I could spend all day and night staring at a magician who uses slight of hand to pull a coin out of someone's ear or to make a rubber ball disappear or to slide a playing card out of his sleeve. Just give me another chance to stare even harder and be fooled even deeper by the misdirection of the master. When my eye see what my brain does not expect, I smile that gleeful satisfaction of having been fooled. How did he do that? Exactly.
On Sunday we will hear John's version of the Feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:1-21), and, buried deep within the miraculous passage, is a tiny moment of misdirection which may be hard for the preacher to tease out, but I'll suggest that it is worth it.
As the miracle unfolds, Jesus feeds 5,000 people with only five loaves and two fish. There's a conversation between Jesus and Philip--poor Philip--about the need, and then Andrew shows up to offer the meager supplies to the cause. The tension is built. Can he do it? Will he do it? How will it work?
In the afterglow, as the reader settles into the post-prandial satisfaction of what has happened, it is tempting to process the miracle from the pulpit. I could dissect the event. I could tie it in to the reading from 2 Kings. I could explain what it meant for Jesus to feed the multitude in the wilderness a la Moses (but be careful not to overstep next week's reading, too). I could use numerology to describe the significance of the 12 baskets full of leftover bread. I could preach on over-abundance. I could locate this miracle in the line of "signs" that John has used to make the case for Jesus' messiahship. I could do all of that, but I'd rather talk about the crowd's reaction.
Buried in the middle of this passage, hidden in plain sight, John writes, "When 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.' When 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."
Unless I preach on 2 Kings (see yesterday's post), that's where my homiletical focus is falling this week. The crowd saw what Jesus had done. They said to themselves, "This is the prophet who is to come into the world!" And Jesus runs away before they could make him their king. More importantly, somehow between John 6 and John 19, the crowd changes their minds and, in a moment of mob violence before Pilate, declares, "We have no king but Caesar!" That's either the world's greatest fall from grace or a messianic nosedive of unfathomable proportions.
There are two opposite forces at work in the gospel accounts. On the one hand, the gospel writers need to demonstrate that, despite the shameful crucifixion, Jesus is God's Son--the long-awaited messiah, the king of all creation. But, at the same time, the gospel writers also need to show that, despite being God's Son, the shameful crucifixion is central to Jesus' identity and God's plan for him. That is, the gospel must make the case both for Jesus' exalted identity and his cross-bound destiny. John 6 is a great example of both.
In the feeding of the 5,000, the case has been made that Jesus is the one for whom God's people have been waiting. One cannot experience the fullness of that feeding miracle and not make that connection. But the crowd cannot yet also know that Jesus' destiny is on the cross--that what it means to be the king is to wear the crown of thorns. So Jesus runs away.
We worship Jesus as both king and crucified one, and we do so with integrity and without confusion. We cannot have one or the other. We cannot make Jesus the king we want him to be. We must accept him as the king God has given us. If we put all our hopes on the one who feeds the multitudes to the exclusion of the one who dies on the cross, our cry becomes, "We have no king but Caesar!" We need both. This Sunday, we get both, but it's easy to miss it.