St Barnabas & St Michael, 26th July 2009
I wonder if you like a good wedding? I know I do. I don’t know if it’s having the excuse to buy a new outfit, or watching the antics of the younger bridesmaids and pageboys as they fidget during the service – I could tell you some funny stories but I expect you have plenty of your own! Actually, I do know why I like weddings – it’s the food at the reception afterwards!
Not having enough food at a public event is a disaster. So let’s get straight to our reading … the feeding of the 5,000.
Jesus’ aim had been for them all to find ‘a quiet place and get some rest’ … but that wasn’t to be. Instead, when he saw the crowds waiting for them, Jesus ‘had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.’
When Jesus began his public ministry, it wasn’t long before the religious leaders of the day took offence at him … as early as Mark 3:6 we read that, the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. While the crowds gathered round him, some wondering if he was a prophet, others just for the show, those who claimed to be the spiritual leaders of the people tried to find a way to destroy the one sent by God to lead them to salvation.
So the description here of the people as ‘sheep without a shepherd’ isn’t merely incidental … it’s a quite deliberate echo of our OT reading from the prophet Jeremiah. Listen again,
Jeremiah 23:1-2 – “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scatter-ing the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD. Therefore this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the LORD.
In Jesus’ day, those who should have been shepherds to God’s chosen people had instead concentrated on maintaining their position and power, and felt threatened when God began to fulfill his promises. And as I read Jeremiah, and then began to study this passage, I couldn’t help thinking that – while the political and cultural situation is very different – that in our own day, something very similar is happening. That the Christian churches, who should be presenting a very clear message of hope in Jesus Christ for those without hope, or who have no sense of direction for their lives, or who feel themselves to be worthless … instead are fragmenting over issues that threaten to destroy their witness altogether.
The issues are important, because most centre on the authority of God’s word for believers, but our denomination in particular is trying to keep the peace between opposing views and in doing so has lost sight of the central message that our society needs to hear, so if our leaders are failing to give a clear lead to the nation at this time, we have to do it ourselves, at grassroots level … notice that when Jesus felt compassion for the people, his first response was to teach them, to tell them about God’s word and God’s perspective on their lives … to point out where they’d gone wrong, and to offer them hope in the promises of God. So we need to know what we believe, and to be prepared to tell anyone we meet why it’s good news for them, too.
The OT prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah all have this imagery of the leaders of God’s people being like shepherds who have failed to care for the flock … who have been more concerned with their own interests. And throughout the OT there is this repeated promise both that God himself is the true shepherd (think of Psalm 23) and that one day he will send his people a good shepherd …
I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. Ezekiel 34:23
Jesus is that good shepherd … so let’s get back now to the story in Mark.
The feeding of the 5,000 is such a familiar story … but the context of it in Mark’s gospel is often missed because of the account of the execution of John the Baptist that we looked at last week. The first verse of our reading today, verse 30, follows directly on from verse 13 …
Jesus had sent the twelve out on a mission to the surrounding villages. He’d told them to take nothing for the journey, not to stay anywhere they weren’t welcome, and gave them authority to ‘drive out evil spirits’ and heal the sick. They were to preach a message of repentance and to tell people about the Kingdom of God. So in Mark 6:13 we read, They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.
… and then the beginning of our reading today, verse 30, The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught.
I should love to have heard that conversation! Stepping out in faith, taking risks for God is a daunting prospect … but God honours those who trust him, and the disciples had seen wonderful things happen as a result of their ministry. I bet they were on some kind of a high that day! So Jesus tried to create some space, to give them all a rest and time to debrief … but as we’ve seen, the sheer number of people milling round them meant they couldn’t get away, so instead, Jesus began to minister to the need of the crowd because he had compassion on them …
But their need soon became a very practical one, it was late and the people were hungry. They’d not come prepared, they’d not taken the time to pack a picnic … possibly they’d simply heard the disciples preaching, seen them performing miracles and decided to follow them on the spur of the moment back to Jesus. So the disciples come to Jesus, and tell him what to do about it. Often that’s how we talk to Jesus isn’t it, when we pray we tell him what to do … and then, if he decides to answer our prayer another way, we miss it.
But what were the disciples thinking? When Jesus told them, ‘You give them something to eat!’ … did they think back to their experiences of preaching and healing that they’d only just returned from? To the miracles they had performed? Obviously not – their first thought was ‘we can’t afford it’!!
That would take eight months of a man’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat? vs 37
How often does our previous experience of God count for nothing? We used to read our Bible regularly, and knew God speaking to us as we did so, but somewhere along the way, we’ve lost the habit and don’t now consider it a worthwhile use of our time … or looking back we can remember times when prayer definitely made a difference, but now we’re not sure we can leave it up to God, we need to look after ourselves to be sure that a situation is going to be resolved to our satisfaction. We used to spend time telling people how great God is, but now we’re embarrassed and don’t like to embarrass others, so we don’t talk about him any more.
Or we decide there are some things we can do, and others we definitely can’t … so we don’t even try.
Jesus asks them, ‘How many loaves do you have?‘ and when they produce five small loaves, and two fish, Jesus tells them to get things organised, and sit the people down … so what are they thinking now? As they direct the crowd to sit down, what are their expectations of Jesus? And are they feeling just a little shamefaced that they hadn’t considered any other way of providing for the people than having to buy food?
Have you ever thought about the practicalities of this miracle? Jesus prayed and broke the loaves and gave a bit to each of the twelve, and the same with the fish … at that point, did any of them start to wonder ‘how did we all get some? There wasn’t enough …’
And then, then they had to turn round to the crowd and start passing round the fish and bread … did they feel embarrassed as the people saw how little there was? And did they give the first few people just a little tiny bit, to make it stretch? And when did they realise that however much they gave away, there was always more?
Can you imagine the rising tide of excitement they must have felt? And at the end of the day … when they collected twelve baskets of left overs, one each … did they then learn that they would always be able to rely on Jesus? And that they too could play a part in being his messengers, with his authority and power?
Sadly, I don’t think it was that easy … in a few weeks time we’ll come to Mark’s account of the feeding of the four thousand … which, if nothing else, demonstrates God’s patience with us as he repeats the lesson again and again … trust me, obey me and you too can share in the joy of seeing lives changed, you too can do mira-cles and see answered prayer, and see others come to faith, if you trust me, and obey me.
We looked at the need for our churches to give a lead in our communities, to know what we believe and to be willing to share it with the people around us … then we heard about the miracle of feeding 5,000 and thought about the disciples part in it … that when faced with a new need, a new challenge they went back to square one and forgot all about how much they’d learned on their recent journey … and we saw again how Jesus is always so generous with his provision and so patient with us when we need to learn to trust him.
The people around us, around our churches and our homes, need Jesus. They need his new life, a fresh start, hope, a sense of direction and purpose. It’s beyond me how we reach some of them. But I’ve seen Jesus change lives before … and so have you. Are we willing to take the risk of saying we have some answers, some solutions to the problems around us? Are we willing to obey him, to take a step of faith whenever the opportunity is there, to get it wrong and try again? And again?
The disciples started that day with five small loaves and two fish. At the end of the day, they each had a basket of food for the next day, and had fed 5,000 people in the meanwhile. Taking risks for God and just see how generous he can be!