Sunday 3 August 2014
Reading Matthew 14:13-21
May I speak this morning in the name of God + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A tennis racket in my hands is useless and worthless. A tennis racket in Novak Djokovic’s hands can win a Wimbledon Championship. A snooker cue in my hands is a piece of kindling wood. A snooker cue in Steve Davies’ hands can make him millions. A catapult in my hands is a liability for us all but a catapult in David’s hands can bring down a Goliath. Two fish and 5 loaves of bread in my hands is a couple of fish sandwiches. Two fish and 5 loaves of bread in God’s hands will feed thousands.
For the last several weeks Matthew the gospel writer has been recounting to us a number of Jesus’ parables – the parable of the sower, the parable of the wheat and the weeds and so forth. As you know a parable is a metaphorical story intended to convey a spiritual meaning. But today we have a shift away from parables and back to the narrative of Jesus’ ministry. The narrative we are looking at today is Matthew’s account of the feeding of the 5000. Interestingly this is the only miracle story that features in all four of the gospels which suggests that this was such a huge and meaningful event that it reverberated strongly in all the Christian communities that produced the written gospels in the decades following the creation of the church. But it is also a misnamed story because this is not about the feeding of 5000 people at all. In verse 21 we are told that there were 5000 men, beside the women and children. And we know that there were children present not only because of this verse but because in John’s account of this story the five loaves and two small fishes were actually provided by a boy. So how many were fed that day? Certainly more than 5000 – perhaps 10,000, 15,000, 20,000. Which is a useful reminder that no matter how big you think a miracle may be, God is always capable of working on a bigger and bigger scale.
Our passage begins with Jesus hearing the news of John the Baptist being beheaded. This obviously affected Jesus on a number of levels – John was related to Jesus, John had baptised Jesus at the start of his public ministry and John was the forerunner of Jesus’ ministry. But that forerunning, or going ahead, of Jesus did not just include proclaiming repentance and the coming Kingdom of God it also included being put to death first. And John’s being put to death must have put into sharp focus for Jesus were his ministry was going. And so Jesus wanted to withdraw for a while to a private place, away from the crowds and their endless demands and so he went off in a boat to a solitary place.
But even without the magic of GPS and texting the crowds from whom Jesus had wanted to withdraw found where he was going and they followed him out to that once solitary place in huge numbers. We know that they followed him on foot from the towns, perhaps they ran along the shoreline, keeping an eye on the sail of his boat.
Why did they follow him out into the wilderness? Because they had seen the transformation that Jesus had already brought to so many lives and I presume that every person there had something in their lives that needed changing – perhaps sickness, or oppression or perhaps they just had the innate yearning that I am sure afflicts all of us – the simply be in the presence of something or someone holy.
When Jesus reached the shore of what he hoped would be a solitary place the people are already there waiting for him, in huge numbers. As part of my own discipleship or journey towards Christlikeness I have to ask myself how I would have felt, much as I love you all, if everyone here had turned up on the canal bank last week when I was on holiday. The answer is that I still have some way to go and I am sorry about that.
But “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.”
The important word here is compassion and it is a word that seems to have lost some of its power in modern minds. If we remember that the word passion as in the passion of Christ, means suffering then to feel compassion does not simply mean feeling sorry for someone else’s plight it actually means to suffer with someone in their plight – to really feel the hunger of the hungry, the pain of the sick, the sorrow of the bereaved and even the spiritual pain of those who need God. Jesus didn’t just feel a bit kindly towards these people but as he looked on them he suffered with them and moved naturally to healing them.
And so, once again, he ministered to the people all day. He listened to them and healed them. He must have been exhausted. The day passed and the evening drew on. He is hungry and he knows the entire crowd is hungry. The disciples understand this too and say to Jesus:
“This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
This would have been a great way to get rid of the crowds and have a little down time. But again he has compassion on the people and said to his disciples
“They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
What a marvellous example of shared and delegated ministry. Jesus is teaching his disciples that it is not all just about him, that they too have a role to play in serving the needs of the people. But when called upon to serve their first response is to point to their limited resources:
“We have nothing here but five loaves of bread and two fish.”
They realised they had very limited resources, and the crowd had unlimited need.
But then Jesus, referring to the five loaves and two fish, said, “Bring them here to me.” Now if we were reading this story for the first time, our hearts would begin to beat a little faster and our curiosity would peak as we would wonder what Jesus was going to do. What could he possibly be thinking? Who would have dreamed what he was about to do. Certainly not the disciples. Even in the very next chapter where Jesus feeds another 4,000 people, the disciples seem perplexed about what to do, for they say, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?” Where indeed!
How different are we from the disciples? When called upon the serve the limitless need of the world around us do we point first to our limited resources or to God’s boundless grace?
And so Jesus gave thanks for the loaves and the fish and he broke them to share. And as we see Jesus feeding the people in the wilderness it should bring to mind echoes of the Old Testament:
Moses and the Isrealites in the wilderness, being feed with the miraculous manna from heaven.
The prophet Elisha feeding a hundred men with only twenty loaves of barley bread, despite the reservations of his followers.
So Jesus is echoing the law and the prophets of the Old Testament, but he far surpasses them. You remember that the manna that Moses fed the people in the wilderness with was not to be stored or saved. If they attempted to keep it, it would rot. But Jesus tells them to save the leftovers, which happens to be 12 basketfuls. This is a meaningful number to the Israelites – Jesus has enough left over for each of the 12 tribes.
We should also be reminded powerfully that in John’s version of this story Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). Jesus can make bread go a long way because he is the Bread of Life. And, of course, at the last supper, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples. And the bread that he broke and shared has since gone on to feed many billions including us here today. In many ways we are the crowd of the hungry and needy still being feed with miraculous bread from heaven – we are wanderers in the wilderness seeking something of the holy and Jesus has compassion on us and meets our needs.
In our hands what we have to offer seems meagre and worthless and not up to the task that is set before us. But in God’s hands the little that we have can be transformed and multiplied and become miraculous. Personally each of us is invited to partake of the bread of heaven and as a church we are told that as we go out to serve the world we should not look at our limitations but at our boundless God whose compassion knows no end and who promises to be with us always to the end of the age.