My favorite part of today’s scripture is verse 6, which says that Jesus asked Philip about feeding the multitudes “in order to test him.” We don’t like having our faith tested, but our Lord has a helpful but very annoying habit of doing it just when we start to get comfortable. Pass or fail, God tests us in order to help us trust in him more and more. Most of us probably have a lot of growing to do when it comes to trust. The good news is that he doesn’t require a great deal of faith on our part to do remarkable things through us.
Sermon Text: John 6:1-15
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
The biggest news this week was, of course, the birth of the royal baby, His Royal Highness Prince George. And I greatly appreciate the lengths to which Prince William and Kate went to show the the world that they’re just like any other first time parents. William brought George out of the hospital to his SUV and told the press, “He’s got a good pair of lungs, that’s for sure.” Of course, we veteran parents know that that little newborn baby cry is positively cute compared to the high-decibel wail of a six-month-old. Talk about a set of lungs!
But I was impressed by how down to earth the royal couple seemed. Like any new father, William had to nervously fumble with the car seat as he set the baby in it for the first time. Kate told the media that William had even changed his first diaper, a rite of passage for any new father. No, William is so much like us. For example, he was going to store and asked Kate if she needed anything. She said, “Buy Pampers.” And so he did. Of course he misunderstood her and bought the company… but that’s an honest mistake!
And Kate is like any new mother. For example, learning to nurse the baby was a bit of a challenge—as it is for any first-time mother. So they called in a lactation consultant. Kate told her, “I can’t get the baby to latch on.” But the consultant said, “You first have to remove the silver spoon from the child’s mouth.”
The point is, no matter how ordinary and down-to-earth this new royal family appears to be, there’s no getting around the fact that for the rest of the child’s life, every conceivable physical, material, and financial need that Prince George—and some day King George—will face will be met without any trouble whatsoever. He’s guaranteed never to struggle to make ends meet.
To which I say, How unfortunate for him! Because there are few things in life that teach us how to trust in the Lord like struggling to make ends meet. Don’t you agree?
Isn’t it fitting, then, that the main struggle that the disciples face in today’s scripture is about—what? Money! Jesus sees these crowds, knows they’re hungry, and asks Philip, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?” And Philip responds the way most of us would: “We don’t have enough money!” And here’s the part I love: Jesus asked Philip this question about buying food, verse 6 tells us, “in order to test him.”
We don’t like having our faith tested. Do we?
Just last week Lisa, my wife, was feeling stressed out because we’ve lived in our house for over a month now, and all the fine china is still in boxes, ready to be unpacked and put on the shelves of the china cabinet. Now, this is not a problem for me at all, because you know why: We never eat off the fine china. In the 20 years that we’ve been married, we have probably used the fine china once, maybe twice. It’s not practical: you can’t put it in the dishwasher, you know? So for me, fine china is worthless. Its only purpose is to be put on display—on a shelf, and look pretty. I’m not opposed to putting pretty things on display, but c’mon! We could take the same money that paid for the china and buy a 65-inch plasma TV. Put that on display. That would look pretty! And it would be far more practical!
My point is, we often want our Christian faith to be lot like fine china in a china cabinet. We want to possess faith. We want to have it there in case we ever need it. We even want to put it on display sometimes when the occasion calls for it. But we really don’t ever want to have to use it. We don’t want to have to need it. We don’t want to have to depend on it.
And because of this tendency, our Lord has this very helpful but annoying way of making us put our faith into practice. “Philip,” Jesus says, “I’m going to force you to depend on me to provide for these 5,000-plus people out there, because, really, what other choice do you have at this point? If we’re going to feed all these people, we’re going have to depend on God.”
Ugh! I hate when I actually have to use my faith instead of just talk about it all the time! I want to depend on myself. I hate being in a position in which I have to depend on the Lord!
You might have heard that Phil Mickelson finally won the British Open last Sunday after having failed to win it for the 19 previous years. In fact, he’s been mostly terrible at the British Open. Here’s why: the British Open is always played on what’s called a “links” course. It’s a course that’s located on a coastline, next to the sea, with very few trees and lots of wind. In order to be successful, you can’t rely on big, booming drives off the tee. You have to keep the altitude of the ball low, so it doesn’t get caught in the crosswinds. This wasn’t Mickelson’s game. He relied on big, booming drives with lots of altitude in order to be successful. And that’s why he’d lost so often.
Until this year… You know what he did differently this time? He removed his driver—the club responsible for those big, booming drives. He took it out of his golf bag. He left it in the clubhouse. His caddy didn’t bring it with him onto the course. Mickelson said, “That way, I won’t be tempted to use it.”
Brothers and sisters, I wonder if, in our golf bag of faith, we have a favorite club labeled “self-reliance,” or “independence”… or “Thank you, Lord, I can do it myself”… or “Thanks for the advice, Jesus, I’ll do it my way instead.” If so, I believe the Lord is telling each one of us, “Leave that club in the clubhouse. You’ve tried using it all these years, and where has it gotten you? Trust in me instead.”
Yesterday, Lisa and the kids went on ahead of me, on vacation, to Hilton Head. I’ll join them there on Tuesday. She got there safely and the minivan didn’t break down even once. I say that because just two years ago we were on our way to the beach, in the much older Honda minivan we were driving back then, and it broke down. We knew right away it was a transmission problem. Why did we know this? Because the exact same problem occurred one year earlier, when we paid a lot of money to have the transmission rebuilt. And we knew one year earlier that we had a transmission problem because the exact same problem occurred a year before that, when we paid a lot of money to have the transmission rebuilt. Naturally, for each of those three transmission failures, we were just outside of the warranty.
So it was July 4. Our old minivan was still at the transmission shop. We were trying to convince the shop owner to rebuild the transmission for free. And I was getting into my 18-year-old Honda Accord, which was just shy of 300,000 miles. And I cranked it. [Imitate crank sound.] This was a recurring problem. When it was really hot outside, the car sometimes wouldn’t crank. Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch.
But in that moment, I was thinking to myself, “We are driving two embarrassingly old Hondas—trying desperately to keep one of them running with bailing wire, chewing gum, and duct tape, while the other is facing yet another expensive repair.” And we’re driving these two old cars, holding our breath each day, hoping that they will get us from point A to point B—and why are we doing this? Because I decided to answer God’s call into ministry eight years ago—completely unprepared for the huge financial sacrifice that it would require of my family and me!
So it’s July 4th, and I’m sitting in my driveway, cranking my car in vain. Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. Feeling sorry for myself. Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. Thinking, “I was doing fine as an engineer.” Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. “We didn’t have to live on such a tight budget before.” Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. “We could’ve bought a couple of new cars by now.” Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. “We didn’t have these kinds financial worries back then.” Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch… Ch-ch.
So I go back in the house, and I’m beside myself with anger. And Lisa told me, among other things, that I did not trust that God would really take care of us—that, despite what I preach, I live my life as if it’s all up to me. As if the weight of the world were on my shoulders. And she said that she wants me to actually believe these pretty words that I tell you each week. And she reminded me of how much God has taken care of us so far, how faithful God has been to us, how happy and healthy our family is, how nice our home is, how, in spite of all the challenges, we’ve made ends meet. And how, in spite of our car troubles, there hasn’t been a single time when we couldn’t get from point A to point B.
And she said, “Maybe God keeps sending us this car trouble, because he’s trying to get your attention—to teach you something about what it means to trust in him!” And I’m like, “Whoa!” I thought I was the theologian in this family. Her words literally brought me to my knees. I did the best praying I had done in a while.
Yes, the Lord has this nasty habit of putting our faith to the test—just like he tested Philip’s faith. One commentator compared the faith of Philip with the faith of Andrew and said, “We need to be more like Andrew. Andrew, after all, brought what he had to Jesus—these five loaves and two fish—and look what the Lord did with them.” And that’s true—but he didn’t bring with these things a lot faith: “What good are five loaves and two fish in a crowd this size?”
This reminds me of a story that I saw plastered all over Facebook last week. If you were on Facebook, you probably saw it too—in between all the “It’s a boy” posts about the new prince… The new pastor of a 10,000-member megachurch disguised himself as a homeless person on his very first day on the job. He walked through the church a half-hour before the service started. He tried to speak to people, and they ignored him. He asked for spare change, and they rejected him. He sat at the front of the church and was met with dirty looks from the congregation, until the ushers finally invited him to sit at the back of the church.
And then, when it was time for the sermon… you guessed it. The new pastor, disguised as this homeless man, walked down the aisle to the pulpit and preached a sermon that concluded with these words: “Today I see a gathering of people, not a church of Jesus Christ. The world has enough people, but not enough disciples. When will you decide to become disciples?” Then the sermon was over.
When I read this, I thought, who does this pastor think he is? Has he never passed a homeless man on the street without offering help? Has he never seen someone in need and looked the other way? Has he never failed to love a neighbor as himself? In spite of his own sins and failures, isn’t he still a disciple? Isn’t he a beloved child of God? Honestly, I think I would fire a pastor who pulled a stunt like that.
Now, it turns out that this story likely never happened, which is a relief. But why was the story so popular? Why do Christians insist on putting themselves down like this?
Maybe it’s true, as the the story suggests, that most of us are really lousy Christians and lousy disciples. And by all means all of us should be getting better at it—as the Holy Spirit transforms our hearts through the process of sanctification. But I don’t go for this guilt-trip stuff. Just how good do we think that we have to be in order to useful for God’s kingdom? How much faith do we need to have in order to do the Lord’s work? If today’s scripture is any indication, it means that it’s not mostly about us—or about the two fish or five loaves that we bring to the table. It’s mostly about God and God’s grace.
So… maybe you think you’re not a good enough Christian? Maybe you think you don’t have enough faith? Maybe you think you don’t have a lot to offer the Lord?
Excellent! Because that means you’re just like Jesus’ closest disciples in today’s scripture! Because “not good enough,” “not enough faith,” and “not a lot to offer”—that’s just enough for the Lord to work with and get something done!
Let’s just take what little we do have and see what amazing things the Lord can do with it. O.K.?