(Matthew 14: 13-33)
So there are three things that jump out at us when we read these two stories from the gospel of Matthew – two back-to-back miracles that are familiar, I imagine, to most of us:
The first is the fact that Jesus needs a break.
I mean, like really needs one!
And it’s not often that we get a glimpse into this side of Jesus, do we? From the way the four gospels combined read, Jesus is on the go for three years solid. Teaching, preaching, healing, contending with the Pharisees. More teaching, more preaching. We don’t get a sense that Jesus has a lot of down-time or much less takes a day off.
But our passages today are very clear, stating it right up front at the beginning of each. Verse 13: When Jesus heard this, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. And later in 22: Jesus dismissed the crowds and went up the mountain by himself to pray.
I mean, nap time for Jesus! That’s what this is! He may have been the Son of God, yes, but right here in the 14th chapter of Matthew, he’s tired, man. He is exhausted. Wouldn’t you be? In one instance he’s just heard about the death of John the Baptist. In the other, he saw 5000 people needing to be fed. That’d wear anyone out.
Rest and relaxation do not appear to come about too frequently for Jesus. It’s not easy when twelve disciples, and many others by association, are surrounding you 24/7, non-stop, hanging on your every word, analyzing your every move. I love in the second story how he sends them away, like parents ships their kids to the grandparents for a week in the summer. Sorry guys, I need a little space, here’s a boat, there’s the water, I’ll help you push it out!
And the crowds! They were always there, always. How did they know that he’d be in that boat, on that lake, on that day, so they could congregate and wait at the shore for him with, as luck would have it, empty stomachs? How did they always know he’d be wherever he was, day in and day out, so they could crowd around him seeking healing, wholeness, answers to questions, purpose, meaning for existence, or whatever else it was they were desperately looking for?
I just find it intriguing that both of these stories – stories of amazing miracles and Jesus meeting tremendous human need – both begin with Jesus needing a break. A well-deserved break. Just as you and I would need one too, if we were in his sandals.
So that’s the first thing that jumps out at us as I read these two stories. The second is that, in both instances, at the beachside and out in the water, something amazing happens. We, of course, call them miracles, because we frankly don’t know what else to call them. They’re unexplainable, they’re something we cannot rationally come to grips with in our minds. Something amazing happens.
The first, way out in the wilderness, outside the city, where there are no hot dog stands, no Starbucks; and so the masses grow hungry. Which – as the disciples begin to recognize, is a very troublesome thing. They see where things are heading if unattended to. This is how riots start; this is how people get hurt. And so they gather together all the food they can muster, what amounts to a whopping five loaves of bread and two fish. It’s barely enough to feed Jesus and his friends, much less 5000. In fact, its presence might actually make things worse, as people start to realize what they do not have…..
But then, guess what? Something amazing happens! Somehow all those people are fed from five loaves and two fish. No one understands it, no one has a clue; all they know is that in the end, everyone is satisfied, and they even have leftovers. How in the world could that ever happen? It’s amazing! It’s a miracle!
And then after that – remember the disciples he sent away on the boat? Well, there’s a storm, and it’s a nasty one. Even the seasoned fishing vets hadn’t seen one like this before. And there is nothing worse than being stuck out on the open water in the middle of a tumultuous, unforgiving squall – no sense of security, nothing really to hold on to. They are utterly and completely terrified.
But then, guess what? Something amazing happens! At first they think he’s a ghost, because really, who would ever expect to see anyone walking on water! The rational side of the brain kicks in, like a defense mechanism – this isn’t happening, this isn’t real. It’s a ghost! Until they realize it’s not. Until they realize it is Jesus. It’s amazing! It’s a miracle!
Something amazing happens here – twice – and Matthew chooses to put them right up against each other, one leading seamlessly to the next. Bold and bombastic miracles, if there could be anything other than that – thousands fed, people walking on water. They defy understanding and explanation, as all miracles do.
And we, we are drawn into miracles because their very essence speaks to a possibility, a hope that we often find lacking in our otherwise mundane existence. Some describe miracles as those rare instances where the human and divine intersect in dramatic fashion. We are dumbfounded, for instance, when someone walks away, unharmed, from the twisted metal of a horrific car accident; we are left in awe when the image of Mary Mother of Jesus appears unexpectedly on the stone wall of a cathedral. We call these miracles.
At the same time, we also label as miracles things that happen around us every day. Our hospital newborn infant nurseries are full of miracles, as is every single morning with the rising sun and the dawning of another day. We call these miracles, too; because when we let ourselves experience a glimpse of the divine, we encounter the unfiltered and sometimes unexpected presence of God.
And yet our tendency is to try and understand miracles, wrap our head around them, in the same way we understand cause and effect. Scholars down through the years have surmised, for instance, that in the feeding of the 5000 the real miracle was the way Jesus’ generosity inspired generosity in the masses already there, so that everyone shared the food they did have, which meant everyone wound up having more than enough. Or that the combination of strong surf and extra salty water could’ve made it look like someone was floating – or walking – on water.
Not I’m not saying that’s not what happened, nor am I saying that if it did, it would be any less of a miracle. What I am saying is that, whatever our role in miracles may be, perhaps understanding them is not one of them. As Frederick Buechner once said, “It is possible to look at most miracles and find a rational explanation in terms of natural cause and effect. It is also possible to look at Rembrandt’s Supper at Emmaus and find a rational explanation in terms of paint and canvas.”
Recently, Grace turned me on to a sermon preached by noted speaker and writer Nadia Bolz Weber on this feeding miracle, a sermon she preached before closing worship of the ECLA’s Jubilee worship conference. Knowing that the presiding bishop and other high-ups in her denomination would be there, Nadia initially wrote a sermon that, as she would later say, was “too in my head, trying to make sure I said all the things I thought they’d want me to say.” But the night before she woke up at 2am and, moved to speak more from her heart than her head, rewrote the whole thing. I cannot tell you how nervous I get at the very idea of rewriting a sermon at 2am on Sunday morning! But this is Nadia Bolz Weber we’re talking about.
In her rewritten sermon she said, in part, this:
I’ve read many rational explanations for what really happened at the feeding of the 5,000. Explanations you could offer to your non-churchy friends without feeling like you have to apologize for being so silly as to believe in real miracles. With very little effort we can easily explain away the feeding of the 5000 as little more than… a wilderness potluck where everybody felt so compelled to be good people after hearing Jesus preach that they opened up their picnic baskets and gave parts of their fried chicken and potato salad to their neighbors.
But I just couldn’t bear to preach a “Jesus wants you to be nice and share your lunchbox” sermon today. Because miracles, and not lessons about sharing, are what we really need. So as crazy as it is, I believe in miracles – not because I think I’m supposed to but because I need to. I need to believe that God does what we cannot do. If human reason were enough to love us and save us and create beautiful things out of dust then Christ dies in vain and the promise is null. No, brothers and sisters, I want some miracles.
She continues on:
When I rely only on my strengths which, trust me, are few, when the waters are rough and storms are real and I am scared – filled with fear of what is happening or not happening in the church, filled with fear that I don’t have what it takes to be a leader in the church, filled with fear that everyone will see nothing in me but my inadequacies, I have forgotten about Jesus – my Jesus who’s making something out of my nothing and walking towards me in the storm. That’s my guy.
For Nadia – and for us, I would say – what jumps out at us in these verses is the fact that something amazing happened, that God broke into our world in a way that directly impacts and affects us, and the very fact that we cannot fully explain or understand it is what testifies to its miraculousness in the first place.
Which leads to the third thing that jumps out at us from these back-to-back miracles in the gospel of Matthew: that neither of them could have ever happened without people playing a part in them – despite their best efforts to get in their own way.
Right? Disciples come to Jesus: People are hungry!. Send them away! Jesus says to disciples: We don’t need to send them away – YOU give them something to eat. Jesus doesn’t say to his disciples, Okay, give me some room, I got this. No, he tells them, You give them something to eat. You play a part in this miracle.
And they do, despite their initial reaction to get in their own way: all we have, Jesus, all we have is this – five loaves and two fish. Isn’t it interesting that the very essence of the miracle was right in front of them – they were giving it to Jesus! – and yet they chose to view it as nothing more than a “this.” Isn’t it also interesting that none of that changes the fact that it was still the disciples who brought the food to him in the first place. They played a critical role in the miracle, even though they tried their best to play it down. Jesus could not have fed those 5000 without them.
And then Peter stepping out of the boat – which, let’s face it, we think less about those amazing seconds of him walking on water, and more about how Jesus had to eventually save him from the swirling mess. What I find so fascinating about Peter here, and so telling for the rest of us, is that the doubts and hesitancies and fears did not hit him until he was doing the very thing Jesus called him to do. Think about that. Most people encounter the fear of jumping off the high dive at the top of the ladder looking down, not after they’ve jumped in. Anxieties about the final exam hit us before test day, not once we’ve turned it in. But here Peter gets in his own way of the miracle – he lets fear take over, even as he is successfully doing the very thing he is afraid of doing.
Our role in the miracles of Jesus is crucial – as Nadia Bolz-Weber says, we need them. We witness them, we participate in them. And despite our best efforts – intentional or otherwise – we so often undermine them. We fail to see them, and we fail to see our role in them.
And so I wonder this morning, Trinity Presbyterian, what miracles you may been part of recently. What miracles God might be carrying out this very second in your life – those things God does that we cannot do. Look around, people of God – look around and see the hungry that need food, the water to be walked on. What can a little faith get you?
I wonder what miracles this church has been part of, here on Providence for all these years, miracles of who we have been, miracles of who we are becoming, the miracle of letting go of something so we can, with God’s help and blessing, grab a hold of something new? Look around, people of God – look around and see the hungry that need food, the water to be walked on. What can a little faith get this church?
If scripture tells us anything, my friends, it is that a little faith can get us a whole lot. More than we realize. Because this Jesus of ours is in the habit of doing amazing, miraculous things; not in spite of us, but with us.
Never think you lack what is needed to help God do amazing things in this world. Never think you’re nothing more than a spectator in the work of Christ and the ministry of the church. Hold fast to the belief that miracles happen, and trust that your role in them is as important as the faith you cling to in the wilderness with thousands, and on stormy seas with Jesus calling you to him.
What a little faith can get you, indeed!
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 63.http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2015/07/sermon-on-the-feeding-of-the-5000-preached-for-pastors-musicians-and-church-leaders/, visited on 8.1.2017.