Of Death, Hope, and Coffins
This is the only miracle, other than the Resurrection, which is found in all 4 Gospels. It's called the Feeding of the 5,000 even though at least 3 times that many were fed according to the last verse. But who really is fed here? Can't answer that till we look at death, hope, and coffins.
Matthew is the only one who connects this event to death. He says, "When Jesus heard what had happened, He withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place." What did Jesus hear had happened? The savage, brutal beheading of John the Baptist at the request of a dancing girl and an evil queen. But there's more going on than even that. Jesus had been rejected at Nazareth where they had tried to murder Him (Lk. 4:28-29). His own family thought He was crazy (Mk. 3:21). Now right before leaving for this solitary place Mark records: "because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, Jesus said to them, Come with Me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest" (Mk. 6:31-32). These are sad, harried, hungry times for Jesus and His apostles. And for the crowd too.
They lost Jesus. He gets into a boat and sails away from them. Reading all 4 accounts, we know what they lost. John 6:2 tells you they had lost the One who had done miraculous healings. Our text too emphasizes that's what Jesus continued to do when the crowds caught up with Him. Mark 4:34 emphasizes that they were like sheep without a shepherd so He taught them. Luke 9:11 says that Jesus spoke to them concerning the Kingdom of God and healed them. Let's put their sense of loss in terms for today. They lost the One who delivered them from the scourge of disease, say a communicable one. They lost the One who preached to them of the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and the life everlasting. They were alone with their diseased loved ones and the threat of disease looming over them. They were alone with their own thoughts about their sin and sinfulness not to mention Death and Devils. In a word they were pretty much hopeless.
And that's the rub because that's how you feel. I take that back. I don't know how you feel. I know how I feel and I feel hopeless. I keep Ann Murray-like thinking "sure could use a little good news today." And what do I get? From sport's radio, to talk radio, to NPR, to CBS I get: don't you dare hope. There is no vaccine soon; there is no safe vaccine, or Covid-19 is here to stay. Anything that can't be measured, evaluated, or verified by science belongs to the realm of make believe. So the preaching of Christ and Him crucified, Water that washes away sins, Words that actually forgive sins, and Bread and Wine that is the Body and Blood of God here on earth for Christians to eat and drink, has left the building as sure as Jesus departed to a solidary place. Biblical Christianity, the truth the Apostles' Creed confesses is unscientific, unverifiable myth. They're dead to the world and with that our hope from them.
So that's the death we're confronted with. Yet hope springs eternal, and so it's tricky. If we with Journey conclude it's just a matter of "Don't stop believing" we'll end up where they do: "Hold on to that feeling." If we conclude that hope is just a feeling you have regardless of an actual object to hope in, we'll end up where Pv. 13:12 says: "Hope deferred makes the heart sick." This was not the crowd. They followed Jesus. He went by sea; they went by land. Thousands of them, without a thought about where would they sleep, what would they wear, what would they eat, followed Jesus. He was their Hope. How irresponsible, right? How foolish, right? Watch what the disciples do when they are confronted with thousands upon thousands in a solitary place, a remote place. They calculate themselves right out of any hope of feeding them. Luther said we often calculate hope to death. I say we were trained by modernism to calculate risk and hope in science, and then post-modernism threw us adrift on the sea of randomness where one hope is as valid as any other.
So, you're in this crowd following the One of whom even His enemies said, "No one ever spoke like this man" (Jn. 7:46). You're with tens of thousands travelling by foot because as Mt. 7:28 says, "The crowds were astonished at His teaching." You're being jostled and jolted. You didn't take the time to think about bringing food because as even His hometown bore witness "gracious words" poured out of His mouth (Lk. 4:22). Jesus has the power and promise of forgiveness of sins, rescue from death and the devil, and eternal salvation, so you in your sinful, enslaved, and damned flesh and blood follow Him. You're doing what Paul says Abraham did: you're hoping against hope (Rm. 4:18). And you're not disappointed. What does the sad, tired, worn out Man Jesus do as soon as He sees the thousands waiting for Him, hoping in Him? He has compassion on them. This Greek word literally means to be moved in the inward parts. We would say His heart went out to them. But it's not just an emotion. It's physical sensation. So we might say Jesus was broken-hearted when He saw them.
What? These thousands of people took their sick and their children with absolutely no thought for today let alone tomorrow and followed Jesus. How dare they? Dare you? In "these uncertain times" or in "these challenging times" rather than taking comfort in "we're in this together", in science, in medicine, in the CDC or the WHO, hope thou in God. That's the Psalmist prescription in Psalm 42. His soul thirsts for the living God, a God who still acts today. A God who seems to have deserted him. His tears have been his food day and night because those around him say: where is your God? His response is to pour out his soul and remember his God with shouts of joy and praise. And God's answer? The answer of the God who has pitched His tent among us in our flesh and blood? "Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God." (Ps. 42:11). Right now, however, we're with the disciples, and hope is a bridge too far. It does not compute; it does not calculate.
The tens of thousands didn't think about the lateness of the hour, the isolated place they were in, what would they do for food, and neither had Jesus. In my notes, I have various calculations. They would've needed anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 pounds of fish and 2,000 to 4,000 pounds of bread to feed this multitude. Do the math. The disciples did and that's why they had no hope of feeding them. And the graphs, charts, the infection rates, mortality rates, what will happen if we do this and don't do that are endlessly put before us so that hope is dashed, deferred, and hope in God in Christ made to appear absolutely foolish if not irresponsible. But what does Jesus do in the face of calculated hopelessness? He pitches watermelons to them.
Let me explain. When the kids were in Little League, we would have spring training, just our family. I would take them to the park and pitch to them. Obviously, they were kids, so I could smoke them, but I tried to keep the pitches at the speed they would see. Every now and then I'd say, "Watermelon" and pitch an underhand blooper. Invariably they would swing for the fences, and miss. Jesus does that here. The disciples come to Him in drop-dead seriousness and tell Him the obvious: "This is a remote place and it's already getting late. You must [Yes, the disciples order Jesus.] set them free so they can go the villages for food." Yes, the disciples use a word that can imply Jesus is detaining the crowds! And here comes the watermelon. Jesus says, "They do not need to go away. You must yourselves give them to eat."
Why is this a watermelon floater? Because the One they had seen cast out demons, heal the sick, raise the dead, and forgive sins by just speaking has spoken to them. And just like my kids, they swing and miss. To Jesus absolute words of promise and hope they say, "We have here only 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish." You know the only thing I have to face coronaviruses with? A body of flesh and blood that can easily be killed by microscopic viruses and bacteria. I have nothing but this body made of dust, but thanks be to God that Psalm103 promises me, my God knows this. He says: "As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him; for He knows how we are formed, He remembers that we are dust" (Ps. 103:13-14). And so Jesus tells the disciples to do the only thing to do when faced with insurmountable problems, risks, odds, science, death, devils, and sin: "Bring them here to Me." Stop calculating, stop thinking what you can reasonably expect, hope, or plan for. Bring all that you are, all that you fear, all that you hope, all the sins, deaths, and devils to the God who is Man who is here to bear your griefs and carry your sorrows.
Now comes the coffins. That's literally what the Greek says. Jesus is the one according to John 6 that insists they, "Gather up the fragments left over, that nothing be lost." And all 4 Gospels tell us they took up 12 full baskets. The Greek word baskets is kophinos from which comes our word coffin. The coffins here speak of life not death, of Jesus providing for them in a most desolate place. Remember Mark told you this all began with the disciples not even having time to eat. It goes through their being concerned that they have nothing to feed thousands upon thousands with, and it ends with Jesus feeding them all and giving them 12 baskets, one for each of them, full of bread and fish.
"Ponder anew what the Almighty can do" we sing in a hymn. Ponder anew what Rom. 8:32 says. What won't the God do who spared not His own Son but delivered Him up for us all? Ponder anew Paul's promise in Eph. 3:19-20 that God's love for us in Christ means He does infinitely more than not only all we ask but even all that we can imagine. Ponder anew who and what was fed here. Those who followed Jesus were and hope was. Let's eat. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (20200816); Matthew 14: 13-21