July 15, 2018 + St. Mark 8:1-9 + Immanuel Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Virginia
If you’re anything like me, you need the same spiritual lessons repeated again and again before you start to learn. The disciples of Jesus, too, needed things repeated for them multiple times before they got it. Time and again, the Lord Jesus supplied for them and others the things that they needed. He cast out demons, healed the sick, forgave sinners, gave sight to the blind, restored hearing to the deaf, and raised the dead. Yet the disciples, like us, were slow to get the message.
So it was with the miraculous feedings. You would think that after Jesus had fed a crowd of 5,000, a crowd of 4,000 would have seemed easier. But here they are, same situation, and same statement from Jesus: “We should give them something to eat.” And the disciples come up with the same response: “How?” You would think they would have learned. But then, you should have learned by now, too. We listened to virtually the same gospel reading back on the Fourth Sunday in Lent – then it was the feeding of the 5,000. These miraculous feeding accounts come ‘round twice a year, but somehow we keep forgetting what the LORD is telling us. Just like the first followers of Jesus. Just like so many of the spiritual lessons we are to be learning.
What’s happened to you since Lent? Any problems? Have you run short of bread? Patience? Hope? Have you fallen away from the Christian life of holiness, and stumbled into sins you know you ought not do? Have you felt the despair of the wilderness? Have you been in a crowd of thousands and yet felt all alone? Have you looked at your family, your work, your health, your house, your office, your sin-sick soul and scattered mind and felt like giving up? Into all of this comes the Lord Jesus, saying, “I have compassion.” And unlike the compassion of so many others, Jesus is One who does not merely say it, or contrive a way to get others to pay for it; He gives it. As a free gift. Hence the reminder today from St. Paul: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The Lord Jesus sees the need of the people in the wilderness, and gives them the free gift of His compassion. In the same way, the Lord Jesus sees your need, and has compassion. In today’s Gospel, the LORD wants you to see that He will not abandon His people; He will not send them away hungry. But the timing of His help is not as we would suspect; it comes when everything else is exhausted. It comes when the disciples can see no hope, no resource, no solution. It comes when the people are starving and in the wilderness. But it does come, at the Lord’s command, on account of His compassion.
But there is also an admonition to us in this help, in this compassion: it is a call to get our priorities straight. What recklessness it showed on the part of those following Jesus, that they had gone into the wilderness with no food! But that is a lesson for us; by nature we put food and clothing and temporal things first, and if we look to the Words and promises of God at all, we look to them afterwards, if there is any time and energy left for it. But our Lord is showing us the reverse: He is saying to us, “Pay attention to My Word first, seek first the kingdom of God, be first of all My disciple; I am determined not to let you starve, so I will see to it that you have what you need. Listen to My Word and follow Me, and everything that you need I will supply for you.”
And what does He give to them? Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to His disciples. Sound familiar? This miraculous feeding foreshadows the even more miraculous feeding He gives to His Church throughout time and space, where He feeds us not just with loaves and little fish, but with His holy body and sanctifying blood.
And what happens with the leftovers? The fragments are gathered, which is the opposite of what happened with the manna with which God fed the Israelites in the wilderness. The manna in the wilderness could not be kept overnight; those who tried found that it bred worms and stank. But the bread that Jesus gives is not subject to decay. Meaning what? Those who eat of the bread that He gives are likewise not subject to decay. The Lord Jesus promises that those who eat His flesh and drink His blood have eternal life, and He will raise them up at the last day. That is His promise to you.
Now as last Sunday’s readings showed us, there was a controversy among the first Christians. They wondered if that promise was indeed for all people, or whether it was for Jews only. That is why this feeding of the 4,000 is recorded for us in the Holy Scriptures. Perhaps you have wondered why there are feedings of both 5,000 and 4,000. Well, unlike the feeding of the 5,000, this feeding of the 4,000 takes place in Gentile territory; the number 4,000 indicate the completeness of the 4 corners of the earth, namely, that the mission of Jesus’ Church is to everyone in every land; or, as Jesus puts it in Matthew 28, to “all nations.” Some of the people who are at this feast “have come from afar.” This event is part of the Church’s answer to the question, “Is salvation, are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, open to non-Jews?” The answer is found in the mouth of Jesus: if those from afar are sent away, “they will faint on the way.” Those from afar—the Gentiles—need deliverance, salvation, as much as those who were near—the Jews. So Jesus is saying He wants to give His gifts to all people; meaning, He also wants to give them to you.
But do you see your need for what Jesus gives? In today’s Epistle, God’s Word describes people as slaves of sin. Sin holds a person in bondage. Think of things to which people are enslaved: addictions to pornography and alcohol, but more subtle kinds of slavery, too – the desire to control other people and to talk about other people, the insistence on having your own way, the pursuit of money and possessions, obsessions with personal pleasures and gratifications, a spirit of argumentation, a spirit of pride, assuming you know better, anxieties and worries – in all of these things, we fail to let God be our god, and we fail to love our neighbor as ourselves.
When Jesus feeds you with the Eucharist, He not only forgives your sins, He also sends you away to sin no more. That is why St. Paul said to the Romans, and says to us, “You have been set free from sin.” Is that true for you? Is it evident to you and those around you? Why are you not living in a condition of constant repentance? Why are you not pursuing holiness, sanctification, with as much zeal as you pursue the things of this world?
None of us has done this, none of you is where he should be. So Jesus invites you again to His table, His Supper, to learn again. He knows your sin, and your weakness – yet still He looks on you with compassion. He will not send you away empty, but He will give you precisely what you need, when you need it. He takes your weakness to Himself, and gives you in exchange His righteousness. So be glad and take heart, for your Lord still has compassion on you. He will not send you away hungry. +INJ+