Matthew 14:13-21 (NRSV)
13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied,
“We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Have you ever wished that you were somewhere else in life? In the middle of a corporate meeting where your supervisor is grilling you with questions, questions you should probably know the answer too but you do for reasons outside of your control. Yet there you are standing in the spotlight wishing you were someone else…but hoping that someone else was paid the same as you are now. Or maybe you are sitting at the bed side of a child who has a fever that just will not break and after hours of sleeplessness you wish for just a moment’s rest.
There are times in our lives where we hope for little miracles. Nothing really huge but something very practical. We want a simpler life, good health, our needs met. We strive for these things with all of our efforts and before we realize it we are not living a simpler life, our health is not good, and our needs are not met, because in the quest for the good life we were caught up in the chaos of the world all around us. And due to this chaotic lifestyle we often get trapped in we unintentionally find ourselves blindsided by worries we never wanted, stresses we never needed, and fatigue we did not ask for. How then can someone say to you rest. How can we possibly rest when we have deadlines for reports, meetings to keep, and mouths to feed?
Of all the miracles that Jesus performed probably the most well-known is the feeding of the five thousand. But often I feel we do not see the miracle fully. We see the results of the miracle, the five thousand plus mouths fed but we fail to see the amazing work going on behind the scenes. We often read this miracle like we hope for a change in our situation. We want the end result without changing anything else in our life. This is often why we miss the blessings that God has given us. Not so much miss the blessings, but are unable or blind to see the blessings because of the chaos that surrounds us.
The first thing we must look at is the timing of this feat. The very first verse we read today says, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself…” Often we picture this event as a festive time because of the large crowd, but we seem to forget that this was actually a very stressful time in Jesus’ life. He had just received notice that his friend, his colleague, and his cousin, John the Baptist, had just been executed. Jesus was not seeking the company of thousands of people but a place of solitude to mourn the loss of someone he cared for deeply.
Why do I point this out? Life does not stop because our situation has changed. Just because you are not exactly where you want to be, God may be urging you to step out to assist him in the kingdom. Jesus withdrew, he wanted to stop everything, leave the chaos of the crowds to be alone just for a moment, but the crowds followed him. And Jesus had compassion for them.
We are often blinded by our situations, but the kingdom of God, the Gospel or good news still proceeds, just as time continues to move forward. Jesus had every right within the law to withdraw from his ministry for a time, everyone would have understood that he had just lost a close family member and would have given him space, but the kingdom is more important than individuals. The Gospel is greater than our current situations. Jesus had compassion on them, because in his loss those he ministered to realized that he understood their sorrow. Jesus knows the suffering we go through, he knows the fatigue we feel when we are asked to do just one more thing, he understand the stress we have when our child is sick and we still have the responsibilities of feeding others. Maybe we should look to Jesus for answers in how to deal with the stresses of life.
Jesus sees the crowds that have followed him and he has compassion, he has the boat go toward the shore and he ministers to the ones that are sick, and he encourages the ones that have broken spirits. Often in our stress we wish to withdraw but at times the stress we are experiencing can provide greater insight in the encouragement of those we are called to. Imagine the scene. There are thousands of people many are sick, many more have spent days if not years ministering to the needs of those that are sick and they are at the end of their ropes. Jesus himself has just lost a dear friend and is able to empathize with the feelings of those around him.
It is that empathy that ministers. It is that sharing of your life with someone else that provides healing beyond explanation. But the healing is not what is important here. The hour is late and they are in a desolate or deserted place. This is an area that was not cultivated, uninhabited, and unfit for living so the likelihood of finding lodging was slim, food for the crowd even slimmer. The closest followers of Jesus realized this and were very aware of the time so they advised Jesus to send the crowd away so that they could possibly make it to a town or village before the night came in. Often we fail to see that the disciples like ourselves are very practical people. Until very recent history it was unsafe to travel at night, thanks to modern technologies like the light bulb we have the luxury of being able to navigate at night fairly easily, but in ancient times the only light came from the moon or if you were lucky a torch. Traveling at night was very dangerous because it left a person or group vulnerable for a surprise attack from a band of bandits, which was likely since the first century was a period of time filled with civil unrest.
The disciples being wise in the ways of the world knew that if the crowd lingered much longer they would be place in grave danger. Today after reading this story so often tend to look at the disciples with disdain and provide commentary about their lack of faith. Failing to see that they were being very companionate and prudent. Imagine yourself in this situation, five thousand families gathered around you and your closest friends, you are out in the middle of nowhere totally unprepared, how would you have responded to the situation?
Jesus says to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Jesus is calling them to minister in a chaotic situation where they were far from equipped to handle. To provide for a gathering of this size would have required logistical and strategic planning months in advance. Not only did they not anticipate the gathering, they were not even sure of the number of people gathered. And Jesus is telling them do not send them away but give them something to eat. To the disciple’s credit they began to investigate the situation prior to this confrontation. They knew what they had and were well aware of that it was not enough, I say this because they quickly answer, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” They knew the situation, they recognized a need, and they realized that they did not have the physical means to do what they were asked. If I were to look for a new employee I would take any one of these guys because they are showing great leadership skills.
Jesus tells them to bring him what they have to him, he then asks the crowd to gather and sit down, as he begins to bless the meal. “Blessed be thou, O Lord our God, the King of the world, who produced bread out of the earth.” are words that he likely said over this meager ration, this was the customary blessing said over a meal during that period of time. This simple blessing is filled with a testimony of faith. Listen to it yet again, “Blessed be thou, O Lord our God, the King of the world, who produced bread out of the earth.”
This simple blessing acknowledged that all we have is directly connected to God. It is not ours but was provided to us through the blessing of God. It is God that provided us with the abilities we have to produce the means by which we provide for our families, it is God the king of the world that produces bread from the earth. All we have is given to us by God, and we are to use what we have to encourage and provide for the needs of those around us.
Jesus blessed this seemingly insignificant basket of food, breaking the loaves apart, and distributed them to the disciples to hand the pieces out until all in the crowd had eaten their fill. It is there that we begin to see the miracle, but the miraculous happened before the people ate. The miraculous happened when Jesus blessed the seemingly insignificant amount.
We live in a chaotic world. The needs and the demands on each of us seem incredibly high even if we are in theory retired. We feel that we are stretched too thin, too tired, and are nearly at our breaking point. We look out in our world and we do have compassion for those in need but the need seems beyond our ability to offer any real assistance. I am right there with you, I too am tired, I feel like there is often nothing that can be done, yet feel an urging within me to do more to assist the community, to encourage my family, and to encourage our meeting. There are people in our community who sleep at night under bridges, people that may not have eaten a meal in days. While at ministry conference several people including my son, James, went out to talk with some of these people in Wichita. We may believe that that this is not an issue here around this meeting, but we would be wrong because just this week I saw one of those broken people outside a restaurant just a few blocks from here, just down the street from where we live and where we worship.
“You give them something to eat.” This is what Jesus told his disciples, think about that. Has, over the course of time, this command changed? Does Jesus no longer have compassion on the sick, the hurting, or the hungry? But, you might say we do not have enough. We barely have enough for ourselves, and our closest family and friends. This is like saying all we have are five loaves and two fish. In our wisdom we hold ourselves back. In our wisdom we miss the miraculous.
It was when the little was brought to Jesus that the multitude was fed. It was when the disciples were obedient with the insignificant that they were able to see the miraculous. We can get caught in the trap of insignificance, this binds us and keeps us from our calling to share the gospel keeping us from experiencing the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, but why? When the disciples brought the bread and fish to Jesus, He blessed them and the earth produced bread for all to eat their fill. The seeds Jesus needs to bring the kingdom of God to this community are already here. Those seeds are found in the stories of our lives, in our pockets, and in our houses. They are found in our kitchens, and in our cars. They are found in this meetinghouse and in our future. Yes it seems insignificant. We are a small church, we are a small denomination, but when we bring what we have to Jesus he can produce bread out of the earth.
As we enter into this time of open worship, let us each imagine this scene. Imagine the feelings you might have as one of those disciples looking out at the crowd, knowing that the need is far greater than your abilities. Imagine that meager and insignificant basket of food in your hands as Jesus tells you to give that vast crowd something to eat. What is the feeling you have? Now imagine the blessing being said over that basket by your dearest and closest friend, and him handing you a piece of bread to hand out to the others. Then another and yet another? Imagine the scene of five thousand families sitting in that deserted uninhabitable place eating their fill from a basket you knew would only provide enough for one person. Imagine. We have what we need to do far more than feeding a crowd if we only believe that Jesus will be able to take what we have to offer and produce bread out of the earth. The only question yet to ask is…do you believe…do you trust…do you entrust that Jesus can and will continue to take the insignificant and make it extraordinary?
 Freeman, J. M., & Chadwick, H. J. (1998). Manners & customs of the Bible (p. 441). North Brunswick, NJ: Bridge-Logos Publishers.