Monday, July 23, 2018

The Freedom To Act

[This message was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, on Sunday, July 22.]

Mark 6:30-44
The story of Jesus’ feeding miracle, the subject of today’s gospel lesson, is so well-known to us that we may not confront two important questions I want to address this morning:
  • First, did it happen? 
  • Second, what difference does it make?

You often hear people question whether Jesus performed the miraculous signs attributed to Him. Some even question whether there actually was a person named Jesus of Nazareth. 

On this latter point, you only have to turn to the first-century Jewish historian, Josephus. Josephus wrote major works on the history of his people. He wasn’t a follower of Jesus. But in his history of the Jews, Josephus talked about Jesus: How Jesus won a large following with His preaching and teaching, how the movement that gathered around Jesus continued after His crucifixion. Even today, historians consider Josephus a credible source, his histories being constantly proven by new archaeological discoveries.

But did Jesus actually perform this notable miracle? 

Consider this: All four of the gospel writers include a narrative of this amazing event in their books. When Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John published their gospels, many eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were still living; such eyewitnesses could have corrected misimpressions they thought were in the gospels. But they didn’t. Early second-century church leaders also wrote of speaking with eyewitnesses, people who told them how Jesus performed this miracle. So, I think that we can confidently say that Jesus fed a horde of people in a miraculous way.

So, what does it mean? 

What does it mean for us

To answer those questions, we need to look at the incident more closely. Please take a look at the lesson, Mark 6:30-44. It begins: “The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’”

This is the only time that Mark uses the word apostles. It’s a Greek compound meaning sent ones. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus has sent out the twelve to preach, teach, and perform signs. They’ve been working hard. 

But Jesus now wants them to get some quiet time to reflect and rest. We all need time to rest, recharge our batteries. And, as believers, we need time to reflect through prayer and the consideration of God’s Word. We need these things because, as our lesson shows us, such quiet time can be hard to come by. Life gets in the way.

Verse 32: “So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 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.”

When Jesus and the twelve crossed the sea, they learned that the Jesus groupies had beaten them there. 

But Jesus wasn’t angry. He had compassion for them because they were like aimless sheep who had no leaders. 

Of course, they had political leaders, like Herod Antipas. But Herod’s recent execution of John the Baptist showed that he and his henchmen were really about themselves. 

They had religious leaders, too. But they were, as their conspiracy with Herod and Pilate would soon prove, in league with the self-seekers in the government. 

Neither Herod nor the priests nor the scribes nor the Pharisees were authentic leaders. They were pretenders.

In a sometimes frightening world, people crave leadership. We want--we need--someone to show us the way through the challenges of our lives. 

There are always would-be dictators and authoritarians offering counterfeit leadership, of course. They're people who seek and keep power by telling us that what’s bothering us is not them or us, but all those other people out there: Samaritans, Romans, Pharisees, Sadducees, Egyptians, the others

The only real leader this world has ever seen is Jesus Christ. Jesus led not with an iron fist, but with compassion

Paul says of Jesus that “being in very nature God, [He] did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,  in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11) 

The only leader the Christian has is Jesus Christ

And the only kind of earthly leader we should follow, even as we pray that God would guide all leaders, both the authentic and the pretenders, is a person who follows Jesus Christ

The fact is that we all need the one true leader, the one true God in the flesh, Who has died and risen for sinners like you and me--because of the compassion He has for each one of us--so that when we trust in Him, we have a life with God that will survive this world and can never be taken from us!

Verse 35: “By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. ‘This is a remote place,’ they said, ‘and it’s already very late. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.’ But he answered, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said to him, ‘That would take more than half a year’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?’”

The apostles are thinking, “Hey, what about our quiet time, Jesus? We have some wowser stories to tell you about our preaching and casting out demons and stuff. Send this crowd home, Lord!” They make it sound that they’re concerned for the crowds when they tell Jesus that if He sends them away, they can go get something to eat. But Jesus tells them simply: “You give them something to eat.”

This is a word to today’s Church, to you and me

Are you concerned about the millions who don’t yet have an eternal relationship with the God we meet in Jesus? Give them something to eat; share the gospel, pray for people to share the gospel with people who will go to hell without a saving relationship with Jesus. 

Are you concerned about an injustice? Then do something about it. Don’t wait for a church program. Don’t wait for the pastor. Follow your leader, Jesus. Allow the compassion He planted in your life to be expressed. 

You have Jesus’ permission to be compassionate. 

In fact, you have His command to be compassionate. 

Pray. Serve a neighbor. Write an email to a public official. Work at a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen. Volunteer for one of our ministries. Join a group.

You give them something to eat,” Jesus says. You be about your mission as a Christian. Jesus died and rose to set you and me free from sin and death to do just that while we walk on this earth. It’s one way we can give Him thanks and glory for His grace.

After the accounting department reported to Jesus that, among the crowd, they could only find five loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus demonstrated what a servant leader does with the compassion for others that God stirs in believers.

Jesus had people sit in groups of hundreds and fifties, just as Jethro told Moses to organize the people of ancient Israel facing the frightening uncertainties of the wilderness centuries before. Then, Jesus has the disciples distribute this food. We’re told that this throng ate “and were satisfied.” There were even twelve baskets left over. 

And then, Mark writes this: “The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.” (Mark 6:44)

This last verse is significant for two reasons: 

  • (1) 5000 is the number of men in a Roman legion of soldiers; 
  • (2) Because there were women and children who were fed that day, Jesus fed many more than 5000.

What does this tell us? 

The first thing it tells us is that there’s a place for military might in our fallen world. Not everyone trusts in Jesus and so, doesn’t have the power and impulse for love that Jesus plants in His disciples. That's why in this fallen world, God rules in two ways: by grace in the lives of those who trust in Him, by governments in the lives of those who don't trust in Him. Christians acquiesce to God's ordination of governments for the good of their neighbors. (This all describes Martin Luther's two kingdoms understanding of the Bible's teachings on these matters, by the way.)

A friend of mine, General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, commander of NATO, is originally from Logan, Ohio and a son of the congregation I formerly served as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church. In the Army, his nickname is Scap, but those of us in Logan knew him as Mike. I got to know him on his visits home. He's the kind of commander who never asked those who served under him to do anything he wasn't willing to do, like jumping from airplanes in Afghanistan and Iraq when he was a two-star general. Mike is performing an essential service, leading American forces in, among other things, protecting this country in Europe, so that our children will never have to suffer attack by our adversaries, the Russians, here. 

But, here's the deal: No army in the world can protect us from our greatest enemies: sin, death, and ourselves

Only Jesus can

And Jesus looks to enlist legions of people who have been saved through His compassion, expressed on the cross, confirmed at the empty tomb, to be an army of believers who live out His call to love God and to love all of our neighbors just as He has loved us.

The second thing that the last verse of our gospel lesson tells us is that, because Jesus is our leader and has saved us by grace through faith in Him, we need not be afraid in the face of the world’s challenges. The disciples couldn't imagine how they were going to feed 5000 people. But they did what Jesus commanded because they trusted in Jesus, they believed in Him. We too can act on Jesus' command to share Him with the world through our lives, deeds, and words.

And we can do that with absolute confidence. Why?

Because we already belong to God for eternity. 

Because neither Satan, nor sin, nor death can intimidate us

Jesus once referred to the miraculous works He performed and told Philip: “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things [by which Jesus here means, more works] than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12)

In Jesus, we have the power and the commission to feed those who are hungry for food, hungry for the good news of new and everlasting life for all who believe in Jesus, hungry for God’s truth

We don’t have to have all the answers or have everything figured out in advance, any more than the disciples did on the day, on Jesus’ command, they passed out the few bits of fish and bread they had. 

We simply need to follow Jesus. 

We simply have to believe in Jesus


[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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