The Lad’s Loaves in the Lord’s Hands

Topic: Faith
Author: Victor D. Pentz, Pastor, Peachtree Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, GA
Title: The Lad’s Loaves in the Lord’s Hands
Text: John 6:1-14

The Wizard of Oz has almost been like a Bible story in its impact on children. Whether you had it read to you as a child as I did, or saw the movie staring Judy Garland, all of us are familiar with the story of Dorothy, the Tinman, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion.

But let me ask you a question: what is the theme of The Wizard of Oz? The moral of the story is one that could not be more relevant in a day when snipers terrorize the schoolyards of Washington DC. For the theme of The Wizard of Oz is the inadequacy of adults. Auntie Em and Uncle Henry are unable to protect Dorothy from the evil Miss Gulch, who’s trying to kill Toto. So Dorothy takes matters into her own hands, and runs away. She returns home, only to be caught in a tornado and transported to Oz.

Every step of the way down the yellow brick road, Dorothy grows larger and larger, while the seemingly powerful adults around her grow smaller and smaller. Finally, the curtain falls away and she learns what all children eventually learn: that adults are very good persons, but very bad wizards. The Wicked Witch of the West sums up their impotence: “Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my wickedness,” and as she melts away, Dorothy grows up.

The same thing happens in our Scripture this morning. The big adult disciples melt into a puddle, while a little boy grows up into a giant of faith. This passage describes the only miracle of Jesus to be depicted in all four of the gospels. It really must have been something.

So, let’s click our heels together and go back in time to a hillside in Galilee as we read John 6:1-14

Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Feast was near.

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.

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 they go among so many?”

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.

When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.

After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.”

Imagine, if you can, looking out on 5,000 faces blank from hunger. It’s an image that sometimes becomes reality for me on Sundays when I preach past the appointed hour. Any speaker will tell you that when the tummies are growling, there’s really no use talking any longer. Jesus was fully aware of this on that hillside; he knew that before he could unveil any more secrets of the kingdom of God, somebody would have to make a run to McDonald’s. So Jesus turned to a local disciple, Philip, who was from nearby Bethsaida, and asked, “Philip where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?”

Put yourself in Philip’s place. Five thousand hungry hikers were headed toward them, and Jesus told him, “Philip, this is your problem. I appoint you food chairman.” Philip got that “deer in the headlights” look in his eyes and blurted, “Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” Now Philip went on to become a great leader in the early church, yet his hare-brained comment that day is still preserved in Scripture. You would think that scribes would have been tempted to edit out some of the embarrassing comments made by the disciples, who had later become the leaders of the early church. I know I’d rather not have you hear some of the wisecracks I made back when I was in seminary.

Postmodern literary criticism presupposes that early documents are revised by those in power until they function not to provide accurate information but simply to reinforce the egos of the ruling factions. In the same way, victorious cultures rewrite history to portray themselves in a favorable light. However, this definitely is not true in the New Testament. We discover that the greatest leader, Peter, was a liar and a coward, that the Apostle John had a nasty temper, and this morning we see the Apostle Philip wimp out on that hillside. The disciples were flawed, ordinary human beings like you and me. But that’s part of the Christian message: God can do a lot with a little, if he has all of it.

Philip looks at the crowd and says “Lord, I have two words: im…possible. Can’t be done.” Say hello to Mr. Pessimist. The sheer magnitude of the crisis overwhelms Philip, and he is quick to give up: “Lord it can’t be done…”

It’s easy to be a pessimist these days. A couple of weeks ago, I received a call from the White House asking would I come in for a policy briefing. I said, “You know, I’m awfully busy.” Not really. I rearranged my schedule – and I was scheduled to deliver another speech in Washington DC that week – so last Monday night I flew in to Dulles Airport. It turned out that one of the sniper killings had just taken place, so the police had blocked the Beltway coming in from the airport and were checking cars one by one. For two hours, from 11 p.m. until 1 a.m., I was trapped in a taxi with a driver who had a thick accent and strong opinions on every topic you could imagine. Someday we ought to let taxi drivers run the world – believe me, they’re ready. Finally he dropped me off at my hotel near the White House, and I got a few hours of sleep. I got up the next morning and did a zigzag walk to the White House to keep from being hit by the sniper. I walked into the policy briefing and what was discussed? Terrorism and homeland security, the danger posed by Saddam Hussein, and the violence and bloodshed in the Middle East.

Sometimes it’s easy to feel like we’re facing a charging elephant, and the only weapon we have is a peashooter. We are tempted to say, along with Philip, “Lord, there’s no hope. We might as well give up…”

It’s interesting that Philip defines the problem in terms of financial considerations. Jesus asks, “Philip, where can we buy food?” Philip responds, “Lord we don’t have that kind of money.” Sounds like a marriage, doesn’t it? “Honey, what do you say we go to the Bahamas after Christmas?” “We don’t have that kind of money.”

In the church we have some very well-intentioned people whose first response to any new idea is similar: “Oh, we don’t have that kind of money.” Well, I will confess that I am that kind of person’s worst nightmare, because I have learned through years of experience that money follows bold vision and daring faith, and that where God guides, he provides. I love the passage in Acts 2:17 where God pours out his Spirit on a congregation: “your young people will see visions and your old people will dream dreams.”

I’m now at the point in my life where I’ve gone from visions to dreams, and I often find myself waking up in the middle of the night in my excitement at what God is doing in this church. Whether we’re geeks or geezers, God works miracles in our lives. Jesus doesn’t accept Philip’s hopelessness and say, “Okay, I understand.” In fact, in the depiction of this miracle in the other gospels, Jesus says to his disciples, “Feed these people.” Jesus always asks more of us than we have to give. He wants us to love, even when we can find no love in our hearts, to forgive even when it feels impossible and to give when we have no idea where it’s going to come from.

In the face of what seems impossible, old doom and gloom Philip melts into a puddle.

Andrew, another disciple on the hillside that day, musters a smidgeon of hope: “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish…” But then Andrew also melts: “How far will they go among so many?”

Andrew was not a pessimist. We might think of Andrew as a realist. A realist is the sort of man who would place the following ad in a South Georgia newspaper, “Farmer aged 36 wishes to wed woman about 30 who drives tractor. Please enclose picture of tractor.” Andrew was practical. As you heard, his logic follows the law of supply and demand: “On the demand side Lord, here are 5,000 ravenous people. On the supply side: 5 barley loaves and 2 fish. 5 + 2 does not equal 5,000. It’s simple arithmetic, Lord. It can’t be done. We might as well give up.”

Ah, but if we alter Andrew’s equation just a bit, we get 5 + 2 + X = 5,000 – and in the ancient writing of the church, X is always the symbol of Christ. Friends, have you factored Christ into the equation of your life? If so, you know that you plus Christ are equal to any challenge.

So if we’re not supposed to be pessimists, and we’re not to be realists, is John then saying that to be a Christian is to be an idealist? Should we go through life looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, believing that everything will be peachy keen if only we think positive? Must Christians always see the glass as half full and never half empty? I recently read the following statement in a business publication: “Idealism increases in direct proportion to one’s distance from the problem.” Today America is a nation of burned-out idealists. When we see problems we say, “Hey wait, I thought we fixed that last time.” We’ve sent billions of dollars in aid to hungry people around the world, so why are they still hungry? Our idealism has crashed into cynicism. And the crowds still hunger.

So the idealist, the realist and the pessimist all fail to feed these five thousand famished folk. Fortunately there is one more person on that hillside: a little boy who is probably about 12 years old. He’s got his own lunch. He’s away from his parents…

You know how 12-year-olds love to roam. Jesus came through his town that morning and this boy left his Nintendo game to follow the master Then in the multitude of 5,000 people, where was he? Right up front, walking along beside Jesus and his disciples – isn’t that just like a 12-year-old boy? I remember when I was not much older than this boy I used to sneak into the pits of the Indy car races at the track near my house. Once Andy Granitelli, the great racecar promoter, threw me out of the pits. He physically threw me out, but I loved it, because when you’re 12, you want to be where the action is. So there this boy is. He overhears Jesus say, “Philip, we need food.” But he responds differently than Philip or Andrew. This boy does not look at the size of the crowd. The boy does not calculate the impact his gift will have. He simply hears Jesus say, “Philip, we need food.” And he responds, “Food?” “I have food, Mom packed it for me this morning…Jesus, here’s my food. Lord, take my food.” And since he was a 12-year-old boy, he was probably the hungriest person in the crowd.

Even today there are many young people around us who show up their elders.

In last Monday’s Atlanta Journal Constitution you may have seen the letter written by a young woman, a student at Emory, who had noticed on one of our freeways a billboard with a smiling lawyer advertising “No fault divorce.” This young woman exploded in her editorial: “Don’t you realize what your generation did to my generation? Don’t you realize all the pain that was caused to me and my friends through our parents splitting up? Please spare us your grinning lawyers with their ads for easy divorce…”

Today’s young Christians are fed up with squishy moral relativism of their parents’ baby boom generation. In fact, you will find they are more like their grandparents than their parents. An essential element of their faith is a desire to return to historic orthodoxy. Recently I was at a seminar on this phenomenon among today’s young Christians. A young woman was asked, “What do you mean by orthodoxy?” The young woman answered, “I want a minister who can say the Apostle’s Creed without crossing his fingers behind his back.”

There is a return to absolute moral standards, and the belief in virginity before marriage is becoming the hippest new trend out there.

In fact, “obedience” is a very big word in the vocabulary of many young Christians I know. They come to the church with a kind of “fish or cut bait” attitude that says, “Let’s do what the Bible says.” The older generation may say we believe what the Bible says. But these young people believe that in order to be faithful, they must follow the precise example and teaching of Jesus. And they have a point, for I can no more say I trust Jesus and not obey him than I can say I trust my doctor but I won’t take the medicine she prescribes.

In these youth, we see a kind of radical obedience. When a group of young Palo Alto Christians heard that across the freeway in East Palo Alto a notorious crack house had been raided and the drug lord carted off to jail, these young people saw an opportunity. They moved into the drug lord’s old house, hopeful that neighborhood children would continue to visit, only now to receive ministry and teaching and the love of Jesus Christ.

Like that little boy, these young Christians simply put their lives in the hands of Jesus.

Friends, Peachtree does not belong to us. More than to anyone else, it belongs to these babies we are baptizing in such astonishing numbers – 18 more this morning. Did you know we have 205 two-year-olds in our Sunday school? The dream that keeps me awake at night is a dream of raising children like the boy in our story, young giants of faith, so that when we adults melt away, they will grow bigger and bigger and bigger.

Early one morning I was walking through this sanctuary and found an offering envelope, just like the ones you can find in the pews, lying on the Communion table. I could tell there was something in the envelope, and scrawled across it in pencil were these words,

Dear God, I hadn’t visited in a very long time, but tonight my car seemed to drive me here. For several years I had lost faith, but no longer. I will be around. I need help though. I am in college and life is so confusing. I got diagnosed with MS this summer and my grades are slipping. I truly want to succeed in life. But how? Please accept this as all I have right now. But I will be in, most definitely…

Inside the envelope were stuffed several bills of currency. It wasn’t a lot, probably only enough to go down to Eatzi’s and buy five French baguettes and two fillets of smoked salmon. But it was all that person had. And God will do a lot with a little if he has it all.

Does God have your life this morning? Have you placed your life in his hands? Until you do, you’ll never know the difference you can make. I almost tremble when I think of all God is going to do with such a gift.

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