The Feast - Mark 6:30-44
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
On more than one occasion it has been pointed out by observers that in the early part of the 21st century in the West there is a crisis of leadership. The era of the Titans such as Churchill and Roosevelt, have, in the words of Os Guinness, ‘given way to mediocre leadership, reinforced by the trends towards the cult of personality and celebrity and towards the confusion over leadership and fellowship.’
And it has to be said that we see the same trend reflected in the church. ‘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, concern for image per se 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 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 been kept, leaders saying one thing and then doing another. The result is that a credibility gap opens up between what is being offered and what is being delivered and that is bound to reinforce cynicism.
And do you know what? It was not that much different in Jesus’ day. This too was a time when there was a dearth of good leaders. 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! 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 excessive rules and regulations. And so understandably the ordinary people longed for a leader who would inspire and care for them- a visionary who could deliver the goods. And to help them shape the idea of the kind of man they should be looking for they drew on an image which had its roots back in the OT-the image of the shepherd-King. This is the way Moses formulated this desire into a prayer as he was about to pass on the mantle of leadership to Joshua: ‘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 fit the bill; their hopes were dashed by repeated failure. Therefore, you could excuse them if they had become somewhat jaundiced with the passage of time. However, God had promised through the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel that he would send them the perfect shepherd- King, who would somehow be both himself and a descendent of David. And eventually it happened; completely out of the blue someone appeared as the apparent answer to that prayer and the fulfilment of that promise. At first sight his credentials didn’t seem to amount to all that much. He was a carpenter by trade, hailing from the remote Northern town of Nazareth and his name was Jesus. But Jesus was no mere claimant to divine royalty, he demonstrated it. And we see that in this well-known story of the feeding of the 5000. Here we are given a tantalising glimpse into the heart of the Shepherd King who 2000 years later has not changed one bit.
First, we see the King 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, ‘They went out and preached that people should repent. 13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick 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 that rule, demonstrating its presence and calling for a response- viz. repentance. And understandably when the disciples returned they were full of it, no doubt grinning like the proverbial cat that had got hold of the cream. All of this was taking place in the north of the Sea of Galilee around Capernaum. As a result the bush telegraph started working and rumours spread that the longed for revolution had at last arrived - God was on the move in a way he had not been for some 400 years. Like Aslan arriving in Narnia it would no longer be winter but never Christmas, for things were starting to change and the atmosphere was electric with expectation. And so folk not wanting to miss out on this started to gravitate towards Jesus in their hundreds and thousands- v31. So incessant were their demands that there was no space for Jesus and his disciples even to eat. And no matter how much you may see yourself as a triple alpha type male who thinks lunch is for wimps, no one, not even the Son of God, can sustain work at that level. They desperately needed a break. And so they take a boat on a six mile trip 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 the crowds decide to hot foot it to meet them, no doubt gathering more folk on the way like a snowball rolling down a hill. Not surprisingly by the time Jesus and the disciples get ashore the crowd was huge; as far as the eye could see it was one swarming mass of people- 5,000 plus in fact.
Now bearing in mind why Jesus and his disciples got into the boat in the first place, namely in order to take a rest because of what seemed to be the danger of burn-out, what reaction might you have expected? Wouldn’t it be some weary groan and a snap decision to keep on sailing? After all they are trying to get away from the crowds not gather more of them. But that is not the way of Jesus, not this Shepherd-King Just listen to how Mark describes what happened -v 34, ‘When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.’ Here we have the answer to the literal prayer of Moses.
Put simply, he was moved- he had compassion. Notice first of all, how Jesus’ 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. A number of 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 relative to the size of its population. This man told me that when Winston and Clementine Churchill stood in the middle of the town and looked around, Churchill simply broke down and wept. He had never seen such devastation even in the East End of London. You know, there is nothing particularly admirable about 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 harassed and hopeless as sheep tend to be when they don’t have a shepherd and are prey to wolves. Strictly speaking of course they had shepherds, the religious leaders back in Jerusalem. But they were abusive shepherds, more likely to fleece the sheep than to feed them. They were doing the harassing.
And so as Jesus looks out on the teeming masses he sees their desperate need for spiritual direction and tender guidance, which is exactly what he gives: ‘he began teaching them many things.’ When you lack vision, life becomes mundane and pointless. When you lack knowledge of God, life becomes shallow and self-centred. When you lack hope, life becomes swallowed up in despair. Even someone like D.H. Lawrence saw this, he wrote: ‘We want to delude ourselves that of the problem of our emptiness, love is at the root. I want to say to you, it isn’t. Love is only the branches. The root goes beyond love. A naked kind of isolation. An isolate me that does not meet and mingle and never can. It is true what I say. There is a beyond in you and a beyond in me which goes further than love, beyond the scope of the stars. Just as some stars are beyond the scope of our vision, so our own search goes beyond the scope of love. At least, I think that is at root, going beyond love itself.’ He is saying that deep down we all have a longing for someone or something beyond us. We tend to think that finding love will be the answer, but it isn’t, not in another human being at any rate. But what we have here in Jesus is the God who is love and who is the fount of all love coming from beyond us to meet us in our need and in our searching. Jesus in his teaching addresses those things by giving us a vision of what God is really like and what we are really made for- to know him and enjoy him by serving him.
And so here we are at St John’s this morning with the same Shepherd-King in our midst by His Spirit. He wants to feed us by his Word and in so doing he wants to capture our hearts with the beauty of his majesty; fire our minds with the glory of his rule and bathe our souls in the tenderness of his love. As he says in John’s Gospel, ‘my sheep will hear my voice’. Let me ask: how do you know that you really belong to him; that you are a true Christian and not simply deluding yourself? One answer is that you will listen to his voice in Scripture and do what it says however falteringly or imperfectly, that will be your desire and duty. It is no good 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."
Bearing in mind that the disciples have just returned from healing the sick and casting out demons, as well as having seen Jesus do some of the most incredible, jaw dropping 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?’ Is that what happens? Hardly! Their solution is simple: they tell Jesus, ‘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 as he does so. And so what do they do? Well, they do what any desperate organization does when it hasn’t a clue in matters of faith-they reach for the statistics, v 37 ‘They said to him, “That would take more than half a year’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”
Isn’t that astonishing? 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 lift our eyes to him we discover a King who provides, vv 38ff “How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.” When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.” 39 Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties.’
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 did and still does? I will be honest with you; there is many a Sunday I come to the pulpit with what I have prepared and feel it is woefully inadequate to feed you as a congregation. I wish I had something more to give. Do you not sometimes feel like that when you are called upon to do something for God or is it just me? So what can I do? Well, I offer to God what little I have and pray that in his mercy he will multiply it to feed the people he loves, just as he did on that day. And isn’t the Lord kind that he does just that?
You see, when the disciples didn’t pray-Jesus prayed. Jesus didn’t moan about what he didn’t have but thanked God for what he did have, ‘Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves.’
Here’s something to think about: it is often far easier 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 running the Identity Course and the like. But neither response is what Jesus is looking for. Notice what he did next. Rather than punishing his disciples for their lack of faith 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 go to work and be amazed.
And when that happens we delight in the King who satisfies, vv 42-44, ‘They all ate and were satisfied, 43 and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. 44 The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.’
Our problem 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 as he transforms a potential famine into a feast!
Friends, this is the God who is bigger than our complaints. This is the God who seems to delight in proving us wrong so that we might start proving him right. As we look around us, are there not more mouths than bread? Are there not more sheep than shepherds? Are there not more churches asleep than alive? Of course! But with this King leading us we don’t give up, we look up. Because we know that in his hands, a little piece of bread and a few scraps of fish and a tiny, tiny bit of faith and obedience can go a long, long way.
 Os Guinness ‘Character Counts’ (1999), p11
 In Ravi Zacharias, ‘Can Man live without God?’ P 69
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