Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Fear Not

John 6:1-21

 If you really want to let people know something is very important, then you should repeat it.  Also, if you desire to inform people that a matter is critical, then you should say it over again, in different words.  

 Well, it has been said, and I’m pretty sure it’s true, that the feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle of Jesus, other than the resurrection, that appears in all four Gospels.  The Gospel of Luke does not include the story that follows about Jesus walking on the water.  And the Gospel of Matthew includes the extra detail that when Jesus came to the disciples on the water, Peter wanted to get out of the boat and join Jesus.  But aside from those two little differences, this same story appears in all four Gospels.  So I think it must be important.  

 It happened at a critical moment in Jesus’ ministry.  I would say this was a watershed moment, a moment when the course of Jesus’ ministry could have gone this way or that way.  It was the height of his popularity.  Jesus was drawing the largest crowds of any time in his ministry.  

 So this was an important moment.  But why?  And what does it mean?  What does it mean for the Church today?  

 It begins with Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee.  He was going from the region of Capernaum, his “home base,” to the northeastern corner of the Sea, which was the most deserted region around Galilee.  The only village on that side of the Sea was Bethsaida.  We know from last week’s Gospel lesson in Mark that Jesus was seeking solitude for himself and his disciples. They had been under great stress, and Jesus was seeking to give them rest.  And a deserted region seemed to be the place for that.  

 But alas, the crowds followed.  And when they arrived, a large crowd was already there.  So Jesus led the crowd up into the hill country above the lake so that he might teach them.  

 It was nearly Passover time.  That’s an important clue about the timing of this story.  Passover would be in March or April, spring time.  Hence the grass on the hills because in the summer in the land of Canaan, there is no green grass.  But also, it tells us that this story took place about one year before Jesus’ crucifixion, which also happened at Passover time.  Jesus’ ministry was about three years long.  The first year

was the time when he gathered his disciples, the time of his first miracles.  He was not really well known yet.  The second year was the year of his greatest popularity.  And the final year was described by opposition and the crowds leaving Jesus.  So this is the end of his year of popularity.

 The fact that it was Passover time might also explain the large crowds in this otherwise deserted area.  Many Galilean Jews, when it came time to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover, would go up and around the top of the Sea of Galilee and travel down on the eastern side of the Jordan.  They did that to avoid going through Samaria, because of course, Jews and Samaritans didn’t like each other.  

 And there was a large crowd there:  5000 men, plus women and children.  The total number of people was probably close to 20,000.  

 Jesus turns to Philip and asks, “Where can we buy bread for all these people?”  Philip was from Bethsaida, the nearest village, so maybe he seemed the logical person to ask.  But I think really Jesus is inviting Philip into ministry, and all Philip can do is see the problem from a very practical viewpoint.  “We can’t afford it!  Even if there were a place to buy for all these people, we couldn’t afford it!”  

 Andrew steps up and does a little better:  “Here’s a young boy with some food.  But it’s not enough for all these people!  We have so little!  What good will it do?”  

 Do these two sound like the Church, or what?  All they can see is the limitations.  “We can’t do it.  We don’t have the money.  We can just do a little bit, but it won’t be enough.”  

 The only one that seems to me like a real hero in the story is the little boy.  He doesn’t have much to offer, but he offers what he can and he trusts Jesus to take care of the rest.  That’s what God wants of all of us:  Offer what we have, and trust him to take care of the rest.  

 He has five barley loaves and two fish.  Barley bread was the bread of the poor, cheaper than wheat.  And coincidentally, barley bread was the same kind of bread that the prophet Elisha multiplied in Old Testament.  And wouldn’t you know it:  Elisha’s disciples also doubted.  The fish would be salted or pickled fish, the only kind you could carry on the road without them going bad.  

 Jesus blessed the food and distributed it, and everyone ate, and they were full.  Literally, it says they were stuffed, full till they couldn’t eat any more.  All that from five loaves and two fishes.  

 The miracle calls to mind the feeding of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai through the manna and quail from heaven.  Just as God fed his people in the wilderness in the Old Testament, Jesus feeds his people in the wilderness in the New Testament.  

 There were even leftovers.  It was traditional in Hebrew culture always to have leftovers at a meal because leftovers showed that the host of the meal was more than adequate in his provision.  

 But note the number of baskets filled with leftovers:  Twelve.  And how many disciples were there?  Twelve.  Coincidence?  No.  It was the Twelve Disciples who picked up the twelve baskets of leftovers.  In that time, all Hebrew people would carry a basket with the when they traveled, sort of the first century equivalent of a backpack.  They carried it for their food so that they would have kosher food to eat while traveling through Gentile territory.  So after the disciples doubt Jesus’ ability to provide, not only does he provide for a crowd of 20,000, but he gives them the leftovers.  

 Well, the people were quite impressed.  So much so that they said, “He must be the Prophet.”  This is a reference to Deuteronomy 18, where Moses foretold of a prophet to come who was even greater than he.  And they figure it must be Jesus.  And they want to take him by force and make him king.

 As I said, it was a watershed moment for Jesus, a moment of decision.  Which way would he go?  Would he choose the way of worldly power and popularity?  Or would he stay on heaven’s plan?  

 He made his choice.  He ran for the hills, literally.  And I don’t think it’s any coincidence that from this moment on his popularity began to slide away.  

 The disciples tried to wait for him, but it grew dark and he was still up in the hills praying, so they decided they had to leave and go back to Capernaum.  He would catch up with them there.  They started back.  But when they got three or four miles from shore, a gale came down out of the hills and struck the lake.  Many gales came out of the west, and since they were going west, they were fighting it.  And they were making little headway.  

 And then Jesus came to them, walking on the water.  Once again, Jesus is calling to mind the Old Testament, but in a greater way.  Several Old Testament prophets, Moses, Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, were able to part the water and pass through on dry ground.  But the Old Testament said in Job 9:7 and Psalm 77:20 that only God could walk on the water.  

 The disciples were terrified.  Even after all they’d seen from Jesus.  Even after all they’d heard from Jesus.  Even after all the miracles, they were still terrified.  They thought he was a ghost.  In the other Gospels, Jesus was very critical of the disciples at this point for their lack of faith and lack of understanding.  

 He says to them, “Fear not.  I AM.”  It’s usually translated as “I am here” or “It is I,” both of which are legitimate translations.  But all three Gospels that tell this story agree that literally what Jesus said is, “I AM.”  I AM, of course, is a way of translating God’s name in the Old Testament.  God’s name is Yahweh, which in Hebrew means “I AM” or “The Living One.”  Jesus is identifying himself to the disciples.

 “Fear not.  I AM.”  If we truly believe that about Jesus, should we fear?  

 And immediately they reached the shore, safety.  Once again, Jesus provides.  He provides for the most basic needs of his people, food and safety.  

 If we truly believe and understand who Jesus is, should we ever doubt his ability to provide for our needs?  Should we ever say, “We can’t do it?”  Should we ever fear the storms of life?   Should we ever say, “We don’t have enough” or “There’s nothing we can do?”  

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