So last week, you might remember, we not only entered a New Church Year with the beginning of Advent, we spent it talking about the Beheading of John the Baptist. I myself came away feeling, and I know some of you concurred with me, that the idea of feeling honored by an ignoble and gruesome death was rather a stretch, and we, me, I long for no such honor. However, such a contemplation is well within the bounds of a Godly Advent Observance. Sure most of us under the height of three feet are really Waiting for Santa, and Waiting to Remember that Jesus was Born. But a true advent observance looks forward to the Second Coming of Christ. When Jesus first came into the world as the Light, he overcame the Darkness of Sin and Death. But he did not obliterate it. He calls us every day to push it back, to live in His Light. When he comes again in Glory His Light will be so great that there will no more be need of a sun or a moon, for we will look on him and be satisfied. It was that hope and trust and love that allowed John the Baptist to speak and then finally to die.
So today we pick up in the wake of that great murder and tragedy at another Feast, if you would open your Bibles to Mark 6. Whereas last week the feast was at night, celebrating a man working hard to attain and keep his own honor and glory, a feast of the high up and proud and mighty that Mary sang about in her Magnificat, a feast wherein there was at first a great deal of wine and then finally too much, a feast that debased a young girl and finally ended in murder, today we have its opposite.
Let’s begin in verse 30, the Disciples, having gone out two by two returned to Jesus to report on all that had happened. And they are exhausted. They’ve done a new kind of work, they’ve relied completely on God for everything, and they’ve seen results—the Word went out, signs and wonders were performed. And. They. Are. Tired. And Jesus plans to take them to a Desolate Place to Rest. The same kind of Desolate Place we have seen before, the wilderness where God forms his people, gives them an identity, draws them out to woo them and care for them and speak to them, the Wilderness where Jesus himself goes to commune with and to be fed by his Father. Jesus wants them to Rest and so they get in a boat, not, most likely as we will see from what happens, to go across the lake, but to go along the shore looking for a place to be alone, to regain strength and energy, to recuperate.
Often, when we are really tired and weary, it is easy to go on to the next thing, to go to the next busyness, or to go in heavily for “leisure” as in doing some kind of activity, without really resting, dwelling with God, lying on the couch, resting. If you never stop and rest, you’re saying to yourself and God, I’m stronger than You, You can’t handle any of this without me, this all has to be done My Way.
So Jesus takes them to rest. But, verse 33, as they are going, some, Mark says, “recognize them”. The Greek implies not recognized as in Who they were, but in what they were doing. The crowd knows they are trying to get away and instead of saying, Oh yeah, they’ve worked hard, they need to be alone, the crowd runs on ahead of them to purposefully intercept them. The run is a kind of frenzied run, not like a gentle trot but a crazy, running with all you’ve got run. This is all the crazier because, remember, Jewish men didn’t run. Children ran. Maybe, but I doubt it, a woman would run. But a Jewish man would walk in a dignified way wherever he had to go. But here people from all the towns and villages are running to meet Jesus on the beach when he lands. It might surprise you, but every time I read this, my response and Jesus’ response to these crowds is exactly opposite from each other. Jesus gets out of the boat and “has compassion”, this is a deep gut compassion that is only used about Jesus in the NT, not just feeling sorry for, but a physical reaction in the stomach, for, writes Mark, ‘they were like sheep without a shepherd.’
Sheep without a shepherd are dead sheep. Sheep, apparently, cannot survive without a shepherd. If they fall on their backs they can’t turn over. If they are not led in a group, or a flock, they scatter and get lost. If they are not led to the right kind of water, as in water that isn’t moving, they die of thirst. If they are not brought to grass, they are not intelligent enough to find it themselves. Sheep without a shepherd do not go on living for very long. The frenzied crazed running of the crowd to meet Jesus are like sheep—they are helpless and sick and directionless and they will go on this way to death unless they have a shepherd. Don’t look at this crowd of sheep from the outside. You have just been running with everyone to meet Jesus. You know what he has done and can do and you are exhausted and harassed. You frequently fling your priorities into the wrong order and neglect what is most important. You have broken and ruined relationships that need healing and repair. You make poor decisions about your body and health. You neglect the word of God and choose to live in darkness and sin. And yet, you are here, seeking a shepherd, seeking the one who can give you life and direction and health. Praise God, praise God that Jesus doesn’t get out of the boat and say, ‘You jerks, leave me alone to rest. Haven’t I given you enough?’ NO, he gets out of the boat and he has compassion.
So, in his compassion, what does he do?
He begins to teach. Verse 34. Here, not turning all these sheep away, he gets out and begins to teach them. Luke tells us that he ‘Spoke to them about the kingdom of God.’ A frenzied crowd assembled on the beach to get close to Jesus and he begins to teach them and goes on teaching them about the kingdom of God. We know he goes on teaching because Mark finally says ‘the hour was late’, Matthew says it was evening. You know, the sun begins to wane, dusk is settling in. If you were at home you would be lighting lamps against the oncoming night and be well into your supper preparations. If you had little children they would definitely be crying by now. But here they are, in a desolate place. And the disciples, who haven’t had a rest, and who have had to listen to a long time of teaching, probably stuff they’ve all heard before and maybe even said themselves on their recent mission trip, have to interrupt the teaching to get Jesus to stop because everyone will be hungry. This is a kind of clash, a kind of collision that goes on every day in the church. On the one hand, the spiritual teaching and nourishment of the gospel is preeminent. And if we were all perfect and in our right minds we would always be strengthened by and attentive to the Word of Christ. And we would offer it freely and completely to anyone who comes in here and everyone we meet outside. But the body is frail, the mind dim. After a long morning of teaching and worship, we drink coffee and eat lunch. After a long day of study and work, you sit down and eat sensibly and chew each mouthful. God created the mind and heart AND the body, and so he taught AND healed the sick. How sensible of the disciples—it is a brief bright moment of sanity for them that vanishes quickly—to hear the murmuring of the crowd and go to Jesus and actually interrupt him. However, we can read their ongoing fatigue which manifests itself as irritation.
‘Send the crowds away into the towns and villages so that they can buy something to eat,’ they tell Jesus.
‘You give them something to eat’ reposts Jesus. This is the call, isn’t it? This is the critical moment in your life with Jesus. You’ve already given him yourself, you’ve given him your whole self, and then you see something that needs doing in the Kingdom of God, something comes to your attention, and you go to Jesus and pray about it, and he says ‘you do it’. And What do you do then? There’s work to be done, the call is there, what do you do? Because every time Jesus calls you to do something, you’re going to look at yourself, and look at Jesus, and look at the job and see plainly and clearly that you don’t have what it takes to do it. One option is to argue with Jesus about it, or even be sarcastic.
What! Shall we go and buy 200 denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat? That’s like a whole year’s wages for a day laborer, and maybe the amount of money they had on them collectively. Maybe Judas jangled the money bag and rolled his eyes. This is how I respond when I discover something else Jesus wants me to do. What! Shall I just Stop Everything I’m doing and go over and do that Even Though I have six children and a house and, for heaven’s sake, I’m HOME SCHOOLING. Or. I can’t possibly do that because it’s not HUMANLY possible. If you try to answer the call of Jesus without going through this step of discovering that if you try to do it yourself, you will fail, then you will miss the point of who Jesus is and why we all follow him. To make sure the disciples don’t miss it, Jesus tells them to go see how many loaves exist among the crowd.
So, there’s this huge crowd, out in the middle of nowhere, a crowd that is so needy, so desperate for help, that when they saw Jesus trying to get away from them And Rest, stopped everything they were doing to catch up with him. Stopped things, maybe, like working to make a living, cleaning the house, taking care of children, doing the regular things of life. Nobody stopped to grab some food. In the whole crowd there seems to be only one thoughtful mother who happened to send her child to see Jesus with five loaves and two fish. We learn from John that a small boy had this amount of food on him. The loaves aren’t big, they’re little flat breads, maybe the size of crackers, and the fish are preserved or pickled maybe the size of a sardine. This is the ordinary lunch of an ordinary little boy roaming over the Galilean countryside. And it’s all there is in the entire crowd. And then, this is so awesome, Jesus takes the kid’s lunch.
This is how poor we are. This is how desperate we are for Jesus. The little that we have is not nearly enough and sometimes even what we have, or think we have, Jesus takes away. My mom and dad live like this. I’d watch them, as a child, counting up what was needed and then counting up what they had, seeing the great gap, and then someone coming to the door in great great need and having to give away the little that there was. It happens to me now with my time and energy. I look at what Jesus has called me to do. I look at who I am. I count up the difference and see the great lack and then something I didn’t account for comes and takes the little I thought I had. I think, in this country, we have so much. None of us have ever been sitting in a big stretch of wilderness with absolutely nothing to eat and nowhere to get it. We do not know that we cannot sustain our own lives. That if God did not provide in a common way, grace—the rotation of seasons and the order of the universe, and did not also hold all of it together in himself, sustaining our lives, giving us our very breath—then we would fall to nothing. Here we are, all here in this crowd together—no lunch, no life.
So he takes the bread and then he, verse 39, commanded them to all sit down on, what Mark now reveals, is green grass, a green pasture. The Lord, the good shepherd, is standing in the midst of his flock, arranging the flock in the pasture into groups of hundreds and fifties. The Greek, might be better rendered in English, ‘He commanded them all to recline—as one reclines at table, with the feet spread out, forming three sides of a square, so as to be able to be served as guests would be at a feast—to recline in open squares upon the green grass. And they reclined in squares that looked like flower garden plots, by hundreds and fifties. The word ‘ranks’ literally means ‘a garden bed’. But the ranks also indicate the groupings of the people of Israel as they went through the Dessert on the way to the Promised Land, the wilderness where God sustained them with heavenly bread, with manna.
And then, taking the loaves, Jesus looked up to heaven and gave a blessing, probably the regular blessing, a thanksgiving for the fruit of the earth, except he looks up to his Father instead of looking down, and then, at once, Jesus broke the bread, and then kept on giving bread to the disciples who passed it and the fish to the people. These poor tired disciples having to pass and pass and pass out bread to the people so that everyone was satisfied—everyone ate and ate and ate and ate. And then gathering up what was left and filling 12 baskets full. And then Mark gives us the punch line—There were 5 thousand men. Matthew adds the line, ‘besides women and children’. Five thousand men, maybe another five thousand women, at least that of children--Scholars say a conservative estimation of the crowd that ate and were satisfied was between 15 and 20 thousand.
This is the last big public display of Jesus’ glorious divinity. Gazing out over the crowd, some wonder if the people knew what had happened. The disciples, laboring to distribute this perfect bread, brought forth by the Creator of All Things, saw what happened but we will discover next Sunday that they did not understand it. Some saw the sign and wanted to make Jesus king then and there. We know that the bread was delicious, that it was extraordinary. John writes that in the morning, discovering that Jesus and the disciples had gotten away, the crowd tracked them all the way back to Capernaum and demanded breakfast. Then, when Jesus offered himself as the food that they needed, his own flesh and his own blood, they, and even the meager group of his 100 or so disciples were so repulsed and horrified that they all left. Only the twelve, one of whom is a traitor, stay with him.
The impoverished, frantic, dying sheep run to and fro, looking for hope and help but when that hope and help turns out to be Jesus himself and not free bread and free health, the sheep scatter.
Don’t run away from Jesus, this morning. Let him be your food. As you shop for Christmas, or worry about your bills, or consider that food that you need here and now, let Jesus be your Shepherd. When he calls you to a task, discover that you do not have what you need, that you need him. When he calls your name, go to him. Soon he will come again and gather his flock from all time and space, from all the corners of the world into a New Pasture, to a Perfect Heavenly Feast where the One Flock will live together under One Shepherd. Where there will be no more need for the sun nor moon because Christ will be our Light.