The Epiphany of Our Lord, Observed
“Battle in the Wilderness”
Rev. Jacob Sutton, Pastor
St. John 6.1-15; Galatians 4.21-31; Exodus 16.2-21
14 March 2021
+ In the Name of Jesus +
The devil and his demons have been in each Gospel reading so far in Lent. Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness, but Jesus defeats the temptations. Jesus drives the demon out of the daughter of the Canaanite pagan woman, and finds great faith in that tenacious dog of a woman. Jesus is accused falsely of being in league with Satan last Sunday, but Jesus is the stronger man who has come to defeat Satan and sweep the house of your heart clean of demons by His Holy Spirit through His Word and Sacraments.
Where is the devil in the feeding of the 5000?
Do you ever try to solve problems yourself? Just jump into the problem feet first with no thought given to the implications! I can handle my own issues, thank you very much. Some of that is bravado, pride, arrogance, and some is seeking the credit for being a real doer, a go-getter.
Or, some go into the other side of the ditch and just freeze up when faced with problems big or small – it’s just easier for some to let a problem sit unsolved and unworked upon rather than face it head on. Some of that is genuine fear of failure. Some of it is pure lazy procrastination and being sinfully comfortable with a mess.
When Jesus was tested by the devil in the wilderness, He responded to the devil with the Word of God – fighting fire with the sword of the Spirit, the conversation of His Father to Him in eternity. Take care of your hunger, Jesus, said Satan, turn these stones into bread for yourself! Solve it for yourself and benefit yourself, end your silly fast, says the devil. No, said our Lord: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
In today’s Gospel, there is a hungry crowd in the wilderness with Jesus. Jesus knew that He would satisfy their hunger and care for their needs. Although He refused to care for Himself when confronted by the devil at His own temptation, now, for the love of the neighbor, the love of the other person, Jesus will bring forth an overabundance of food from very little five loaves and two fish visibly present.
But Jesus nevertheless poses the quandary of what to do to His disciples to test them. “From where might we buy bread so that these may eat?” And Jesus perhaps leaned His head towards an oncoming crowd of perhaps 10,000 or more men, women, and children. It would be an intimidating problem to face if all alone, with no Jesus present.
The disciples’ fore-fathers had already failed their test. Hungry in the wilderness after being freed from slavery in Egypt, Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron and so against the Lord. We would be better off dead in Egypt, said the people to Moses, enslaved as we were, because at least there we had meat pots and bread. But you have brought us out into the wilderness to die. The solution to their hunger problem was to have never changed their circumstances, to be comfortable belonging to Pharaoh and not subject themselves to a long trip to the Promised Land through a barren wilderness, even led visibly by the living God and His holy prophet. The Lord graciously showed them that by His Word, He would feed them both body and soul. Manna enough for each day, manna enough to even observe the Sabbath rest and so hear the Word of God, their true bread from heaven.
Jesus knew that Israel’s tendency – and the tendency of our human flesh – is to not seek and to not put our trust in God’s help and providence. Adam and Eve took the forbidden fruit for themselves, hid their nakedness and hid from God’s presence in shame. St. Paul reminds us in the Epistle that Abraham and Sarah tried to solve their barren condition and lack of an heir by Abraham fathering a child, Ishmael, with Sarah’s servant-girl Hagar, and so break the one man – one woman marriage bond between them.
Philip and Andrew pipe up with an answer to Jesus’ test in the wilderness. They saw things in very stark terms. There is nowhere to buy bread, even if we could spend 200 days’ wages, it would not be enough. Oh there’s the little boy here with five loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many? There is no field out here to glean from, no wheat to make bread, we see nothing here but trouble, hunger, complaint, disappointment, discouragement, defeat, barrenness. We give up.
This is the viewpoint of the devil, tempting Philip and Andrew not to trust the Lord in the flesh standing right in front of them, who has already done great signs and miracles in front of them, like turning water into wine. Converting Samaritans with the Gospel. Healing lifelong paralytics.
There is in this wilderness feeding story yet again no relief from the devil. He is at work even amongst the Lord, His disciples, and His holy people.
After Jesus feeds the people from the five loaves and two fish, and makes the disciples pick up the crumbs that prove it, the devil is still at work. By force, the crowd tries to do what Satan only tried by tempting — to make Jesus King apart from the cross. They pursue Jesus as one who will remove the curse of having to provide for their families, rather than one who will remove the curse by giving the true Bread from heaven, the forgiveness of sins, which is what their families need more.
Jesus goes on to teach these same men about the saving Word of salvation found in Him, that He is the bread of life come from heaven, who gives his own flesh and blood for the life of the world. He promises them what their own flesh and blood cannot give them. That He can give them eternal life. That they cannot free themselves of sin, they must eat His flesh, drink His blood, and receive His forgiveness by faith to have true life in them. They must be acquitted by God’s grace alone. But as we read further in John’s Gospel, we see that most of those whose bodies Jesus fed did not want what Jesus offered. They walked away from their Savior and friend, their source of eternal life. They trusted in their own flesh and blood, not in His flesh and blood.
There is a real battle going on with the devil. The battle of faith. Where and in whom do you put your trust? Do you grumble, like old Israel? Do you see no solutions, like Philip and Andrew and the other disciples, and just give up? Do you sometimes listen to the devil, when he tells you that you need to make your own way, that God has left you desolate and barren and without hope, without a future, with no provisions and nowhere to go, and so you should trust in your own flesh and blood to work things out for your own good?
No, our faith must be in our Savior and friend, the living Bread come down from heaven. We pray to Jesus for miracles. For the miracles that maybe we don’t always see as miracles: that He continues to provide for us every day of our lives, that His mercies are new every morning, and that at His Word of promise and life by the Holy Spirit’s power we would trust that our heavenly Father is the best of fathers, that He gives you what is ultimately just, right, and good now and eternally on account of His Son.
Jesus provides joy and comfort in the midst of the emptiness, the darkness, the sorrows and pain of this life. Manna from heaven, the feeding of the 5000 men, the provision of daily bread in this corrupt and sin starved world, the gift of a child of promise, Isaac of old and his future seed, our Lord Jesus: even in impossible situations, even when we are confused about what’s even needed or possible, even when we are tempted to give in to despair and roll around in self-pity or be exhausted and just give in to it all, and quit struggling – there stands our God offering His grace, His mercy, His only-begotten Son, the living Bread from Heaven.
Jesus battled the devil and his wicked works and ways for you, and He gave of Himself in plenteous bounty, and died for every sinner, died for you, body broken, and blood poured out to bring forgiveness and life through His flesh and blood. For on the third day, He rose from the grave for you, bringing once again something out of nothing, life where there was death, every good thing from where there was nothing good, for He is good to His Word. He fought to the death for you that you might believe in Him as Lord and Savior and so be saved eternally.
After the disciples Philip and Andrew did not know where bread for the crowd would come from, Jesus says the wonderful words: “You have the crowd sit down.” It’s as if Jesus is saying, oh, you don’t think there’s anything here for this crowd? Just you sit them down in this barren patch and watch me make it a green pasture, beside the still waters of the Galilean Sea. I will set the table before them all, in the presence of the devil, the world, and your sin-corrupted flesh. I will stick it to the devil, I will make the cup to “runneth over” with bread and fish, and I will raise up children for my heavenly Father from these stones. Don’t think I can, Philip, Andrew, old Israel, twenty-first century skeptics, doubters, troubled sinners? Just you sit down and watch.
Jesus confidently calls you, in the midst of your wilderness journey, week after week, day after day, to sit down, be still, know that He is God; it is He that has made you, and not you yourself. Sit down, be still, and remember how God has always brought great and good things where previously there was nothing for the good of His creation. Turn away from the devil’s sly words and return to the joy of sins forgiven in the Lord Jesus Christ. He has won the victory. He will finish this battle with you through this valley of the shadow of death, and you will indeed dwell in the house of the Lord, body and soul, at the bounty of His heavenly banquet, forever.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit +