Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: August 6, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

the grass

He told the crowds to recline on the grass.

The multitudes were “going without” – specifically “going without” food. The people were hungry. They were needful – even as you often see yourself in the same desperate way. The money always dries up toward the end of the month. Your health or physical condition is not at the level you would like. Your emotions or those of your family irritate you to the point of insanity. You are going without, and so you face a problem where it looks more and more likely that there isn’t a solution. You find yourself in a condition that seems beyond help. And isn’t it that very condition which then prompts you to ask the question, “Why?” “Why do I have to endure suffering and lack such as this?” “Why must I simply ‘make do’ with it?” “Why can’t the Lord send down a miracle like multiplying the bread and fish?” “All I’m asking for is for just enough to live peaceably and comfortably – just enough so that I don’t have to be in constant pain, persistent anxiety, or scrimp from week to week.” Is that asking too much?

And there it is, right there. Wondering if you’ve asked too much. There’s where you are in danger of losing or damaging your precious faith. Because it’s not a case of asking too much, but actually of not asking for enough. What do I mean? Why stop with asking just for material gain, or for the greater ease of your mental and physical anguish? Why not just go all the way and ask for an absolutely perfect life? After all, wasn’t it Jesus Himself who once said: “Ask for anything in My name … and you shall receive it?” You and I, you see, we seem to have this tendency to view everything backwards – or at the very least, with a severely limited and often self-centered point of view. While God constantly provides for you in His Holy Word a glimpse of transcendent, everlasting life, you tend to be too busy fretting about this miserable and temporary life. While God wants us all to look at suffering and lack of things with a heavenly perspective, we insist on starting with the bad and letting that influence the way we look at the good.

Among the most important lessons to be learned from a familiar miracle story like this is that you must recognize that, on your own – at least apart from Christ – you have nothing of value to offer God. Look again at the first part of the Gospel. I want you to note something about this multitude which followed Jesus. They had nothing – and that’s not simply in terms of food. What I mean is that these people had nothing about them which would cause God to love them. Do you see that they were just like you?

Now Jesus had just received news that John the Baptist had been beheaded by King Herod. It was just described in the verses immediately before the feeding of the 5000 was recorded in Matthew. That event was terrible news for Jesus to hear. A boastful, power-drunk king would rather save face than kill an innocent man. But before you get too offended, you must remember that according to God’s Law you too are also murderers. For Jesus Himself has said that even hating someone in your heart is the same as murder in God’s sight – as is failing to help and befriend our neighbor in every bodily need, as the Catechism explains. So, no less than King Herod, each of us sinners are murderers too. And as such, there’s nothing that you can find within you—whether it is years as a church member, or family pedigree, or amount of “sweat equity” you’ve built up—none of that would invoke God’s love – nor would it dissuade Him from punishing you.

And yet there’s still good news for you, for even though the crowd that pursued Jesus out in the countryside had no redeeming qualities – we’re told that Christ’s heart went out to them. He was moved with compassion for them and healed their sick ones. And so, without reason, without logic, and without any just cause, our Lord Jesus fed them. Think about the congregations in Texas and other border states that were sending food and necessities to the illegal immigrant youths because they were moved with compassion for them. Is that wise? They see them as their neighbor, as the Bible describes one. Do they risk catching the diseases that the children may be bringing with them across the border? Are they putting their very lives on the line, or potentially encouraging more lawbreaking and violence to happen? Could they be publicized as mere political pawns and fodder for sound bites on the news? Quite possibly. Perhaps they found a way both to support the proper enforcement of the law and show mercy to those in need. Jesus feeding the multitudes didn’t make human sense, either. Then He went beyond that loving gesture to sacrifice His own life on the cross for miserable, sinful creatures – even for you.

Isn’t it amazing, that here we are, a people who are so caught up with amassing the table-scraps of temporal things for ourselves, while God’s desire is to bless us with so much more, with the ultimate banquet. Here we are so busy trying to get our hands on the mere five loaves of bread and two fish. Yet at the very same time Christ has already secured for us that heavenly food which will satisfy our greatest need – that food which will bestow upon us everlasting life. Most specifically, that meal is His very own body and blood given and shed for us sinners to eat and drink for the forgiveness of our sins and to strengthen our faith and declare to one another our unity in confessing the one, true Christian faith.

The clues are in today’s Gospel. Did you notice them? If you didn’t, look again at the miracle of feeding the five thousand. It’s really quite significant. First, the people reclined. Then, Jesus took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to His disciples. Does it sound familiar? It ought to. It can’t be an accident that this was the very same action Jesus used when He instituted the Lord’s Supper on the night He was betrayed. And notice also what happened when the meal was concluded. There were twelve full baskets left over. It can’t be a coincidence that there are also twelve Disciples – twelve who would carry on the office of Christ and distribute His gifts to the Church. In just the same way, the Pastors of Christ’s Church have continued to do right up to the present day in the stead and by the command of their Lord, and not to fulfill the whims of whoever controls their livelihood.

In Christ, dear friends, you’ve already been given everything you need. You have as your possession the forgiveness of sins, the sanctified life, salvation, and the promise of an eternal home in heaven. Nothing you might think is lacking in your life can ever supersede or replace what God’s already given you in Christ Jesus through His Word, through His Spirit, and through His Church. You may have recalled a reading last week that said throughout your tribulation, distress and persecution, you remain more than conquerors through Him Who loved you! It’s all yours. Just ask for it. But now if that’s so, why do you still have to go through tribulations? Why do you have to put up with heartache? Why doesn’t God simply give you deliverance like you request; or freedom from the pain of this world? Well, that is precisely because you are God’s elect, the ones chosen for eternal life, and so therefore He allows these things to happen.

That’s what explains that whole part about how all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose. Well, the fact is that you have been baptized and called to faith so that you might partake of eternal salvation. And the “things which work together for good,” are described plain as day: “tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword.” God allows those who are His elect to experience such things. Why? Because in the midst of it all you have no other choice but to place your faith in God alone for all things. In your own limited wisdom and understanding you could never fathom how any of this could possibly be for your benefit. And so you simply have to take God at His Word.

You have to accept things in your life the way they are because He says so? Does that make God indifferent or uncompassionate toward you? Not at all – but rather it reveals He has such great love and mercy that He was willing to give up His own Son for the guilt of our sin – and all so that He might then grant you the full assurance, that already in this life – through the Gospel-word-and-sacrament ministry of His Church, which you sing and speak in the liturgy, that nothing – “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Can you see yourself among those spiritually hungry crowds following Jesus? Are you faced with the struggles that come with being a faithful Christian in our world today? If so, then you can see your life in the life of Jesus Christ. By faith, His life belongs to you just as much as you belong to Him. In Him you live, and move, and have your being. And if your life is in Jesus, what are you lacking? Nothing. What do you have to be anxious or worry about? Absolutely nothing. And what do you have to look forward to? Absolutely everything – everything in Jesus – both now and forevermore – for His sake – and in His name.

In the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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