Eating in the Wilderness - A Sermon
After Israel crossed the sea to freedom, they began to complain that Moses had led them into the desert to die of starvation. Slavery was bad, but starvation was worse. God had compassion on the people, and promised to give them bread from heaven (Exodus 16:1-4). Then, the morning after God made this promise, the people looked out and found a white substance covering the ground. They gathered it up and made bread from it. They called it manna. This manna sustained the people of Israel during their journey across the desert (Exodus 16:13ff).
As we continue with our “Eating with Jesus” sermon series, we hear Matthew’s report that Jesus has retreated to a deserted place after Herod Antipas had John the Baptist beheaded. Most likely he went into the wilderness to pray about his future. Would his fate be the same as John’s? It was there, in the wilderness, that Jesus shared bread from heaven with hungry people caught in a deserted place. According to Tradition, Jesus retreated to a spot near the town of Tabgha, just north of the Sea of Galilee. There’s a reconstructed stone church there that dates back to the fifth century. Much of the church is relatively new, but laying before the altar is an ancient mosaic that reminds us that it was here that Jesus fed the five thousand. The mosaic is brown and white and “depicts two fish flanking a wicker basket filled with a few loaves.” [Martin, Jesus, p. 256]. Whether or not this is the spot where Jesus fed the multitude, the shrine reminds us that Jesus made an impact on the lives of everyone he encountered.
The story of the feeding of the 5000 has its roots in the Exodus story. After Moses led the people out of Egypt, God provided bread from heaven to sustain them as they journeyed through the wilderness. That provision of bread is repeated in the feeding of the 5000. Alan Culpepper suggests that this story, which begins in Sinai reaches its “revelatory pinnacle in the Last Super, that would be celebrated ever after by the church and that points ahead to the great messianic banquet at the end of time (Isa 25:6)” [Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, 2:11].
This past few days I had the opportunity to hear N.T. Wright speak about scripture and worship. He kept making the point about the big picture that connects Genesis to Revelation. The stories of the manna and the feeding of the 5000 are snippets of this larger story of God’s engagement with Creation. So, when we come to the Table, we don’t just remember the Last Supper, or even the cross, we remember the larger story that begins with creation and ends with the gathering of the saints before the throne of God. The good news is that we get to participate in this still unfolding story of God and God’s creation.
This particular story is remarkable because it’s the only miracle story that appears in all four Gospels. Even if they tell the story differently, the point is that God provides bread from heaven. This bread is the same daily bread we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer.
I could have chosen any of the four accounts for us to read, but the reading from Matthew offers an interesting contrast. As I mentioned earlier, right before Jesus retreated to the wilderness, Herod had John the Baptist beheaded. This deed took place as part of Herod’s birthday party. Theologian Anna Case Williams makes a point about the feeding of the five thousand that I hadn’t thought about before: “Jesus is the host at this meal. Perhaps we are meant to see the contrast between the simple and life-giving meal and the luxury of Herod’s court and with his death-dealing banquet (14:6-11)” [Matthew: Belief, p. 194]. One meal brings life to hungry people, and the other meal brings death to one of God’s people. Which meal should we embrace?
Even though Jesus retreated to a quiet place, the people went looking for him. They were hungry, and Jesus had compassion on them. According to Matthew, he healed all the sick among them. While Matthew doesn’t mention any teaching opportunities, I can’t imagine that Jesus didn’t take the opportunity to share his vision of God’s realm.
As the day gave way to evening, the disciples began to get anxious about the crowd. They tried to get Jesus to send the crowd away to find something to eat. The last thing you want is a large crowd sitting in the wilderness with empty stomachs. Things could get out of hand quickly. While their anxiety was understandable, Jesus had other ideas.
He told the disciples: “You give them something to eat.” Think about that for a moment. Here’s this huge crowd. It might not have been as large as the half a million people gathered for the Women’s March, but it was still a large crowd. We usually speak of the 5000, but at the end of the story Matthew adds that the crowd not only included five thousand men, but also uncounted women and children. Let’s not forget the uncounted ones. So, there’s no way that this little band of disciples could feed this crowd. They didn’t have the money or the resources; at least that’s what they thought at the moment. They were just a group of twelve people, who managed to scrounge up five loaves of bread and two fish. They didn’t think they had enough, but Jesus disagreed. He simply told them to organize the people to receive their meal.
What Jesus did next has parallels to the Last Supper. It’s important to take note of the verbs that are used in this story as well as in the words of institution. According to Matthew, Jesus had the crowd sit down on the grass. Then he took the bread and fish. He blessed them, and in blessing the bread and fish, he gave thanks to God. The Greek word for giving thanks is eucharisto, or Eucharist. Then he broke the bread and fish and he gave them to the disciples. These four verbs – took, blessed, broke, and gave – also appear in the words of institution we find in Matthew 26.
But Jesus didn’t just bless the elements and give them to the disciples. He instructed his disciples to distribute the bread and fish to the people. If we take this instruction a step further, we will hear Jesus calling on us to distribute the bread of life to the hungry of this world. That hunger might be physical. There are a lot of hungry people in our world, and Jesus has compassion on them. If we are his followers, we should also have compassion on those who are hungry and thirsty. We try to reach out through Week of Compassion offerings, SOS, Rippling Hope, Gleaners, and many other entities. There are other opportunities out there, including standing with refugees and immigrants who face harrowing circumstances. Others have spiritual hunger, and we’ve been entrusted to share the bread of life and the cup of salvation with them as well.
When they had distributed everything, and everyone was full, Jesus instructed his disciples to gather the leftovers. When they did this, they recovered twelve baskets of leftovers. When we talk about baskets, we’re not talking small baskets. We’re taking big ones. I appreciate this word from James Martin, who writes that the bread and fish, as well as the bread and wine of communion, are simple elements that teach us something important. Here’s the word he shares: “He uses food to show us how the world should be: everyone filled and satisfied” [Jesus, pp. 265-266].
Sometimes we may feel that we don’t have anything left to give. I’ve felt that way. But this story, whether we read it in Matthew or one of the other Gospels, reminds us that God’s grace and compassion are sufficient. We live in an economy of abundance, not scarcity. We just have to look at what God is doing in our midst. In doing this we’ll see the connection between Table and Mission.
When Moses led the people across the desert, they weren’t quite sure if they would make it to the other side. Granted, it took longer than it should have, but according to the story in Exodus, God provided manna, the bread of heaven, along with quail, to sustain them. In the midst of perceived scarcity, there was abundance.
As we ponder this story, is it possible that Jesus is saying to us – “you feed them?” When we respond by saying that all we have are a couple of loaves of bread and a few fish, shouldn’t we expect Jesus to instruct us to gather the people and feed them, because we serve a God of abundance, not a god of scarcity!
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
January 29, 2017