July 27-29, 2008
11th Sunday after Pentecost
Pastor Tim Smith
MATTHEW 14:13–21 13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. 15 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 they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” 16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” 17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered. 18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. 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. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children. (NIV)
In hockey, when a player scores three goals in the same game, it’s called a ‘hat trick.’ The term comes to us from the 1950’s, when the Guelph, Ontario team, the Guelph Biltmore Madhatters, sponsored by the Biltmore Hat company, would have a promotional hat given to any player who scored three goals in the same game. If the team was playing a home game, spectators would also throw their own hats into the rink, causing a delay in the game.
As far as I know, there is no special term like a ‘hat trick’ for a man who performs three miracles in the same place in the same 24-hour period. And of course, we would never call Jesus’ miracles a mere ‘trick,’ hat or no hat. But there was a day when Jesus performed three completely different miracles.
Some time in the late winter or early spring of the year 29—the beginning of the last full year of Jesus’ ministry—John the Baptist was killed by Herod. News of this came to Jesus a little while later, when he was in the town of Bethsaida near the Sea of Galilee. By this time in his ministry, Jesus had performed many miracles. He had preached his Sermon on the Mount. He had already begun to send out his disciples to preach and heal people in teams of two. When news about John’s death came to Jesus, he left the town to be by himself and perhaps to mourn for John and certainly to pray.
Matthew tells us that Jesus went by boat to a remote place, but Jesus was so well-known and so sought after that crowds of people surged around the rim of the Sea of Galilee to find him. In fact, did you notice what Matthew tells us? At least one crowd of people was already there when Jesus landed again on the shore. And so Jesus arrived, and performed Miracle #1, he healed all of their sick. I don’t know how many people were involved but we’ll just count that as one miracle. The third miracle, incidentally, is not part of our text this morning, but at the end of this story, Jesus sends the disciples back out into the lake on a boat, and when they are kept from reaching the shore again by the weather, Jesus walked out on the water to them.
But let’s turn our attention to the second miracle of this day, as Jesus fed more than 5,000 people with one little boy’s lunch.
That number, 5,000, is just the number of adult men who were present. Matthew makes sure we understand that in his account. I wanted to picture what 5,000 men plus their families would look like. I wondered how many WELS churches it would take to arrive at that figure. I thought that maybe, just maybe, if we added up all of the churches in our own conference, which has about 15 congregations from New Ulm, Sleepy Eye, St. James, and so forth, that we could get that many people. When I added things up, I came up just over 5,000 communicant or adult members. To get 5,000 men, I had to add on almost all of the churches from our neighboring conference, the Mankato Conference. It took the membership of all 30 churches to come out with 5,000 males – bringing the total number of people to 13,262 (using our 2006 statistical records). Now, recognizing that the average family was quite a bit bigger in First Century Palestine than it is in 21st Century Minnesota, I would not be at all surprised if Jesus fed close to 20,000 or more on that spring day in a remote place on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.
But what is Jesus showing us and teaching us through this miracle? Is he (1) showing us that when we take care of the spiritual needs of people—he had also been preaching to them—that we should not neglect their spiritual needs? Or is he (2) showing us that just as he can take care of any physical need, like feeding these 15,000 women and children together with their 5,000 men, that he can also take care of any spiritual need—like wiping away the sins of these and all people? Or is he (3) showing us that he takes care of all our needs, period?1
What was Jesus teaching his disciples?
When John the Baptist was still living, his message was “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” A bold claim. In fact, it was an amazing, incredible statement. But everything in Jesus ministry from that statement from John up until this moment, after John’s death—two full years—were filled with teaching, preaching, miracles and parables from Jesus all directed at one realization, which will come shortly after this moment with these fishes and dinner rolls.
And let’s remember what these years were filled with:
Matthew 1 – He fulfilled the promises of the Old Testament about the coming Messiah.
Matthew 2 – The Magi came to adore him as a king.
Matthew 3 – John foretold his ministry and baptized him.
Matthew 4 – He was tempted, and he began healing the sick by his word alone.
Matthew 5—7, He preached the Sermon on the Mount and gave us the Lord’s Prayer
Matthew 8 – Healing lepers, driving out demons; Calming the storm
Matthew 9 – Healing a dead girl and a sick woman, the blind, the mute & the paralyzed.
Matthew 10 – Sending out his disciples to heal in his name.
Matthew 11 – Reminding John the Baptist in prison of who he, Jesus, is.
Matthew 12 – Showing that he is the fulfillment of the OT Law as “Lord of Sabbath”
Matthew 13 – A series of parables about the way the Gospel works & God’s people are gathered.
Matthew 14 – Where we are today. Jesus is building up to the point where he will ask these twelve men: Who am I?
He will test them with a storm later in the night, and they still won’t get it. Here, on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, with, what did we say? 20,000 people, counting more than just the 5,000 men (that still sounds like a conservative number) Jesus has compassion on them. All of them. They have spiritual needs which he has been filling up with his preaching and with his compassion besides. They have physical needs, too. Does it matter how many of them there are? They need to eat. And Jesus turns to his disciples: Don’t send them away. Give them something.
He had sent them out, on his authority, to preach, and they preached. Was it they who turned people’s hearts, or the power in the word of God itself? It wasn’t them. He had sent them out to heal people in his name. Was it they who healed people, or God working through them? He had sent them out to drive out demons using his name. Was it they who drove out the demons, or God? Now, he told them to do nothing more than give these people something to eat. Would it have been they giving the people food, or God?
And it wasn’t as if there was no precedent—Elisha the prophet has supplied food for a hundred men in the book of 2 Kings with just twenty barley loaves and some heads of grain. Knowing that a barley loaf is something about the size of a big dinner roll, it wasn’t enough food for a hundred men. Now, with only five of those same barley loaves and with 50 times the people, Jesus wanted his disciples to rely on him. Not on themselves. Not on their reasoning powers or their own pretty good ideas—but on him.
There are times when I read a passage like this and I catch myself thinking, those dopes! How could they not get it? And then I look in the mirror.
How often do we take matters into our own hands in our lives. We get into trouble, we get backed into the corner of our own sins and we decide for ourselves that it would be better in this case if we acted like the rest of the world. We get ourselves a big old mouthful of lies or a bellyful of hate or a craving for revenge and payback and it makes us think, I’ll get back to God tomorrow—but today the devil himself had better watch out.
I saw a piece the other day about a young man who wanted to try skydiving with his friends. Out they all jumped, 1,2,3,4,5—and then it was this guy’s turn. And he fainted. He was just stepping out of the plane when the reality of a few thousand feet between him and the dirt made all the blood skeedaddle from his noggin and down he went, out of the plane, and his parachute caught on the door. There he was, being carried under the plane like a banner saying “Will you marry me?” except he was dead weight with no way to do anything at all. He could get himself free, he couldn’t climb back in—there was no way for him to save himself. And that’s exactly the way we were in our sins. No way for us to claw our way back into God’s lap because when we sin we burn our bridges.
But it’s God who built the bridge back to us. That guy hanging out of the plane? The pilot couldn’t go get him. So the local fire department went to the local grade schools and the high school and got a bunch of mats and laid them down the middle of the runway, and when the plane finally came in the idea was that at least the guy wouldn’t be dragged along the cement. A small plane only need to be going about 60 mph to be airborne so it was slowing down below 60 when it came in and touched down, and as it turned out, Mr. Unconscious’s parachute came undone just as he started sliding along behind the plane on the mats.
He came out of it with just a few bumps and bruises. And you may think that it was incredible that he didn’t get killed; think of how incredible it is that you and I don’t stand condemned before God. Jesus is able to do anything, and on the Day of the Divine Hat Trick he showed us just how awesome his power as God is. Jesus does meet every one of our needs. He had brought us back into a right relationship with God. And he has given us the wonderful work of sharing his saving gospel with mankind. Starting today. Starting with the people around you. Starting with the people you love. Amen.