When our Resources Run Dry
Readings: Isaiah 55: 1 – 5 and Matthew 14: 13 – 21
Well we are continuing in Matthew’s gospel and today we are looking at the miracle of the feeding of the 5000. But before we get into what that might be saying to us today I’d like spend a little time beforehand looking at some of the background. And the situation is that Jesus’ cousin, John – John the Baptist has just been murdered by Herod. And Herod is a nasty piece of work and the immoral ruler of this part of the country in which this story takes place. And so as we meet Jesus in chapter 14 he is grieving over the loss of his cousin John, a young man of about 30 years old. And it’s a tragedy that such a young man in the prime of his life, with a huge ministry should have his life cut short by a cruel and evil king.
And I wonder how we would we feel in a situation like that if we had just lost someone close to us in such a terrible way? And most people I think would want to hide away, to be alone, and to withdraw and not to be troubled by crowds of people. And for Jesus it’s been a hectic time and on top of that he has now received this shock news that his cousin has been brutally murdered and he probably might be next. And understandingly Jesus slips away for some time to be alone, but it’s not long before the crowds discover where he is and begin to throng around him. And contrary to what we might normally expect in a situation like this, his reaction to them is not frustration, it isn’t anger, it’s not annoyance. Here is what we read in v.14
‘When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.’
And what we see is that the sorrow that Jesus felt over John and the sorrow he may have felt for himself, is now turned into sorrow and compassion for the crowds around him and his heart goes out to them.
And in the parallel version of this story in Mark’s gospel it says he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And what we see in this as a very intimate and personal metaphor for the care, protection and guidance that the Lord gives to those who turn to him in faith. And you can almost hear in this echoes harking back to the Old Testament and Psalm 23. And I’m sure you know that is the Psalm that begins: ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.’ But it is not that the Lord is just a shepherd. The Psalm says: ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’ And that speaks of a personal relationship. And our faith is not just an empty religion, it’s a living and personal relationship we can have with the Lord Jesus Christ, who is very much alive today.
And as Jesus ministers to those in need around him we can begin to hear further echoes from this same Psalm. The Good shepherd meets our needs. He restores the sheep. He has the sheep to lie down in green pastures. And as it says in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has the people to sit or recline on the green grass.
Now we need to still bear in mind that Jesus’ intention in coming to this place was not to minister but to take a break, to get some peace and to get some rest. He’s already had a taxing ministry schedule and is still grieving over the death of his cousin, John. But as Jesus begins to see some of the desperate needs in the crowd he is stirred to the depths of his heart and moved with compassion. And so he begins to minister to them.
And it’s not just Jesus who is tired but the disciples are tired as well, as they have been assisting Jesus with the ministry. And ministering to needy people can be very demanding and draining. It can take a lot out of you. People can very insistent and demanding. And none of the disciples have anticipated that there were going to be this number of people who would be chasing them across the lakeside. And I’m sure all they wanted to do was to take a break and spend a little time themselves with Jesus.
And I can imagine the sort of thing that may have been going through their minds as the day was wearing on. “Lord I think we’ve done enough for today.” I can imagine someone like Peter saying: “Lord can’t you just tell people to go home – we are just not prepared for this – can’t we just tell them to get lost.” And sometimes we can become very weary with well-doing.
And over the years I’ve been here at St Laurence’s I’ve seen so many of you lovingly care for others and give them support and that’s just been an amazing thing for me to witness. And it’s not unusual, is it for followers of Jesus who have a heart that deeply cares for others and their circumstances to find Jesus again and again bringing others to them to give them help and support.
And I wonder how many times you may have encountered needs that you felt were far bigger and beyond the resources you personally were able to give. Or you may have been faced with circumstances or a problem that was so overwhelming you’ve thought – this is just beyond what I can cope with? Or sometimes you may have felt so tired and worn out that you just couldn’t go on. And in these situations sometimes all we can do is to take it to Jesus and pray. And one of my favourite spiritual writers is the Quaker, Richard Forster and he says this. He says:
‘If we truly love people, we will desire for them far more than it is within our power to give them and this will lead us to prayer.’
And it’s often when we are at the end of our own strength and resources and we turn the whole thing over to the Lord that he steps in and does the unexpected.
Well Jesus and the disciples are continuing to minister to this vast number of people but the disciples are becoming increasingly aware that it’s getting rather late and that these people they are ministering to haven’t had anything to eat all day. And if we look at verse 15 it says: ‘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 that they can go to the villages and buy some food.”
Now try and imagine – you are one of the disciples, you’re already very tired and hungry. And you suggest to Jesus that it might now be a good time to wind things up but Jesus is having none of it. And this is how he responds. He says: “No – No – they don’t need to go away. – You give them something to eat.”
Well how might you react I wonder? I know I’d be thinking: “What’s he asking us to do now – this is impossible.” And I’m sure what Jesus is doing here is seeking to provoke a response. And there is a response: “Well we have five loaves of bread and two fish but that’s all.” And, of course, that’s barely enough for two people, never mind such a big crowd. And these weren’t loaves as we think of them today, like a Kingsmill or Hovis ‘Best of Both.’ They were actually more like small pancakes or pita bread, little flat cakes or bread that would have been cooked on a stone.
And Jesus says: “Look bring them here to me.” It then says: ‘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.’
And so Jesus takes the loaves, lifts his face to heaven and prays and then breaks them and gives them to the disciples. And a possible interpretation of the text (and I’m only saying possible) but a possible interpretation, and what I think happened, is that the bread and fish are multiplying as the disciples are distributing the bread and the fish to the people in the crowd.
In other word it requires their participation and faith. The disciples are actually having to do something. They need to step out in faith.
And so try and imagine the possible scenario. Jesus gives each disciple a little piece of bread and a little piece of fish and sends them up the hill and says: “Now go feed those 400 people over there, Andrew. Peter, you feed those 500 up there.” And I can imagine Peter looking at these little pieces of bread and the fish and saying “this is crazy – why does Jesus get me to do these crazy things? This is embarrassing.” But nevertheless Peter goes up the hill in obedience to Jesus.
And he starts to tear off a little piece of bread, as we do here when we are having an informal communion, and it starts multiplying in his hands. And it’s amazing. And possibly in being so taken up with the task he’s been given he gets caught up in the flow of it. And so he tears off another piece and there is more bread. He starts tearing off more pieces and starts ripping up the fish and they are multiplying – and on it goes. And, of course, as we know when everyone’s eaten there’s more food left at the end than there was at the beginning.
And so what about the personal application for us today. Well I wonder about those times when we encounter a need which, we know is much bigger than our own resources to meet. We long to help but in reality we know there is very little we can actually do. But then what about, when faced with circumstances like these, giving them over to God and saying something to him along these lines. “Lord I acknowledge this is way beyond me but I offer to you whatever I can do to help, however inadequate that maybe for you to use for your glory.” And it’s amazing how, at times, he takes us up on that and often in ways we don’t expect.
And I’ve been reading what Tom Wright says about this and he says:
‘We offer uncomprehendingly, what little we have. Jesus takes ideas, loaves and fishes, money, a sense of humour, time, energy, talents, love, artistic gifts, skill with words, quickness of eye or fingers, whatever we have to offer. He holds them before his father with prayer and blessing. Then, breaking them so they are ready for use, he gives them back to us to give to those who need them.’
And then he goes on to say this: ‘It is part of genuine Christian service, at whatever level, that we look on in amazement to see what God has done with the bits and pieces we dug out of our meagre resources to offer to him.’
And I think that is amazing! Amen
Philip Newell (Reader)
Sermon preached at St Laurence’s, Scalby at a service of Morning Worship on Sunday 6th August 2017