For about 1,000 Years…, Lent 4 (B) – 2000
April 02, 2000
For about 1,000 years, this Sunday, the Sunday in the middle of Lent, has been a little special. Because of the Gospel account of the miraculous feeding, today has been known as Refreshment (or, in Latin, Laetare) Sunday. In the Middle Ages, the penitential disciplines of Lent were relaxed somewhat, there were some provisions for feasting and celebrations (and the Pope distributed bread to the poor). This special Sunday has become a chance to lighten up, to pause in the middle of Lent, relax, and get some perspective on how things really are.
That’s what the lessons we have just heard are about. They all share a single, important, and refreshing theme — but it takes a little time to find that. They don’t start out that way.
The first reading, the one from Second Chronicles, begins with a long summary of Israel’s failure, decline, and defeat. God had done everything for Israel. God created the nation, delivered the people from slavery, gave them their land, the temple, the law-and so much more. What God asked in return was that this special nation respond by loving obedience-by being a faithful witness to the God who had done so much for them.
But they failed; they blew it. It was so much easier to be like everybody else than it was to be the people they were called to be. It was so much easier to be like everybody else than it was to trust in the protection and care of God. It was just easier to be like everyone else.
Israel’s failure was not really a failure to keep the rules-that was a secondary concern. Israel’s failure was, at its heart, a failure of mission. Israel was called to be the place where the world could look and see what life with God was really like; and so, by seeing that, be drawn to God. But, instead of offering the world a vision, Israel offered a mirror.
God had reached out to the people again and again. Over and over God had renewed God’s covenant with the people and called them back into that covenant relationship. Prophet after prophet had been sent; warning after warning had been given. Still, the covenant was shattered, the people had chosen to go their own way.
What happened next Israel understood as judgment. The kingdom fell, the land was deserted, the temple was destroyed, Jerusalem became a ruin, and the people were taken into exile. One thousand years of Israel’s covenant with God were finished-all that was left was ashes, rubble, and a few slaves in an alien land. No one could blame God-it was the people’s fault. They just didn’t have what it took. The story was over. Hold on to that picture — it’s the way into the Gospel and Refreshment Sunday.
After all, John’s account of the feeding of the multitude, while a whole lot less intense than the story of Israel’s collapse, also starts out as a story of failure. Jesus has been teaching, and has attracted a good-sized crowd. And, in spite of having the good sense to be interested in Jesus, this crowd is, otherwise, a pretty ordinary crowd, almost a mob. And, like a lot of crowds before and since, it had much more enthusiasm than good sense. So, when Jesus finished up where he was and moved on to the next county, the crowd just up and followed right along, with no apparent thought for the necessities or the consequences. There wasn’t a Boy Scout among them, no one was even close to being prepared.
The crowd following Jesus just sort of wandered along until their stomachs started growling and it slowly dawned on them that it was dinner time and it would sure be nice if they had made a plan or packed a lunch or something. Jesus points this situation out to the disciples (who probably should have seen this coming and made some kind of arrangements) and they are completely overwhelmed.
Philip misses the point so completely he tries to give a speech on economics; and Andrew attempts to find a way to shift everybody’s attention to some stranger-“this kid doesn’t have enough to fix it, either”. There seems to be no where to go but downhill.
It’s clear that the disciples were ready to announce that everyone had to go home, get their own stuff, and maybe come back another day. (After all, hungry crowds had a long history of getting downright nasty.) Like the story of Israel, this little story was over. Somebody, the crowd or the disciples or both, had blown it, and that was the end of that.
But that’s not what happened. That is not what happened to Israel and that is not what happened to that hungry crowd. And the word of God on Refreshment Sunday is simply that the story is not over — the story of God’s love, the story of God’s covenant, is not over.
The Old Testament lesson goes on to tell how, in spite of everything, and through absolutely no merit or virtue of its own, Israel’s story did not end in exile in Babylon. The people return, Jerusalem is restored, and the covenant is renewed. There is no “deserving” here, no justice; Israel does nothing smart or heroic. God simply refuses to let go-and so the story continues.
In the Gospel, the crowd doesn’t suddenly wise up and figure out how to manage a quick lunch; and the disciples don’t get any bright ideas about what to do, either. They all just stand there, dumb as a post, while Jesus, using exactly what Andrew has said will not work, makes sure that the story continues. Once more, issues of “deserving” and “fair” and their own best efforts have nothing to do with it.
With God, the story is never over; our story is never over-your story is never over.
That’s what Paul means when he says again and again, “by grace you have been saved…and this is not your own doing.” It does not matter what has happened. It does not matter if you have been as evil as Israel or as thoughtless as that crowd or as stupid as the disciples. (Come to think of it, it doesn’t matter much how good you have been, either, but that’s a slightly different sermon.) None of that matters, because God will not allow the story to be over, God will not allow your story to be over. God’s love is simply bigger than we are. We are never granted the certainty of total defeat, or the luxury of despair.
Certainly, God’s relationship with us demands obedience. Certainly, there are consequences for disobedience and these consequences can be devastating. Sin destroys. We can look at ancient Israel for proof of that if we want to, but it’s probably easier just to look around. But the story never ends there. “By grace you have been saved . . . it is the gift of God — not the result of works.” The story always goes on- there is always cause for hope. That is the news on Refreshment Sunday. The news of Refreshment Sunday is simple news, it is old news, it is sometimes hidden and ambiguous news; but it is the truth, a truth running like a thread of gold through all of scripture, a truth just as deeply buried in your life, and in our life together as the body of Christ in this place. The story is not over.
And we live out a little taste of that today, just like we do every Sunday. Because every Sunday it is our turn to sit down on the mountainside; and we join that crowd in the Gospel. Every Sunday, what happened there happens here. Don’t ever forget that the bread we share comes directly from one of those twelve baskets of leftovers, and there is always enough; and more. No matter what.
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