Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 3, Number 33, August 13 to August 19, 2001


A Sermon on John 6:1-15

By Rev. Russell B. Smith

A woman was hosting a dinner party and at the table she asked her sixyear- old daughter to say grace. "But, I wouldn't know what to say," the girl responded. "Just say what you hear Mommy say," replied the mother. The little girl nodded, bowed her head, and prayed, "Dear Lord, why in the world did I invite all these people to dinner?"

I think many of us can identify with that mother. The routine of cleaning and maintaining all our stuff saps our energy from things that bring us joy. The answering machine has seven messages — all of them bad. The pressure mounts, and we get frustrated. We get tired and irritable. We look around at the demands on us, and say, "Oh Lord, why in the world is this on my shoulders?" Certainly Jesus felt that kind of pressure. Everywhere he went, crowds pressed in on him, demanding his attention. Today's passage tells the story of Jesus leaving the crowds behind to find some time alone. Mark's account of the story in chapter 6 of his gospel tells us that Jesus had compassion on the crowds and taught them. Then as the day drew to a close, Jesus seemed to make an impossible decision to feed all these people. Thus Jesus and his disciples are faced with an absurd task. I believe that from Jesus' response, we can draw two principles for facing up to the pressure of life: the principles of thanksgiving and abundance.

John 6:1-10 sets up the story for us. Jesus and his disciples are in the midst of their great Galilean ministry. While the other gospels focus on this period of Jesus' ministry, the gospel of John spends relatively little time on it. In the midst of this ministry, Jesus takes his disciples apart for a break. And then the crowds begin to appear. I love the way John states it, "Then Jesus lifted his eyes, and seeing a great multitude coming toward him…" It's like a scene out of a movie.

John tells us that Jesus challenges Phillip with a question: "Where shall we buy bread." But then John informs his readers that Jesus said this to test him. This is important. It tells us that in this story our role isn't to identify with Jesus, but rather with Phillip. Jesus knew the miracle that was coming. That's his divine right as the Son of God. But it's not our privilege. We are like Phillip, faced with crowds and asked an impossible question.

Phillip despairs in John 6:7, but then Andrew comes on the scene in John 6:8. Andrew has found a small boy who is willing to share his lunch: five barley loaves and two fish. But that's all he has, so Andrew too despairs, saying, "What are these among so many?"

And now Jesus teaches them a lesson. He instructs the disciples to direct the crowds to sit. I imagine an air of excited anticipation. Perhaps a hush fell over the crowd as they nestled in the grass fixing their eyes on Jesus. Jesus took the loaves and gave thanks. This seems like an insignificant detail, but John gives us a clue that something more important is going on here. In John 10:23 we read: "Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks" — not "near the place where the Lord miraculously fed 5000," not "near the place where the Lord worked a great wonder," but "near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks." And so I argue that what was important to John about this miracle was not the supernatural feeding, but rather the lesson that Jesus taught about Thanksgiving.

Let me offer a couple observations about the principle of thanksgiving. First, be thankful for what you have. Jesus gives thanks for the five loaves and two fish. The miracle hasn't happened. He offers thanksgiving for the blessing that is at hand. Jesus knows full well what is going to come, but his disciples and the watching crowd don't know that. All they see is Jesus offering thanks for a meager meal.

I encounter so many discontented people. You know whom I'm talking about — they look like they ate a raw lemon for breakfast. You ask them how they're doing and they say, "You won't believe what happened to me. This person came right up behind me on the interstate..." And then they're off on a twenty-minute tirade. You ask them if they like their meal, they always tell you about a place that did it better. You ask them about their work, and it starts a complaint session on office politics. And speaking of politics, don't even mention it to the discontented, they are non-partisan in their complaint. These are the people who have all the appeal of a plate of cold, lumpy mashed potatoes.

The worst part is that the discontent rubs off on me. I find myself coming down with a case of criticisms, infected with the "if only's." "If only I had this…" "If only she would do that..." It gets inside of me and I'll bet it gets inside of you. Our culture is one of discontent, but Jesus calls us to be thankful for what we have. Be thankful that you have a roof over your head. Be thankful for the people God brought into your life. Don't worry that they're flawed because you are too. Be thankful for the food on your plate each day. Be thankful for the challenges that force you to grow. One of our dear friends has a sign on her dish soap that says, "Be thankful for dirty dishes." Be thankful for what you have.

Second, not only should we be thankful for what we have, but we should realize that gratitude is more action than emotion. I find myself crippled by this at times: "I just don't feel thankful." But notice that Jesus didn't talk about feeling thankful — he pronounced thanks for God's provision. I remember when I was growing up that my mother made me sit down and write thank-you notes the day after Christmas. At the time I didn't feel thankful — I wanted to go out and play with my friends. After all, we only had a few more days before Christmas break was over. But mom was trying to teach me that an expression of gratitude is important, even if the gift is a pair of green socks.

So often my prayers are characterized by requests, when really they should be characterized by praise and thanksgiving. The very act of expressing thankfulness makes us more aware of blessing that we receive. And by the way, that thing we do before meals when we pray — that is "returning thanks" not "blessing the food." The food is already God's blessing for us. We are simply returning thanks to God for his provision.

In addition to the principle of thankfulness, there is a principle of abundance at play in this text. Let me point out that there is not a hard connection between the two. The abundance is not a direct result of the thankfulness. I don't want any of you thinking this is a formula. Rather, we receive abundantly through God's good pleasure, and the abundant blessing comes in his own time. A few observations about the principle of abundance:

First, God's abundance comes in unexpected ways. None of the gospel writers gives us any idea how this miracle happened. Did the food miraculously reconstitute itself as it was passed around? Did it stretch as each person tore off a hunk? Was it placed in baskets that suddenly filled to the rim? We don't know. We can be sure that it was unexpected. Certainly the disciples didn't see it coming. We saw this same truth in the turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana. We saw it again when the whole town of Samaritans came out and believed on the testimony of the woman. When Jesus provides abundantly, he often does so through unexpected means. Our challenge then is to keep our minds open enough to receive the abundant blessing when it comes.

Second, God's abundance may be immediate, or it may wait for generations. This is not a truth directly spelled out in this passage, but I feel the need to point it out. Here we see an immediate blessing of abundance. However, remember Genesis 12. God told Abraham that he would make him a great nation and that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Abraham didn't live to see the great nation of Israel arise. Abraham didn't live to see the Messiah who would bless all the nations of the earth.

In 1734 a hardy band of Moravian missionaries traveled from Germany to the island of St. Croix to set up a mission colony. In the first year, ten of the missionaries died. Eleven more came and nine died. By 1736, the survivors were recalled to Germany. But more missionaries came to St. Thomas, and they continued to come until the Indees became a Moravian stronghold. Sometimes it takes many years for God's abundance to appear.

Third, God's abundance is not to be wasted. Notice Jesus' instruction in verse 12. He tells his disciples to gather up the fragments that nothing might be wasted. That is a fundamental principle of abundance: not wasting what you have. There is a fundamental sense of good stewardship involved. I am appalled at my own waste of time, energy, resources. I am appalled at how much garbage my household generates. We have been given abundant blessing, and God calls us to be wise in our use of the blessing, whether it is time, finances, or abilities.

So in sum, we've seen that this passage teaches us the principle of thanksgiving and the principle of abundance. There's a great story about legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant. On the first day that freshmen players arrived at Alabama, it was his practice to greet them with this question:

"Have you called your folks yet to thank them?" Most of the recruits returned a puzzled stare. Coach Bryant followed up this by telling his players, "No one ever got to this level without the help of others. Call your folks. Thank them."

Thanksgiving for the parents who helped them, abundant victories on the football field — the principles of thanksgiving and abundance. You think about that. Amen.