What Kind of Messiah
Fourth Sunday in Lent (Laetere)
March 6th/7th, 2016
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
What are you looking for in a President? What issues do you consider the vital ones? Is it the candidate’s stance on the sanctity of life? Is it their position on marriage or family issues? Or does immigration matter more to you? Maybe foreign policy is at the top of your list. Or is it health care and social safety nets? Or maybe it’s not any specific issue. Maybe what’s most important to you is whether or not a candidate seems trustworthy. Or whether you think a candidate is too influenced by special interest groups or major donors. Or whether you think the candidate has the right demeanor to be tasked with making major decisions that come with the Oval Office. Whatever criteria are the most influential when it comes to your decision making will certainly impact which candidate, if any, gets your vote when Election Day gets here. And those candidates who don’t measure up? You’d rather they just go away.
That’s basically what happens to Jesus in John chapters 5 and 6. In chapter 5, Jesus heals a paralytic on the Sabbath. After healing the man, he tells him to pick up his mat and go home. Excited at being given the ability to walk, the formerly paralyzed man picks up his mat and heads toward home, only to have his parade rained on by a group of Pharisees who scold him for breaking the Sabbath Law against working. He was, after all, carrying his mat. When the Pharisees found out that he had been healed by Jesus just that day, they shifted their scorn off of the newly healed paralytic and focused it instead on the healer himself. Couldn’t Jesus heal people Sunday through Friday? Why did he have to heal on the Sabbath? Had he no shame?
It seems that Jesus wasn’t religious enough for their liking. Jesus responded by teaching the Pharisees that he alone gives life, and that he gives that life through his word. He taught them that they were misunderstanding the intent of the Sabbath by applying it in such a way that did not allow for acts of love and mercy. He beckoned them to believe in him as God’s promised Messiah. But it didn’t matter what he said. Not to them. He didn’t measure up to their most important criterion. He wasn’t religious enough for them, so John tells us that from that point on many of the Pharisees were seeking even more to kill him. He was not the Messiah they were looking for. He was not the Messiah they wanted.
That’s where today’s reading picks up – the feeding of the 5,000. After this run in with the Pharisees, John tells us Jesus moved to a different region and began healing the sick there. The crowds surrounded him not because they were interested in hearing his teaching, but because they wanted to see exciting miracles. When evening came, there was no food. Jesus had compassion on the crowds, and just like the Lord had provide miraculous bread to the Israelites when there was no food for them to eat in the wilderness, Jesus provided miraculous bread to this crowd in this wilderness. So much that there were 12 baskets of left overs after the crowd had eaten their fill. The people were so amazed that they sought to make Jesus their king, by force if necessary.
That’s where today’s reading ends, but that’s not the end of the story. That night, after the crowds had gone home, Jesus walked across the Sea to Capernaum. When the crowd couldn’t find him the next morning, they travelled to the place where Jesus was and ask him to do more signs. Jesus responds by telling the crowds to stop seeking miraculous bread for their bellies and instead to seek him who is the bread from heaven. But the crowds weren’t interested in that. They only want to see Jesus heal their sick. They only want to have Jesus fill their bellies. They didn’t want to be confronted with all this talk about salvation and the Messiah and the true bread from heaven. So John tells us that from that point on many of his followers turned back and stopped following him. He was too religious for them. He wasn’t the Messiah they were looking for. He wasn’t the Messiah they wanted.
Too religious for the crowds; not religious enough for the Pharisees. So they both rejected him. Which causes me to wonder, What kind of Messiah are we looking for today? What criteria have we conjured? What do we expect Jesus to do and to be as the Christ of God? Are we looking for a Messiah of the Law, one who is defined by regulations and religiosity?
Are we looking for a Messiah who will reward us for our behavior, for the fact that we’re not like those sinful people out in the big bad world? Do we expect a Messiah who will join our clique? Are we looking for a Messiah who will force our neighbors to embrace our views, to make clear lines of who’s worth our time and who’s not? Do we want a Messiah who will establish for us a Christian nation? Are we looking for the religious zealot that the Pharisees so desired?
Or like the crowds, do we simply want a Messiah who will take away our diseases and give us food all while leaving the teaching out of it? Are we waiting for a Messiah to relieve the pressures of this life, to entertain us and make us feel good, to help us find happiness wherever we determine it should be, regardless of what his word says. Are we looking for the social Messiah the crowds desired?
John tells us that Jesus was too religious for the crowds, and not religious enough for the Pharisees, so both end up rejecting him. Both are unsatisfied. At the end of chapter 6, Jesus turns to the Apostles and asks, “Will you also turn back?” To which Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” It is in Peter’s confession that we see the Messiah for who he truly is. Our criteria and expectations are ultimately irrelevant, for this is not an election. This is Jesus, who alone is the way, the truth, and the life. This is Jesus, the only name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. This is Jesus as he truly is, not simply as we wish him to be. This is jesus, the one who has the words of eternal life.
They are words of life for he is the Lord of life. He is the one sent from God to pay the price we could never pay. No matter who wins the next election, our greatest enemy is death. No matter what happens with the First Amendment or Second Amendment or any other political detail of this life, the fact that this life will end for each of us one day is the ultimate problem to be overcome, and it has been overcome by the life, suffering, and death of Jesus in our place. There is no one else who can offer a solution for that problem. No political candidate, no celebrity, no one except Christ alone. We must never lose sight of that reality, for it keeps everything else in perspective. The religious regulations of the Pharisees are irrelevant on someone’s deathbed. Those regulations pass away and no longer matter once a person is dead. The same is true of the needs and wants of the crowds. Their bellies may be filled one day, but they will be empty again the next. They may have their loved ones healed of one disease, but a different ailment is waiting to strike. The things of this world pass away. Decay sets in. Time takes its toll. It’s not that the details of our lives are unimportant, but we have to keep them in perspective. For what does it benefit a person to gain the whole world but lose his or here soul? When death comes, there is only one hope. It is Christ.
And Christ is already yours. He has claimed you in the water of your baptism. Like he fed the Israelites with miraculous bread from heaven during their wilderness wandering, like he fed the crowd on the hillside all those years ago with miraculous bread from his compassionate hand, he feeds us today with the bread of heaven from his own hand, the bread of his body given for you, paired with the cup of salvation, shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins, for your life, for your salvation. Christ is yours. He is alive in you. He is at work in you. He will not let you go.
Yet we must never forget that he is at work through his Word. As Peter says, Jesus has the words of eternal life. Jesus uses words, so we use words. We operate by words, not by force. If we are fed up with the trajectory of our world, we teach and preach and proclaim the truth of God’s Word, for his word is living and active, sharper than any sword. It will not return to him empty, but will accomplish the purpose for which he sent it. It will create faith. It will sustain faith. It is a lamp unto our feet and a light to our path, making low the mountains and raising up the valleys, paving the way of repentance. He is a Messiah of the Word, and he has left that Word with us.
If we go about setting up our own criteria for what type of Messiah Jesus should be, we will be as disappointed as the Pharisees and the Crowds. So we don’t try to make Jesus fit into our expectation, we take him at his word. We trust his word. We cling to his word. We believe what he says about our sin, and we believe what he says about our salvation. We see him suffering and dying, promising that to be his disciple means to take up our cross and do the same. And we trust his promise that through such death comes resurrection. Much of the world rejects such a Messiah. Much of the world wants a Messiah who will set up rules to follow or simply give us bread while letting us live however we see fit. But that is not the Messiah God sent. He sent the suffering Messiah, the one who gave his flesh for the life of the world. It may not be the Messiah we would have invented for ourselves, but it is the one God has sent, and he alone gives us life.
May our Lord grant us eyes that look to his Christ, ears that hear his Word.