The X Variable, John 6:1-15, 6/3/12
Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
1After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called theSeaofTiberias. 2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.
5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.
7Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’
8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’
10Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’
Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.
14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’
15When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. (John 6:1-15, NRSV)
This story begins when Jesus goes up on a mountain with his disciples one day to sit down and rest. He’s tired. He needs a break. He’s not going to get one. The crowds have seen what he can do, and they want more. You would too. In those days, Jesus was a rock star.
John tells us this all happened during Passover season, the most sacred time of the Jewish holy year when the Jews remembered how God had miraculously delivered their people from slavery inEgypt. It was during Passover, then, that the Jews were especially aware that their God had the power to save. And if God could do it once, why not again? Perhaps this miracle worker fromNazarethwas the one who could finally deliver them. It was at least worth interrupting him on his day off to find out.
John estimates the crowd that day to be about 5,000 people. However, since women and children would not have been included in this figure, the number was probably closer to 15,000. Imagine the Rivercats selling out Raley Field, a stadium that holds about 14,000 people. This is how many people are climbing up the mountain that day to meet Jesus.
They come hungry. And the only thing worse than a bunch of people crashing your party is when they show up hungry and empty handed. Immediately, Jesus points this out. Turning to Philip he says, “Where in the world are we going to find enough bread to feed all these people?”
We’re told that the question is a test. Philip has just been called by the teacher to stand at the whiteboard in front of the class and solve a very difficult problem. The way I see it, it’s an algebra problem. Remember algebra? Think back to 8th grade math when we were all taught that algebra is a mathematical system which helps us analyze and express relationships between quantitative concepts. (And if you’re wondering, yes, I had to look that up.)
If you forgot everything else, you might remember that algebra is funny math because it doesn’t just use numbers. It also uses letters, which are called variables. For example, a very simply algebra problem is 2+X=5. In this problem, the variable, represented by the letter “X”, would be equal to 3. Feel free to stop me if I’m going too fast for anybody!
Here, then, is the algebra problem Jesus poses for Philip:
15,000 hungry people + X = 15,000 satisfied people
Jesus is asking Philip, “What is X?” What is the variable here? What will it take to make 15,000 hungry people equal 15,000 satisfied people? How are we going to solve this problem?”
Luckily, Philip is pretty good at math. We know this because immediately, he starts doing some very complicated calculations all in his head.
“Let’s see, we have 15,000 hungry people here. If we could get to a Costco, assuming that there’s one near here, and assuming that it’s still open at this late hour, and we slice the bread really thin, and each person only gets one piece of bologna, and a half piece of cheese, and we water down the fruit punch, and we regulate the portions and serve people at their tables instead of opening up a buffet line, assuming we could do all this we might get by feeding all these people for, maybe, $2 a head. But then that’s going to cost us $30,000. That’s half a year’s salary and still people would be hungry for more. ”
“I’m sorry, Jesus,” Philip says. “It just can’t be done.” Then he walks back and takes his seat again at the front of the class.
All at once, however, a hand slips up in the back of the class. It’s Andrew. And he asks the teacher if he can come forward to the whiteboard. Jesus grants him permission, hopeful that at least one of his students has been paying attention all semester.
Well, as Andrew takes the marker in his hand, this is how he takes a stab at working out the problem Philip couldn’t solve. He says, “I’m not sure about this, Jesus, but I found this little boy with five barley loaves and two smoked sardines, and I was thinking that, Jesus, maybe you could take this sack lunch – it’s all we’ve got, really – and maybe you could do something with it to maybe, somehow, feed these people.”
Andrew’s solution, then, looks like this:
15,000 hungry people + 5 loaves, 2 fish, in the hands of Jesus = 15,000 people satisfied people
That’s the answer Andrew gives, but even as he does so he’s not all that confident it’s the right one. “But really,” he says, “what are these few among so many?” It’s as if he adds a question mark at the end.
15,000 hungry people + 5 loaves, 2 fish, in the hands of Jesus = 15,000 people satisfied people?
Understand, it’s not like Andrew aced the test. In fact, if Philip got an F that day in class, Andrew got a C-. But keep in mind, a C- is a passing grade. A C- will, in fact, move you on to the next level.
The difference, of course, is this. When Philip looked at the problem and considered what the variable X might possibly represent, he only considered the resources which were in his hands. And looked at from that perspective, he was right. The problem was, indeed, unsolvable. The disciples could not, on their own, satisfy 15,000 hungry people. They couldn’t even come close.
But while Philip looked around and mostly just saw all these hungry people standing there, Andrew looked around and also saw Jesus standing there. Philip is trying to work out the problem with earthly, human solutions. Andrew, however, is at least wondering whether or not the problem might be worked out with divine solutions. He’s saying to Jesus, “I don’t know how you could possibly solve this problem. All I know is that I’ve already seen you solve a couple of other problems that were at least as difficult as this one. So, I’m thinking that maybe if we just give you what we have – which, granted, isn’t much – maybe you can take it and somehow solve this problem too.”
That’s a lot of maybes in Andrew’s solution. Surprisingly, however, it’s still good enough for Jesus. Immediately, we’re told, Jesus instructs the disciples to get everybody to sit down on the grass. Then Jesus takes the five loaves and the two fish, says grace, and distributes the food among the hungry people. By the time dinner is over, everybody has eaten their fill of fish sandwiches and there are even twelve baskets full of leftovers for breakfast.
Andrew was right. 15,000 hungry people plus 5 loaves and 2 fish in the hands of Jesus really does equal 15,000 satisfied people.
Now, the lesson Jesus is trying to teach us here is obvious. We understand it, but that does not mean that we believe it. And that leaves me with a question. What would happen if we did believe it?
You see, from time to time in life Jesus is going to call each of us up to the whiteboard to solve some other tricky algebra problems. I would not be surprised, in fact, to learn that Jesus has you standing up at the whiteboard right now, testing you just like he tested Philip and Andrew. And whatever different problems each of us are facing, they are all just different variations of this one single problem.
Insurmountable challenge + X = unimaginable solution
When we face insurmountable challenges in our lives, what is it that we need to add so that in the end it all equals an unimaginable solution? Though it comes in a thousand different versions, this is the problem we all face time and time again in life.
Let me give you a specific example. Here’s a version of this problem which, I’m certain, more than a few of you are trying to figure out right now.
A life full of anxiety and worry + X = A life full of peace and joy
Look familiar? Your life is an endless parade of days full of anxiety and worry. And Jesus calls you to the board one day to test you. He says, “I want you to solve this problem. What do we need to add here to your worry and anxiety so that you can have a life which is, instead, full of peace and joy? What’s does the variable X equal in this problem?”
The sad truth is, most of us approach the problem like Philip. “Well, we say, X must equal effort. I’ve got to try harder, Jesus. If I can just work harder I know I can solve some of these issues in my life which are causing me so much stress. Or maybe X equals distraction. If I distract myself, with media, with busyness, with a couple of drinks, then my worries will fade into the background. Or maybe X equals money. If I could just get more money, then I wouldn’t have to worry.”
You see, most of us think like Philip. Our instinct is to solve the problem with earthly, human solutions. But it never works. It never adds up. And so like Philip, we give up. “Even six months wages wouldn’t be enough to buy bread for all these people. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t make the worry go away. I’m sorry Jesus, the problem is unsolvable.”
And it is, if we think like Philip. But Jesus doesn’t want us to think like Philip. Jesus wants us to think like Andrew.
Andrew was right, we don’t have much, if anything, to offer Jesus. All we have is a life full of worry and anxiety, a life full of problems we don’t know how to solve. It’s barely five loaves and 2 fishes. And yet, if we would just take the little we do have and place it in Jesus’ hands and say to Jesus, with even the smallest amount of faith, “Jesus, I don’t know what you could do with all this, but I do know that you’ve done some amazing things before. So maybe you could do something amazing here with me. I’m worried about so many things, Lord. Help me to trust you. Help me to trust you will take care of me. Help me to trust that you will provide.”
That’s all Jesus needs to hear. Immediately, he goes to work. Deep in our heart, the Spirit of Christ begins to speak words of assurance to us. “I am your Shepherd, you shall not want. One day I will make you lie down in green pastures. Trust me, for I am leading you to still waters. I will restore your soul. Peace I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled. Do not be afraid. Do not worry about your life. Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”
You see, as we place everything in Jesus’ hands, he takes our worried, anxious life and, over time, transforms it into a life overflowing with joy and peace. We don’t now how he does it, any more than we know how he turned five loaves and 2 fish into a picnic for thousands with leftovers. He just does.
Life full of anxiety and worry + our lives in the hands of Christ = Life full of peace and joy
This is always the way Jesus solves the X variable:
Insurmountable challenge + everything we have in the hands of Christ = unimaginable solution
The beautiful thing about it all is that we don’t have to have super-sized faith to see this happen. Like Andrew, we just have to have some faith, even a little faith. As Jesus once put it, “If you have faith the size of a tiny mustard seed, you will be able to say to this mountain, [to this insurmountable challenge], ‘Move from here to there’, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”
So let me ask you, what mountain are you facing in your life that needs to be moved? Chances are, you’ve been trying to move that mountain the way Philip would try to move that mountain, on your own strength, shovelful by shovelful. And, of course, that is never a way to move a mountain. You can work you’re whole life and you’ll never even make a dent.
What would happen in your life if you actually started to have faith that Christ, in ways you might never be able to imagine, could move it for you?
Maybe, for instance, your marriage is not well. What was once full of love and passion is now cold and lifeless. And there is nothing you can do to change it. But what would happen if you put your marriage, as broken as it is, in the hands of Christ?
What about that habit, that addiction, in your life that you just can’t break? You’ve tried your whole life but you cannot change. Have you ever really put everything in Jesus’ hands and told him, “I give up. You can do whatever you want with me, Jesus. I don’t care how you do it, just set me free.”
What about the fact that our little church is in the middle of a city so overrun with seemingly unsolvable problems? What would happen if a community like ours said, “We’re so few among a city of millions, Jesus, but we understand that you once changed the world with just 12 people. Maybe you could change our neighborhood with 500 people?”
What about the fact that there are over one billion people who will go to bed tonight with no bread or fish to eat? 24,000 of them will die by tomorrow because they don’t have enough food. How in the world are we going to solve that problem? We won’t if we think like Philip. I at least know that much.
Here’s the thing. If you face a mountain in your life and that mountain never gets moved, either one of two things are true. Either your faith is so small that it isn’t even the size of a mustard seed, or Jesus had it all wrong. It’s one of the two. And if Jesus had it wrong, we’ve got no use for Jesus. But if Jesus got it right, that even the smallest faith moves mountains, then perhaps we better take a hard look at our faith. Could it be that we have none?
Even when we do have faith, however, a word of caution. Jesus does move mountains, but Jesus doesn’t always move mountains the way we would like him to move mountains. And we have to be okay with that. Because when we place our insurmountable challenges in Jesus’ hands, we have to then let him work out his unimaginable solutions in his time, and his way. After all, that’s what it means to place them in his hands.
This means that the way to the unimaginable solution may not always be the easy way. It may not be the way we would choose.
You may find yourself sick, for instance, and in need of God to heal you. That’s a mountain you cannot move on your own. If you place your life, your sickness, everything in God’s hands, however, his unimaginable solution may be that he allows you to die so that you can come to experience the sort of total healing which simply isn’t available to us in this life.
Here’s another example. We face the overwhelming mountain of poverty in our world and we pray, in faith, for God to move that mountain. However, the miracle God may want to work to end poverty is a miracle in our own hearts. Are we willing for God to transform us into such generous people that we are ready to give away most of what we possess so that others don’t have to go without?
You see, Jesus promises us that if we have faith, we will see him solve our insurmountable challenges with unimaginable solutions. He does not promise us, however, that his solution will be easy. Instead, Jesus promises that faith in him will usually take us down a narrow, difficult path. It will be a way marked by sacrifice, not success. It will involve picking up a cross every day. God’s solutions, in other words, usually lead us to give our lives away so that, in the end, we will receive them back again.
With that in mind, let me end by asking you again, what insurmountable challenge are you facing in your life right now? Sickness. Grief. A hard heart. Addiction. Financial stress. A failing marriage. Parenthood. Worry. Greed. Resentment. Guilt. Shame. Sin. Death.
And what are the insurmountable challenges we all are facing in our world right now? Hunger. Poverty. Terrorism. Consumerism. Sexual brokenness and addiction. Economic recession. Unemployment. Racism. War.
Let me say it one more time. When we face mountain-sized challenges in our lives and in our world which we have no possibility of ever solving on our own, the best thing we can possible do is simply place everything we’ve got in Jesus’ hands. What we place there may not be much, perhaps just a few loaves and a couple of fish at best. But you never know what great thing Jesus can do with so little, especially when it’s offered with even a little bit of faith.
The Next Step – A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read John 6:1-15 again. What is the most interesting part of this story for you?
In this passage we have a clear example of Jesus testing his disciples. What do you think of the idea that Jesus intentionally puts us through tests? When did Jesus last test your faith?
When you face a difficult challenge in your life, is it your instinct to immediately turn to Christ to see what he will do with it? Why or why not?
What is one area of your life where you are trying to figure things out on your own right now instead of just simply placing what you’ve got, though it might not be much, in Jesus hands? Why have you been so resistant to do so to this point?
Do you ever refuse to place your life (plans, problems, opportunities, etc.) in Jesus’ hands because you are afraid he will not handle your life in the way you want it handled?
Would you describe yourself as a person of great faith? Why or why not?
Jesus said that if we have faith even as small as a mustard seed that we can move mountains (Matthew 17:20). What is he saying? Do you believe him?
At the end of the story, why do you think Jesus withdrew again by himself? Does he still withdraw from us like that?
Further ScriptureReadingsfor the Week:
Monday: Psalm 23 – A prayer for this day
Tuesday: Matthew 17:14-20 – Mustard seed faith
Wednesday: Exodus 16:1-35 – Bread from heaven
Thursday: John 6:22-40 – True bread
Friday: I Thessalonians 5:12-25 – Live in Christ!
Saturday : In preparation for worship tomorrow, read John 6:16-21