During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time. My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction. Our reading for March 8 came from Mark 6 and focused on the story of Jesus’ sending out the twelve and then the feeding of the 5000.
I’d like to ask you to make a mental list. Don’t shout out the answers, but just think for a moment: what are some amazing things that Jesus could do?
I bet that even in a few seconds, you got a bunch, didn’t you? Water into wine, healing the sick, walking on water, walk through locked doors… Pretty amazing stuff.
Now, another list. Think for a moment about stuff that Jesus cannot do.
Hmmm. That list is, I would suspect, a little shorter. A little harder to come by. Especially if I were to ‘refine the search’ by asking you to list things that Jesus can’t do that are mentioned in the Bible.
In the beginning of Mark 6, however, we encounter something that Jesus can’t do: in that chapter, we see where Jesus has come back to Nazareth, his hometown. He shows up in the synagogue and does what he usually does, only the response is so icy that the Lord of life freezes up. Mark 6:5 tells us that “he could do no mighty work there…” And, in another twist, we learn in verse 6 that Jesus literally can’t believe the fact that his childhood neighbors won’t accept him for who he is. Jesus can’t do those things.
That’s important background for the reading that we’ve had today – the sending out of the twelve apostles and the things that came afterward. Let’s consider this passage for a few moments.
First, Jesus sends out his disciples and specifically instructs them to go empty-handed. I don’t know about your family, but I am here to tell you that this would get Jesus scolded in my family. I mean, my mother-in-law would lay into Jesus right about now: “Are you serious, Jesus? Do you mean to send those poor young men out there with nothing? No snacks? No juiceboxes? What are you thinking, Lord?”
But that’s what he does. He tells them to leave behind their money, their luggage, their extra bread – everything. The only thing that they’ve got is a walking stick and outlandish trust.
And you heard what happened: they did it. They preached that all should repent. They cast out many demons. They cured many who were sick.
Do you see the contrast there? Jesus, playing a home game, with all the resources at his disposal, basically strikes out. And the disciples, playing an away game with nothing in their hands, hit a home run. They have a better day than does Jesus. They do more than Jesus does.
And while the twelve are out there doing amazing things, it’s not getting any better for Jesus. He learns about John the Baptist’s death. John, his cousin. John, the forerunner of the Messiah.
Now Jesus had always known how the world treats truth-tellers. It had to be increasingly clear what lay ahead for him, personally. I believe that it’s fair to say that as Jesus heard about John’s fate, he had a bit of insight into his own future.
And while he’s thinking about that, the disciples return. That’s our theme, right? People who come back to Jesus after having been with him previously. And the disciples can’t wait to get back to the Lord. They are flushed with success and eager to tell him everything. And Jesus says, “That’s a great idea. You folks have had a tough week – let’s go spend a little ‘us’ time and you can let me know what happened.” The idea of a small group retreat sounds good to everyone…until they realize that, well, everyone is interested in showing up. I mean to tell you, the masses show up!
When I first read this, I thought that maybe Jesus was pulling the old ‘bait and switch’ on his friends, suckering them to go out into the wilderness and then springing a big old crowd from the Jesus fan base on them. However, I noticed one little word that changed my perception. The word is “them”, and it appears three times in verse 33: “Now many saw them going, and knew them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns, and got there ahead of them”.
You see what I mean, right? I always thought that the crowds were eager to see what Jesus was up to. Turns out that it’s the twelve that the crowds wanted to see. The “lonely place” isn’t so lonely because the disciples have done such an amazing job of preaching, teaching, and healing that the locals just can’t get enough – and so they hound them out to the wilderness. The disciples are sought out because they are effective in this ministry.
The crowds prove too much for the disciples, though, and they come back to Jesus and say, “Come on, Lord, get rid of these guys. We’re bushed. Take care of them, Jesus.”
And Jesus looks at the twelve and says, “You know what? You guys are on a roll. You take care of this one.”
They look at Jesus and do that, “You’ve gotta be kidding me, Lord” thing that they’d done so often. That’s impossible, Jesus. That’s just crazy talk.
And yet he instructs them to see what they do have and, lo and behold, after taking inventory, they discover that they’ve got enough to feed 5000 men and their families.
When you read the Gospel of Mark, you discover an interesting feature of his writing style. Some scholars actually call it “the Marcan Sandwich”. Mark will start a story, and then interrupt it with another drama, and then come back and finish the first one. Almost always when this happens, we see that the meaning of the one story is heightened or deepened by the insertion of the other. In Mark 6, the “middle” of the sandwich is the death of John the Baptist and Jesus’ glimpse of his own future. That would suggest to me that a significant part of the other story has something to do with Jesus’ vision of what is to come.
I have long believed that on the day that the 5000 were fed, there were only about a dozen people there who knew what kind of miracle was going on. I’m convinced that the people who received the miraculous lunchables that day had no clue as to the source of their food. After all, we read that “they all ate and were satisfied.” That is to say, at the end of the meal, they got up, burped politely, and headed for home. There were no questions. There was no clamor for more. In fact, they even left the extra bread laying around.
Don’t you think that if for a moment you suspected that this bread was miraculous you’d have taken a biscuit home for your brother, or to put up for bid on e-bay? If you thought that there was an endless supply of sustenance at hand, a miraculous source of food, would you just zip up your windbreaker and go wait for the bus? But that’s what everyone did – they left unremarkably. The disciples and Jesus knew what was going on, but everyone else thought that the meal was simply provided. Thanks very much. Gotta run.
But Jesus knew that he was using the disciples to accomplish this miraculous feeding of the 5000. Check this out: in sending out the twelve, I believe that he was actually preparing them for the feeding of the 5000 and, more importantly, for the ministries that they would undertake after his death – ministries that would be, in terms of the number of people directly affected, far bigger and with a much deeper impact than the miracles he’d done. He sent them out on the road with nothing but a walking stick and a pair of Nikes so that they could experience the fruit of radical trust in him. He wanted them, in those days on the road, to see themselves as those who were capable of being used by God for significant purpose.
That time in the villages, away from him, allowed them to grow in their faith as well as in their ability to be effective in ministry. But when they return to Christ, we see that they’ve lost some of what they had learned.
Listen: when they started preaching in the towns and villages, what did they have? Nothing – just the walking stick and a pair of shoes. But what did they do? Amazing things!
And when they got to the “lonely place”, what do they have? Presumably, they have the same sticks and shoes, but they also have five loaves and two fish…and, of course, Jesus himself. They have much more here than they had a week ago – but they claim to be powerless.
Jesus chooses to work through them anyway.
Let me ask you: do you think that it’s only the twelve whom Jesus came to prepare and equip?
Do you think that Peter, James, John, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, the other James, Thaddaeus, Simon, and Judas Iscariot – yes, even Judas – are the only ones into whose eyes the Lord looks and says, “I dare you – trust me on this one. Let’s see what can happen here…”?
Do you think that Jesus has stopped looking at the people who claim to be his followers and saying, “Hoo, boy, that’s a huge need right there…you know, y’all might want to do something about that situation…”?
Me neither. I know for a fact that Jesus still sends out people empty-handed to tackle impossible jobs and calls those who claim to be his followers to act in trust and faith.
These passages are in the Gospel of Mark to tell us what happened on that day to those guys – and to prepare us for the knowledge that the Christ who knows us is the Christ who calls us is the Christ who equips us is the Christ who is using this part of your story to prepare you for what is coming in the days ahead!
How does this work? I don’t know, to be honest. But the truth is that you are not ‘in between’, you are not standing idle, you are not stuck.
The God who created you is at work in you and longs to be at work through you.
This Lent, can we follow the example of the disciples and look around at the places in which we find ourselves. Where do we see need? Where do we see an emptiness?
Then, just as he asked them to take an inventory, can we look within ourselves and ask what resources we have at hand? Are we holding onto a few loaves, a couple of fish, or some other things that we don’t think are worth too much, but if placed in the hands of Jesus might just be miraculous? I am fairly certain that we are – that we, like the twelve, are too often content to sell ourselves short so that we don’t have to bother with that ministry business.
But Jesus keeps looking at us thinking that maybe, just maybe, we’re capable if we’ll just give it a try and trust him too.
Let me ask you, dear friends, to look at the little you’ve got, and go to Jesus, and say, “All right, Lord. Here’s this huge need. And here’s this little loaf. How in the heck do you think we can take this to do that? How do we proclaim your kingdom, your love, your mercy, your hope – here and now, with who we are and what we have?”
That’s our calling. Because I’m pretty sure that he’s going to look at us, as he did Peter, James, John, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, the other James, Thaddaeus, Simon, and Judas Iscariot, and say, “You do it.”
And you can. And you will. Because he is shaping you right now for the next thing in your life – whatever that is. Right now – even now, he is preparing you to do amazing things. Thanks be to God. Amen.