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By Dr. Todd B. Jones

JULY 31, 2011

Genesis 32:22-31
Matthew 14:13-21

Remember the children's book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? Of all the days in Jesus' thirty-three years, this had to be one of worst. Jesus had been preaching and teaching His heart out in Galilee, and when He returned to His hometown, Nazareth, they took offense at Jesus, and rejected Him completely. And if that wasn't hurtful enough, then Jesus received news that His cousin John, the one who had baptized Him, and said he must come before him, had been beheaded by Herod.

Matthew tells us, "Now when Jesus heard this, He withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by Himself." Have you ever been in such a place? Have you ever found that things were so overwhelming, so upsetting, so devastating, that all you wanted was to get away? But when the crowds saw this, they simply followed Jesus along the shore. "Look! There's Jesus, our miracle worker, our healer, our teacher!" And apparently the crowds grew! So by the time Jesus returned to shore, He is met by an even greater crowd, a crowd Matthew describes as consisting of "five thousand men, besides women and children."

There are a number of realistic responses we can imagine Jesus having to such a scene, on such a day. One is to simply stay in the boat, cast back out into the water, and leave the crowd to fend for themselves. Simply ignore them and their many needs. Another is to get there and scold them. "Can't you see that I'm bushed? Can't you see that I want some space? I'm just one person and I need some time alone!" A third might be for Jesus to come to shore and say, "I need your help now. Don't expect anything more of me."

But Matthew, Mark and Luke all agree on this: Jesus, on one of the worst days of His life, "had compassion for them." Matthew puts it this way: "He had compassion for them and cured their sick."

This is unfailingly who Jesus is. This is the only miracle of Jesus that appears in all four Gospels, and it begins with Jesus having compassion for human want, for our human situation, for human hunger. That is who God is, after all, to the core of the Divine being. This last fall in our Year With the Old Testament, I kept noticing the same phrase turning up again and again in the Scriptures. I knew it was in Psalm 103:8 – "The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love." But I ran into it again and again, in places where I was surprised to find it. I have found ten places in the Old Testament where this phrase about God is repeated. What do you think the Scriptures are trying to tell us about the Lord God?!

When the great Scottish New Testament scholar William Barclay wrote a book on the miracles of Jesus, he called his book, And He Had Compassion. We sing of it in our hymnal week after week. In What a Friend We Have in Jesus, we sing, "Jesus knows our every weakness, take it to the Lord in prayer." Calvin wrote of it in his great hymn: "Thou hast the true and perfect gentleness, No harshness hast Thou, and no bitterness."

This is who Jesus is. Charles Wesley, that great Methodist hymn writer, put it like this: "Jesus, Thou art all compassion. Pure, unbounded love Thou art; Visit us with Thy salvation; enter every trembling heart." The miracles of Jesus always begin and end with the compassion of Jesus. This is who God is, unfailingly, ever and always.

Secondly, note how Jesus responds to this moment of overwhelming hunger and need. The disciples have a solution they propose: "Send them away so they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves." "Let them feed themselves, Jesus." After all, it was late and everyone was far from home.

Jesus does not buy this solution. Instead, Jesus turns to His followers and says, "You give them something to eat." Jesus does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We call this grace. But Jesus always is going to ask us to do what we can! We always have a part to play in the work Jesus wants to do. Chan Sheppard may not be able to tutor and mentor every poor child in Nashville's inner city, but at some point, Chan heard Jesus say, "You mentor and tutor the ones you can." "You give them something to eat."

This past year in our Children's Ministry we started a program called, "Serving Together," where parents and children reached out to serve at homeless shelters, at Room In the Inn, at the Next Door. They did not do everything that needs to be done in our city, these sixty-some odd parents and their young children. But they heard Jesus say, "You give them something to eat."

Around one-hundred-twenty youth and their advisors went this summer back to New Orleans to help with work that is still being done to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. They did not do near all that needs to be done, but at some point, I hope they all heard Jesus say to them, "You give them something to eat."

If you think Jesus is going to heal this broken, hurting world without you doing what you can to help, think again. Jesus always looks on the world and then looks to us and says, "You give them something to eat." The Gospel of Jesus Christ is always personal. God took on human flesh in order to transform the whole human race. And God, who is compassionate, calls us to compassion, to share what we can to touch and to heal this world.

This is not the only feeding miracle in the Bible. Remember Moses and the manna in the wilderness? Or Elijah who was fed by ravens with bread and meat? Or Elisha who fed one hundred soldiers once with twenty barley loaves and an ear of corn? In every case, the situation looked hopeless, the people despaired, and God somehow provided.

That is what happens here as well, as Jesus does even more than Moses, Elijah and Elisha did to satisfy our hunger. But did you note what Jesus did first? He took what the disciples gave Him, five loaves and two fish, and "He looked up to heaven." The Psalms counsel this all the time! "Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth." "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence doth my help come."

Jesus looked up to heaven. He had the wisdom of knowing where to look for help. Do you? This last month Connie and I went to St. Petersburg, Russia to the Hermitage Museum. It was a thrill to see Sandra Randleman's favorite painting, Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son. But it was even more moving for me to see Rembrandt's The Binding of Isaac. In this depiction of Genesis 22, Abraham has his hand placed over Isaac's face with one hand, maybe to hide it from what he is about to do; he has the blade in the other, and he is looking up to heaven, pleading with God. And of course, God provides. This text is, among many other things, an invitation to prayer. It is a summons for us "to look up to heaven," "to call upon the name of the Lord," "to pray without ceasing." Notice the Bible never tells us how Jesus feeds the five thousand. We do not know how the miracle worked. All we know really is that Jesus looked up to heaven and God provided. Maybe that is enough.

And finally, this miracle story in all four Gospels, without which you apparently cannot consider the Gospel complete, looks to the day of that great feast that gets talked about a lot in the Bible. I am speaking of that feast at the end of time when Jesus will eat with all God's children the bread of justice and peace in perfect love. We speak about it in baptism. "He shall feed His flock like a shepherd and gather the lambs with His arms, and carry them in His bosom."

This meal looks forward to that final feast God promises the human family. And this can be seen as your invitation to that feast, as well as to the Lord's Supper, which also looks forward to that day. There is enough in this meal for everyone, and there is abundance. There were twelve baskets full left over after everyone had been fed. The day will come when there will be no hunger. And wherever Jesus is, there is enough. Indeed, wherever Jesus is, there is abundance. This meal points to the day when we shall all dine together in unity and peace.

In St. Petersburg, Connie and I saw the Astoria Hotel. I have always wanted to see it. Hitler planned a great banquet for the Astoria, you know. He even printed formal invitations. It was supposed to celebrate the fall of St. Petersburg to the Nazi Army. But St. Petersburg never fell. Somehow, the Russian army held, and the dinner was never held. That is so much like the world's promises. That invitation turned out to be a lie.

Not so with Jesus. Jesus is a man of His word. And what Jesus promises, God provides. "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to Me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in Me will never be thirsty."

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