The trap of cynicism - Mark 6:30-44
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I am sure that you have seen them and you have most certainly heard them. Maybe you are standing at a bus stop when one of them sidles up to you with the opener 'Buses, hopeless. We should never have got rid of trams if you ask me.' Of course you haven't asked him, but he is going to tell you nonetheless. Sometimes they are referred to as 'Grumpy Old Men'. They have now been given their own slot on BBC TV. They are Victor Meldrew types who take great delight in bemoaning how bad things are, how worse they are going to get and how it was quite a different story in the good old days when chips were threepence a bag and you could see George Formby at the picture palace for a farthing. Music is now too loud; skirts are too short and good Telly too scarce.
But they exist in Christian circles as well. One Christian minister was travelling by plane when a rather large gentleman settled himself into the seat beside to him. The minister realising he wasn't going to get much sleep took out his Bible and notes just to refresh his mind on the talk he was going to be giving later that evening. "What have you got there buddy?" asked his newly arrived neighbour (he was an American). The minister told him but he never heard, for straight away in came the grump, launched like an Exocet, "The church is lost" he declared. "Hellbound and heartsick." It turned out that he was an evangelist who spoke at a different church each weekend. "I wake' em up" he growled. "Christians are asleep. They don't pray. They don't love. They don't care." With that pronouncement he took up his preaching tone reeling off on his fingers why the church was going to the dogs: "Too lazy-uh, too rich-uh, too spoilt uhAnd on and on he carried. And as the people around began to listen, the minister's face began to redden. It seemed that the evangelist was more taken up with the bad news of the state of the church than the good news of the power of the Gospel. You see this was a man who had fallen headlong into the trap of cynicism.
But the problem of cynicism is not simply the malaise of the middle aged, it is spreading downwards as survey after survey now show, cynicism is fast becoming a favourite past time of the youth, as exemplified by the shrug of the shoulders and the response, 'Whatever.' In one magazine there was a cartoon of a minister taking a marriage service. The groom is standing there with his hands in his pockets and the minister says, 'No no, It's I do, not 'whatever. In his book Letters to Olga Vaclav Havel comments on the incidence of intelligent people who are cynical and have "lost faith in everything such that giving up on life is one of the saddest forms of human downfall." He then says, "The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and lessIsn't that so? And therefore cynicism degenerates into boredom and sloth. Idealism dies and the couch potato culture rises with the result that we end up with, to quote Dorothy L Sayers, 'the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing to die for." Now a culture or a church which is in that state is but a hairsbreadth away from extinction.
Now just in case you are thinking of accusing me of the very thing we began with, falling into the trap of cynicism, let me say that the Christian who believes in the living God can never allow himself to become a cynic. Christians are not unrealistic optimists- that peace of earth is just around the corner. Nor are they realistic pessimists- that we are on an inevitable slide into the abyss. Christians are realistic optimists because we believe in a God who doesn't give up even when his people do. And that is perfectly illustrated by the famous episode we are looking at together this morning and Jesus' miraculous feeding of the 5,000. So do turn with me to Mark chapter 6.
The first thing we see is what appears to be an impossible situation vv 30- 37.
The day begins with the report of the death of Jesus' cousin, John the Baptist and the return of his disciples from a mini-mission. And that is the way it often goes in the Christian life, doesn't it? Success mingled with sadness, a tremendous high followed by a crashing low. And in the midst of all of this is the constant pressure of people needing ministry, five thousand had followed the disciples and so incessant were their demands that according to v31 no one has a chance even to eat. And no one, even the Son of God himself, can sustain work at that level. And so Jesus tries to get away from the crowd by crossing the lake only to find the people waiting for him on the other side. But when he sees the crowd in v 34, he doesn't abandon them, he has compassion on them. Through his tender eyes he sees what others fail to see- a flock which is lost, open to abuse from the religious leadership of the day, being like sheep without a shepherd. They are in need of spiritual nourishment, they require spiritual direction and so Jesus gives it to them, he 'began to teach them many things.' I am sure that those talks of Jesus would have been quite memorable; uplifting, challenging, inspiring. But the one group you would have thought would by now have got it, manifestly hadn't- namely, the disciples. Just take a look at what they say to Jesus 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 bear in mind that the disciples have just returned from healing the sick and casting out demons. Add to that the fact that they had seen Jesus do some of the most amazing things. Then you might have expected them to be a bit more optimistic wouldn't you? Perhaps a bit of faith might have been appropriate. "You can feed them Jesus. No challenge is too great for you. We have seen you raise the dead, feeding a crowd should be a synch.' But not a bit of it. If faith is a candle these fellows are in the dark. Worst still they think they can tell Jesus what to do: 'Send them away.' Big mistake when we do that. It is going to rebound on us. And it does, for Jesus 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. 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? Do you not detect a note of cynicism there? Like the evangelist on the plane they can see the problem but not the solution. They can crunch the numbers but not construct an answer. And although the answer to prayer is standing right in front of them they don't even bother to pray. Talk about grumpy old men! It is much easier to pout than to pray. Now if it had simply been left to the disciples the people would have walked away hungry. And to be frank if things were to be simply left to the church today many in our land would remain spiritually famished, for many a church sees the challenges as too great and the resources too meager. But that is because we refuse to lift our eyes above the circumstances to the one who is Lord over the circumstances, and that is Jesus.
For when we do that we encounter the divine provision 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.'
If I may put it so boldly, is this not wonderfully typical of the Lord Jesus, of God? He sees our weaknesses and takes it as an opportunity to demonstrate his strength. When the apostle Paul was struggling with a particular problem and feeling that he had come to the end of his tether, his reply from God was quite unequivocal : 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' (2 Corinthians 12:9). That is what we see here, the answer to the question: what does God do when his children are weak?
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.
When the disciples didn't pray-Jesus prayed. When the disciples didn't see God, Jesus sought his Father. He thanked God. What for? The crowds? The pandemonium? The disciples? Hardly. He 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.'
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. The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence so much so that we fail to see the flowers on our side. And the devil just loves us to get into that negative mindset. For a start it robs God of the glory which is his due and that is a sin. Secondly it distracts us from the possibilities which are ours if only we would turn to God. I must confess that I do identify with those disciples don't you? To be frank with you often on a Sunday I come with a sermon prepared and it feels to me to be nothing more than five loaves and two fish- woefully inadequate to feed God's people, woefully inadequate. But what can I do? Well, I do what I always do, confess my feeling of inadequacy, offer up to him what little I have, thank him that I have managed to get this far and ask him to bless and use it. And that same principle applies to pretty well every area of our Christian lives. 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. We may look out on the mass of the unevangelised and the cool response with which the Gospel is often met and wonder whether there is any point? 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. Enjoying the answer to a prayer they never prayed. Again this is all in line with Jesus nature, remember? 'A bruised reed he will not break, a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.' When we are faithless he is faithful. So the last thing we are to do is sit around and moan, listing all the problems, for we shall never experience God's blessing that way. Now what we have to do is to go out with what we do have in order to do the job God has given us to do.
And when we do we will be surprised as no doubt the disciples were surprised with the abundant blessing, 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.'
The problem is that we are so familiar with this story that the shear mind shattering 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 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, especially when our expectations are so low and tinged with cynicism.
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 consumed with cynicism. 'Why had God brought them out of Egypt' they said 'only to let them starve to death?' 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 he provided manner from heaven. That is the sort of God he is; a God who is bigger than our complaints, a God who seems to delight in proving us wrong so that we might start proving him right.
I don't know about you, but I am greatly disturbed by trends in our society which indicate serious social decay. As was predicted when the national lottery was launched the people who are suffering most from gambling are the poor. With the relaxation towards licensing, the introduction of cheap and potent alcoholic drinks, drunkenness, violence and social abuse in many of our city centres is getting way out of hand to the despair of the police. Men and women, under the influence of booze are now openly exposing themselves on the streets. Magazines are now on open display in our newsagents which at one time would only have been obtainable from behind the counter in a brown paper bag and then there is puzzlement over the increase in sex crimes and violence towards women? Why can't people see the connection? Now I don't draw attention to these simply to engage in grumpyism, but to help us come to terms with the missionary situation in which God has placed us. And although there is no guarantee that God will do it again, for he may allow us to slide further into the mire of our own making as well founded judgement upon us, God did act when we in England faced an almost identical situation in the 18th century. Let me tell you something: In 1751 Henry Fielding, a London Magistrate, said that gin was 'the principle sustenance of more than 100,000 people in London' whilst deploring its dreadful effects. Many gin shops had signs which read 'Drunk for 1d' 'Dead drunk for 2d'- does that sound familiar? There was a yob culture then too. Young men would pounce upon older men and women, bundle them into barrels and roll them down the street. On top of that you had the terror of highwaymen which were a far cry from the romantic figures cut by Hollywood. You were scared to travel at night. Even immorality was considered a sport. The then Prince of Wales lived in shameless adultery- sadly no change there. Many farm labourers actually sold their wives by auction at a cattle market, you take a look at some of the baptism registers of the rural churches at that time and you will see how rampant such immorality was. At every turn there was decay, not least in the established church. An 18th century Victor Meldrew would have been in his element. But that was when God did the impossible. Taking his five loaves and two fish in the form of a few converted ministers like George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers and in the face of the most appalling opposition lives were changed as men and women and boys and girls came to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. And it was on the back of that revival that the great social reforms of the 19th century came and life became liveable once again.
You see, God's blessings are given according to his grace and not according to the depth of our faith. There wasn't much faith in evidence on this afternoon was there? Why is it important for us to know this? So that we do not fall into the trap of cynicism, that's why. Look around you. Are there not more mouths than bread? More wounds than doctors? More churches asleep than on fire? Of course. But what are we to do? Throw up our hands and walk away? Not when Jesus is in our midst. 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 an awfully long way.
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