St Michael’s 23rd August 2009
I wonder how many of you like to do spot the difference puzzles? You know the sort of thing – here are two pictures, and you need to find 12 differences between them. Children’s puzzle books and newspapers are full of them, and in my experience trying to find the last one or two differences is the hardest part. Because at first glance the two pictures look the same, and while on closer inspection it’s easy to see some of the differences, finding all of them can be a real challenge.
Now today we’re looking at two Bible readings from Mark’s gospel which at first glance sound the same – or are they? We’ve read both of them, so we ‘re going to work out what’s common between them, and how they vary from each other, and, once we’ve done that, think what lessons we can learn from all these similarities and differences.
The first similarity we come across is Jesus’ compassion for the crowd. It’s funny, but ever since I started looking at this passage I have kept hearing the word compassion on the news. Just before Christmas 1988 a passenger plane exploded over the village of Lockerbie in Scotland, killing 279 people in the air and on the ground. I still remember reading the tribute the headmaster of my school paid to a sixth-former killed in the blast. Eventually a person was convicted of carrying out this atrocity and sentenced to life in prison. But this week, as we all know, this person was released from prison on compassionate grounds on the basis he was suffering from cancer. Or again, to take another example, very recently the train robber Ronnie Biggs was released from prison for similar medical reasons. He is now going to spend the rest of his days in a nursing home on the basis he hasn’t got long for live.
It’s not my job to comment on the rights or wrongs of these cases. But it got me thinking more closely what it means when it says Jesus had compassion on the crowds. After all, we tend to have this rather romantic picture of basically good but misguided people flocking to Jesus in their thousands, all eager to hear what He had to say. But sheer statistics alone suggest that out of 5000, or 4000 people, there would have been some in the crowd who were criminals, some who were cheats or liars, some who quite knowingly broke God’s commandments in other ways. So what does it mean to say that Jesus had compassion on the crowd? I think the answer is that somehow Jesus managed to get that very difficult balance right between, on the one hand, of speaking about of God’s free unconditional love and, on the other, telling them of their need to repent. He didn’t say that what these people had done in the past didn’t matter, but neither did he do what the teachers of the law did and leave feeling condemned and trapped, unable to do anything effective about their sin.
And it is in this light that we can start to see what the feeding of the 5000 is all about. Yes, on one level it is simply about meeting the physical needs of people who are going hungry. But for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear it is a powerful statement that God’s demands for justice and God’s acts of mercy are both met in Jesus Christ. You see, by simply coming to Jesus, recognising your own need and your own inability to help yourself, you can receive a fresh start, and a new way of living which provides true satisfaction.
And I think there are some very important lessons for us at St Michael’s from these examples of Jesus. The obvious physical needs of the parish are very great, and we cannot shy away from our responsibility to work out how we should meet at least some of them. That’s why I hope all of you are thinking and praying what it means for this building to be a Christian presence here on Albert Road and what exactly the Lord is calling us to do here in this place. But – and this is the message that comes out clearly from the gospel – meeting physical needs is only part of our calling. And unless what we do points people to the compassion of Jesus we are actually failing in our duty to follow our Master and our Lord. As I have said before, we are not just another voluntary organisation seeking to do good. We are the body of Christ with the aim of showing the crowds around us Jesus, and like Jesus we need to reach out in a way that changes people, body, mind and spirit, to show that God’s free unconditional love is available to all who truly turn to Him.
But if this passage teaches us about Jesus’ ongoing compassion towards the crowd, it also teaches us secondly about Jesus’ incredible patience towards the disciples. By the time of feeding of the 4000, the crowd had been with Jesus for three days, and the disciples would have known they were hungry. But when Jesus drew attention to that fact, all they could say was But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them? Hadn’t they learnt anything from the feeding of the 5000? Or did they somehow doubt that Jesus could feed all these people once again? From this perspective the whole story is all about a bunch of people who have either forgotten or failed to learn the most simple and obvious lesson about God’s provision. Yet what is also so striking is that Jesus doesn’t appear to get angry or cross with them. He simply gets on with the task of feeding the crowd once again and reminding the disciples exactly who He is.
And I believe there’s something massively encouraging for us about the way Jesus deals with the disciples. Maybe it’s just me, but I have this persistent blind-spot that means I fail to notice when the Lord is speaking to me, and it usually requires several attempts on His part to get through to me. For example, I might read something in my daily Bible readings that really speaks to me, and then I go away and forget all about it. And then the next week I hear the same reading in church, or I’m in a meeting when somebody mentions the passage. And eventually the penny drops, the Lord is asking me to do something, and I realise I need to get round and do it. I am just so grateful the Lord hasn’t given up on me, and perhaps it would be good for all of us to realise just how patient the Lord is to us, despite our disobedience, and our failure to live up to our calling.
Thirdly, this passage also tells us about the way Jesus blesses what little we have. I think a lot of people are held back from serving the Lord because they feel they have so little to offer. I don’t wear a dog collar, I can’t play a musical instrument, I’m not very good at praying out loud. Again, the message from both these passages is that God uses whatever it is we have to offer. What is important is not how much or how little we think we have, but how willing we are to offer whatever talents, skills, possessions we have to have. Give God what you’ve got, and let Him do the rest. It must have been scary for the disciples to hand over all the bread and the fish they had – wouldn’t they themselves go hungry? But no, they gave Jesus everything in their possession and Jesus took, blessed, broke and gave it, so that everyone had more than enough. Because the God we worship is not only compassionate and patient, but also so much more generous than we often give Him credit for.
And I sense that if we are going to move forward as a church and reflect that compassion and patience God has shown to us then we need to capture a fresh sense of God’s generosity towards to us. We sing from time to time, “God is good, we sing and shout it” but how much of our worship really flows out of a sense of deep, deep thanksgiving to Jesus? You know, the fact that Jesus has chosen to show compassion and mercy to us is good news. The fact Jesus answers our prayers day by day is good news. The fact Jesus has given us this lovely little building is good news. And what I long to see above all else in this church is a sense of excitement, a thrill and a buzz that God is a generous God who can do more than we can ask or imagine, who longs to bless what little we can offer Him.
So what about the difference between the two stories? Well, the numbers are different, and there are some major differences in details. But a close look at the two stories shows that the real difference is where the two stories took place. The feeding of the 5000 took place in Galilee, a mostly Jewish region. The miracle which took place was to show Jesus as the Saviour the Jewish people had been looking for, and the 12 baskets of food left over are often thought to do with the 12 tribes of Israel in the Old Testament. But if you look back at chapter 7, you will see from verse 31 that Jesus is in the region of the Decapolis, a more Gentile area, on the other side of Lake Galilee. And the reason why Jesus does a similar miracle in two different areas is to reinforce a very simple message, that Jesus is Lord and Saviour of all. It doesn’t matter what age you are, what background come from, what you wear or look like, or even whether you are from a Jewish or a non-Jewish background. Whoever we are, we need a Saviour, and that Saviour is here. His name is Jesus.
And just one final thought. We tend to assume there were 5000 people in one crowd, and 4000 in another. But I just wonder, were there people who were present at both miracles, who were fed on both occasions? If so, then these two stories together remind us that it is not just enough to believe in Jesus and recognise Him as our Lord and Saviour. We need, so to speak, to keep on feeding from Him – through reading the Bible, through prayer, through worship together, so that we learn to hear His voice and obey Him. So the question is: when did you last feed from Jesus? Did you, for example, last read your Bible this morning, yesterday, last week, last year? When, if ever, did you have a real spiritual encounter with Jesus, and are you hungry for more? Because unless we ourselves are regularly feeding from Jesus, unless we are rooted in a daily experience of Jesus’ goodness and grace, then how we can let others know of God’s compassion, of His patience and of His amazing generosity? The reason why in both cases there was so much bread left over was because others too needed to be fed, and it reminds us that in the same way God wants to take and use us to be a blessing to others. So let’s not be satisfied with our Christian faith as it is. Let’s ask Jesus to feed us and to bless us that others who are like sheep without a shepherd discover the hope and the love and the joy that only Jesus can give, and we might help them discover the fullness of life in Him.