February 4, 2018
Norwalk First United Methodist Church
Gospel of Mark
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Little Is Much in the Hands of Jesus
Roberta Karchner had this to say about a children’s sermon she did on the miracle of the loaves and fish. “Just to make my point, I began by showing [the children] five rolls and two fish sticks on a plate. I asked the children how to share it so that all of them would get a part. Then, I pointed to the congregation and asked how we could ALL share it. They ended up talking about very small pieces.
“Then I shared about the miracle of the loaves and fish, emphasizing that Jesus not only had fed the five thousand people, but had ended up with baskets of uneaten food that could be shared. I gently asked, what would you call that.
“I immediately received two words. The first was the one I was hoping for. The well behaved tyke who knew the Bible quietly whispered the word I hoped to hear. “It was a ‘miracle.’” Meanwhile, the rowdy, raucous, child who seldom attended church shouted his answer, ‘Leftovers.’
“It took five full minutes before the church settled down, and a bit longer than that for me to continue with the sermon I planned. Interestingly, it has focused my mind in future sermons on the question, ‘What DID happen to all of the bread and fish?’”
If you remember from last week, we had a side story on the beheading of John the Baptist by Herod, King of Judea. After the slaying, Herod’s guilty conscience was stirred once again with the ministry of Jesus. As you know, Herod would later play a large part in the crucifixion of Jesus.
And so, as the disciples came together with Jesus once again after their mission trip of healing the sick and expelling demons, the crowds began to gather around them again. The demanding crowds were so insistent that Jesus and the disciples had no time even to eat; so, Jesus told his disciples to come with him to a lonely place on the other side of the Sea of Galilee that they might have a little time of peace and rest.
They, like many of us at times, were so busy with constant activity that they had no time with God. One of the troubles in our lives is that we give God no opportunity to speak to us, because we don’t know how to be still and to listen; we give God no time to recharge us with spiritual energy and strength.
Folks, how can we bear life’s burdens if we have no contact with him who is the Lord of all good life? How can we do God’s work unless in God’s strength? And how can we receive that strength unless we seek the presence of God in quietness and in loneliness?
When the crowds saw Jesus and the Twelve going away in the boat, they followed. Now, at this particular place, it was four miles across the lake by boat and ten miles round the top of the lake on foot. But, on a windless day, or with an opposing wind, the boat ride could take as long as it would for the people to walk. And that is exactly what happened. When Jesus and his disciples stepped out of the boat, they were greeted by the same crowd which they had left earlier.
Our scripture says, “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So, he began teaching them many things.” What followed were two miracles. What followed were twelve disciples who still did not have a clue about the Kingdom of God or who Jesus was. But more about those things in a moment, but first, would you pray with me?
With the crowds closing in on Jesus once again, he resumes his ministry of the Word. Jesus had compassion on the crowd, not because they are hungry in a lonely place, but because they don’t know their king. They wanted so much what Jesus alone could give them. To Jesus, the crowds were like sheep who had no shepherd.
So, why did Jesus think of it that way? Well, first, a sheep without the shepherd cannot find the way. Left to ourselves, we get lost in life. Life can be bewildering. We can stand at some crossroads and not know which way to take. It is only when Jesus leads and we follow that we can find the way.
Second, a sheep without the shepherd cannot find its pasture and its food. William Barclay writes in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark: “In this life, we are bound to seek for sustenance. We need the strength which can keep us going; we need the inspiration which can lift us out of ourselves and above ourselves. When we seek it elsewhere, our minds are still unsatisfied, our hearts still restless, our souls still unfed. We can gain strength for life only from him who is the living bread.”
And lastly, a sheep without the shepherd has no defense against the dangers which threaten it. A sheep cannot defend itself from robbers nor from wild animals. We cannot live life alone. No one has a sure defense against the temptations and evils of the world which attack us. Only in the company of Jesus can we walk in the world and remain untainted by it. Without Jesus, we are defenseless; with him we are safe.
As Jesus continues to teach the crowds, it begins to grow late in the afternoon. Neither Jesus, the disciples, nor the crowds have eaten. The disciples, being the pragmatic people, they are, want Jesus to send the crowds away into the surrounding villages to buy themselves something to eat. But Jesus orders the disciples, “You give them something to eat.”
Now please remember, the disciples had just returned from performing all kinds of miracles of healing and driving out demons. And yet, they still do not understand the immense abundance in the Kingdom of God, nor the power they have. So, Jesus asks them to find what they do have. It is five loaves and two fish. Now you must understand this, because it makes the miracle even more impressive. The barley loaves, food for the poorest of the poor and the cheapest, coarsest of all bread, were more like small rolls. And the two fish, probably taken from the Sea of Galilee and salted, were the size of sardines and were often eaten as relish with the dry rolls.
Jesus takes these paltry offerings, looks up to heaven to bless them, and breaks them into pieces to be distributed to the crowds. In the hands of Jesus, little is always much. His looking up to heaven acknowledges that bread and fish belong to God and are given to all as a sacred trust. What God gives freely to all is shared freely by all. Our scripture says there were five thousand men who ate. So, there must have been thousands more if we were to count the women and children who traveled with the men. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish.
In his commentary on the Gospel of Mark, Van Bogard Dunn writes about the contrasts between the previous story of King Herod and this story of Jesus feeding the thousands. He writes, “Herod refuses the Word of God in the words of John the Baptist. Jesus obeys the Word of God in the words of John. Herod invites the elite to his banquet, ‘his courtiers and officers and the leading men of Galilee.’ The feast in the Kingdom of God is for ‘a great throng.’
“Herod exercises absolute ownership over his kingdom. Jesus gives everything to God and claims nothing for himself. The result of Herod’s banquet is death. The result of the Kingdom feast is life.” Folks, this allows us to see that Herod is a false king. His power of the sword is really no power. The true king is God revealed in the actions and words of his Son, Jesus.
After the hunger of the crowd had been satisfied, Jesus immediately sent his disciples away in a boat to Bethsaida before he dismissed the crowd. Mark does not tell us why, but we can discover it in the Gospel of John. Listen to John 6:14-15: When the people saw the sign which [Jesus] had performed, they said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” So Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone.
The Gospel of John tells us that after the crowd had been fed there was a move to take Jesus and to make him king. That was the last thing Jesus desired. It was that very way of power that he had rejected at the time of his temptations. He could see it coming and he didn’t want his disciples to be infected and caught up in a nationalistic outburst and a possible revolution. If this movement was not checked, there might emerge a rebellion which would wreck everything in Jesus’ journey to the cross. So, Jesus sent his disciples away so they would not become inflamed by this movement, and then he calmed the crowd and sent them away.
When he was alone, Jesus went up into a mountain to pray. There were a lot of things beginning to come down on him. There was the hostility of the orthodox religious leaders; there was the frightened suspicion of Herod Antipas; and there were the political hotheads who would make him a conquering Messiah against his will.
As Jesus was alone with God on the mountainside, he could see the disciples straining to cross the lake as a stiff wind was blowing against them. Our scripture says that it was about the fourth watch of the night when he went out to them, walking on the lake. Now, the Jewish night ran from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and was divided into four watches, 6-9 p.m., 9-Midnight, Midnight to 3 a.m., and 3-6 a.m. So, it was about 3:00 in the morning that Jesus walked out to them on the water.
Jesus walking on water will always be a great mystery. But Jesus saw his friends in trouble and set his own problems aside to help them. These disciples had been crossing and re-crossing the sea, but they still didn’t recognize the Kingdom of God, nor were they a part of the Kingdom of God. They have been given the secrets of the Kingdom of God. They have been rescued from the storms, not once but twice. They have been commissioned and empowered for ministry. They have seen the signs of the Kingdom and have just participated in the Kingdom feast. And yet, they are still terrified when they see Jesus walking on the water, thinking he is a ghost, not knowing who he is.
But the response of Jesus is to persist in his ministry of the Word. He draws near to them in the expectation that they will join him in faith. “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” Jesus came to the disciples and their storm became a calm. With him beside them nothing mattered any more. That is the very essence of Jesus. The cry of human need to him surpasses all other claims. When we need him, he is there for us.
William Barclay writes: “It is the simple fact of life, a fact which has been proved by countless thousands of men and women in every generation, that when Christ is there the storm becomes a calm, the tumult becomes a peace, what cannot be done is done, the unbearable becomes bearable, and we pass the breaking point and do not break. To walk with Christ will be for us also the conquest of the storm.”
The disciples, having survived the night crossing the sea with Jesus, arrive at Gennesaret and anchor there. Immediately, they were surrounded by crowds who recognized Jesus. Everyone was coming to him wanting something. They came, to put it bluntly, to use him. It seems to be human nature to want to get instead of wanting to give.
For example, there are those who simply make use of their friends. You and I both have these friends, the ones from whom we never hear unless they want something from us. And then, there are those who simply make use of the church. They desire the church to baptize their children, marry their young people, and bury their dead. Yet, they are seldom to be seen here unless they wish some service. They have the idea that the church exists to serve them, instead of having the attitude of what they can give to the church and to God’s kingdom.
And then, there are those who seek simply to make use of God. The never remember him unless they need him. Their only prayers are requests, or even demands, made of God. If we examine ourselves, we are all, to some extent, guilty of these things. Wouldn’t it rejoice the heart of Jesus if more often we came to him to offer our love, our service, and our devotion. And yet, despite all that, as our scripture ends, Jesus continues to heal and be with the people.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, God is present in the world in the brokenness of the loaves, and God is victorious over evil in the power of self-giving service. This is the gospel in these passages of scripture. It should lead us from astonishment and misunderstanding and hardness of heart to the miracle of faith. In the midst of all that threatens to overwhelm us in life, Jesus delivers us from fear by our faith in him. “Take courage! It is I,” Jesus said. “Don’t be afraid.”