They came for the signs. Persistent sicknesses healed, the lame made to walk, demons driven out, blind eyes opened to see… They’d seen it happen; and they wanted to see more. Seventeen times in John’s gospel they’re called “signs” – those times when Jesus worked miracles – so you know it’s not an insignificant thing. In fact, you have a big sign from John that this account in ch.6 is something worth paying attention to. This is one of the three places in his gospel where the “Passover” is mentioned – sort of like the second mile-marker on Jesus’ three-mile-marker ministry, as if to say, “We’re almost to the end…pay attention.” And that’s what signs are for, really: to call our attention and to point us to something. So, in a sense, rightly that crowd came for the signs…
Literally, John says, they “had been observing the signs”. Like you did when the Bucks won the championship. You came – in person to that game or to the Deer District or on TV – to see a wonder. You hoped they’d work it. And they did! But you didn’t play that game, you observed it. You were there for you – for the passion, for the camaraderie, to be able to say you were there, for your own enjoyment – a spectator. Spectators, the crowds had been, of these signs. And they came for more…more wonders, more works, more winning… but really for themselves, finally. In the end, they just wanted to carry Jesus off on their shoulders like the Most Valuable Prophet and crown him world champion of kings. The kind who could produce daily bread, because if he could do that, what couldn’t he do for them?
There should be more, though, shouldn’t there? More than just self-interested observation and self-satisfaction? If we were to find more in the story, you’d hope to find it among Jesus’ own disciples, yes? They’d seen all the signs too. And they’d come along with Jesus, at his invitation; hopped in a boat to get to the other side of the lake and some peace. But when they arrived, all tired with sensory-overload, they’d disembarked to an already great (and still growing) sign-seeking crowd. And, it seems from the other gospels’ accounts, that about then, right away, Jesus turned to Philip and said v.5, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” Which he asked, not because he didn’t know, but because he wanted to test Philip (v.6) – to see what he’d conclude. And I think you could rightly imagine it this way: that Jesus had compassion on them and began to teach the crowds about the kingdom of God and to do many more signs, and off to the side somewhere for the next number of hours Philip and the disciples set to thinking it through — where should we get food for these?
Philip calculated – counting them – groups of hundreds and fifties (Mark’s gospel says – 6:40). Finally, 5,000 men…add in ladies and kids…maybe 10-12,000 people? And he checked his Google Maps to see if there were any food trucks nearby – and then thought that perhaps 10 food trucks wouldn’t be enough. Or maybe they could take a collection, go buy some ingredients, bake some bread – but no… Nobody would have enough. And where would they bake it? And the time? And if even they baked some loaves – how long and how to cart thousands of loaves from wherever to here? And were there any porta-potties? What if these people had to go to the bathroom?
Which is how Philip and the others sometime later approached. Jesus on one knee, helping up one more man onto newly healed feet, looking up at his disciples with raised eyebrows that said, “Is dinner ready, then?” But instead they asked, “Lord, don’cha think we should just send these people away?” Because logistics… Philip said, v.7 – “Eight months’ wages worth of bread wouldn’t suffice for each one to [just] have a bite!” It isn’t possible… And Andrew, as if to confirm that they’d actually done some looking and found that there really were no convenient Panera Bread locations nearby said, “[We found this] boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” Answer: nowhere near far enough. That’s poor man’s bread and a meagre lunch for a scrawny kid.
Which is all true. I mean, over against the crowds who had come to see the game and the win, these disciples had seen the effort and the difficulty and they weren’t dumb. They weren’t spectators, they were workers and realists – they could see when they were beat. They could read the signs and do the math: what they had wouldn’t nearly satisfy so many. Sometimes you had to be sensible. They’d come along with the one who could do signs, but they wished he could read the signs like they did.
And the gospel stories are so confoundingly all-encompassing like that, aren’t they? They sweep us up wherever we are on the spectrum… I’d like to dismiss the crowds’ crazy desire, but I know my own heart runs after God to sign-in-to-being exactly what I want. That you could stand with me in the crowd that seeks nothing more than signs from God – just one show that this choice I’ve made is the right one, just one indicator that my country will be fine, just one gift of life-long love, just… And we pine like that sometime regardless that we know we’ll inevitably pine after other and more. And regardless of what he’s actually promised and already given… Regardless of how it actually makes Jesus as small as me – king of some little parochial kingdom, vendor of plastic baubles instead of king over the world, ruler supreme.
Or you stand with the disciples. Like them, you’ve seen all the signs. Yet, with Philip, you sometimes read all the signs and do all the figuring of how life actually is. In times of trouble myopically say, “There is no hope!” “This is what must be done – the only way…” “That person will never believe…” “I cannot do that…” Because we’ve marked out reality thinking it will somehow allow us to satisfy ourselves with the little that we can do. But, as one Lutheran pastor of old said, “Good arithmetic is not always good Christianity… And yet we like to do our little figuring, especially in times of distress, only to find out that our figuring gets us nowhere.” And our low human expectations and limited vision likewise keeps Jesus as small as me – one only capable of what I count reasonable – the king of “not enough”.
That’s the trouble isn’t it, really? Wasn’t Philip exactly right? “[I]t wouldn’t be enough…” none of it. My seeking satisfaction for signs from God Whole disregarding the ones he’s given – it’s sin; my assessments that assume God is as small as I am – it’s sin. And Philip’s answer puts to words the deep and real problem – there is nothing here that is sufficient. Except for one – the one with the signs…
We said before that signs say something. The sign of the Feeding of the 5,000 says something very direct and simple. He is sufficient… Read it in that story: Jesus takes the meagre meal – 5 loaves and 2 fish. He gives thanks and begins to distribute it – through his disciples and off to the crowds. How much? A little bit? “Take some but remember there’s people yet to receive?” No… “as much as they desired” – as much as they wanted. And when was it done? Not when he ran out. No… “when they were satisfied” – when they’d had enough, ate a lunch, were full. Then he stopped distributing and then they gathered up the leftovers – twelve baskets full of pieces – maybe like 6 five-gallon buckets full of bread pieces – or you might call it the abundance. And the people saw it and knew it – a sign…
It is a sign. Not that Jesus should be the king who makes miracle bread… But that Jesus is and supplies everything we need. It’s a sign that this is not enough – all the things we might do or the things we might wish for in this world – something more is needed. So God sent his Son and he was the kernel of wheat sown into death for sins. Jesus will say later on in John, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” And his saving death propagated – his body planted in the grave, sprang into new life and blossomed with forgiveness of our sins – more than we could gather up, for every one of our days and all of our sins till the end.
And this work Jesus does satisfies. It promises that we have everything we need before God. So that leaders of God’s people of old could eat at his divine table and commune with him. Or, from our second lesson, how it speaks about God’s people like you now: “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work… [In fact, God will so greatly supply you with perfection in his sight that:] You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and…your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.”
Now that sounds like more than enough. That we would be so abundantly supplied for daily human life that a harvest of things God loves would come from us? Indeed…that you would have everything you need so that you “can be generous on every occasion”? And that what you do would draw out thanks to God from others? What wouldn’t be possible? What more could you ask for? What sign other than this kind – where Jesus supplies things this world cannot give and does things this world cannot achieve… Who else satisfies us so?
You know, in the world of advertising, there’s a trope that’s often used, a tagline – one where there’s an apparent, appealing value and sometimes it’s replaced with a fuller experience. Restaurants use it – they’ll say, “Come for the food; Stay for the friends.” Or in video games – “Come for the content; Stay for the community.” That’s happening this week… The appeal of one who can work signs is apparent – but the value of his work is something worth discovering. In fact, over the next five weeks, that’s exactly what Jesus will say. That he’s not just here to work miracles – those are signs so you’ll see that he’s the Bread of Life, the Manna from Heaven, the food from God for our souls, everything we need to be God’s family here and to be with him forever. This week: Come for the Signs. As Jesus explains it all: Stay for the Satisfaction.
 The Wenzel COMMENTARY: An Exegetical Study, Based on a Harmony of the Gospels, by F. W. Wenzel and Martin H. Wenzel, M.H. Wenzel, 1986, p. 320.