and with that, excused more than two years of inaction.
Jesus' where question is really a who question ("Here is a boy with five small barely loaves and two small fish"), and that's all Jesus needs to know). I wanted the sermon, thus, to move toward a call to radical obedience. I wanted each and all to hear Jesus ask, "Where can I find … ?" and for each and all to leap up and say, "Here I am! Send me."
I sometimes get a headache from caffeine deprivation. And sometimes my blood sugar gets a little low and I get a little faint. And more times than is good for me, I need a salt fix. But I don't think I've ever been hungry. By hungry, I don't mean merely a growling stomach; I'm talking about when your body starts to actually cannibalize itself in order to keep itself alive. I get peckish, and I use words like "I'm starving," but I think ours is the only culture that can open a fridge that is pouring forth food like a cornucopia and say there is nothing to eat. What culture would invent bulimia or anorexia? What culture would take vows in the middle of winter to go on a diet? Think about that: no culture in the whole history of the world has decided to deprive themselves of food in the middle of winter, except ours. We are a stuffed culture with food to spare. Actually, we have food to waste.
Back in the day, I worked in the bakery department of a grocery store. I loved the job, but there was one part of it that always left me feeling corrupted. If I was doing the closing shift, it was my job at the end of the day to take all the goods that were at the end of their shelf life and throw it in the trash compactor. Some days I would fill up to ten grocery carts of bread, buns, cakes, pies, donuts, you name it. The corporate logic was this: If you give that food away, or even if you mark it to half price and sell it, you cut into the next day's profits. That's quite a culture we live in: bread to spare; bread to waste.
Jesus came into a world very different from that. I don't know if we know what it is to be two or three days away from starvation, but that's the kind of world Jesus entered. It's no wonder that Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry, under the anointing of God, under the driving of the Holy Spirit, went into the desert and went without food and water for forty days. While there's a whole bunch of stuff going on there—for one, Jesus was recapitulating the experience of Israel in the desert—I think the fundamental reason Jesus went out in the desert was this: to know in his bones the world that he was ministering to. In the withering of his gut, the gauntness of his limbs, the faintness of his body, he got to know this world that is so hungry. No wonder Jesus put at the very center of the prayer he taught us to pray, "Give us this day this daily bread." That's how dependent that world was. Who prays for that here, now, in the day of Wonder bread? It seems ridiculous to us. But no wonder Jesus Christ said, "I am the Bread of Life." He knew that was good news to the hungry world. I think we lose some of the impact and poignancy of this story because we likely don't know what it means to be hungry. Jesus met a hungry world.
Ask "How" not "Where" questions.
There are two miracles that all four gospels recount, and the feeding of the 5,000 is one of them. Because all four gospels recite this, I want to pull together some of the background that Matthew, Mark, and Luke give us that John doesn't. First of all, from Matthew's gospel and Mark's gospel, we have two separate reasons why Jesus and his disciples went out into the wilderness. According to Matthew's gospel, it's because they're grief-stricken. They've just received the news that Herod has taken the head off of John the Baptist. They received the news, so Jesus decides they should find a solitary place. John was Jesus' cousin and forerunner of the king. At least Andrew, if not more of the disciples, followed John the Baptist before they followed Jesus.
Have you ever been sad? Have you ever been grief-stricken? Have you ever gotten really, really hard news? And in these times you want to be left alone. Jesus understands that and determines that they all need some down time—some time away from other people to just be a family.
Mark gives us a different reason for Jesus and his disciples going into the wilderness, namely, that ministry has been nuts. They are exhausted. It says in Mark's gospel that so many people were coming and going that the disciples themselves did not have time to eat. So Jesus tells them they have to come with him to get some rest.
Anybody ever been exhausted, where you just feel like everybody is demanding a piece of you and your time and energy? You know exactly what I'm talking about. And if somebody said, "Go and take a little holiday," what good news that would be! Mark says that that's why Jesus and his disciples go out in the wilderness. So they get there, and guess who else is there in the wilderness? Five thousand men. That number doesn't even include the women and children who are there, too. If that had happened to you, wouldn't you feel annoyed and irritated? I have a lot of empathy for these guys because when my heart is broken and my back is breaking, I just want to clear out for a while.
According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the disciples are watching this all unfold, and Jesus' response to the crowd is to have compassion on them. I'm thinking that the disciples are feeling something other than compassion. Maybe contempt, frustration, annoyance, anger, resentment, bitterness, but I don't think they're feeling compassion. By the way, it's interesting that Jesus does two things before he feeds crowd. According to the compassion he feels, the first thing he does is he heals those who are sick. The second thing he does is he teaches them; they are to him sheep without a shepherd—they are lost, scared, and vulnerable. And while one of the gospels says that Jesus taught them many things, another specifies that he taught them about the kingdom of God. Do you know what good news that is to the people? Do you know why that's a compassionate response to the hunger and brokenness and weariness of people—that there's a kingdom of God, and you don't have to be moneyed, and you don't have to be talented, and you don't even have to be good to be a part of it? You just have to want it. Jesus knows that these are people oppressed by kingdoms. They're crossed by the kingdom of Rome and the kingdom of Herod--these whimsical, capricious, tyrannical kings who do whatever they want whenever they want, while they take your money. These people are oppressed by kingship, but they learn from Jesus that there's a good king on the watch, on the move, and they can come in to his kingdom. That's compassion.
But it starts to get late, and the disciples are starting to see the trajectory of the gathering, because that sun is going down and they're far from civilization. Where the heck are these people going to get food? So according to the other gospels the disciples approach Jesus and basically say, "We like these people, but we think it's time to wrap it up and send them home. They must be getting hungry. There's probably a town nearby where they can get something to eat." And what Jesus does is say? You feed them. Yeah, you.
Now, John tells the story a little differently than Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It's not contradictory, but in John's version of this, Jesus initiates a conversation about food. He asks Philip, "Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?" It's Jesus who initiates it. And then John provides this little side note: "He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do." Philip answers like this: "Eight months' wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite."
That little conversation between Jesus and Philip is one of the hinge pieces of this entire story. Jesus is asking a question at one level, and Philip answers it at another level. Jesus is asking a where question. It's a faith question. And Philip answers with a how response. He heard Jesus' question a budget question—a logistics or strategy question. Those are two different ways to have this conversation. I think that many of us are missing Christ's invitation to join him in God's mission in this broken world, because when he asks a where question we answer with a how response. Where can we get somebody to stand up and say yes to God? Does anybody have faith to trust him and take the big risk? Is anybody willing to join God's mission? We hear that question and want to reduce it to: How are we going to pay for this? How are we going to get volunteers and the right facility? How often the kingdom of God must go beggaring because we will answer the where question with a "how can this possibly be?" You see, when we are obsessing over the how question, what we're really doing is assuming that God is unwilling to meet the needs of a broken world, and that it all reduces to how clever we are in our resources and our capacities and our budgets. And that's not the response God blesses. When God asks a question of us, we can already see in it what he wants to do, what he has in mind. He's just testing us. Some of you are missing the kingdom of God because you're asking the how question first instead of the where question. Be willing.
I just returned from a trip to Bolivia where we have missionaries sharing the gospel. Duane, one of our missionaries there, now knows Spanish—he even sounds Spanish. When he heard God's question of who will go, Duane didn't get hung up on the how part of it. He simply said, Here I am. But the thing that broke my heart about seeing the work in Bolivia was realizing that we, as a church, could have been doing this work a long time ago. For so long we kept obsessing over the how, and God provided trailers and vans and all sorts of things. But those material things are not the ministry; the ministry is people willing to say, I will go. Send me.
Say, "Here I am, send me."
So Jesus asks the where question, and there's one kid in the whole group who's willing say, "Here I am, send me." Andrew still wants to bicker over the how, but Jesus is uninterested in that conversation. He's got what he needs—one boy willing to step forward and make a sacrifice of what he has for the sake of what Jesus is up to. All Jesus needs is one person to say yes and make a sacrifice toward it. That's it. He doesn't need twenty people. He doesn't say, "Okay, if we can just get ten more." It's amazing what will happen if just one person with faith will take what they have and give it. What an act of trust that is.
I don't know about you, but even though I've never been hungry, I like eating, and if I was the one kid in a hoard of 5,000 with enough foresight to pack lunch, I would be making an excuse why I had to slip out of there. But this boy gets it. Jesus already knows what he wants to do, so the boy makes a sacrifice. He gets started with one boy's willingness, and the kingdom really breaks out as the disciples then start to step up to distribute the food. The people get to see a visible demonstration of what Jesus has just been teaching them. You see, the kingdom only needs two things: it needs someone to say, "Yes, I will sacrifice what I have," and it needs people willing to then say, "Okay, I'm in on this," and to start serving. That's it.
That's why Paul says in Philippians 2:17, "Even if I'm being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you." Why does he say that? He's basically saying, "Wherever I see sacrifice and wherever I see service, whenever I see people willing to give up the little they have for the thing that God has got in his head to do, I know that as I give of myself too, the kingdom of God goes forward."
Have a "Yes, God" spirit.
When the kingdom can go forward, and people begin to say yes to God—not making excuses, not reducing the kingdom of God to our strategy, our capacity, our resources—but just saying yes to God, as impractical as it may seem, we find that three things happen. One, everybody gets what they want. The text says that everybody gets as much to eat as they want. Two, nothing gets wasted. That's part of the story. And three, there's more than we need—there's more than enough. Now, the opposite is also true. If you live into the scarcity mentality with resistance to the where question—you whenever people evade the mission of God—you will be chronically dissatisfied, you will never have what you want, you will waste a lot, and you will never have enough to go around. I know this is true, because as a pastor, I've had a front row seat on this for 21 years now. So which mentality will you pick?
I believe that Jesus Christ is speaking to us as a church, and I think we've seen some of the ministries he's already opened up through a Yes, God spirit. I don't think we've even begun to see what he has in mind to do. I don't think we've seen the sweep and the scope of the things that God has in mind to do, and I don't think we will see it until we say, Yes, God. I think that this week every one of us is going to have opportunities where Jesus Christ is going to confront you personally and ask you a where question. Don't reduce it to a how question. It will seem nutty most of the time—crazy, hair-brained, and impractical. But if you reduce it to those things at the outset, you may miss the whole thing. If that boy hadn't stepped forward, where would this story have gone? Why don't you just have the heart and faith of that kid and say, "I don't get it; it doesn't make sense to me, but here I am. Here I am." The more you live into that, the more you get all you want, you have enough, nothing's wasted, and there's stuff left over.
That's why I think the story ends the way it does: it ends oddly. People are so impressed with Jesus that they want to make him king by force. They want him to be what they have in mind for him to be. And I see that tendency in my own flesh all the time: I think that Jesus is around to do what I have in mind for him to do. I want to point out in the story that Jesus isn't much interested in that kind of kingship. Rather, he comes to men and women everyday and asks this question: Where can I find one person willing to join me in what I'm doing in this hungry world? Is that you?
As you go out from here, resolve to answer the Lord, "Here I am. I don't know how this is going to work, but I don't need to know. You already know what you want to do, so here I am. Send me. Use me. Here's what I have."
For Your Reflection
How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition:
Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________
Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.