02 August 2020
Chapel at Covenant Living of Florida
We’re looking at Matthew 14:13-21 this morning. The incident here is the only miraculous sign reported in all four of the gospels. In all likelihood it involved over 10,000 people. So it was a major event. In addition it was a formative connect-the-dots incident as Jesus proclaimed the launch of his Kingdom.
You see, by the time of Jesus there was a popular expectation that the Messiah would provide heavenly bread for the people to eat -- just as God had done with manna during Israel’s wanderings through the wilderness. That is, after they escaped Egyptian slavery and before they crossed over the Jordan River into the promised land God fed the people by night drops of a bread substance called Mana. Israel survived on Mana for 40 years.
In the gospel of John it is reported that following the bread distribution the people are so moved that they're fixin’ to make Jesus their king -- by force. John 6:14-15 -- "When the people saw him do this miraculous sign, they exclaimed, 'Surely, he is the Prophet we have been expecting!' When Jesus saw that they were ready to force him to be their king, he slipped away into the hills by himself."
In other words, this incident was a really big deal in the eyes of the people. It shaped how they perceived Jesus and what he was about. And I’d challenge you to let it shape your own understanding of him and his agenda -- even for today.
Listen again, this time in the Authorized Boydston Paraphrase --
As soon as Jesus heard that his cousin and preaching colleague John the Baptist had been murdered by Herod, he took off in a boat toward a remote place in order to have some alone time. But somehow the crowds figured out where he was going and people from many towns hoofed it over to the spot. 14 So, when Jesus arrived he encountered a huge crowd. But instead of annoyance at their invasion of his privacy, as he stepped out of the boat, he felt great compassion for them and healed those who were sick.
15 That evening his apprentices came and said to him, “We’re really out in the sticks and it’s starting to get late. Perhaps you should dismiss the crowd so they have time to get to one of the villages. They need to buy some food to feed themselves before the markets close.”
16 Jesus replied, “That’s not necessary -- YOU feed them.”
17 “But,” they answered, “Master, all we have are five small loaves of bread and two fish! What good is that with such a large crowd?”
18 “Well, bring the food here,” he said. 19 Then Jesus instructed the people to take a seat on the grass. He held up the five loaves and two fish, turned his eyes up toward heaven, and blessed the food. Then, he broke the loaves into pieces, which he gave to the apprentices. They, in turn, distributed the food to the people. 20 Everyone ate as much as they wanted, and afterward, the apprentices collected twelve baskets of leftovers. 21 It’s estimated that about 5,000 men had their fill that day. And nobody even tried counting all the women and children who were fed.
Great story -- which I never tire of hearing. Of course, it is merely a summary of what happened. There was a lot said in between the lines we have. And while we can’t be sure what was actually said, I suspect that it sounded something like this.
Master! What do you mean that you want us to feed all these people! If we do that we’ll be setting a bad precedent. The crowds have already gotten big and unruly. And we know that you’re not really a crowd person. But can you imagine what will happen tomorrow once these people all start to show up thinking that we’re going to give away free food everyday.
It will be Moses in the Desert -- all over again.
At that Jesus nodded his head in affirmation, saying, “Well, perhaps that’s what they need.”
Peter, who was speaking for the entire team of disciples interrupted -- as he was prone to do -- said.
“But, Jesus, nothing will get done in all Israel if the food is free. People need to work for what they get OR they won’t appreciate it AND they’ll start to think that God has an unlimited supply that he is eager to share with ordinary undeserving people.”
“Exactly!” exclaimed Jesus.
“The kingdom of God is about the abundant generosity of my Father. Why do you think that he can be limited or that he is some kind of a tightwad?
The reason that you can and should feed all these people is that it would be a great illustration of the grace and abundance that characterizes my kingdom -- whether it is appreciated or not.
Remember what I told you, ‘Don’t worry about what you’re going to eat… that God will provide. Seek first his kingdom and his ways and everything you need will be provided.”
“Buttttt…” It was practical Andrew, who usually doesn’t say so much, interrupting this time. “Jesus, all we have are five small loaves and two fish. How do you expect us to feed all these people with such a small amount? There have got to be 5,000 men out there -- to say nothing of their women and children.”
"Jesus refused to get sucked deeper into their anxiety attack. 'Let me help you,' he said as he called for the food. Then Jesus instructed the people to take a seat on the grass. He held up the five loaves and two fish, turned his eyes up toward heaven, and blessed the food. Then, he broke the loaves into pieces, which he gave to the apprentices. They, in turn, distributed the food to the people."
That’s more or less how this thing went down.
And the key idea in this all is -- DON'T STRESS OVER GOD'S "TOO BIG" ASSIGNMENTS FOR THROUGH HIS BLESSING "SMALL" RESOURCES TENDVTO MULTIPLY.
I’m actually seeing a bit of an overlap between the parable of the mustard seed in Matthew 13:31-32, which we read last Sunday --
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. It’s the smallest of all seeds. But when it’s grown, it’s the largest of all vegetable plants. It becomes a tree so that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches.”
Something really small -- nearly invisible -- grows so large that it has a big impact. THAT’S HOW JESUS’ KINGDOM WORKS! Now we see that a small meal of five buns and two fish ends up feeding a huge crowd through divine multiplication.
Notice that the gospel writers don’t ever try to give us an explanation of how the multiplication took place. Did the loaves replicate? Did others who had food catch on and join in the generosity? Or some of both. We don’t know. That’s not the point.
In all these stories Jesus wants us to see that he is in the business of taking something small and making it into something big.
So… and here’s how I see this coming home to us -- three take-aways.
So, first of all DON’T STRESS OUT OVER LIMITED RESOURCES.
If I could say something to every modern Christian and church I’d say -- release the multiplying power that you have in the small things. Start with the five loaves and two fish that you have in hand. Step out in faith and see where things go.
You’ve heard the terms small-scale agriculture or small-scale businesses or small-scale electricity production -- small-scale manufacturing. Small-scale enterprises involve only a few people or things; covering or involving a small area. Well this is small-scale ministry.
I want to write a book on SMALL-SCALE MINISTRY to encourage people with limited resources to start things without a big budget or a big organizational structure.
For several years I ran an English conversation club -- a very small-scale ministry. Through some of my contacts I started gathering a few Chinese immigrants -- restaurant workers and their families and friends -- who wanted to improve their English. We met weekly at McDonald's or Taco Bell to practice reading and speaking -- we often ended up talking about spiritually important matters, too.
Just a handful of people involved -- some weeks only one or two and myself. Very little overhead. No budget whatsoever. You don't even need a sponsoring church or official organization to jump in and start serving a few pieces of fish and bread. It's not about trying to make the biggest splash you can, but meeting big needs -- in small ways -- in the name of Jesus.
The English conversation club never became famous -- never received national recognition. But that’s not why we do these things.
If we can start acting in faith on a small-scale -- planting mustard seeds, those small acts of faith can have an impact greater than their size or the energy they exert.
Helping out at a local school. Wandering the CLOF halls everyday just so you can share an encouraging word or smile.
I think frequently of Earle Dale who died about 15 months ago. He spent his last days scooting up and down the halls or sitting on the dog bench. Always had a loving smile and a kind word. That's what this small-scale ministry looks like -- Earle Dale.
Spending a little time each day to intentionally get to know each of your neighbors and to continue to check in with them -- even if you're not an extrovert. Small acts which God will multiply like 5 loaves and 2 fish -- eventually feeding thousands.
Now, of course, we tend to stress out when God calls us to distribute five loaves and two fish amongst thousands of hungry people.
But the stress is unnecessary (and counterproductive) because JESUS IS THE MULTIPLIER. That’s the second take-away. JESUS IS THE MULTIPLIER.
You don’t have to make things happen. You just need to go along for the ride.
This is where the disciples got confused. When Jesus told them to feed the crowd -- they thought he wanted them to generate all the food. But he was really asking them to merely distribute that which he was blessing.
Vs 19 -- “Then Jesus instructed the people to take a seat on the grass. He held up the five loaves and two fish, turned his eyes up toward heaven, and blessed the food. Then, he broke the loaves into pieces, which he gave to the apprentices. They, in turn, distributed the food to the people.”
So then here is the third take-away -- THERE IS INFINITE ABUNDANCE IN GOD'S KINGDOM, WHICH WE TAP INTO WHEN WE FAITHFULLY FOLLOW HIS INSTRUCTIONS.
The disciples -- Jesus’ apprentices -- were reluctant to try and feed the masses because they were responsible people who didn’t want to start something they could obviously not finish.
And that’s all fine. But when Jesus asked them to feed people -- he was looking at the bigger picture. He could see what they could not -- the abundant resources of the Kingdom of God. That’s why we take our instructions from him. That’s why sometimes the things he tells us to do seem unreasonable but we should do them anyway. And this can be a challenge.
I have a psychologist friend, a fellow student at Fuller Seminary 38 years ago, who l ran into at a wedding and Paul was asking me about how my ministry was going.
I'd left my career track in order to teach in Micronesia and then returned to the US to launch a church which centered around the needs of homeless men, immigrants, and at-risk kids. I told him tongue-in-cheek that I didn’t know if "I was reckless and irresponsible or a total genius" -- but that I was totally enjoying myself.
He smiled with complete understanding.
As we talked I learned that he had given up a totally respectable and conventional counseling practice as a doctor of psychology in order to work on the streets as a probation officer. And God provided for him and his family in his "reckless and irresponsible" approach to caring for vulnerable people.
And Paul's impact for God’s kingdom was probably greater through his work as a probation officer than it was when he was in a conventional counseling practice -- not that there is anything wrong with having a conventional psychology or counseling practice. He had just been led to serve outside the conventional established pattern.
And often the unconventional things that God calls us to do seem reckless and irresponsible because we don’t have the divine perspective -- a perspective of abundant provision. And there is simply no way to understand how five loaves and two fish can multiply to feed thousands until you start serving them. Sometimes you just have to step into the water to see what is going to happen.
Is God calling you to feed a crowd? To step out and do something that seems impossible for senior citizens by conventional standards -- something reckless and irresponsible?
Don’t miss the point. The size of the crowd is actually pretty secondary. Sometimes it’s thousands of people. Sometimes it’s hundreds. At other times -- maybe most of the times -- it is but a single challenging person. And you don’t know how the small amount of fish and bread at hand will be enough for the assignment.
But if you hand Jesus the bread and fish to bless you can expect him to multiply the resources.
During this time of pandemic we're all feeling a bit overwhelmed and the temptation is to circle the wagons and to think about all the things we can't do out there because we have to hunker down. Instead of responding to the situation with creativity and openness to the new things God might be doing, we perpetuate a kind of paralyzing stress.
Well, don’t stress over God’s “too big” assignments, for through his blessing the “small” resources tend to multiply.
And that, believe it or not, is the good news.