The promised shepherd - Mark 6:30-44
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
‘What are you looking for in a good leader?’ That was the question Douglas Webster posed to a large number of American church congregations and this was the conclusion he came to: their leaders had to be: ‘winsome, charismatic, executive-like pastors who exude warmth and success. Known more for their humour than for their spirituality, today’s market sensitive pastors are relationally savvy. Instead of eliciting deep feelings of guilt as the old revivalists did, these pastors lift the spirit, promote optimism and make people feel good about themselves.’ Now when you think about it, what some Christians are obviously looking for in their church leaders is no more than a reflection of what most people are looking for in their political leaders whereby style is placed above substance and the cosmetic over the content. It is generally agreed that one of the main reasons why Richard Nixon lost to John F. Kennedy in the 1961 Presidential Election was that he did not look so good on TV. That was when politics changed for ever with the image defining the man.
Now, concern for image is not necessarily all bad, provided, of course, that the image matches the reality so that what you see is what you get. And it could well be that the present widespread cynicism that so many people are at present displaying towards political leaders may in part be due to repeated disappointments- promises made which have not materialized. The result is that a credibility gap has opened up between what is claimed and what has been delivered that seems incapable of being overcome.
Well it may surprise you to discover that it was not that different in Jesus’ day. This too was a time when there was a dearth of good leaders; folk you could actually trust. King Herod murdered his wife and sons in an act of political paranoia, not exactly the traits you would want in someone responsible for shaping government policy on care for the family. His remaining offspring were not much better either. When it came to the religious rulers they were divided amongst themselves with all sorts of political skulduggery going on. The priesthood in Jerusalem was in cahoots with Rome and the religious lay movement of the Pharisees simply burdened people with their excessive rules and regulations. And so understandably the ordinary people longed for and looked for a leader who would inspire them and care for them. And to help them shape some idea as to what kind of man they should be looking for they drew on an image which had its roots back in the OT, an image which God applied to himself-the image of the shepherd. And so we have Moses speaking to God in this way: ‘May the Lord, the God of the spirits of all mankind, appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the LORD’S people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.’ (Numbers 27:17) And so the common people echoed Moses’ prayer down the ages and each time someone appeared who seemed to be the answer, their hopes were dashed by repeated failure- David, Solomon and all the kings from then on. You could excuse the people if they had become somewhat cynical and jaundiced. However, God had promised through the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel that he would send them the perfect shepherd king, who would somehow be himself and a descendent of David. And then it happened, someone did appear almost out of nowhere who seemed to be the answer to that prayer and the fulfilment of the promise. He was a carpenter by trade, hailing from the remote Northern town of Nazareth and his name was Jesus. However to claim to be God’s shepherd is one thing, to prove it is another. And in that well known episode of the feeding of the 5000 we are given a wonderful glimpse into the heart and activity of the Shepherd King who 2000 years later has not changed one bit.
First, we have the shepherd who cares vv 30-34. The day begins with the disciples returning from a mini- mission whereby they have done the most extraordinary things- just glance back at verse 12, ‘The disciples went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many people with oil and healed them.’ The King had arrived ushering in his liberating rule and he sends out his ambassadors with the task of announcing the rule, demonstrating its presence and calling for a response- repentance, a change in thinking and direction for living. And understandably they were full of it when they came back to Jesus grinning like the cat who had got hold of the cream. All of this was taking place in the north of the Sea of Galilee around Capernaum. And as a result the bush telegraph started working and rumours spread that perhaps the longed for revolution had at last arrived - God was on the move in a way he had not done for some 400 years. Like Aslan arriving in Narnia it would no longer be always winter but never Christmas, things were starting to change and it was exciting. And so folk not wanting to miss out on this started to flock towards Jesus in their hundreds and thousands, v31. And so incessant were their demands that there was no space for Jesus and his disciples even to eat. And no one, even the Son of God himself, can sustain work at that level. They desperately needed a break. So what do they do? Well, they take a boat around six miles across the Lake to the country south of Bethsaida and because they were so close to the top of the lake it wasn’t all that much further by land and so the crowds decide to hot foot it to meet them, no doubt gathering more folk on the way. So that by the time Jesus and the disciples land there is a crowd so huge it just goes on and on as far as the eye can see.
Now bearing in mind why Jesus and his disciples got into the boat in the first place to get away from the crowds and get a rest because of what seemed to be the danger of burn out, what reaction might you have expected? What reaction might we have made? Wouldn’t it be some weary groan and a snap decision to keep on sailing? Why not go out to the middle of the lake at least you would get some peace and quiet there? They are trying to get away from the crowds not gather more of them. But not Jesus. Just listen to these words-v 34, ‘When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.’
Put simply, he was moved. His care is intensive, it went down deep. Tell me, isn’t that what we want in a leader, someone who actually cares, feels it and is not afraid to show it? Winston Churchill has both his admirers and detractors; he certainly had more than his fair share of weaknesses as well as strengths. Several years ago I spoke to someone who was in Hull during the Second World War. Not many people today realise that Hull was one of the most badly bombed cities in England during World War 2 with huge civilian loss. This man told me that when Winston and Clementine Churchill stood in the middle of the town and looked around, Churchill simply broke down in tears and wept. He had never seen such devastation even in the East End of London. You know, there is nothing particularly admirable in a leader who does not feel for the people. You will not find that in Jesus. He is a leader who is moved.
But he is not simply moved to tears he is moved to action. Through his tender eyes he sees what others fail to see- a flock which is lost, harassed and hopeless like sheep without a shepherd in fact. Of course strictly speaking they had shepherds, the religious leaders back in Jerusalem. But they were abusive shepherds, more concerned with themselves and their standing than the people and their need- as it had been in Ezekiel’s day. And so as Jesus looks out on the teeming masses he sees their need of spiritual nourishment, their desperation for spiritual direction and tender guidance. And so Jesus gives it to them: he ‘began teaching them many things.’ When you lack vision, life becomes mundane and pointless. When you lack true knowledge of God life becomes shallow and self-centred. When you lack hope, then life soon becomes swallowed up in despair. And so these things which lie at the root of all our human problems need to be addressed and the way they are addressed is through teaching the truth, letting folk have a taste of a greater reality. What is needed is to hear the good news of a rescue from God which gives us a vision of what God is really like and what we are really made for, how he is not a God a million light years away unconcerned with our plight but a God who comes himself to live amongst his people in the person of his Son and who lovingly shepherds his people. You can be the poorest person on earth materially but have something which the richest king could never buy- eternal life knowing God personally- ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’ says Jesus ‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ That would have been very good news to many that day I can tell you.
And so here we are this morning and the same Shepherd want to feed us with his Word. He wants to capture our hearts with the beauty of his truth, he wants to captivate our minds with the glory of his rule and have our souls bowled over by the fact that he actually considers us worth while to speaking to and leading. And, as he says in John’s Gospel, ‘my sheep will hear my voice’ that is, act on it. Let me ask: how do you know you really belong to him? That you are a true Christian believer? The answer is that you will listen to his voice in Scripture. It is no good us complaining that we are spiritually hungry and things aren’t going right in our lives if we are not willing to come to the dinner table to eat. Jesus is far more willing to give to us than we are to take- that is the kind of shepherd he is.
But not only is Jesus’ care intensive it is extensive too, there is a concern for all of the people and the whole of the person which comes out in what happened next-v 35 ‘By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. "This is a remote place," they said, "and it's already very late. Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat."
Now, bearing in mind that the disciples have just returned from healing the sick and casting out demons, as well as the fact that they had seen Jesus do some of the most amazing things, then we might have expected a bit of faith along the lines: “Lord, it is late, the people are hungry, it is a remote place can you somehow feed them?’ But not a bit of it, they think they have the solution, ‘Send them away.’ But notice what Jesus the shepherd does, he turns it back on them and tells them to do the feeding. And you can imagine the look of incredulity on their faces and the dropping of their jaws as he does so. And so what do they do? Well, like any desperate organization does which hasn’t a clue when it comes to matters of faith; they reach for the statistics, v 37 ‘They said to him, "That would take eight months of a man's wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?"’
Amazing isn’t it? Although the answer to prayer is standing right there in front of them they don’t even bother to pray! It is much easier to pout than to pray and haven’t we all done it? Now if it had simply been left to the disciples the people would have crawled away hungry. And to be frank, if things were simply to be left to the church today many in our land would remain spiritually hungry, for many a church sees the challenges as too great and the resources too meagre and so are paralysed into inactivity. But that is because we refuse to lift our eyes above the circumstances to the one who is Lord over the circumstances- Jesus.
But when we do that we discover a shepherd who shares, vv 38-41, "How many loaves do you have?" he asked. "Go and see." When they found out, they said, "Five--and two fish." Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all.’
I don’t think we should lose sight that in shepherding the crowd Jesus is at the same time shepherding the disciples, teaching them what it means to walk by faith and not by sight. He sees their weaknesses and takes it as an opportunity to demonstrate his strength. If ever Jesus had an excuse to give up on his followers, here it is. But what does he do? He takes the paucity of what they do have to offer, 5 loaves, two fish and precious little else and he multiplies it. And are we not glad that he does so with us?
When the disciples didn’t pray-Jesus prayed, he didn’t moan about what he didn’t have but thanked God for what he did have which admittedly wasn’t much, ‘Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves.’
You know, it is so easy for us to be so consumed by what we think we don’t have that we fail to thank God for what we do have. We may look at our family and feel terribly out of our depths as parents or grandparents and anxiety eats away at us as we wonder what the outcome will be for our children and grandchildren as we see society sliding further and further into the mire. We may look out on the mass of the unevangelised and the cool response with which the Gospel is so often met and wonder whether there is any point in having a ‘Passion for Life’ mission at all. Why not just batten down the hatched and wait for the second coming? But neither response is what Jesus is looking for. Notice what he did next. Rather than punishing his disciples for their unbelief he employed his disciples to strengthen their faith. And so off they go, passing out the bread they didn’t ask for and enjoying the answer to a prayer they never prayed. So the last thing we are to do is sit around despairing listing all the problems, for then we shall never experience God’s blessing. No, what we have to do is to go out with what we have in order to do the job God has given us to do and see him work.
And when we do we shall delight in the shepherd who satisfies, vv 42-44, ‘They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.’
Our difficulty is that we are so familiar with this story that the shear mind blowing wonder of it all is lost on us. This should not have happened! You do not normally feed 5,000 people to such an extent that they have to adjust their belts and go on a Rosemary Conley workout programme because they are so full with five rolls and a couple of fish. But that is the point, in Jesus hands things are not normal, they are supernormal. He goes beyond our expectations
Of course this was not the first time that God had done something like this. There was an earlier moment in the history of God’s people when like this they found themselves in a desert with their stomachs empty. That too was a time when the people were held back by low expectations. ‘Why had God brought them out of Egypt’ they complained ‘only to let us starve to death in the desert?’ The fact that he had performed all sorts of miracles and parted the Red Sea for them didn’t seem to count for much. And so being the good shepherd he is he provided manner from heaven. You see this is the God who is bigger than our complaints, who seems to delight in proving us wrong so that we might start proving him right. Look around you. Are there not more mouths than bread? More sheep than shepherds? More churches asleep than alive? Of course. But with this shepherd leading us we don’t give up, we look up. And in his hands, a little piece of bread and a few scraps of fish can go a long, long way.
Copyright information: The sermon texts are copyright and are available for personal use only. If you wish to use them in other ways, please contact us for permission.