Feeding of Five Thousand

The Abundant Life

Matthew 14:13-21 (NRSV)

One of Jesus’ great, oft-cited miracles is the feeding of 5,000 men, plus however many women and children were present. There’s an additional miracle going on here we sometimes miss, however. Jesus’ gracious, divine Spirit overcomes what should be a crushing human burden.

Note how the story begins: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” This is a sign to readers that we need to back up a little in Matthew. Something important has just happened, something tragic, something painful.

That event was the senseless death of John the Baptist, a holy man slaughtered in the context of a courtly scene nearly pornographic in its intensity. King Herod, a puppet of the Roman Empire, had taken his brother’s wife for his own. John the Baptist had publicly condemned the marriage, leading to the prophet’s imprisonment.

On the occasion of Herod’s birthday, the wife’s daughter danced in a way pleasing to Herod, so pleasing that he promised to give her anything she wanted. After consulting with her mother, the daughter asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Cornered by his own offer, Herod reluctantly ordered the executioners to do their work, and the gruesome reward quickly arrived.

The nastiness of the world stains this scene mightily, even if some of the ugliness must be inferred. In addition to the callous murder of a prophet, there is layer upon layer of incestuous behavior, both in Herod taking his brother’s wife and Herod’s lust for her daughter, presumably his niece. There also is the wife, who apparently was quite happy trading up to a marriage that would put her in Herod’s court—she is, after all, the one who initiated the beheading, clearly unhappy with John the Baptist’s public critique.

An Intrusion?

Sin came crashing down, killing Jesus’ cousin, the one who had recognized the presence of the Christ while still in the womb, the one ordained by God to declare the messiah’s arrival. Jesus needed time to grieve. He also had to come to terms with another sign his own suffering and death were not far off.

Naturally, Jesus wanted some privacy. The human part of him needed to pray and grieve, perhaps even to cry. But when he arrived at the shore of the deserted place where he headed by boat, it was no longer deserted. The people had run on foot from the towns to be in his presence, in particular, to bring their sick.

How would we react to our much-needed respite being interrupted? Except for a few true saints among us, not the way Jesus reacted. At our best, maybe we would be polite; maybe we would send a spokesman to ask the people to go away, with a promise to appear at such-and-such town on a specific day and time.

It’s a normal reaction when we’re under the stress loss and anxiety can bring. We physically hurt, pain knotting in our heads, our chests or our stomachs. We tend to overreact to what others say or do, and that can make us fearful of being with people. We feel like we cannot be much good to anyone else.

But Jesus looked around—I imagine him taking a very deep breath—and, filled with compassion, began to heal, a process that at times seemed to drain him. Ultimately, he began to feed all those people, despite what seemed like a dire shortage of food.

In feeding these people, Jesus was sending one of those messages designed to turn the world upside down. Sin cannot win. Brokenness and scarcity will not triumph. The eternal, all-powerful God, the one who made all things, offers abundance in all things, even when his heart is broken by his own creation.

Bearers of Grace

Anxiety and fear do not represent the normal order of the universe as God made it to be. We are human, but as Christians we are to be like Jesus as much as humanly possible, allowing the Holy Spirit to strengthen us at times we think we can go no further, particularly if we’re called to show God’s grace in a particular moment. We cannot forget that while Jesus provided the miracles, he also told the disciples, “You give them something to eat.”

I’ve known a few people who seemed to be really good at taking that deep breath and doling out grace. One of my favorites was a man named Bob Loy. Bob had every reason to feel crushed by the world.

He had lived for decades with about 30 percent lung capacity after an accident that nearly killed him. By the time I knew him, he was elderly. His wife became very ill; while staying with her at the hospital, Bob slipped and fell, breaking his leg near the hip and putting himself in the hospital.

While Bob was laid up, unable to move, his wife died. He couldn’t even go to the funeral. His sister also died about the same time. Again, he couldn’t go to the funeral. This was a man who had every reason to give up.

But not Bob. Through his pain, he kept looking around what had become a very tiny world for him, a hospital room. He was certain every day somebody near him needed God’s grace, and he was going to be God’s vessel for that grace. I know for a fact that he brought at least one nurse to a belief in Jesus Christ while flat on his back in that hospital bed.

He also showed me a lot of grace. I was a new pastor, and he constantly was encouraging me, even as pneumonia took over those weak lungs and he had to keep pulling off his oxygen mask to speak.

A Near-Death Experience

Bob had a secret that explained his attitude, a secret he shared with me after we had known each other awhile. When he had that accident decades earlier, the one that scarred his lungs so badly, he had a vision of an entryway to heaven.

His had been the classic case of dying on the table and being brought back. He said his experience was indescribably beautiful, a vision of a stream, a vast plain, and the most glorious mountain he had ever seen. He knew God was there, and if he crossed the stream, he could not go back. He also knew he had a choice. A young man at the time, he chose to return to his family, he told me.

But he did not forget the vision. He had seen what eternal victory in Christ looks like, if only briefly, and from then on that vision shaped his life. I knew Bob only late in his life; when it came time to preside at his funeral, I heard story after story of the lives he had changed through the years with his joyous version of the story of Christ, a story he both told and lived out every day.

I don’t think Christians have to have a near-death experience to understand what Bob understood. We have embraced the story of a Savior who shows us repeatedly that when it comes to the things that matter—love, hope, joy—there is eternal abundance. We simply need to learn to dwell in that abundance.

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God’s Pawn

Life can seem pretty tough at times, even if you are certain you are following God’s will. In a world filled with evil, being on the front line for God can be exhausting, and exhaustion can lead to doubt and even despair.

We see it in the Old Testament in the prophet Elijah. At the height of his ministry, he overcame the priests of Baal in a battle of prayers and worship, bringing the destruction of those who were leading the Israelites astray. And yet, when faced with the evil Jezebel just a short time later, Elijah for all practical purposes ran away and collapsed in a heap in the wilderness, asking God to take his life.

We see it in our New Testament text for this third Sunday in Advent. Jesus would declare to the crowds that John the Baptist is “Elijah”—that is, John the Baptist was the prophet the people had been expecting, the one sent by God to declare the arrival of the Messiah. And yet, in the story, John the Baptist comes across as uncertain and even confused as he sat in prison.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” he asked Jesus through messengers.

When you consider all of John the Baptist’s story, it is an astonishing question. If he was not certain, who can be certain?

To understand John the Baptist, you have to read his story in all four gospels. In Luke, we learn John the Baptist was a miracle child in whom the Holy Spirit dwelled even before he was born. He leaped in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, capable of recognizing the mother of the Messiah before he has seen the world.

We also understand from Luke that Jesus and John the Baptist were related through their mothers, cousins separated in age by only six months. We can only speculate how much time they spent together. Luke also tells us John the Baptist grew up in the wilderness, meaning he may have lived all his life as a hermit prophet, possibly among a sect of Jews known as the Essenes.

When John the Baptist began his adult ministry as recorded in all four gospels, he seemed certain enough, preaching a fiery call that the people should repent of their sins in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. When Jesus came to be baptized, he seemed certain enough, protesting that Jesus should baptize him and not vice-versa. In the Gospel of John, he seemed certain enough when he first saw Jesus, declaring, “Here is the Lamb of God.”

It would seem the uncertainty crept in during imprisonment, which happened after the prophet rebuked Jewish King Herod for taking his brother’s wife as his own. Just as it was with Elijah, there’s no telling what caused doubt to creep in. Certainly, for a man who had lived all his life freely outdoors, eating locusts and honey and going where the Spirit drove him, being locked in a cell must have been disorienting.

Perhaps as a prophet, John the Baptist also began to sense where all of this was going. He wasn’t going to leave the cell alive. In fact, he was going to have his head delivered on a platter to a dancing girl and her spiteful mother. Had John the Baptist heard of chess, he might have begun to use the word “pawn” to describe himself, feeling like a disposable piece in God’s grand plan.

Jesus’ answer to his cousin’s question was not the obvious “Yes, I am the one,” the answer that would have provided comfort. “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus told the messengers. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Here is what I hear in this response: “John, you are a prophet, filled with the Holy Spirit. You know the signs; you know the answer.”

We do not know how John the Baptist received that response. The range of possibilities would run from despair to joy, I suppose.

I believe that like his Old Testament predecessor, Elijah, John the Baptist at least moved from doubt to strength. An angel of the Lord ministered to Elijah; messengers from Jesus returned to John. I think their straightforward words would have fed him spiritually, giving him a renewed faith that God’s kingdom was present through Jesus.

As I study John the Baptist, I’m also reminded how much Jesus loved his cousin, even if his reply was almost businesslike in its tone. When Jesus heard of John the Baptist’s beheading, he took to a boat to find a deserted place—he was grieving. And when the people found him, one of Jesus’ great acts of compassion occurred, the feeding of the 5,000.

When we find ourselves exhausted and doubtful, perhaps even feeling like pawns, it is good to remember we worship a God who treasures every piece in his creation. This life may not always go as we hope, but we need not doubt the joy God’s plan ultimately brings us.