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.
For several weeks now, we’ve been talking about miracles. I’m reminded of the story about old Bill, the devout cowboy, who lost his Bible while he was driving cattle across the plains. When Bill realized that his Bible was missing, he was devastated–it was his only source of hope and inspiration during those long, lonely days out on the range. He immediately got down on his knees to pray, asking God to help him find the lost book. As soon as he said “Amen” he looked up, and there was one of his longhorn cattle, standing right in front of him, holding the lost Bible in its mouth. The animal quietly dropped the Bible right at Bill’s boots. At this, the grateful old cowboy lifted his eyes to heaven and exclaimed, “Thank you, Lord, for this great miracle!” To which the longhorn steer replied, “Well…It’s not really a miracle, Bill. I mean, I found your name written right inside the cover.” And Bill, thinking about this, said, “Yeah, I guess you’re right…hey…wait a minute…”
Sometimes the *real* miracle is not the obvious thing, the flashy thing, or the first thing we notice. Sometimes the real miracle is that subtle, simple surprise that only dawns on us slowly, in the aftermath of a life-transforming experience. This could certainly be said of today’s scripture passage about the feeding of 5,000 people.
This miracle, along with the one immediately following it (Jesus walking on water, which we’ll talk about next week) is one of the most recognizeable miracles of Jesus, depicted in Christian art, music, and literature in just about every culture and in every century. This is also the only miracle of Jesus that appears in all four gospels, so it’s kind of a big deal.
But before we jump into the miracle itself (whatever that may be) I want to spend a little bit of time focusing on where it happened, and when it happened, and why those two things are significant.
Verse 13: Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.
Ok, you should be asking yourself, “Wait, when he heard what?” What was it that caused Jesus to drop everything and run to the desert to be alone?
If you look right before this passage, to the beginning of chapter 14, the chapter header tells you pretty much all you need to know: The Death of John the Baptist.
John the Baptist, according to the gospels, was Jesus’ first cousin. But more than that–he was the one who baptized Jesus and prepared the way for his coming. Many of John’s disciples became Jesus’ disciples. Biblical scholars, comparing the teachings of these two men, have speculated that perhaps Jesus started out as one of John’s disciples.
And now John is gone, brutally murdered by King Herod–the puppet king and representative of the Roman Empire, which would ultimately take the life of Jesus as well. Wrapped up in the news of John’s death, was a glimpse of Jesus’ past as well as his future. And above all that, the loss of someone dear.
So Jesus “withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Throughout the Bible, the wilderness is a place of refuge and escape from the forces and powers of the world. It is also a place of trial and temptation. Ultimately, the combination of these two leads to renewal and rebirth.
Moses, fleeing the might of Egypt, led his people through the wilderness where they were forged into the nation of Israel.
A young shepherd boy, David, escaped from King Saul into the wilderness, where he gathered to himself the mental and material resources that would propel him to become Israel’s greatest King.
Jesus himself, as a young child, escaped with his parents into the wilderness, fleeing the wrath of King Herod. And then as a young adult, he was tempted for 40 days and nights in the wilderness, right before the beginning of his earthly ministry.
And now here he is, right back in the desert again. His two greatest miracles are less than 24 hours into the future, but the story begins with a Jesus who is mourning, grieving…perhaps questioning his entire purpose and mission.
Why have I spent this much time on just one verse that isn’t even about the miracle? Because there’s a powerful message for all of us here: Sometimes it is out of our most profound tragedies and losses that our greatest moments, our greatest miracles emerge. Don’t be afraid of those wilderness times in your life: The wilderness is where some of God’s best work takes place.
Now. On to the “miracle” at hand. If you are impressed by the idea of Jesus providing bread to 5,000 or more people, you shouldn’t be. Around the same time that Jesus walked the earth, another man (who also claimed to be the Son of God) successfully provided bread for over 50 million people. Every single day. His name was Caesar Augustus, and he was, of course the Roman Emperor. It was a long-established policy of the Roman Empire to provide the poor with “bread and circuses” — in other words, cheap food and cheap entertainment designed to keep people from rioting, and to keep them dependent upon the government (as opposed to other things, like regional leaders, religious movements, and each other).
So I kind of doubt that anyone in Jesus’ audience that day would have been much impressed with the fact that a religious and political leader (you may not think of Jesus as a political leader, but there is plenty of evidence that his followers did) was able to somehow feed–and quite possibly entertain–5,000 or more people. No, I think that much was expected by the crowd.
What is far more astonishing is the fact that thousands of people, knowing full well (as Jesus did), the recent news about the gruesome death of John the Baptist at the hands of the Roman government, would still take the chance, the risk, of leaving behind their towns (think Roman protection and Roman bread) to come out to the wilderness, to hear about a different kind of empire with a different kind of leader.
If you don’t think that’s amazing, then let me ask you this: If you found out that Jesus was going to be preaching here tomorrow night, how many of you would come? What if you found out that Jesus were preaching in Juarez? Would you still go? What if Jesus were preaching in Turkey or China–places where the government is hostile to Christianity, and where you might be identified as a follower of Jesus and face the consequences of that? I think 5,000 people is pretty amazing.
But I still don’t think that’s the *real* miracle. In fact, I don’t really think Jesus does a miracle here at all. Let me repeat that: I don’t think that *Jesus* does a miracle here. All Jesus does is say, “Don’t send them away.” Then he calmly takes five loaves and two fish, blesses them, and gives them to the disciples. He tells the disciples: “You feed them.” You. Feed. Them.
You all know the story (it’s my favorite story) of the man who was sitting on his rooftop when the floodwaters began to rise. A big truck drives by, and the driver offers to take the man to safety, but he says, “No thank you. I have prayed to God to rescue me, and I have faith that he will.” After the truck, the waters rise some more and a boat comes by offering to take the man to safety. Still, he says, “No thank you. I have faith that God will save me.” Finally, a helicopter flies overhead offering to rescue the man. On account of his great faith, he declines again. Well, the floods rise and the man drowns. When he arrives in heaven, he is confused, and asks why God didn’t save him? God responds, “I sent you a truck, a boat, and a helicopter. Work with me!”
I think some people spend their entire lives waiting for a spectacular miracle to save them, feed them, or help someone they love. And all the while, Jesus is telling us exactly what he told his disciples: You feed them.
But we don’t have enough, Jesus! We don’t have enough time; we don’t have enough energy; we don’t have enough money. Yeah, the disciples tried those lines, too.
We have *nothing* … well, except for these five loaves and two fish…but that’s not enough! Send them away, Jesus. Let Caesar save them. That’s his job. We’re too busy. We’re too poor. We’re not qualified.
And Jesus says, patiently: No. You feed them.
Now, you might be wondering who you are in this story. We like to think we’re the people in the crowd, getting fed. If you are visiting First Presbyterian Church for the first time today, and have never set foot in a church in your life, then yes, that might be you.
But if you are a member, or a returning visitor, a lifelong church-goer, someone who has listened to the message and then came back for more…then by definition, that makes you…a disciple. A student and follower of Jesus. Your job, and my job, as disciples (yes, I’m a disciple, too) is to feed the people.
Nevermind what we think that might require. Nevermind what we think we have or don’t have. Because Jesus takes whatever we bring. He blesses the bread, and breaks it, and then with nothing more than what we gave him, he turns to us and says, “You Feed them.” And it is always enough.
The real miracle is not in the feeding of 5,000 people. It is in the faith of the disciples, despite their initial skepticism, and their willingness to share what little they had, no matter how small.
Another way to read this miracle is in light of two parables Jesus had taught the crowds just one chapter before this one. “The kingdom of Heaven,” he said, “is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
“The Kingdom of Heaven,” said Jesus, “is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
In other words, God likes small things–microscopically small things! God takes these things and blesses them and they multiply over and over again exponentially until they grow and spread and fill the earth. But the mustard tree does not grow until someone (that’s you and me) sows the seed. The yeast does not multiply until we mix it with the flour. The crowd of 5,000 is not fed until we take the bread and share it with them.
In short, God is not the miracle that we are waiting for.
We are the miracle that God is waiting for.
And with God’s blessing, we are the miracle the world is waiting for.
That’s good news for small churches, for hungry people, for all those in desperate circumstances. Because it doesn’t take much to get that miracle going. It takes a little faith. It takes willingness to lay aside your doubts and skepticism and say,
“Okay, Jesus. I don’t have much, but all that I have is yours.
Use me. Bless me. Break me. Let me be someone’s miracle today.”