A DIFFERENT KIND OF MIRACLE

A DIFFERENT KIND OF MIRACLE
A sermon on Matthew 14:13-21
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
August 2, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
We start off with an interactive component for the today’s sermon. Among the worship materials that you picked up on your way into the sanctuary, you should have received a small cartoon drawing. I invite to take it out and look at it as we begin…
The cartoon alludes to today’s gospel text, which is the miracle known as “The Feeding of the Five Thousand.”Let me ask you a question: If you were going to write a caption for this drawing, what would it be? What would it say?…
If I were writing a caption, I think that it might say something like “Hi Jesus—Welcome to the 21st Century!” Or maybe I would write something with a little more irony—something like “The Good Shepherd hears from His sheep.” Or perhaps something a bit more cynical: “For Jesus, it was just another day at the office…” What do you think? What would you write for a caption?…
Today’s text is one of the more familiar stories from the life of Jesus, isn’t it? In addition to being a well-known story, “The Feeding of the Five Thousand” must have made quite an impression on Jesus’ first disciples. I say that because it is noteworthy that this is the only miracle that Jesus performed during his earthly ministry recorded in all four of the gospels.1 The earliest Christians really must have thought that it was important in the telling of the Jesus story…and yet…
The whole subject of the miracles in the Bible has been a topic of scholarly debate among theologians and skeptics alike for a long time. It seems to be especially to have been true during the last couple hundreds of years.
One example is a man that you have heard about all your life. Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of our nation—“The Sage of Monticello” himself—decided to make his own version of the gospels. He took a razor blade to the New Testament and then proceeded to cut-and-paste his own version of the Jesus story. He included only what he considered to be the essence of our Lord’s moral and ethical teachings. Consequently, none of the miracles—nor anything else supernatural that offended his idea of what was possible or reasonable—were included…2
1 Mark 6:32-44, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:1-13.
2 See Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible—The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.
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And for some reason, of all of the miracles performed by Jesus, this particular one seems to have generated a lot more interest than others. From both inside and outside of the church, there are those who have a difficult time accepting this miracle story at face value. They feel compelled to offer up some kind of alternate explanation as to exactly what happened that day in that remote area of Palestine…
One of the most popular alternate explanations nowadays is this: that Jesus did not really take five barley loaves and two fish and multiply them in order to feed the multitude. Instead, it is proposed that his message of love and community was so compelling that it moved his listeners to share whatever food that they had brought with them with others in the crowd. And that included even with those whom they did not even know. That way, everyone had plenty to eat and there were leftovers as well. The real miracle, they would say, was that the hearts of the people were moved by our Lord’s words in such a way that they created a sense of oneness in the group. And out of that sense of oneness, they could not help but share with their neighbors…Now, far be it from me to argue with those who have studied the New Testament more than I have…and who have a whole lot more letters behind their name than I do…but I have to say that I do not find this explanation particularly compelling…
At the outset, it must be admitted that this theory does have its attractiveness. It creates warm and fuzzy feelings about Jesus and his ministry. And, to tell the truth, it squares with the idea that Jesus is all about changing the hearts of people and encouraging the formation of a new community—one bound together in the love of God. That includes people of very different backgrounds and temperaments, such as one would have found in this crowd who came to hear him. The New Testament teaches us that this movement of love is the foundation upon which God’s new creation and the kingdom of God are built. So that much is true—as far as it goes…
But it seems to me that this theory creates about as many problems as it tries to answer. One of them is the question of the leftovers. If everyone shared just the food that they brought with them, would there really have been TWELVE baskets of food left over? That seems like an awful LOT of leftovers from an occasion where everyone brought their own dinner and spontaneously shared it. Without the anticipation of sharing their supper with others beforehand—like we do, say, when we have potluck dinners here—I doubt that the people would have brought that much extra food with them. Does not seem very plausible to me…
But the biggest objection that I have is this: Bible scholars tell us that it was the custom of the day in Palestine for everyone to travel with their own food—even on a day trip like this one. (And one source that I consulted claims that it is still the way in that part of the world…) Okay…so far, so good…Now…if the disciples knew (or even suspected) that everyone had likely already brought their own dinner with them—if that was indeed the custom of the day—then why would they have come to Jesus concerned about what they perceived to be an urgent lack of food amid the lateness of the hour? Following the custom, everyone would have already had their dinner with them, right? So there would have been no need to worry about everyone’s supper plans…I dunno. Maybe I’m missing something here, but that explanation doesn’t seem to hold a whole lot of water…
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Why is it so hard for some people—many of them good, well-meaning people—to accept the miracles of Jesus as recorded in the gospels at face value? For some people, it seems to be a real issue and a stumbling block to their faith. Why do scholars and others feel the need to speculate about “what really happened?” After all, if Jesus is who he said he is, and if Jesus is the person that the New Testament proclaims him to be, then it should not be very hard to accept that he performed this miracle—or any of the other miracles attributed to him—as the writers faithfully reported them. John 1 says that Jesus was there in the beginning when all of creation took place. That is, Christ was working from the very beginning when God created everything out of nothing—and that nothing was made without his participation. If that is true, and it is the foundation upon which our faith rests, then surely multiplying a small amount of food to feed a large crowd would not be a difficult task by comparison to creating the entire cosmos…And quite frankly, if one tries to explain away the miraculous in the gospels, then there really isn’t a whole lot left to the story…
No—neither do I think that think that the main point of the story is so that we can “ooh” and “ah” over Jesus’ complete mastery over the laws of physics and nature. Jesus simply was not showing off what he could do as the Son of God. Doesn’t seem to be much point in that. As such, it seems to me that the main point is not how Jesus performed this miracle. Instead, I think the main lesson that Matthew wants to tell us is why our Lord did it…And what this story reveals to us is that the character of God revealed by Jesus can be captured in one word. That word is “compassion…”
In verse 14 of today’s text, Matthew writes that when “[Jesus] went ashore, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Our Lord saw the crowd was following after him; he had compassion on them; he healed their sick, he tended to their needs, and he shared with them his presence. And then, when evening shadows stated to fall and they found themselves without food, he fed them…
This is one of four times in the gospel of Matthew that mentions the compassion of Jesus. In Matthew 9, Jesus was in the midst of one his preaching and healing tours throughout Galilee. And there Matthew notes that, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them…”
In Matthew 15, we see Jesus and his disciples on a mountaintop by Lake Galilee, where he was teaching and healing once again. And Matthew notes that the people praised God for what they witnessed what God was doing through Jesus. Then Jesus calls his disciples in and tells them that he feels compassion for the crowd since they have been there with them for three whole days with nothing to eat. And, as one might expect, Jesus fed them again. This time, he turned seven loaves of bread and a few small fish into a meal for more than four thousand…
And then in Matthew 20, Jesus, his disciples and the crowd were leaving the city of Jericho on their way to Jerusalem. Along the way, they encountered two blind men sitting by the side of the road. The blind men called out to Jesus and begged him to heal them. When our Lord stopped to talk with them, Matthew records that “Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. And then
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immediately they received their sight and followed him…” This would be the last miracle that Jesus would perform before entering the Jerusalem on what we know as “Palm Sunday.” It would be the week that would lead to his crucifixion…
The reason for rehearsing all these stories is to make the point that compassion was a hallmark of Jesus’ earthly ministry. He was touched by the needs of the people that he encountered. And his compassion moved him to minister to them.
One thing to keep in mind is that the crowd that followed Jesus was composed of all kinds of people. They were certainly not all cut out of the same bolt of cloth. There were some who were very devoted to Jesus and his cause, beginning with the twelve disciples who formed the core of his followers for three years. But in addition to them were all kinds of others…
There were rich people and there were poor people. There were Jews and there were others like the Samaritans, whom the Jews considered to be racially inferior. There were political revolutionaries like the Zealots who advocated the violent overthrow of the government. And there were those who were collaborators with the hated Roman Empire in order to make an easy buck. Everyone considered them to be traitors to their people.
There were very prominent and respected religious people like the Pharisees in the crowd. And then there were the dregs of society like the prostitutes and the other undesirables like beggars whom everyone looked down on. There were common thieves…and there were white collar criminals. There were those who recognized that there was something different about Jesus and wanted to listen to what he had to say. There were some who were no doubt skeptical about his claims and looked at him with a jaundiced eye. There were others who did not care much about the religious stuff he was talking about. They were merely curious, tagging along with everyone else to see hoping to be entertained by what he said and did…
And yet, the scriptures tell us that, when Jesus looked out on this motley assortment of people, he did not see individuals with all of their problems and hang-ups and issues. He did not weigh their abilities or analyze them. He did not consider them in the light of their potential for the Kingdom. He did not judge the mixed motives that they harbored. Instead he saw them for who they were. He saw them as one people. He saw them as lost. He saw them living lives that drifted along without any meaningful direction…He saw them as resembling a flock of sheep without a shepherd…
And Jesus’ sense of compassion sets the standard for his followers today. I am not telling you anything new when I say that we are living in a time of unprecedented uncertainty. With the world caught in the grips of the pandemic, the economy in tatters, and our country being pulled apart by the scourge of racism and injustice, I cannot think of any other time in my life when the country—and really the entire world—more completely fits Jesus’ description of the multitude. They nation and the world are “harried and hassled like sheep without a shepherd…”
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Jesus’ response was not one of finding fault with people or laying blame on others or on pointing to circumstances. His response was compassion for the people.
As the people of God, it is time that we stop trying to solve the problems of our nation and the world solely with political solutions. Politics can indeed help to alleviate some of the misery that we see around us. That will happen when our laws are governed by the values of fairness, truthfulness, and concern for others. But in the final analysis, politics can never be more than only a partial solution to what ails us and what ails our nation.
The ultimate answer lies in Godly people deciding to live like it—to model the compassion for others that Jesus did. The great 20th Century Baptist preacher Carlyle Marney expressed it this way more than 60 years ago. He wrote, “The world is waiting, and in waiting, it grows old. And what is the world waiting for? It is waiting for the church to stand up and be the church. It is waiting for the people of God to show what they’ve got. It is waiting for the church to demonstrate what it is to live in the freedom and compassion that God shows to his people and to his creation.”
Sadly, not much has changed since Marney wrote those words in the 1950’s. The world is still waiting. And as it waits, the world is still growing older, while it waits for the people of God to reveal themselves as the heralds of God’s new creation and to show how life could be.
May God grant us the courage to work for justice and peace in our nation, putting on full display the compassion that Jesus demonstrated to others through his miraculous life and death. Make it so, O Lord—make it so…
To God alone be the glory! Amen.

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