When did you meet Jesus? When did you really get to know him? Has your perception of Jesus changed over the course of your lifetime? When I was a child, Jesus was the man who died on the cross for my sins and then was magically raised from the dead so that I could be reconciled to God. He was a good person who healed people and fed people. He did crazy things like walk on water and turn water into wine, which I never really understood since I was told that people who loved Jesus weren’t supposed to drink wine anyway! This Jesus lived inside my heart because I prayed the sinner’s prayer and asked him to come inside my heart. When I was a teenager, like many of my evangelical contemporaries, I saw Jesus as my boyfriend. He was someone I could talk to, who understood all my struggles, and who would carry me through anything. This Jesus had specific rules and regulations for all of my behavior. I didn’t want to let him down. In college, I got to know what my professor’s called the historical Jesus and wrestled with the conflicting stories about what Jesus did or said in all the different gospels. I studied this Jesus, observed him like a theoretical object, and I had a hard time seeing what this Jesus had to do with my life. This Jesus looked so different than the one I knew as a child. I became suspicious of this Jesus as I began to understand how many people did violence in his name. In seminary and throughout my adulthood, I got to know Jesus again as the living, breathing son of God who doesn’t fit into the all the molds we’ve put him in but who actively works in all of our lives. I began to learn how to let the narrative of our scripture inform my perception of Jesus – the Jesus of the past but also the Jesus of the present who invites all of us to be recreated over and over again and to get know him again for the first time. Anytime we approach scripture, we all come with a long list of assumptions about the character of Jesus, who we think he is as a person, and sometimes in order to truly wrestle with a passage and to see Jesus clearly, we need to act as if we are meeting Jesus again for the first time.
We particularly need to clear our assumptions when we are wrestling with a passage that’s really familiar. Our text for today is a story we’ve heard a million times. It’s the only miracle story that occurs in all four of the gospels. It stands out as a central event in Jesus’ ministry. If you’re going to get to know Jesus again for the first time, you’ve got to reexamine this story, to check your assumptions, and to see it with fresh eyes. There’s a huge clue in the first verse of this passage that we often gloss right over, a clue that gives us context for this story and a hint as to what it means in the gospel of Matthew. The story begins, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” What has Jesus heard that has compelled him to withdraw in a boat to a deserted place by himself? The key is in those first five words: “Now when Jesus heard this.” What is “this”? What happens right before this familiar feeding of the five thousand?
Matthew 14 starts out with the story of another kind of food scene, a banquet, a birthday party for King Herod. This is not the same Herod who was on the throne when Jesus was born, but he is the son of that Herod. Their kingships are all too similar. This Herod, who was king during the time of Jesus’ ministry, was not fond of John the Baptist. John got in the way of Herod’s desires. Herod wanted to do whatever he felt like doing, and John, who was preaching a gospel of repentance, thought the king should be included in the call for a new way of living. But Herod wanted what Herod wanted. He wanted to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias, but John told him it was not lawful for him to marry her. So Herod, in typical king fashion, puts John in prison. He did not like what John had to say so he used his power to exert control. He wanted to kill him but he feared there would be political unrest from the folks who believed that John was a prophet. Imprisonment seemed like the best way to maintain both order and control. John was in prison the night of Herod’s infamous birthday party. This party was quite the elaborate event. There were delicacies of every kind in the great big banquet hall; there were drinks; there was dancing. All the important people were there – the friends of the king, those loyal to the empire. Herodias’s daughter was a particularly good dancer; she danced before the guests. Herod was so impressed and pleased by her that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. It was the oath that turned this story into a grotesque, Game of Thrones-like scene. Herodias, overhearing what had transpired, cunningly plans an act of revenge by telling her daughter to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Herod is grieved. Perhaps he is grieved because he is afraid of what political unrest will inevitably emerge, but his fear of looking like a fool is stronger. He will not go back on an oath in front of his guests, so he demands his servants go to the prison and behead John. The next silver platter brought out by the servants does not hold hors d'oeuvres or cocktails but the bloody head of John the Baptist.
If this were a Game of Thrones scene, this is where the episode would end and the ominous music with the show credits would begin playing. You’d be left hanging, left to wonder what creative, violent response was coming from another of the seven kingdoms. You’d be wondering if the Olenna Tyrell is going to bring out the poison or if Daenerys Targaryen is going to bring out her dragons or if Cersei Lannister is going to top them all with her next horrific act of vengeance. It is on this stage, in this context, that the feeding of the five thousand occurs. After Jesus hears all of “this,” he withdraws to the place where the feeding of the five thousand occurs. So what is “this”? “This” is the violent murder of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus’ ministry. When Jesus hears that the king has asked for the head of John to be served up on a platter, he withdraws to a deserted place by himself. Jesus’ response to a horrific act of violence, to the king killing the prophet who had prepared the way for him, is to withdraw. We can imagine he is sad and devastated that John is dead, but we can also imagine that he is filled with fear about what this means for his ministry, about what this means for his own fate. When the crowds hear about what has happened to John, they flock to Jesus; they follow him on foot. They seek him out. They will not leave him alone. They want to know what to do! What will be the response to John’s death? They are furious that the king has abused his power to kill John! A great crowd had formed, a crowd of thousands and thousands of people. Ya’ll, this is a mob, forming in a deserted place, attempting to find a way to retaliate, to take back power, to quell their fears. They are flocking to Jesus; they want him to do something about John’s violent death.
So what does Jesus do? In the midst of his own grief, in the midst of his own wrestling about what he is being called to do, he has compassion on this great crowd of people. Their lives have been stirred up by this kingdom he has been teaching about and now they are afraid and angry. He sees their fear; he understands their feelings of powerlessness; and he loves them. He spends time with him; he talks to them; he cures their sick. Jesus responds to the moment at hand with love, with empathy, not with violence and retaliation. This tragedy has brought them together, and when it gets to be late in the evening, they start wondering what everybody wonders late in the evening – what’s for supper? The disciples start to anticipate the needs of the crowds. They are in a deserted place, and they decide that the most prudent thing to do is to go ahead and send the crowds away so they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves. The disciples have good intentions. They are trying to plan ahead; it’s a good strategic plan. It’s wise; it’s efficient. They have a lot of compassion, but they lack vision; they can’t see another way. All they see is scarcity; all they see is their lack. Jesus counters their impulse to individualism, their impulse to invite everyone to fend for themselves, and says, “You give them something to eat.” They respond with facts: “We only have five loaves and two fish, Jesus.” They think they are dependent on their own resources. It’s almost as if they’ve forgotten who they are with! Jesus tells them to bring him the loaves and the fish, and he takes them, he blesses them, he breaks them, and then he gives them to the disciples, who in turn, give them to the crowds.
Notice Jesus doesn’t give the food out directly but invites the disciples to do so. He shows them how not to rely upon their own lack of resources, but on the abundance he creates. And so, on that terrible day of grief, with a crowd who wanted to organize a violent resistance, Jesus performs a miracle. Out of those five loaves and two fish, five thousand men, and the women and children who were with them, were fed, and there were twelve baskets of leftovers! All were filled. All were made whole. All shared in the generosity and abundance of Jesus. On the same day that Herod held an extravagant banquet that responded to fear with great acts of violence, Jesus held a banquet too. But Jesus’ banquet was one that responded to fear with great acts of compassion, healing, and miraculous abundance. At Jesus’ banquet, there was enough. There may not have been heavy hors d'oeuvres or fancy cocktails, but there was bread and fish, staples of daily living, enough for all to be filled. With Jesus, fear would not lead to scarcity or violence or encouraging anyone to fend for themselves. With Jesus, there would be community and compassion. There would be enough.
In our day, the banquet of Herod continues to compete with the banquet of Jesus. Sometimes we find the banquet of Herod more compelling. Which banquet does our life together look like? Do we live in fear, stuffing ourselves with more than we need, believing there isn’t enough so we must take all we can and harm those who get in our way? Or do we live with compassion, offering acts of healing, believing that out of God’s abundance all can get their fill? As disciples of Jesus we have a role and a responsibility to share God’s great abundance. We are not to respond in fear or in a mode of scarcity, no matter how wise or prudent it might feel. We are to learn empathy, compassion, generosity, and abundance from our Lord. When we look at Jesus again for the first time in this story, we see him not just as a nice guy who fed a bunch of hungry people. We see him as someone who responded to the feeling of great fear and powerlessness with compassion instead of retaliation. He refused to give revenge to a bunch of people who were hungry for violence. Instead, he gave them their fill in love and bread, and perhaps they began to see abundance and new possibility where they once only saw scarcity. In Jesus, there was enough.
This past Thursday night, we hosted Michael and Lisa Gungor on their “One Wild Life” summer acoustic tour. It was a moving night of music and conversation. During the concert they talked about how the year 2014 was a very difficult time for them spiritually, personally, and professionally. It was a year when they felt afraid and powerless. They had been betrayed by some very close friends; they wrestled with doubts about God; they were struggling with controversy professionally as they carved out a new identity; and they were worried about how they would maintain their career after the birth of their second child. It was then that they were told that the baby girl they were expecting had Downs Syndrome and several, serious heart conditions. Michael described being handed a pamphlet of all the things that could go wrong with Lucy, and he talked about how while there are a lot of things that can go wrong with quote “normal” kids, no one ever gives you a pamphlet for them! He talked about how the world seems to be obsessed with scarcity, with negativity, with all the things that can go wrong. He said, “You know, the news never talks about the 7 billion people who didn’t murder anyone today.” Lisa talked about how they struggled as parents because it seems like parents are obsessed with their child being the smartest and the fastest, having it all, being better than everyone else. Lucy was not going to be who they imagined her to be, but they began to question their values. When Lucy was born, though she had tubes attached over every inch of her body, her older sister Amelie said, “She’s beautiful! She’s exactly as I imagined her to be! She’s perfect.” Through Amelie’s words, they learned to change their vision, to have vision like a little child, to have vision like God. They began to see Lucy differently, as a beautiful miracle of life, as a gift. They learned to see the miracles of God’s abundance all around them, even when the world encouraged them to see scarcity. They named their little girl Lucy because she opened their eyes to the light all around them. They sang about their epiphany with these words: “And the blind gained sight; As we met our light; Oh the joy and fight; The gift of life.”
In Jesus, there is always enough. How much do we believe this? How much do we believe this as we talk about the church in a state of decline? How do we talk about our membership, our budget, our mission? Is our narrative one of scarcity and fear? Do we talk as if we are powerless? No, things surely aren’t the way they once were. They never are. The church has morphed in many different ways over the last two thousand years. But maybe the church isn’t in decline. Maybe God is breathing life into us and church is taking shape in a new way. Maybe God is using the cultural decline of Christianity to breathe life into his disciples so that they can better participate in the work of the kingdom. Maybe there is life abundant all around, but in order to see it, we have to look with the eyes of Jesus. We have to respond to feelings of great fear and powerlessness with compassion and empathy and abundance. When we look around, we can’t just make wise, prudent decisions. We have to be able to see another way. We have to ask God to change our vision. We have to ask God how to feed people with our five loaves of bread and two fish. We have to remember that we can’t rely on our own resources, but that we can trust in the abundance of God. God is doing exciting things in and through us. And as we learned throughout our Genesis series, sometimes God does things in spite of us!
We are invited to the table of our Lord this morning, to the table where Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives the bread and the wine to us, just as he did in the story of the feeding of the five thousand. Are we willing to give Jesus what we have? Are we willing to offer our five loaves and our two fish so that God can take all of who we are together – our presence, our money, our resources, our gifts – and make it enough? If in Jesus there is enough, we can’t hold onto what we have because we are afraid there won’t be enough for us individually. In Jesus, there is always enough. In Jesus, there is abundance – an abundance of resources, food, compassion, empathy, and vision. Look at the life of the disciples at Greenwood Forest with the eyes of Jesus. If you look, you will see that Jesus is here and that Jesus is enough. You will see the abundance of wealth and resources. You will see the abundance of gifts the disciples are offering. You will see the vision that’s been placed upon our life together. You will see that compassion and empathy outweighs the impulse to fear. You will see that the banquet of Herod has no place here. You will see that the banquet of Jesus is at hand. You will see disciples giving up what they have. You will see disciples sharing out of God’s abundance. You will see a people who do not send others away, a people who invite others to pull up a chair because they know that because Jesus is here, there is always enough to eat. Amen.