Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa
At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus. Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14:1-21 ESV)
Grace and peace to you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
It’s really quite a party we’ve got here, all those people out there far from home. Just think about all the joy that’s going on as Jesus heals the sick. Jesus touching the folks who have a fever and the fever is gone. Jesus rubbing a red rash and poof the skin is normal. Jesus straightening a crooked limb and the straight leg dances with joy. Jesus speaking to a person who can’t speak and the still tongue begins to sing his praises. Jesus fixing all their problems. Jesus making all their hurts go away. Jesus doing what Jesus does.
The disciples must have been enjoying the moment, but then the something goes wrong. The good stuff lasts too late and it’s time for supper. Jesus’ disciples are getting nervous. They start thinking about something besides Jesus. They are distracted by the time. They think they need to give Jesus a nudge, a reminder. I can hear their conversation. “Peter, you tell him. You know how he is. He gets so busy helping folks he loses track of the time.” So they say to Jesus, “Send the folks away so they can buy food in the villages around here on their way home.”
But Jesus isn’t ready for the party to be over yet.
“They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
Now the disciples are in the thick of it. It’s probably the last thing they expected. Maybe they made a plan, “What should we do? We’ll ask everyone to pitch in.” If they were Lutheran they’d call for a pot-luck. But the best laid plans of disciples often go astray. Just look at how inept their efforts turn out. With five thousand men there and some women and children too, the disciples, doing what they do, come up with a snack pack. Five loves and two fish is the modern day equivalent of one of those little plastic packages with a tiny dish of cheese and a couple of Ritz crackers. Ok, so now picture the crowd, a hungry crowd of some five thousand people and more. With the disciples’ best effort, they don’t even come up with enough of a meal for one person, let alone five thousand plus. Well now the party is over. The mob won’t even fight over what they’ve found. They drop the ball. They can’t provide. The disciples have failed. The crowd is going to go away hungry. It’s a bit surprising that they even show what they’ve found to Jesus at all.
Jesus uses it all to make a point. Maybe the disciples should have just answered out of the gate, “Lord, we can’t do it. Only you can provide for all these people.” That’s just what he’s about to show them. Jesus makes the party. First, he tells everyone to sit down. He commands them to sit, in fact. He wants everyone to know for sure who is doing what and who isn’t doing what. He wants everyone to know who is in control and who is about to provide. “Don’t do anything,” he’s saying. “I’ve come to give you what you need.” Then he takes the snack, the bread and fish, and blesses it; he breaks the bread, and gives it to the disciples to distribute. And they do. And he does. I don’t know what it was like, whether every time someone took a piece of fish or bread another appeared or if the baskets refilled only after they were empty, or whether there were suddenly bunches of baskets, it really doesn’t matter. Jesus provides for the people in abundance. He could have done it without the snack the disciples found. They show who they are by their thinking that they actually can do something. Jesus shows who he is by providing. Jesus is the life of the party, literally.
There was another party too. St. Matthew tells us about it right before he tells us of this one. The author wants us to make some kind of a connection between the two. That’s why he starts out,
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself.
The “this” is the other party. It’s a party of a different kind. It’s King Herod’s birthday. It’s not difficult to imagine the difference. There’s drinking and carousing, and dancing, drunken laughter and over indulging of all kinds. Herod’s sexual fantasies are indulged. The daughter of Herod’s live in lover dances for him. It is quite a dance. Herod is so impressed or so moved that he offers her anything she wants. Who knows what he thought she wants. “What I really want, my King,” she says a death drips from her lips, “is John the baptizer’s head on a platter.” Her mother told her to as for that because John was telling everyone, in public, that she and the king were living in sin. He was causing such a stir that Herod had John thrown in prison. Now Herod is trapped. He made the promise right there in front of all of his guests. He doesn’t have the backbone to say “no.” He sends the solders to the cell to retrieve the gift. Just to show you what kind of a party it really is, just to show you what kind of people are living in the palace, when this young girl, this teenager, gets John’s head on a platter, it seems she calmly accepts it and takes it to her mother without any other reaction. Now that’s a party of a different kind.
Now we’d much rather have the first than the second. We’d much rather have Jesus fixing all our problems, Jesus balancing our checkbook, Jesus healing our cancer, Jesus smoothing over our arguments with our neighbor. And in fact, if you listen to those radio and TV preachers they’ll tell you that that’s what Jesus is really all about. Live for Jesus, find his purpose for your life and your life will be better. Obey God’s principals for living and God will give you health, wealth and happiness. Do such and such for God and he’ll be obligated to do such and such for you. Say this prayer 20 times a day and God will give you the desire of your heart. Jesus comes to make you all that you can be and give you your best life now. In fact, that’s what we might conclude by the feeding of the five thousand. But that’s only because we aren’t really seeing what’s going on here. That’s our sinful nature putting ourselves at the center instead of Jesus. We want Jesus to provide the way we want him to provide. “Jesus, if you’re not going to make my life easier, what good are you?” So when we see Jesus healing and feeding, our hearts naturally go straight to our own hopes and desires. We start thinking about how we can get God to do for us what we want him to do for us. That’s the kind of party we want Jesus to bring.
But lots of the time our lives really reflect the second party better. Oh, I’m not necessarily talking about the carousing. I’m talking about the suffering of John the Baptizer. John is hardly living his “best life now.” There’s not much victory in his severed head on a platter for a teenager. But that’s John’s whole life. He lived in the desert, ate bugs, and dressed in less than fashionable clothing. But look at what Jesus says about him.
Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 11:11 ESV)
And for all his trouble all his pointing to Jesus for all his greatness, John the Baptizer only loses his head.
Now what we might be missing is what’s actually going on in these two parties. That’s because we focus on ourselves instead of Jesus. Jesus provides for us. Of course he does. He became a man to provide for what we need. It’s right there in the story. Jesus tells the disciples to feed the crowds. They can’t do it. It’s the most basic need of people. They are helpless. They focus on themselves. They focus on the process. They focus on what they can do instead of focusing on Jesus. When they fail Jesus provides fully. John is helpless too. The thing is Jesus provides even in cases like John. The baptizer suffers. God is still providing. The baptizer dies. Jesus is still in control. It doesn’t matter if things are rosy in your life, or if things are sour. God is still providing. It doesn’t matter if you’re living your dream life, in your dream marriage, in your dream house, or if you’re life is at its lowest point ever. Jesus is still in control. That’s what faith is; believing that no matter what, God is providing what is most needed.
But our faith is weak. We are selfish, self-centered, self-focused. We read God’s word with our hearts looking for self help instead of looking for Jesus’ help. We are sinful people unable to provide for ourselves what we need most. We cannot remove our selfish sin from our lives. We try our own way but come up with a meager offering for God. We can change the external things and make ourselves look good, but the heart is still soiled and spoiled with sin. God doesn’t judge on external appearance. He judges based on the heart. Yours and mine are filled with sin. We fall back into it in a black heartbeat.
But Jesus provides. It just doesn’t look the way we think should. We think the first party; enough bread to go around; enough money to pay the bills; a little miracle here and there to keep our health up to par; a church that grows in numbers in spite of the declining population. But much of the time Jesus provides like the second party.
In fact Jesus’ life looks more like the second party. No not the carousing, but the suffering of John; Jesus suffering in the garden praying to God, the Father, for relief; Jesus suffering under the punishment of the Roman whip; Jesus suffering the humiliation of an unjust trial; Jesus enduring the pain of nails piercing his hands and feet and thorns in his head; Jesus dead on the cross, naked and bloody, stabbed and shamed. In all that suffering and death, Jesus is providing.
Jesus provides us with our greatest need. Like the bread in the wilderness Jesus gives us what we can’t possibly get any other way. Jesus provides for us the forgiveness of sins. You can’t get rid of the sin in your heart. Jesus can. He earns forgiveness for all people through his perfect life, death and resurrection. And he gives it to you and me, he provides it, as freely as he gave those folk the bread in baskets on the green grass. He provides it as abundantly as he did on that day at that party.
And we’ve got the party still going on today. Listen to how much it sounds like what we do here:
Then [Jesus] ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.
You see, Jesus provides. He give you the forgiveness you need. But he doesn’t just make it available. He makes sure you know it is for you. He makes sure you know you’ve got it. Just like he broke that bread on the green grass, he breaks bread here. You open your mouth and receive what Jesus provides. Here he gives his very body and blood, the same that was bruised and beaten on the cross. You open your mouth and Jesus pours his forgiveness right into you. Jesus is the host of this wonderful meal. He is the provider here. Jesus is the host here, not your pastor. Jesus gives what you need, his body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins.
This party, the one on the green grass, is a picture of eternity. God is providing. And this party, the one where Jesus is giving, the one that happened on that green hillside, the one that continues here at our altar, well it goes on forever and ever and ever. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.