St. Mark 8:1-9
July 30, 2017 A+D
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There aren’t many dogs that like to go to the vet. Nonetheless, compassionate owners pack them up against their will and force them to endure it. They are then extra sweet to them on the way home.
There are many things we can learn from the feeding of the four thousand. The most significant thing is simply that the Lord had compassion on the hungry crowd that come out to hear Him and He acted on it. The Lord also has compassion on us. He has not sent His Son to die in vain, nor merely for our future spiritual good. He has sent Him to redeem us, to make us His children, now. He who was crucified is risen from the dead for us, in order to be with us, to keep on feeding us. And He is concerned with all of us, our bodies and souls, our spiritual lives and our family lives, our churches and our cities, and the like. He has compassion on us and He acts on it, delivers it to us in real time in Word and Sacrament. Often He makes us hungry first. Being driven to the vet can feel like betrayal. Yet faith learns to see that the Lord acts all times in compassion and mercy, that all things work together for good those who are in Christ.
If we look closely at the event, we notice that it looks a lot like the Church’s Divine Service. The people have come to hear Jesus, to listen to His Word, to be in His presence. They have been so caught up in this that they have forgotten their physical needs.
Imagine a sailor in the 19th century who embarks on a 10 day transatlantic journey whose enthusiasm has caused him to plan poorly. On the 5th day he discovers that he only brought 5 days’ worth of water. There is nowhere to get fresh water in the middle of the ocean. The sailor is doomed. This crowd is like that sailor.
The Lord does not exaggerate. If He sends them away without feeding them some of them will likely die. They have not the strength for the walk back to the green places. So also do the disciples answer correctly in their rhetorical question. There is no way to feed that crowd in that desolate place. Even if there were a bakery, a field of wheat, or a Walmart it wouldn’t be enough to feed this number of people. Go now to a Walmart anywhere in this city and try to buy 1000 loaves of bread at once. It can’t be done.
The Lord has done this to them on purpose. It is an act of compassion. He exposes their need. They have come to hear Him and that is good. Man lives not by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. They have no bread but they have what they came for: His Word. They live, but they are dying. They cannot help themselves, but He is their Help and their Food.
In this they are the perfect congregation, perfect Christians. They are not chastised for foolishly forgetting their physical needs. Rather the Lord responds with compassion. They have come for His Word and He loves them in their need. He does not put them to work, organizing them into committees and work parties, giving the elderly and the weak over to the care of the strong, assigning leaders and tasks. He simply has them all sit down. He doesn’t form a bread line. He doesn’t create a buffet. Instead, He treats them as though they’ve come to a restaurant. Though the place is desolate and barren, and they are the poor and weak, they prepare to partake of a banquet as though they were kings and the apostles wait upon them.
The Lord takes bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it to them. They eat in luxury, as much as they want, and are satisfied. They receive from His bounty without merit or worthiness, in perfect passivity and trust, likely less than fully aware of the danger they were in and unable at the same time to fully appreciate the gift they were given. So is the life of faith on this side of glory. We are gladly the lapdogs that eat the crumbs that fall from our Master’s table even if He sends us now and then to the vet.
While no man could feed 4000 people in the desert, the Lord can and the Lord does. So also, what is less obvious, is that no man can feed even one person, even himself, in the city or in fertile land without the Lord. Our mothers rightly taught us to pray before eating for this very reason. This is not commanded by God in the Bible – that we pray before eating, but it is very good custom. To neglect it is dangerous and arrogant. The Lord gave thanks before He fed the crowd. He gave thanks also at the institution of the Lord’s Supper before He fed them with His immortal flesh hidden in mortality and bread. It is necessary for us to confess and give thanks to God that He provides what we need for this body and life and that without Him we would have nothing and indeed be destroyed. Even as it is necessary for us to confess that if He had not redeemed us by His sacrifice on the cross not of it would matter. So we pause before we eat. We recognize that the food we need He gives and we thank Him for it.
There are those who question or even deny the Lord’s miracles. Some have thought that the point of this miracle was sharing. They don’t think the Lord actuallyh multiplied bread and fish. They think that when the crowd saw the boy’s generosity they were moved to pull out and share from their own stashes. They had been selfish and Jesus taught them to be nice. To believe this is to deny the plain words of Scripture which demonstrate not that the Lord sought to teach them to behave or to be better people so much as He simply desired to serve them.
This is a pernicious error for not only does it deny Scripture but it also turns the Gospel on its head and makes the Lord’s primary purpose not to redeem us and forgive us but simply to guide into us into a higher morality. It is not that the idea of sharing is bad in itself, it is that the Lord’s compassion is greater than that. It doesn’t help those who can help themselves. It helps the helpless. Thus the Lord had them sit down and be waited upon.
Part of the problem, to be sure, is that many don’t believe that the Bible is inspired and inerrant. Some think that Christ is a great man but only a man and not true God. They don’t think that He has the power to perform miracles and that He is nothing more than a moral teacher in the way of Ghandi. Those errors need to be answered and refuted. The Bible is inspired and inerrant. Our Lord Jesus Christ is true God and true Man who has redeemed us by His death and resurrection and has ascended, as Man and God, to His Father’s right hand. All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Him.
But so also, the purpose of the miracles need to be better defined. Many pious Christians have thought that the primary purpose of the miracles was to prove that Jesus is true God. To be sure, the miracles do demonstrate this. He is the Lord of creation who created the world and is still active in it. It bends to His will. But the Lord isn’t trying to prove anything in the feeding of the 4000. His purpose isn’t even to try and get the crowd to worship Him or be nicer to one another. Those things happen but His purpose is to provide for their need. He has compassion on them and He acts on it. The miracles do show us His Divinity. Through His Word the Spirit does cause us to believe and to worship and to live out our faith toward our neighbors. There should be no doubt about that. The miracles, however, do more than that. They show us the character of the Christ: His mercy endures forever, He has come in peace to restore creation and us to His Father, and He has overcome death and devil for us. The miracles show us the kind of God who lays down His life to make us His: the kind who has compassion on the hungry, the lame, and the downtrodden.
The Lord is compassionate and kind. He looks upon us with His mercy. Our crosses and hardships, our pain and sorrow, are not signs of His wrath and distance. They are His loving chastisements, like a trip to the vet which is always followed by extra attention and treats. Let the injustices you suffer cause you to long for the goodness and mercy of God. Let this world’s pain and disappointments send you running to the God who is constant in His love and keeps His promises. Let this world’s many judgments and the Law’s accusations make you eager, desperate even, for the Good News of God’s forgiveness in Christ and the promise of the Last Day.
May our daily hunger make us hungry for what the Lord gives, for righteousness, and for what He has promised, life with Him, so that we never become satisfied and want to stay in our cities but are always ready and willing to follow Him in His death even if it is to our death.
All that to say, may we ever be dissatisfied with this life, aware that it is a desolate place, and be ready to give it up. Until the final summons, may we find constant solace and comfort in the Divine Service where Christ Himself is present for us, where He causes us to sit down and be waited upon. Here He speaks words of chastisement and accusation and instruction. He also speaks the life giving words of the Gospel, His compassion for us, forgiving us anew and bringing us back to Himself. Let us find nourishment and satisfaction, a green place in the midst of desolation, where the Lord Himself takes bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and give it us as His own risen Body and Blood for the forgiveness of sins.
He is the One who can feed us in this desolate place. His mercy endures forever.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.