Avoiding the pitfalls of cynicism - Mark 6:30-44
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Avoiding the trap of Cynicism
Let me begin by telling you a true story of the experience a Christian minister once had as he was travelling as a passenger by plane across the United States. He was just beginning to settle down before take-off when a rather large gentleman took the seat beside to him. The minister realising he wasn’t going to get much sleep took out his Bible and notes in order to refresh his mind on the talk he was going to be giving later that evening. “What have you got there buddy?” enquired his newly arrived neighbour. And so the minister began to tell him but he never heard, because straight away in came ‘the grump’, launched like an Exocet missile, “The church is lost” he declared. “Hell bound and heartsick” Now it so happened that the man 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.” And 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 uh…” And the tirade went on for some time. And as the people around began to listen, the minister’s face began to redden. It seemed to him that the evangelist was more taken up with the bad news of the state of the church rather 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.
It should be made clear at the outset that the problem of cynicism is not restricted to the old and middle aged, it is steadily spreading downwards through the generations. As survey after survey now show, cynicism is fast becoming a favourite past time of our youth, captured by the nonchalant shrug of the shoulders and the half- hearted response: ‘Whatever.’ A while ago I saw in a magazine a cartoon of a Vicar taking a wedding service. The groom is standing there with his hands in his pockets and the Vicar says, ‘No, It’s ‘I will’, not ‘whatever’.
In his book Letters to Olga, former Czechoslovakian dissident and later President, Vaclav Havel, comments on the incidence of intelligent people who are cynical and who have “lost faith in everything such that giving up on life is one of the saddest forms of human downfall.” He then writes this, “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 less…..” Isn’t that right? And so cynicism degenerates into boredom and boredom gives way to sloth- apathetic laziness- what the Medievals used to refer to as ‘the noon- day demon’ like the sleepy feeling you have after lunch. The final result is, as Dorothy L Sayers, once put it, ‘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.” And let me tell you that a culture, or even 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 dewy eyed optimists- believing that peace of earth is just around the corner. Nor are they weary eyed pessimists- convinced that we are on an irreversible slide into the abyss. Rather, Christians are open eyed realists who believe in a God who doesn’t give up even when his people do. And this truth illustrated by the famous episode we are looking at together this evening 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. And so incessant are their demands that, according to v31, no one has a chance to even catch a bite to eat. And even the Son of God, can sustain work at that level of intensity. 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- all 5,000 of them. 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 harassed and hopeless like sheep tend to be when they don’t have a shepherd and so become prey to wolves. Strictly speaking 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 the ones doing the harassing.
The people had hopes of a coming Kingdom fuelled by the teaching of the OT Scriptures. But years of silence from God, occupation foreign powers and abuse by religious leaders can have an effect of reducing your vision for the future. And 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 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.
The disciples’ perception of the situation however, is very different from that of Jesus. Just take a look at it in 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. 36 Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
We are to 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. Perhaps a bit of faith might would have been in order. “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.’ Is that what we see? Hardly! 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 as he does so. So what do they do? Well, they do what any desperate organization always 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 more than half a year’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”
Do you not detect maybe more than a slight 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. We all know it is much easier to pout than to pray. 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 churches 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- Jesus.
It is when we do that we discover 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.” 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.’
If ever Jesus had an excuse to give up on his followers, here it was. Instead he takes the paucity of what they do have-5 loaves and two fish- and multiplies it.
When the disciples didn’t pray-Jesus prayed and thanked God. Thank him for what? The crowds? The pandemonium? The disciples? No! He thanked God for what he did have, 41 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 distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all.’
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 that we fail to see the flowers on our side. And the devil just loves us to get into that negative mindset. And you can see why.
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. 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, I 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 and anxiety eats away at us as we wonder what the outcome will be for our children or 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 hatches 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. The lesson is this: even when we are faithless he is faithful. So the last thing we are to do is sit around and moan, listing all the problems, 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 that is when we will be surprised as no doubt the disciples were surprised with the abundant blessing, 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.’
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.
You think things have sunk pretty low in our society with the moral mudslide we see taking place? 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, rolling his eyes heavenward with that ‘I don’t believe it’ look. But that was when God did the seemingly 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 powerful 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 began to be liveable once more. Britain was transformed from being the moral leper of Europe into its leading light.
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. 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? Cynically 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 a long, long way.
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