St Barnabas, 1st September 2013
Bread. It’s one of those things we take for granted, and yet it’s something we all need. In nearly every culture in nearly every country you will find a basic recipe for bread. It may a chapatti from India. It may be the dark rye bread of Northern Europe. It may be the classic stone-baked bread of the Mediterranean. It may even be a soda bread like you find in Ireland. But whatever it is, and whatever it’s called, there’s no denying – bread is important. It provides us with many of the good things we need like protein, and carbohydrates, and calcium, and fibre. And if we want to have a balanced, healthy diet, then one way or another we need to eat bread. Bread is one of the basic necessities of life, and we should be grateful that in this country we have so much of it to eat, and there are so many varieties to enjoy.
Of course across the centuries and even in many different parts of the world today, bread is difficult to obtain, and often expensive. So, for example, the crowds who flocked to hear Jesus often went hungry, and they struggled to feed themselves and their families. We can perhaps all too easily get the impression that Jesus walked round a green and pleasant land, with happy, well-fed people eager to greet him, and that He taught against a backdrop of calm and serenity. In reality life in the first century was a lot more brutal and harsh than that. People were desperate for anybody who could come as a Saviour, someone who could offer genuine hope that would meet their very real and very basic needs.
This explains why, as Jesus once again comes back to his home territory of Galilee, great crowds immediately flock to Him. They have heard of the wonderful things He has done, they have seen the evidence of lives miraculously changed. And so from over there comes a blind man led by his friends. Here is a lame man being carried by his family. Here is a deaf and mute woman making signs to her companion who’s shared the long, dusty walk from their village. Soon there is a great heaving throng covering the slopes of the hill where Jesus is teaching.
And for three amazing, exhilarating days the most wonderful things happen. The blind man opens his eyes and begins to see. You can watch him soak up the colour and the sensations of the world around him. The lame man puts one foot uncertainly on the ground, and then another, and then a huge smile comes over his face as he realises he can stand unaided. The deaf and mute woman starts to speak, and soon you can’t stop her chattering to anyone who will listen. Jesus is changing lives for good, and His power and grace are bringing healing to so many. It seems that all the Old Testament prophecies are being fulfilled as the mute speak, the crippled are made well, the lame walk, and the blind see. No wonder, as Matthew records, they praised the God of Israel.
But there’s a problem. Because by now the food has run out. It’s not surprising, really. If you had spent your whole life crippled or blind, then there was no way you could earn a living. You’d hardly have spare food to bring along for an occasion like this. And for many people, it would be a long way home as well. No wonder Jesus says: I have compassion for these people; 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 on the way.
So what does Jesus do in this situation? He takes seven loaves His disciples give Him, along with a few little fish. He holds the bread up to heaven, give thanks and He begins to hand it out. And as the food is passed among the crowds, it seems there is more and more to follow. There is none of the desperate scrummaging you might expect to find among people who are hungry, no fights, no arguments. Rather, a kind of holy awe falls among the crowd as gradually they realise they are witnessing an even greater miracle than any they have seen so far. From these seven loaves and a few little fish there is food more than enough to feed four thousand men, let alone women and children. Indeed we are told that: Afterwards the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over and who knows how many more were fed as a result?
So this is a story which tells us about someone called Jesus who healed many people and fed a large crowd of people. And, yes, it’s a great story, and one that’s well worth retelling, but how exactly does it connect to us? What difference does it make to our lives that Jesus did all those things two thousand years ago?
Well, there’s a small, but important clue hidden right in the middle of the passage, one that perhaps is easy to overlook, where Matthew tells us: They all ate and were satisfied. And I don’t think Matthew is simply telling us that at that point everyone was full. If you look really closely at this story, you will see that afterwards Jesus sent the crowds away and no-one complained. No-one stayed behind wanting another miracle, or waiting for more teaching. Why not? Because through this miracle of being fed with seven loaves and a few small fish they discovered in a new and wonderful way that God really loved and cared for them. They could leave satisfied that through Jesus they had a new relationship with God Himself who could provide their every need.
And this is where the story begins to become personal to us. Because we don’t have to travel to Galilee or go back in time to discover in Jesus the love and care of God Himself. We can experience for ourselves that very same compassion that Jesus showed to the crowds all those years ago.
How? Well, let me take you forward a year or so to another meal where Jesus was present. It was a lot smaller meal, in fact it just involved Him and his twelve closest followers. At the end of the meal, just as in this morning’s passage, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it. Then He passed it to His disciples and said: This is my body, given for you. (Luke 22:19). And within a few hours Jesus’ body was indeed broken, and his life given up, for you and for me. Jesus died for us on a cross so that through Him we might experience the love of God in a real and personal way, to cleanse and renew, to forgive and to heal. Just like the crowd during those three extraordinary days on a hill somewhere in Galilee.
Of course what we don’t know from the story is what happened to the crowds after they went away. In the short-term I am sure people were amazed by the folk who returned to the villages. You can imagine the children running out into the street to surround the blind man returning with perfect sight, or the women at the well gossiping about the deaf and mute girl who could now speak. But did short-term amazement turn into a definite commitment? Did anyone actually leave their old way of life and go on the road with Jesus, following Him faithfully wherever He went? Or did initial enthusiasm fade and the whole event turn into a tale to be told to the children and grandchildren?
You see, it’s all very well having a single, profound experience of Jesus. Indeed you may be here today as someone who can look back on a definite conversion experience many years ago, or a time when you were really on fire for the Lord. And it’s great you experienced Jesus’ presence quite so closely then. But the question is – are you still feeding on Jesus? Do you keep coming back to Him day by day, hungry to now more of His love and His grace?
It seems to me that if we are to grow and mature as believers in Christ we need to find ways of sustaining our relationship with Him. That’s why over the years I have stressed the importance of things like reading our Bibles, prayer, small groups, receiving Holy Communion. But of course we will only do any of those things if the desire is there.
I wonder how many of you have had the experience of being invited to a wonderful meal, perhaps a wedding reception or a banquet in a restaurant. The food is first-class. It looks and smells heavenly, and your place is set out all ready for you to tuck in. The only problem is, you’re not hungry. You may force yourself to eat and you may manage a few mouthfuls. But you are hardly going to enjoy the experience no matter how well cooked and well presented the meal might be.
And sometimes it can seem exactly like that when we sit down to, say, read our Bible. We know in our mind that God’s word is meant to be food to sustain and refresh us. We are so grateful that that it has been written down, as Paul says in 2 Tim 3:16 to teach, rebuke, correct and train us. But somehow we are just not that hungry. The words stay as black and white marks on a page, and we quickly skip through them, like taking a brief mouthful, before – dare I say this? – doing something more interesting.
So how we do we retain our hunger for Jesus and His word? This is where I would like to turn to our other reading this morning, to Psalm 111. It’s a lovely little psalm but some reason it seems not that well-known. Certainly when I was choosing the music for this morning I couldn’t find single hymn or song based on it. But anyway, the thing to notice is that like so many other psalms it begins with the command: Praise the Lord and then lists all the reasons why we should praise Him.
And why is this so significant? Because praise is the way we develop a hunger for the Lord. As we begin to see just who this God is that we worship and what He has done, we begin to desire more of His presence and His power. We will want to go deeper in Scripture and find out what He might be saying to us. We will want to pray and find out more about His will and purpose for our lives. We will want to meet with others to grow in faith together and share in fellowship.
But the psalms have to command us to praise because the sad truth is, we do not find this a natural thing to do. When we come to Jesus, our tendency is more often to focus on our own needs than on who He is – our Lord, our Saviour, our Redeemer. Just as in our passage today the crowds came to Jesus because of what He could for them, not what they could for Him.
Now of course the glorious truth of the Christian faith is that God will nonetheless hear our prayers and meet our needs as He sees fit. And if we want any proof of that we only have to look at the cross and see what Jesus has done for us. But praise enlarges our vision, helps us to see where God is in any given situation and what He is doing. And that is why the words of the psalm are in fact words for all of us this morning, no matter what we are going through, no matter where we find ourselves at this precise moment.
Yet at the same time we need to be clear what praise is and is not. Because unfortunately our understanding of praise is all too often linked to a particular style of music, or a particular emotion. When we hear the word praise we think, perhaps of a worship band playing loud contemporary music or a person beaming from ear to ear as they recount all the wonderful things God has done for them recently. Now I like loud worship bands, and I always welcome great testimonies. But praise goes much deeper than that. Praise at the end of the day is not a feeling, or a style of worship, or even, I hate to say this, a great guitar riff. Ultimately it is a decision of the heart.
I will extol the Lord with all my heart in the council of the upright and in the assembly. Not because the sun is shining, or because I am feeling particularly wonderful, but because this is what the Lord calls me to do. He calls me to bring to mind all that He is and all that He has done. And the reason for this is not that the Lord is flattered by our praise, or that somehow He needs it. But as we praise the Lord we begin to see just what He has accomplished and how glorious He is. And out of our praise develops the hunger in our heart to know and to love and to serve Him more.
So let’s apply all this to our situations here this morning. I don’t know how things are with you at the moment. Maybe your faith is a bit flat and you’re running on memories at the moment. Maybe like the people in the crowd you cannot see anything other than an overwhelming need in front of you. And maybe all I’ve said about praise seems a bit theoretical, a bit remote. How can you begin to praise God?
Well, I suggest one thing you might like to do is to take away today’s psalm and maybe focus on just one thing that the psalmist mentions. For example, you might want to look at verse 5: He provides food for those who fear him. Well, that’s certainly true, isn’t it? I don’t think anyone here this morning has come to church starving and destitute. Or you might like to look at verse 7: The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. We can be sure that God has not suddenly decided to change His nature, that He is not a man that He should lie or change His mind. Or how about verse 9? He provided redemption for his people. That takes us, surely, to the cross, and causes us to think about how much Jesus must love us to have His body broken and His blood poured out on our behalf.
For it is out of our praise our relationship will with Jesus be renewed and restored. Praise is the way we gain a new hunger of the Lord, and it is through our praise we will be able to able to tell others what the Lord has done. So let me finish asking – how much praise is there in your life at the moment? And how much ought there to be?