The Narrative Lectionary points us this week to Matthew 14:13-33 (Psalm 95:1-5). My initial thought about this text is that these are two really big stories and each deserves their own sermon! I know many of my Lectionary preaching friends will choose one or the other. Some are reserving the second story for next week, Transfiguration Sunday. The Transfiguration presents some challenges for preaching in that it is in the annual cycle, not just visited every few years like some of the other stories. But no one on the committee called me to ask what I thought about this, so let’s take it on and learn what we can from it. And I see something here that really interests me about faith.
The chapter begins with the death of John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus. Though it is not in our text, I think it provides a needed setting. John’s untimely death was partially due to his preaching against the incestuous marriage of Herod. (See Pendergrass HERE.) It enraged Herod to the point that he wanted to kill John, but he also knew that he was popular and this could endanger the peaceful demeanor of his reign. Herod was entranced by the dancing of Herodias’ daughter and promised her anything she wanted (so he didn’t know that was a bad idea?). She asked (prompted by her mother) for John’s head on a platter. This particularly gruesome request brought the king distress, but he granted it since he had made the loud promise in front of the crowd at the party. John’s disciples took care of his body. And verse 12 says, “Then they went and told Jesus.”
This is the setting for Jesus’ attempt to find “a solitary place”. If he wept at the tomb of Lazarus, one can only imagine the sorrow Jesus felt at the loss of John, for whom he had great respect and love. He was so interested in being alone that he set out in a boat. I don’t know how long Jesus was in this voyage of sorrow, but I get the sense that it wasn’t a very long time. In spite of this terrible turn of events, the crowd still wanted to be with Jesus and to receive what he had to give them. I’m amazed at the heart of Jesus here. Even though he was enveloped in grief, when he saw the large crowd “he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” Eventually the disciples were weary and just wanted to crowds to leave. I do not read any sympathy from the disciples here, but that doesn’t mean there was none. Perhaps sending the crowds home was motivated by mercy for their Master, and not selfishly seeking relief. At any rate, Jesus was not compassionate for the crowds on a surface level, but deeply so. “They do not need to go away”, he says. He wants to feed them.
Though he was grieved and potentially weary, Jesus is not focused on himself. They only have five loaves of bread and two fish, but Jesus is unfazed by this lack. He is much more interested in His provision. And it is more than provision, isn’t it? It is overabundance as the disciples move from the position of not having enough to having too much! We typically refer to the “5,000”, but Matthew tells us that there were also women and children who were not a part of that number. There is no commentary from Jesus at this point, no reflection, no lesson to be learned, not even a criticism of them for shrugging their shoulders and wanting to send the crowd home. Just a demonstration of his power. Even at a moment of weakness, when Jesus was filled with grief and unable to find refuge, He still loved the people and provided for them beautifully. This is what Jesus can do. He is able. More than that, He is willing.
It doesn’t matter what you’ve heardKutless, That’s What Faith Can Do
Impossible is not a word
It’s just a reason for someone not to try
Everybody’s scared to death
When they decide to take that step
Out on the water
It’ll be alright
Life is so much more
Than what your eyes are seeing
With the crowds fed, Jesus sends the disciples off into the boat and now he can finally have that time alone “up on a mountainside by himself to pray”. It appears that Jesus prayed throughout the night because it is “shortly before dawn” when he appears to them walking on the lake. The disciples were “terrified” and thought they saw a ghost. He urges them not to be afraid. Then came a startling request from Peter.
Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.
When the Lord urged him to come on, I wonder if Peter was re-thinking his request. He did walk on the water, but not for long. Fear took over and he began to sink. The Lord saved him from drowning and said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” The passage ends with them worshiping him.
It seems to me that the first story tells me what Jesus can do. The second tells me what I can do by faith. In Kutless’ song about faith they proclaim:
I’ve seen dreams that move the mountainsKutless, That’s What Faith Can Do
Hope that doesn’t ever end
Even when the sky is falling
I’ve seen miracles just happen
Silent prayers get answered
Broken hearts become brand new
That’s what faith can do
I think the reason that song is so touching to me is because it reminds me that so often I try to do what I can do without pausing to let Him do what He can do. In those times I join the disciples in being a man of little faith. Last week we talked about how just a little faith can make a big difference. This week we have revealed that a little faith is great, but it’s not our goal. We want to expand our faith because the truth is that our faith can never out-grow God’s ability. What have you been doing lately that you thought you didn’t need God’s help?
It also seems to me that this passage reminds us of the others-centered compassion of Jesus. I believe in