"THE BREAD KING"
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 31, 2019
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church
Perceiving then that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by Himself.
John 6:15 (ESV)
I still remember a certain phone call I received while I was a vicar some forty years ago in New York City. I was alone in the church office one day when the phone rang. When I answered it I heard a woman ask: "Do you have a reverend there who does weddings?" I was tempted to tell her that our "reverend" also preaches sermons and celebrates the Sacraments, but I didn't want to come off sounding like a wise guy. The whole point of my telling you this is that this person called a church even though she had no interest at all in what the Church is all about; all she wanted was to take advantage of one of the peripheral things that the Church happens to do on occasion. What is even more disconcerting is that there are plenty of churches and "reverends" out there who would happily oblige her with no questions asked--for a fee.
In today's text Jesus was faced with a similar challenge. He was being called upon to be something for the people He had just miraculously fed, but what they wanted Him to be is not what He is. That may seem odd at first, because they wanted to make Jesus king and, after all, isn't that what He is? Why then would He refuse to be made king? The problem that Jesus faced in the text before us was the same one that John the Baptist faced years earlier when a delegation from Jerusalem asked him if he was Elijah. He said that he was not but later Jesus said that he was. How could that be? The solution to these mysteries is that both the people who wanted to make Jesus king and the people who questioned John didn't have a clue what they were asking or doing. John was indeed the Elijah prophesied by Malachi (Malachi 4:4, 5), but he was not at all the Elijah that the religious leaders were looking for. In the same way Jesus is the King of all, but He is not the king that the people in our text wanted. Let's examine this more closely by contrasting the king that the people wanted (and perhaps still want) with the King that Jesus really is.
The king that the people in our text were looking for was an earthly king. Not that these were evil people by any means. It just seems that God's people always make the same mistake: While they decry the excesses and injustices of worldly things, they often seek those very things for themselves, thinking that they will handle them differently. But history sadly proves otherwise. The ancient people of Israel wanted a king like the other nations had. They got their king, and that event marked the beginning of the end for them as they immediately began to forsake the ways of the Lord. Jesus struck a chord with the Jews of His day because He spoke forcefully about power and glory and freedom but they ended up rejecting Him when they found out that the power, glory, and freedom that He was talking about was not military power or the glory of wealth or freedom from the Romans. The early Christians, oppressed by three centuries of persecution, longed for power, but once they got it they became just as oppressive as those who had persecuted them. Even today it seems that so often the people of God seek not the spiritual things of God, such as faithfulness and love, but rather worldly things like influence and recognition and success.
Another problem for the people in our text is that their desire for a king was essentially selfish. They weren't looking for a king who would lead them where God wanted them to go; they were impressed with Jesus' feeding of the five thousand and they wanted their physical needs to be provided for. Jesus was wise to this, as we can tell from His statement later on in this sixth chapter of John when the people finally tracked Him down. He said to them: "Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking Me, not because you saw signs but because you ate your fill of the loaves" (John 6:26). It's really no different in the world today, and we can see it all too clearly as an election year approaches. I'm old enough to remember a time when Democrats and Republicans alike voted on the basis of their principles--their ideals--their view of what is right and wrong. But today people of every political persuasion only seem to be interested in what's going to benefit them material. If a candidate can convince enough people that electing him will put more money in their pocket, that candidate wins. Sad to say, I'm not so sure that the people of God today are any different. They, too, often seek things not for promoting the kingdom of God but for promoting themselves.
Jesus is a different kind of King--different than what most people envision or want when they think of a king. He's not interested in what the world sees as power or glory. It's not so much that He considers worldly power and glory to be evil; it's just irrelevant. He has no need or desire for the power that destroys, because His power creates and heals and restores. He has no need or desire for the glory that puts others down, because His glory is the salvation of sinners--their inheritance of His kingdom and their sharing in His glory. This King's power and glory are revealed not in armies and conquests, but in His suffering and death. His throne is a cross. His crown is made of thorns. His weapons of victory are nails driven through His hands and feet. And His battle plan is that by the power of His Holy Spirit His people might use the means of grace He has given (the Word and the Sacraments) to conquer the world with His redeeming love.
Because King Jesus is a different kind of King, He cares for His people in a different kind of way. He doesn't cater to people, promising them everything that their hearts desire. He gives them what is best for them, even if it isn't what they ask for or want. Above all else He gives them the forgiveness of sins through His blood and the hope of everlasting life through His resurrection from the dead. But in order to give us these gifts, He first must expose our sin for what it is and threaten us with the punishment that we deserve. This is not something that we want or appreciate. In fact, there are those, even within the church, who are forever telling us not to talk about sin and its consequences or about the suffering and death of Christ because these things are such a "downer," they say. These things don't attract people in our day and age. That's probably true, but we continue to proclaim these things anyway because God's power is in the forgiveness of sinners and their salvation through the blood of Christ.
In view of all this I think we need to ask ourselves what kind of king we are looking for. Do we demand a spectacular and miraculous show of strength, or are we content to listen to the "still small voice" (1 Kings 19:12 RSV) of the God who reveals His power and glory in commonplace and unlikely ways? Do we insist that if there really is a God of love He has to give us and do for us everything that we want or do we have enough faith to believe that our heavenly Father is wise enough to know what is best for us and loves us enough to give it to us? Our knowledge of His power, His love, and His wisdom, manifested in the life and ministry of His Son and made known to us by the Holy Spirit, leads us to find in Him not just a "bread king" but the King of kings--One "who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think" (Ephesians 3:20).
May the One who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, making us kings and priests before His God and Father, lead you to a life of repentance and trust. May He also be glorified in the lives of you, His people. He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. Amen.