Laetare – Fourth Sunday in Lent
“The Need to Rejoice”
Rev. Jacob Sutton, Pastor
St. John 6.1-15
22 March 2020
+ In the Name of Jesus +
And the Passover was approaching, the feast of the Jews.
The feast of Passover was a pilgrimage feast. All were to travel to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate, it was not optional, it was an everlasting ordinance to remember the great deliverance from slavery in Egypt. God commanded through Moses: “But if anyone who is clean and not on a journey fails to keep the Passover, that person shall be cut off from his people because he did not bring the Lord’s offering at the appointed time; that man shall bear his sin.” (Numbers 9:13) God expected to provide a time to rejoice and be refreshed in His Word to His people, and expected them to join Him.
Now Moses gives two exceptions in Numbers 9 for missing the Passover: if a person had become ritually unclean by contact with a dead body – say your family member passed away, and you had to help prepare the body for burial; or because the person was away on a very long journey. So for these exceptions, people in these situations would wait and celebrate a “lesser” Passover one month later.
This means that the great crowd following Jesus out into the Galilean wilderness was not just suffering from being out in a desolate place with nothing to forage for food, that the hour was late, and that there was nothing to eat. There is no grocery store to go raid.
These people with Jesus had either been forced by circumstances to be away on a far journey, or more likely, they had recently suffered the loss of relatives by death, or both. The consequences of death for these people were intensified – not only were they mourning the loss of a loved one in their family, but also they were forcibly excluded from the rest of the Jewish community during a time of celebration.
Now the story is starting to sound a little familiar to us today. These people were under a forced quarantine from the holy city, and so their tears of mourning are mixed with the joy of the time being observed. They could use an excuse to rejoice, there was a need for some joy in life.
The Lord Jesus in John’s Gospel had already been to Jerusalem and it did not go well. He healed a man on the Sabbath. The Jewish leaders sought to persecute and kill Jesus for that (John 5.18) Also, there was mourning because the beheading of John the Baptist had just occurred. It seems the whole background of today’s Gospel is death, mourning, ritual impurity, separation from the rest of the community, and for the crowd – hunger in a desolate place.
Today our Passover is drawing near, the feast of the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. It has been difficult for many days now, and lately there’s been bad news piled high. Chinese Wuhan Virus has reared its ugly pandemic head. Sometimes we might like to retreat away as Jesus did – go across the sea, up in the hills to pray alone – to social distance and quarantine in place.
But no matter how far you might retreat, problems do not go away. There is no rest for the weary from our sinful flesh and its lusts, and the devil always has a scheme at hand to tempt and try us. We seem to always be out in the wilderness, and running out of joy by the moment. We are like that gangly crowd following after the Lord in the wilderness – scattered, away from our true home, always at least somewhat mournful, hungry for better days, hoping for the best today and tomorrow.
Today, the fourth Sunday in Lent, is refreshment, rejoicing, in the midst of the Lenten storm of this life. We signify as much by changing the color of the day from violet to rose. Today more than ever we ought to realize and take heart: we do not belong in the wilderness, separated from our fellow Christians either in life or in death, and further, this temporal life is not our true home, not our final destination. We always as Christians are in pilgrimage to our true home ahead – there is a greater Passover ahead to celebrate.
And like the wilderness crowd, we are not forsaken by Jesus Christ on our way with Him. He lifts up His eyes and sees the great crowd. He saw them, and their pain, and their sadness. He sees you and yours too. And He knows your pain, He knows your sadness, He knows your sufferings, your temptations, and your flesh. He knows you are lacking out in the wilderness. He knows. He sees. He acts. He does not stay socially distant from anyone. He comes forth. He provides. He gives comfort. He gives reason to rejoice, even in suffering.
Jesus and His disciples have the people recline in the grass, as if they are at the festive table, and they bring and serve the miracle bread to the people, blessed and broken. The people are treated like royalty.
They did nothing to deserve it all. It all comes purely out of Jesus’ love and compassion for them, by His grace. Jesus changes the time of hunger and mourning and loss into one of rejoicing and abundance and blessing. Jesus is changing that approaching Passover – from one that celebrates the past to one that looks to Him as fulfiller of the past and provider and redeemer of the present and the future.
That’s your reality, today and now. You too are in the wilderness of this world – full of sickness, death, mourning, impurity. Separated from God and neighbor by your sinful condition, without God’s intervention you would be lost and condemned on your own account, needing a miracle to sustain and deliver you, your past unfulfilled, the present uncertain, the future without hope.
Jesus’ overabundant feeding of the people at the little, second Passover in the wilderness points to a bigger reality – He came to sacrifice Himself at Jerusalem and at the Temple, as the greater and even more abundant Bread from heaven – His flesh to be real meat indeed, His blood to be real drink – given and shed for the forgiveness of sins, given and shed to conquer death and mourning and impurity and separation from God and neighbor.
Given and shed to bring real peace and comfort and joy, to change our times of hunger and mourning and loss and despair and anxiety and separation into a time of rejoicing and abundance and blessing and comfort. Given and shed to fulfill and redeem the past, to give certainty and blessing to the present, to redeem and provide a future boundless in its hope and joy.
Stuck at home all week, maybe all the time? Needing to rejoice in the midst of this life and its pandemics, panics, and uncertainty? The Lord Jesus Christ feeds you with His comforting abundant Word from heaven this day: He has not left you, has not forsaken you. All things are in His righteous hand and all enemies are under His feet. Virus included. He bestows His forgiveness and blessing upon you, comforting and assuring and strengthening you to keep marching, keep heading straight on unto that great Jerusalem up ahead, where rejoicing without measure is even now taking place, that no eye has seen and no ear has heard, where all the saints and angel host sing the songs of Moses and the Lamb, world without end. Oh, that we were there!
Do not mourn and grieve this life and this death – or the threat of death – as people who have no hope. Mourn the dead, and it is right to miss them and long to see them again. Fear for a time that which harms the body, but even more, fear, love, and trust in the God who created, redeemed, and sanctifies you, body and soul, who with His own blood has made you fit for eternal life. Turn your mourning and fear into singing and rejoicing for the new Jerusalem, great and free, knowing that all who die in Christ do not die in vain, even as our Lord did not die in vain, but conquered death and defeated sin and Satan once and for all. The great Passover from death to life approaches, when you and all who believe on His saving Name will celebrate an eternal feast with Him who has cleared the way through the grave into the eternal resurrection to come.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit +