March 26, 2006
Rev. Paul L. Beisel
Dearly beloved members of the Body of Christ:
The journey to the Promised Land of Heaven is a long and difficult one. Sometimes we grow weary and faint along the way. Sometimes we grumble and complain about the journey. We accuse God of doing evil when He is really doing good. Who of us has not wished from time to time that God would make things just a little bit easier? Sometimes we lose our way and find ourselves walking in darkness. We get caught by the brambles of our sins or tangled up in the thorns of temptation. No wonder Jesus said that the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matthew 7:14).
We are not the first, however, to have to endure such troubles and trials. Remember how difficult it was for the children of Israel? Remember how they suffered? They too were on their way to the Promised Land of Canaan, the land flowing with milk and honey. But life in the wilderness was no picnic. It was hard to keep their attention fixed on the goal when their stomachs were growling. Many of them believed that it would be better to be slaves with full stomachs than free men with empty ones. And aren’t we the same way? Don’t we often think to ourselves that it would be better if we were not Christians, that it would be easier if we could just return to our comfortable bondage to Satan? Wouldn’t it be easier if we could just join the rest of the world in their pleasure and self-fulfillment? Wouldn’t it be easier if we didn’t have to think about resisting the urge to sin, if we could just live by sight and not by faith?
Perhaps it would be easier, but Jesus says that wide is the gate and easy is the way that leads not to life, but to death; to darkness; to judgment. That is why we must always be on guard against such thoughts for they are not from God but from the Devil. Let us not forget that our Lord Jesus hears our complaints, that He hears our cries for help and mercy, and that He is always there with a quick and ready hand to serve us. Was He deaf to the cries and complaints of the children of Israel when they grumbled against Him in the wilderness? Certainly not. And what did He do? Did He tell them to mind their own business? Did He tell them not to bother Him with such requests and complaints? Of course not! Instead He opened up His gracious hand and poured down manna from heaven for them to eat every morning. He did not want them to perish in the wilderness, but He wanted to test them, to see if they would trust in Him, and walk in His ways.
He did the same thing for those weary and hungry people in the Gospel who had followed Him up to the mountain during the Passover Feast. Once again this kind and compassionate Lord opened up His gracious hand and multiplied the loaves and fish for them. He gave them so much to eat that there were twelve full baskets of fragments left over. Like the children of Israel who ate manna in the wilderness, these people ate as much as they wanted; all 5000 of them!
With these words and examples Jesus wants to remind us today that we are not alone in this journey; that He is with us not only as our guide and protector but as our daily bread and sustenance. He does not want us to perish on the way or to get lost any more than He wanted the children of Israel or the people in the Gospel to perish from hunger. If it were otherwise, then He would never have told His disciples, “Surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.” He would never have said: “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.”
Our problem is that instead of turning to Him for help and relief, we rely on every thing else but Him. Rather than obey His invitation and come to Him when we are weary and burdened, we walk away from Him and look for peace and relief in other ways. We try to comfort ourselves with positive thinking or we drown our sorrows in alcohol or drugs. And what does that get us? Nothing but more anguish and trouble!
Dearly beloved, this is how it will always be as long as you rely on yourselves, as long as you are focused on yourselves and your circumstances. As long as you do not trust in Christ, you will always believe like Philip that the situation is hopeless and impossible. And you will go on living in your despair and gloom until you have completely lost faith in Christ. Is this how you want to live your lives? Do you enjoy living as though God had forgotten about you, as though He were not willing to come down and help? Do you want sure and certain proof and evidence that He loves you and is kindly disposed toward you? Then look nowhere else but to the cross. Look to the suffering and death of His Son, for there you will see that God’s Word does not lie, that when He makes a promise, He keeps it. No where else can you find such certainty except where the blood of God’s Lamb was poured out for you. For there God demonstrated His love towards us sinners and showed the whole world that He was committed to its salvation. And lest we forget about that loving sacrifice and death, lest we begin to doubt that Christ wants us to join Him in His kingdom after we die, lest we go hungry and weary and faint along this difficult journey, He gave to His Church a lasting memorial of His death in the Sacrament of the Altar.
Every week we gather here and Christ does for us what He did for the children of Israel so long ago —He rains down bread from heaven to nourish and to comfort our weak and hungry souls. In the Holy Sacrament Christ multiplies the wholesome loaves of His body and the sweet wine of His blood for us and places it into our mouths to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of our sins. What Christian would not want to eat this heavenly bread often? What Christian would not be willing to sacrifice life and limb in order to eat such wonderful food whenever it is offered? What Christian, if he really believed this, could sit week after week at home while his fellow believers are feasting on this holy and life-giving food? Would a hungry beggar pass up a free meal? So those who do not hunger and thirst for righteousness and eternal life have little use for Jesus and the food that He gives in the Supper. But blessed are those whose souls are hungry for righteousness, for they will be filled.
For most of us the penitential character of the Lenten Season has become more symbolic than real. It is reflected in our services by the removal of flowers from the chancel and the omission of organ preludes and postludes, and most of all, by the removal of the Alleluias from the service. But aside from going to an extra Church service during the week, Lent does not bring to our personal lives any more devotion or spiritual discipline than any other season of the Church Year. Good or bad, what once served as a time to take one’s Christianity more seriously has become just another season of the Church year. Lutherans have mastered the art of omitting anything in their spiritual lives that is not required for salvation, like fasting for instance, even though the blessed Martin Luther wrote in the Small Catechism: “Fasting and bodily preparation are indeed a fine outward training” and even though Jesus Himself said: “When you fast…” assuming that fasting would be a part of every Christian’s spiritual discipline.
At a time when the customs of Lent were taken more seriously, and Christians fasted in order to prepare themselves for the celebration of Easter, the fourth Sunday in Lent was a brief “rest stop” along the Lenten journey. For one Sunday Christians were allowed to relax and take a deep breath and wipe the sweat off their brow before the final push towards holy week. If you’ve ever gone on a long hike, you know how good it feels to sit down, and so today Jesus says to the Church: “Have the people sit down.” In other words, if you are weary and weak from the journey, now is the time to take a load off and rest a while. Like the left-over fragments of bread which the disciples gathered into twelve baskets, we are gathered up by our Lord into one apostolic Church, so that none may be lost. The word of the day is “rejoice” for today we rejoice that God has called us out of the Egypt of our sins and set us free from the bitter yoke of slavery. Amen.