Jesus Makes Our Gifts Stretch

Cupboard

John 6:10-11 “Jesus said, ‘Have the people sit down.’ There was plenty of grass in that place, and the men sat down, about five thousand of them. Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.”

There are no ordinary conditions in which five loaves of bread and a couple of fish are going to satisfy the hunger of five thousand people. The fact that these loaves were likely smaller than the loaves of bread with which we are familiar, and that the gospels mention five thousand men, but also imply there were additional women and children, only emphasizes the gap between supply and need. Jesus could have just as easily created food for these people out of thin air. There was nothing preventing him from doing so.

But Jesus was pleased to take the humble little offering of this little boy and use it for the work he was about to do. What we have to offer could never be suitable for Jesus’ work, or enough for Jesus’ work, all by itself. But Jesus has redeemed each of us from our sins. He has cleansed us and claimed us for himself, and he receives us as his very own. And so he also receives our meager little gifts, humble as they are. He cleanses them with his grace. He touches them with his power. Then he uses them for his work, including the work of providing daily bread for ourselves and our neighbors. He doesn’t make our provisions appear out of thin air, generally speaking. With his grace, and with his power, he starts with what he have, he extends our supply, and makes it accomplish what he needs to be done.

That does not mean that we should expect to see a miraculous multiplication of our resources on the scale of his feeding the five thousand on a regular basis. We have no promise of a miracle like this.

But we are fools if we think that all our salaries, and all our savings and investments, and all the collected stuff with which we fill our homes, and our attics, and our garages, and even rented storage space could supply our needs for even one minute if Jesus did not love us and bless what we have with his sustaining power. But he does love us, and his power is at work for us.

Many, if not most, of you have even seen how he can take the little you have and make it stretch far beyond your expectations. You stumble upon an outstanding sale. You receive a well-timed and generous gift from someone. You get more meals out of the leftovers than you expected, the clothes last longer than they should, that old car limps along another year. Just coincidence? I don’t think so. In smaller, more subtle ways he continues to extend our supply. And if a great miracle were needed, he can still do that, too. It’s all evidence that Jesus can make do with just the gifts he has given us today.

Jesus Is Bigger Than the Problem

Jesus Big Letter

John 6:7-9 “Philip answered him, ‘Eight months wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!’ Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, ‘Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will that go among so many?’”

Philip saw only the problem. The need was too big. There was no way that they could buy enough bread to feed everyone. And Philip’s reaction is very typical when it seems like we don’t have enough, or we don’t have a way to fix the problem. We fixate all our attention on the problem itself, and the more we look at it, and the more we think about it, the more we worry, the less we actually get done, and the more pessimistic we become.

The inability to look beyond our needs or our problems only feeds our sinful nature and erodes our faith. It can even choke faith altogether. Remember how Jesus interpreted the seed that fell among the thorns in the parable of the sower and the seed? “The seed that fell among the thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures…” (Luke 8:14).

Andrew looked a little farther. He took inventory of what they had. But Andrew could only conclude that their resources were too small. “How far will that go among so many?” Andrew’s problem was the inability to look beyond self. “What can I do, what can we do, to fix the problem?” Generally, we think of self-confidence as a good thing, something we try to build in our children and each other. But if all we have is self-confidence, it is only a matter of time before we run into a need, an issue, a problem so big that we are completely overwhelmed.

The example of Philip and Andrew helps to confront our own pessimism and failure to look for help where help can be found. The solutions we need are not to be found in some self-help slogans or platitudes about seeing problems as opportunities, or making lemonade when life serves you lemons. Jesus confronts our pessimism to teach us that we can trust him to provide.

The answer that neither Philip nor Andrew stumble upon was the man who asked them the question in the first place. Jesus was standing right there in front of them! They had seen him drive away the demons, control the weather, and even raise the dead. Was this problem worse than those?

We have seen him endure torture and sacrifice his life to bring us forgiveness for our sins. We have seen him take his life back again and rise from the dead. We have been promised that he sits at the right hand of God’s power in heaven ruling all things for the good of his people on earth. We have his word that nothing can separate us from his love. That is reason for optimism, for Christ-confidence, for trusting Jesus to provide, no matter what the size of our need may be.

He Has a Plan

Planning on Board

John 6:5-6 “When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, ‘Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?’ He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.”

John reveals a detail not noted in the other gospel accounts of the feeding of the 5000. Jesus was aware of the need to find food for this crowd even before his disciples were. He was the one who pointed it out to them and got them thinking about it. That shouldn’t surprise us, because he is the all-knowing Son of God.

Maybe it doesn’t occur to us that the same holds true in our own time of need. You or I may be surprised to learn that we suffer from a serious medical condition, or that we are losing our job, or that our home or car requires some unreasonably expensive repair. Or if we had some suspicions that something was wrong, we still feel some shock and disappointment when our worst fears are confirmed. We feel rattled. Our confidence is shaken. We get depressed or angry about our bad fortune. But our Savior is not surprised by the mess in which we find ourselves. He saw it coming all along. He knew long before we ever suspected.

Our initial reaction to that news may be, “Then why didn’t he do something to stop it?” And we are disappointed with God. But that is the reaction of unbelief and the sinful flesh, not of faith. Faith sees God’s promise, “He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

You can trust Jesus to provide, because he always has a plan. Long ago, even before time began, the Lord anticipated the problem of sin, and he had a plan. In his first letter, Peter tells us that Jesus was chosen to be the Lamb of sacrifice whose blood redeems us from our sin “before the creation of the world.” Paul assured the Christians in Ephesus that God “chose us in him (that is Jesus) before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (1:4). He saw our need, and he had a plan to save us, before we even existed.

That foresight doesn’t stop at our salvation. Jesus “had in mind what he was going to do” to feed the 5000. He has in mind what he is going to do for our needs. You and I are already living in his plan, and he is in control of our lives, though this may difficult for us to see, because we can’t see how it all turns out as he does. Still, you can trust Jesus to provide, because he has a plan.

Strengthen Our Hearts

Heart Muscle

1 Thessalonians 3:13 “May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.”

Do you like to exercise? I have reached the age where the more I do something that uses muscles I don’t use while sitting at my desk or walking around, the more I feel it in my back, or shoulders, or legs the next day. In order to get into better shape I need to expand what I do. But in order to stay in shape I also need to repeat what I do. Exercise those muscles just one time, and they won’t become so strong. But they will be sore.

Doesn’t the strengthening of the faith in our hearts call for a similar plan? We need to expand our exposure to God’s word, and hear facets of the gospel we hadn’t heard before, and gain new insights into his great love for us. As Paul wrote the Ephesians, “May (you) have power together will all the saints to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge…” Then our faith grows broader.

But we also need to drive it deeper. We need to repeat those things we already know about God’s love. Using the same muscle over and over makes it strong. Hearing the same gospel over and over makes faith strong. This is how God answers our prayer to strengthen our hearts.

Even a little, wavering, struggling faith is a saving faith. But Paul didn’t want the Thessalonians to stagger to the finish line with a faith that barely got them through life. He wanted them to have a strong faith that lived in full confidence of God’s grace. He wanted there to be no doubts that they would stand before God on the day of Jesus’ return, and that they would be “blameless and holy,” washed from every spot of sin by Jesus’ blood received by faith.

I would like you to accomplish great things for God. I would like you to be shining examples of Christian faith to the people around you. But more than anything, I pray that God will strengthen your hearts so that you will make it all the way, and you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

New York Jets running back Curtis Martin used to prepare for every game by reading Psalm 91. It’s a prayer for God to “give his angels charge over thee to keep thee in all thy ways.” Football is just game. Christ’s return is not. Let’s ask God to give us strong hearts, ready when Christ returns.

Increase Our Love

Heart tree

1 Thessalonians 3:12 “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.”

You can’t read Paul’s letters to the churches he founded, like this letter to the Thessalonians, and miss the passion this pastor felt for his people. He genuinely cared. But the love he wanted to see increase and overflow is more than warm feelings.

Our world’s idea of love often has less to do with what is good for someone else, and more to do with possessing the person or thing that I desire for myself. It is a selfish and self-serving thing to which we may become addicted, and it often moves us to take complete leave of our senses.

Paul prayed that the Lord would make a genuine Christian love increase and overflow among these people, but what does that look like? How is it different? A quick walk through the New Testament gives us a rather lovely picture of this love. Jesus’ example of washing his disciples’ feet shows us that it does not balk at performing some of the most menial tasks for others. Later that evening he tells us that it lays down its life for a friend. Among other things Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians 13 reveals that it is not self-seeking. It carries each other’s burdens he writes the Galatians. According to John, it will give up material possessions to help a brother in need. It is in every way epitomized by the sacrifice God has made for us in Christ.

Such a love grows only where faith grows. You can’t separate them. Luther’s rather famous description of faith in his preface to the book of Romans jumps quickly to the way faith reveals itself in love: “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all His creatures; and this is the work of the Holy Ghost in faith. Hence a man is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace.”

And such faith and love grow only where the gospel feeds them. “We love because he first loved us.” “This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” God’s love in sending his Son and offering him for my sins doesn’t shame me into a more loving life. It changes me. Again, Luther on the difference faith makes: “It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God; it kills the Old Adam and makes altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers.”

A prayer to increase our love is at the same time a prayer for our Lord to flood us with his grace, for Christ to come to us in his word and sacrament, and increase our faith. Then our love will overflow to the blessing of others.

Clear the Way

Road block

1 Thessalonians 3:11 “Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you.”

This was more than just a sentimental request Paul was making. It flowed from his concern for the spiritual well-being of these people. Paul had established this church on his second missionary journey. As was so often the case, his time to instruct these people and build them up in their faith was cut short by an outbreak of persecution in that city. He had to flee in the middle of the night to avoid arrest and imprisonment.

That gave Paul a number of doctrinal and moral concerns for these people. They lived in a Gentile environment, and a Greek harbor town, where the idea of sexual purity was a complete novelty. They were having difficulty maintaining sexually godly behavior in that setting. The Thessalonians suffered from some rather serious misunderstandings about Christ’s second coming. Some thought they could quit their work and just sit around and wait for Jesus to re-appear. Others didn’t quite understand the resurrection and lost hope for their believing friends and family who died. It seems these people came from a culture that practiced a certain amount of deceit and craftiness in its business dealings with others. They struggled to give up practices that used to seem normal and prudent.

So Paul prayed for God to clear the way. It was the prayer of a pastor for his people. In verse 10 he says, “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.” It was a prayer the people could pray for their pastor. Then Paul could come and better prepare their faith and life for Christ to come.

Could you pray for the Lord to clear the way for your pastor to come to you? “But,” you may think, “we already see him often enough. He lives nearby. Why do we need to pray for the Lord to clear the way for our pastor to come to us?”

Aren’t we also bombarded with wrong ideas from a culture that considers sexual purity a novelty, and is losing its way on matters of ethical business practice? For that we need to pray. Already 10 years ago an article in Newsweek revealed one out of four Americans in this so-called “Christian” nation embraces the concept of reincarnation. We, too, are losing our grip on a faithful Biblical understanding of what happens to people after death as we wait for Christ to come. For that we need to pray. Like Lot, who lived in the godless city of Sodom, our environment causes our own beliefs and morals to slip. Our own sinful natures are all-too-happy to embrace the slide. Like Paul, we need to pray that the Lord will clear the way for pastor and people to see each other again and again, because of the many challenges to our faith.

Most of all, we need the Lord to clear the way so that those who preach can bring us the gospel. The main thing my faith lacks is the same thing that your faith lacks–an unwavering trust in the grace and love of God. That is supplied only in the good news about Jesus. I pray that God will clear the way for pastors to lead people to the side of the manger–not to see an adorable little baby who makes you smile; nor an impoverished little baby who makes your heart break; but to see the God you worship reduce himself to a ordinary, fragile, human baby so that he could suffer what you suffer, and struggle with your struggles, and even shoulder the sins that you have sinned as your substitute.

I pray for pastors to lead people to the foot of the cross, where we can see that same immortal God taste human mortality, and die the death our sins deserve, and pay the price that sets us free from them. God sent this holy child to make you his holy child. By his justifying grace and forgiveness that is who you now are.

Join Paul in praying for Christ to come and clear the way for this good news and those who bring it to us.

Power Over Satan, Not From Him

Jesus vs Devil

Mark 3:22 “The teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebub! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.’”

The teachers of the law were the Bible scholars of their day. They were the experts to whom people turned when they had a question about God. They had rejected the good news and already decided that Jesus was bad news. So when they saw Jesus loving his neighbors by freeing them of demon possession, they needed some way to explain Jesus’ power that didn’t make him look like a hero. Driving out demons was an act of love on Jesus part, but they said it was a trick to cover up the fact that he got his power from prince of demons himself. In essence, they said that Jesus was evil.

People say a lot of things about Jesus today, much of it false. But the circle of people willing to say that Jesus is evil is very small–at least those willing to say it in so many words. Still, there are more subtle ways in which the accusation gets thrown at him. When people call Bible believers mean and intolerant because they hold traditional moral positions, because they don’t approve of various perversions, because they insist Jesus is the only way to heaven, in an indirect way they are saying that Jesus is evil. Why? Because Bible believers haven’t come by their beliefs on their own. They are simply following their leader.

Neither you nor I would say that Jesus was possessed by a demon. We wouldn’t call him evil. But each sin we commit shows that we are not completely convinced of his goodness. When the devil tempted Adam and Eve to sin for the first time, he gave them the implication that God was not good. If God were good, would he set limits on them? Would he forbid them to eat from any tree they wanted? And when we sin, aren’t we suggesting that he is not good in this case, to set this sin off limits for us? We don’t say, “God is evil,” but our actions betray such an attitude lurking around inside of us. We are not immune from criticizing Christ in subtle and indirect ways, either.

When Jesus’ love inspired his enemies to call him evil, to say that he was possessed by a demon, Jesus dismissed the accusation easily enough. First he used a couple of similar illustrations or parables. “So Jesus called them and spoke to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? (One) If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. (Two) If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. (And three, the interpretation) And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand. His end has come” Mark 3:23-26).

It’s just simple, easy to understand logic that Jesus uses here, isn’t it? Armies don’t win wars by killing their own troops, especially armies that are grossly undermanned and over-matched to start with. Families don’t stay together and prosper if they are constantly battling each other and don’t work together as a team. Satan, frankly, has no chance of winning, but he only makes his final defeat come faster by fighting his own allies and driving demons out of the people they have possessed.

Then Jesus shows them what his power to cast out demons really reveals about himself. “In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can rob his house” (Mark 3:27). Satan is the strong man in this last little parable. You don’t march into Satan’s kingdom and start taking away the souls he has possessed unless you have first asserted your power over him. Long ago Christ threw Satan out of heaven. At the beginning of his ministry he defeated the devil’s temptations in the wilderness. At the cross he would do more than rob Satan of the souls he had tried to take. He would crush his head. Already Jesus’ power over the demons, his ability to drive them out and take back these people, showed that he is divine, that he is our Savior, and that through Jesus’ work God has broken the power of Satan to control us.

Satan hasn’t stopped trying to collect souls for himself, and he still tempts us to fall, but with Jesus our souls remain safe.

Who Is Jesus’ Family?

Jesus Points

Mark 3:31-35 “Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.’ Who are my mother and my brothers?’ he asked. Then he looked around him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.’”

A greater question than, “What do people think of Jesus?” is “What does Jesus think of us?” His natural family thought he had lost his mind. Not true. Now Jesus reveals whom he really regards as his family. Jesus claims as members of his own family “whoever does God’s will.”

This is not salvation by works. This is not keeping the 10 commandments so faithfully and so perfectly that our love and perfection rival Jesus’ own. Jesus describes doing God’s will this way in John 6, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

And what are the people around him doing, the ones about whom he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers!”? They aren’t out turning the world upside down with their charity and kindness, at least not yet. They are sitting around Jesus and listening to his words. They are letting him serve them. They hear Jesus and they believe the good news.

They are Jesus’ family, his mother and brothers and sisters, because the good news is that Jesus came to take away our sins. He lived the perfect life of love and mercy to fulfill God’s law for us. He came to give his life in place of ours as the payment for our sins. By declaring us not guilty, by so removing our sin, he makes for himself a people who are qualified to be claimed as his own family.

Who are his mother and brother and sisters today? They are still the people who are gathered around to hear his words and believe them. They are the people who let Jesus serve them with the gospel. At church, studying the Scriptures, or even reading this little meditation on his words, they are you and me.

Not a Crazy Love

Jesus Crowd

Mark 3:20-21 “Then Jesus entered a house and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’”

Can you love your neighbor too much–not romantic love or selfish desire, but true, self-sacrificing love that only does what is best for others? Is it possible to love others that way beyond the bounds of sanity? Some members of Jesus’ own family thought so. They thought Jesus was crazy for spending so much time with the crowds.

Why did they think Jesus had gone too far? He was working so hard that he didn’t even have time to eat. But he wasn’t a workaholic addicted to his job, the kind of person who gets the jitters if he isn’t doing something productive. He wasn’t a slave to money or gadgets or the finer things who never stops working because he never has enough.

Jesus understood, like no one else ever has, that life is serving. In this case, Jesus was fasting not for some mystic religious exercise to bring him closer to God. He skipped meals because his neighbor needed him. We aren’t told specifically on this occasion, but when crowds surrounded Jesus, that usually meant he was doing one of two things: either he was showing mercy by healing their diseases and driving out demons, or he was proclaiming the love of God in the gospel of grace.

When Jesus saw the crowds, we read in Matthew’s gospel, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. They suffered all the physical misery and pain that is common to people who live in the world. And in Jesus’ day, all their religious leaders were far more interested in burdening them with huge lists of rules to keep than offering the smallest drop of God’s forgiveness. Jesus gave these people the time they needed, so that he could give them the grace they needed, even if that meant skipping dinner more than a few times.

For this, his family decided he was out of his mind. Do our own sympathies sometimes lie with their point of view? What is the point of sacrificing my time, my convenience, my energy, my comfort, or even my health for others when there is no obvious benefit for me? Why help someone else when it makes my own life less pleasant? The answer: that’s what love is.

In Paul’s great description of love in 1 Corinthians 13, he says among other things, “Love is kind…it is not self-seeking.” Parents do it for their children–sacrifice with no immediate benefit to themselves–at least much of the time. Why should it stop there? “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” Any other view is just another version of worldly selfishness.

Our criticism of sacrificial love at work, our refusal to practice it ourselves, only exposes our selfish nature. The world knows only a “love” that expects something in return. I know of a celebrity fund raiser that once raised $100,000 dollars for underprivileged children. That’s wonderful. But nearly $800,000 was spent entertaining the celebrities in attendance to raise the $100,000. I don’t want to be critical of the good. But Jesus shows us a better way. Jesus shows us love. And love should not be criticized.

Jesus’ love is always first a love to be received. That’s what the crowds were doing who came to him. That is why we have placed our faith in him. He has loved us no less sacrificially. He has given us more than his time. He has given us his very life. That’s not crazy. That’s what God’s love looks like.