WHEN THE TASK SEEMS IMPOSSIBLE John 6:1-15
In a T.V. commercial, an announcer asked a woman, "What is the worst four-letter word your child uses. That, of course, brings all kinds of obscenities to mind, but then the woman surprises us with her answer. She asserts that the worst four-letter word her child can use is "can't". Then she cites some, "I can't read. I can't spell. I can't do maths."
"Can't" is one of the worst four-letter words a person can use. The child who says, "I can't do maths" really can't do maths and he will not be able to do maths so long as that word dominates his thinking. To convince oneself that something is impossible has the practical effect of rendering it impossible. That is true, not only for children but also for you and me. Before we can accomplish any task, we must at least have some hope that it can be done.
That truth is played out in today's Gospel reading. Jesus and His disciples were in a rural place with more than five thousand people. After a while, food became an issue. People began to get hungry. Jesus felt obliged to feed them. He was, after all, the reason they were there. So He took upon Himself the role of host. It was His job to provide the meal and He tried to share that responsibility with His disciples. He asked Philip, "Where shall we buy bread for these to eat?" Philip was no help at all. In so many words he said, “It's impossible. We might as well give up before we ever start." Andrew did a little better. Somehow he had found a boy with a small lunch. He told Jesus of his find and then said, "But what good is that little among so many?"
Both of these disciples started with a presumption of despair. They stood before a task that needed to be done and concluded that it was impossible. It was useless even to try because they could not do it. All of us are faced with tasks like that - things that must be done but seem impossible. It may be something as personal as losing weight or overcoming a bad habit. We have tried before and are convinced that we can't do it. Or it may be something social, like ending war or eliminating racism. These evils have always been there and we have little hope of doing anything about them. What are we to do when a task seems impossible?
One thing we might do is realistically face the fact that some things are impossible. For example, we cannot feed a crowd of five thousand with one small lunch, but Jesus can. Our reading leaves room to suppose that He did. But we can't, and no amount of faith will change that reality. The New Testament credits Jesus with doing many things that we can't do. He opened blind eyes. We can't do that. He straightened twisted limbs. We can't do that. He unstopped deaf ears. We can't do that. The word "impossible" is part of our vocabulary for good reason. There are some things we cannot do, no matter how hard we try or how much faith we have.
If it is painful to admit that about ourselves, remember that the same thing was true of Jesus. He wasn’t able to do all that He wanted to do. Some things were impossible, even for Him. He could not get along with everybody. Jesus had some enemies who hounded Him to the day of His death. Try as He might, He could not win their friendship. They were determined not to get along with Him. There was nothing He could do about it. He tried to win the trust and loyalty of Judas, but His best efforts were to no avail. Even Jesus had to deal with failure. Some things seem impossible for the simple reason that they are impossible.
We need to be careful, however, in the application of that idea. Properly used, it is wisdom. Wrongfully used, it can become a lame excuse for laziness. Some things only seem impossible. In reality, they are only waiting to be done. I can remember when space travel was thought to be impossible, but a young Russian cosmonaut named Uri Gagarin proved that idea false. Space travel was just waiting for a pioneer who had the daring to try what others called impossible. In a sense, Jesus was that kind of pioneer. When the task seemed impossible, He dared to try what others said couldnever be done. His only resource, so far as we know, was five barley loaves and a couple of dried fish. Obviously, it was not nearly enough, but it was all He had, so He started with that and it turned out that everyone had enough to eat with twelve baskets left over. The Gospel writer does not explain how that happened. Most people assume that Jesus miraculously multiplied the loaves and fish. That may be what happened. The reading does not say that, but it does leave open the possibility. The main point is that a task that seemed impossible got done. It was not impossible after all.
Could that be true of the challenges we face today? Is peace possible? Can wars cease? We are told it is impossible. Wise voices say that wars are inevitable. They have always been and will always be, but one pioneer, with five barley loaves and a couple of dried fish, might prove that idea to be false. Can the races learn to live together in harmony? Of course not, say the cynical doubters. There is a natural antipathy between the races and there always will be, but one little boy, with five barley cakes and a couple of fish, might prove that ancient bit of wisdom to be false.
Some tasks seem impossible because they are. If you are waiting for me to develop into a world-class opera star, forget it. It's impossible, but some tasks seem impossible because no one has had the faith and courage to give it a chance. There are a lot of things in this world that ought to be done, and for a person of faith, to say that a thing ought to be is to say that it can be. Will you be one of those who have the faith and courage to give it a try?