12th Sunday after Pentecost August 12, 2018
20, 570, Worship Supplement 793 (alt. TLH 36), 50
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew byboat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “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.” Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered. “Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
During His earthly ministry, Jesus performed many miracles. He healed the sick. He controlled the weather and walked on water. He cast out demons and changed water into wine. He raised from the dead Lazarus, the daughter of Jairus, and the son of the widow from Nain. Jesus performed these miracles not only to help and heal, to restore and liberate; but also to prove that He was exactly who He claimed to be: the Son of God and the only Savior of lost humanity.
And so, when beginning His ministry in Nazareth, Jesus announced: “The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
Yet, the miracles of Jesus recorded in the New Testament are only a small percentage of all His miraculous deeds. The apostle John wrote in his Gospel, “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31). John went on to say, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
Of all Christ’s miracles, however, only one is recorded in all four Gospels: the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Why is this miracle recorded four times, when the Feeding of the Four Thousand is recorded only twice and when an astonishing miracle like the resurrection of Lazarus is recorded only once?
These are interesting questions with no direct answer provided in Scripture. Yet, perhaps the answer is as simple as this: in the Feeding of the Five Thousand, we learn so many comforting truths about our Savior in a context as commonplace as our daily need to eat.
In the Feeding of the Five Thousand, Jesus displayed His compassion, involvement, power, and generosity. These are the characteristics of our Savior that each of us must remember, especially in times of trouble, heartache, sorrow, and loss.
First, the Savior displays His great compassion. In the 1980’s, a Jewish rabbi named Harold Kushner wrote a wildly popular book titled, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” It’s understandable that Kushner would write such a book as his own son died at a young age. As Kushner watched the boy grow weaker and sicker, he wrestled with the age-old question of why such a bad thing would happen to such a good person. I can only imagine his grief, pain, and loss.
Eventually, Kushner concluded there were only three possible reasons for human suffering: (A) God does not exist; (B) God is limited in His abilities; and (C) God is evil. As a Jewish rabbi, Kushner could neither deny the existence of God, nor accuse God of being evil. This left him with option “B,” that God is limited in His abilities, that God is not all-powerful, not all-knowing, and not always present.
In practical terms, Kushner’s conclusions mean that God wants to help us, but some circumstances are beyond His power and control. God wants to be with us, but He can’t be everywhere and with everyone at the same time—similar to the complaints of Mary and Martha, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). Likewise, God wants to keep us safe from all harm and danger, but He doesn’t know everything that will happen.
Is this the God revealed in the Bible? No. The God revealed in the Bible is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. But He is much more too, including infinitely compassionate. The psalmist wrote, “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love,” And again, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him” (Psalm 103:8,13).
The apostle James wrote—in a context of Christian trials and persecution, “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (James 5:11). And there are multitudes of other such passages that bear witness to God’s great compassion.
Kushner did not fully understand the God of the Old Testament, nor did he come to see the same God more fully and more gloriously revealed in the New Testament through the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. Is God limited in any way? Is there ever a time when God doesn’t know what is happening in our lives or when God fails to care about our personal circumstances? The answers are no, no, and no.
Regardless of what we ourselves may be tempted to think of God when going through difficulties—“God, why did You let this happen? This illness…this job loss…this broken marriage…this foreclosure, bankruptcy or automobile accident?”—God does have the utmost compassion for us; even to the degree of caring about our growling stomachs.
Read Matthew 14:14. “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, He had compassion on them and healed their sick.” Who had compassion on whom—at first sight; before one person said “Jesus, I’m sick” or another person said “Jesus, I’m hungry”? Or read Matthew 15:32, the Feeding of the Four Thousand, where the same description is given of Christ’s compassion. “I have compassion for these people,” said Jesus, “they have already been with Me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse along the way.”
Why should God care about such matters—whether we eat or get sick or arrive safely home? God cares because compassion is part of His nature. And dear friends, rejoice in this fact and in this God.
Don’t merely think of Christ’s miracles as acts of great power. Think of them also as acts of great compassion. That’s what we read in Matthew 9:36, “When He saw the crowds, He had COMPASSION on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep with no shepherd.” Or Matthew 20:34, at the healing of two blind men, “Jesus had COMPASSION on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed Him.” Or Mark 5:19, at the healing of a demon-possessed man, “Go home to your family,” said Jesus, “and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how He has had COMPASSION on you.” Or Luke 7:13, at the raising of a widow’s dead son: “When the Lord saw her, His heart went out to her and He said, ‘Don’t cry.’”
I can sympathize with a man like Harold Kushner. There is no greater pain than the loss of a child. Yet, understand that a book title like, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” is a flawed theological premise. Flawed, because according to the Bible there are no good people. By nature all people are sinful, deserving only God’s wrath and punishment. Remember Psalm 14:1-2? “The Lord looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
The great compassion of God is seen in this, that He gives us what we do not deserve—forgiveness, eternal life—through Jesus Christ. In other words, He is a God who cares about every aspect of our lives, from eternal salvation to daily bread. The proof is in the Feeding of the Five Thousand, but even more so in the cross of Jesus.
Second, the Savior displayed personal involvement. So often we feel compassion for others, don’t we? The homeless man dressed in rags, standing on the street corner, holding a cardboard sign. Or the elderly woman at the nursing facility, sitting dejectedly in a wheelchair, who looks as if she’s had no visitors for years, no greeting cards on Christmas or her birthday.
The first month I moved to Fort Myers, I noticed a middle-aged woman sitting on a green metal bench outside of a nearby grocery store: day after day, hour after hour, same bench, same blistering sun. She was smoking non-stop between sips of water and fits of coughing. She was painfully thin, now staring at the shoppers, then staring at her feet. The woman wasn’t homeless, or so I was told when I asked a store manager. “I don’t know her name,” said the manager, “but she lives in the apartments across the street. She comes here every day and has for a long time.”
As the months passed, every time I went to that store I looked for the woman. Every time I told myself that I would say “hello” or see if she needed anything or even invite her to church. But something always intervened or distracted me. The shopping list became more important than the woman. And then one day, she was gone. Just gone. To my shame, my actions reminded me of a parable about a priest and Levite who hurried past a half-dead man lying in the middle of the road—too busy, too distracted, perhaps even too righteous to get involved. What if God were like this?
Today’s text is called “the Feeding of the Five Thousand.” In reality, the attendance may have been 30,000 when including women and children. One look at such a crowd, and Jesus could have easily turned away. But He didn’t. Instead, His great compassion moved Him to great action. He miraculously fed each man, each woman, and each child.
I find it ironic, indeed sad, that as Christians we can confess, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth;” and furthermore, “in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead”—that we can make such a confession, and yet doubt God’s involvement in our daily lives. Worse yet, that we can doubt His ability or willingness to provide our daily bread.
What better demonstrates God’s involvement in our lives than the incarnation of Jesus Christ—His coming to be with us and be one of us? What better demonstrates God’s involvement in even the worst circumstances of our lives than Christ’s death on the cross to atone for all our sins? And if Jesus Christ willingly laid down His life for us, will He not also provide us with a change of clothing and a loaf of bread?
Third, the Savior displays His power. This is an obvious lesson from the Feeding of the Five Thousand, isn’t it? Jesus is true God. Jesus has all power. Jesus has the power, we don’t. You and I desperately need to learn this lesson. So did the original disciples. According to today’s text, the disciples were the ones who brought meal-time to the attention of Jesus. “As evening approached, the disciples came to Him and said, ‘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’” (Matthew 14:15).
What was the Savior’s response? He told the disciples, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat” (Matthew 14:16). I would have enjoyed seeing the expression on the disciples’ faces at that moment. Most of us panic when a few friends or relatives arrive unannounced for dinner. Try 30,000 people. Perhaps the disciples looked helplessly at each other, checked their pockets and wallets for loose change, and wondered if they had misunderstood Jesus. The real question is: Why did Jesus give His disciples this impossible task, “You feed them”? Because He knew the disciples could not feed the multitudes and He wanted them to realize that He could.
How many of the disciples learned this lesson? Amazingly, none. One chapter later, Matthew 15 and the Feeding of the Four Thousand, the disciples asked Jesus: “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?” Only a month or two earlier, in another remote area, the same disciples had witnessed the same Jesus miraculous feed the same sort of massive crowd. And still they asked, “Where can we get food to feed all these people.”
Perhaps we can forgive the disciples, indeed, understand the disciples, because we have all done the same, haven’t we? How many times has God delivered each one of us from heartache, trouble, loss, pain, troubled relationships, guilt, and sin?
Remember these words of Jesus in Matthew 28, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.” All authority, He said. All power. Which means, to use the analogy of today’s text, Jesus is the one who miraculously provides the meal. All we do is distribute the food and collect the leftovers.
And this is the final important point for this morning—brief though it is, namely, the feeding of the five thousand displays the Savior’s generosity. When the Lord blesses us, He always provides leftovers, that is, far more than we need, and far more than we deserve. “Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, He gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over” (Matthew 14:19-20). John wrote of Jesus, “From the fullness of His grace we have all received one blessing after another” (John 1:16).
In the days, months, and years ahead, remember the meal you shared with Jesus today—especially in times of adversity and heartache. Remember His compassion for you. Remember His involvement in your life. Remember His power at work in your problems and salvation. And remember His generosity, the generosity with which He laid down His life for all your sins and will provide for all your daily needs.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.