Well I won’t ask if any of you are still alive in Warren Buffet’s billion dollar NCAA bracket challenge, because I already know the answer. With the loss of George Washington University last weekend, the last three brackets were eliminated, so no one here will be winning a billion dollars this year.
For those of you who hadn’t heard, Warren Buffet who himself is worth around $60 billion dollars, offered that his company would give $1 billion dollars to any person who could perfectly predict the men’s NCAA basketball tournament this year. The NCAA tournament – “March Madness” – has become huge. Once the field for the tournament is announced, it has become very popular to try to pick the winners of all the games. People go in together in pools in which participants contribute some amount of money and the individual who has the most correct tournament bracket wins.
Buffet took this idea and upped it a few notches – well really, a billion. Buffet’s billion dollar bracket challenge has caused an incredible wave of interest on the internet and in social media. Now the fact that no one succeeded in winning the billion dollars this year is not surprising. The tournament of sixty four teams has six rounds and is famous for shocking upsets. Every year there are Cinderella stories of smaller schools from lesser conferences who make a run in the tournament. These unexpected success stories are known as “bracket busters” because the upset of one favored team can ruin a person’s predictions for a whole part of the tournament.
Now Warren Buffet didn’t get 60 billion dollars by being dumb. His offer garnered him tremendous publicity, and yet it was almost impossible for anyone to win the money. The odds of picking a perfectly correct tournament have been figured in several different ways and placed somewhere between one in 9.2 quintillion and one in 128 billion. To put that in perspective, the odds of being struck by lightning in the state of Illinois are just a little under one in one million.
The mere possibility of receiving a billion dollars – however remote – fired the public’s imagination. And I think one of the reasons it did is because of what a billion dollars represents to people. A billion dollars would mean freedom from all financial concerns of any kind … forever. It would mean complete freedom to live life in any way that you want.
At the end of our Gospel lesson this morning, the crowd of more than five thousand think that they have the perfect billion dollar tournament bracket. Because of the miracle Jesus has worked, they think they have the one who will give them an endless supply of food which will free them from all effort. Yet in fact, the miracle of the feeding is a sign that points forward to Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is a sign that reveals Jesus as the bread of life – the One who will give his flesh for the life of the world.
Our Gospel lesson this morning is the account of the feeding of the five thousand. This miracle holds a special place since it is the only one included by all four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
We learn that a large crowd was following Jesus, because they saw the signs – take note of that word - that he was doing on the sick as he healed them. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. Our text tells us, “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.” This is important. The Passover celebrated God’s mighty saving action as God used Moses to bring Israel out of slavery in Egypt. It was a time when people were prompted to look for God to act again and to send another powerful deliverer – another prophet like Moses.
We know the miracle well. Jesus said to Philip in order to test him, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” A denarius was a day’s wage, and Philip said that two hundred denarii wouldn’t even begin to do the job.
However, Andrew called attention to a boy who had five barley loaves and two fish. And after having the people sit down, Jesus worked a miracle as he used those bread and fish to feed the crowd. In fact he so abundantly provided food that they were able to gather up twelve baskets of leftovers.
We learn at the end of our text that when the people saw the sign – note that word again – that Jesus had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” And then because he perceived that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
The crowds followed Jesus because of the signs that he was doing as he healed people. They saw the sign that he did as he fed them all using basically nothing. And their response was to want make him king. The next day they would track down Jesus at Capernaum on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. As they interacted with Jesus it became clear that they had not understood the miracles as signs. Instead, Jesus told them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”
And very often, isn’t that the way you are? At the end of the day what do you want? You want life to go well. You want to be comfortable. You want to have your needs taken care of – and also your wants. You want God to be the benevolent grandpa who makes sure you have the good stuff.
And really, you don’t want God to get a whole lot more involved in your life than that. You want to be free to do your own thing. You certainly don’t want God to start putting limitations on your options through his divine law found in the Ten Commandments as interpreted by Jesus and the apostles. You don’t want to hear about Jesus being your Lord – the One who owns you because he redeemed you from Satan and sin. You don’t want to hear about denying yourself, and taking up the cross and following Jesus in a world where that is going to be harder and harder, and the cross is going to be easier and easier to find.
The fact that deep down we often think this way, is the reason that the Word, the Son of God, became flesh in our world in the first place. As we have seen, in John’s Gospel the miracles that Jesus performs are called signs. After Jesus turns water into wine at Cana we hear, “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.”
The signs reveal Jesus’ glory and they point to the reason the Son of God entered into the world. The point to the destination of our Lenten journey. They point to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. During Holy Week Jesus will say, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” And John tells us, “He said this to show” – literally, to sign – “by what kind of death he was going to die.” And later, when the Jewish leaders have to bring Jesus to the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate in order to have Jesus executed – a death that will occur by crucifixion – John says, “This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show” – literally, to sign – “by what kind of death he was going to die.”
Jesus’ miracle this morning points to the cross. It points to Jesus as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world by dying for us. In our text, Jesus uses bread to work a miracle as he feeds the crowd. Later in this chapter Jesus talks about himself as the bread that has come from heaven; as the bread of life. And then he says, “ I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Jesus Christ’s flesh was nailed to the cross and he died to give you life. For on the third day he rose from the dead with flesh that can never die again. He defeated death and brought life – eternal life. He has given you that life as you were born again of water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism.
And now Jesus sustains you in that life of faith as he continues to work a miracle in your midst using bread. He uses bread and wine in the Sacrament of the Altar to feed you. The day after the feeding of the five thousand Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Jesus feeds you with the saving benefits of his cross and resurrection as he, the crucified and risen One gives you his body and blood. He gives his body and blood into your body and so assures you that your body will be raised and transformed to be like his when he returns in glory on the Last Day.
By his Sacrament he guarantees you that death does not get the final word. Instead, Jesus promises, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
This morning, Jesus works a sign in our midst – a miracle that uses bread and wine. Like the feeding of the five thousand, it is a sign that points to the saving death and resurrection of the Lord. But it is a sign that is more than just a sign because it gives us the reality itself – the body and blood of the risen Lord, given and shed for you. Jesus, the bread of God who came down from heaven has given life to the world – and to each one of you.