Mostyn Road, 1 August 1999
Feeding the Five Thousand
The story of how Jesus fed the five thousand is an old friend, isn't it? But it is a very important story indeed. It's the only story that occurs in all four Gospels, apart from the Passion narratives! So it must be pretty central if all four Gospel-writers thought it worth recording, particularly John, whose Gospel is rather different from the other three. I think it deserves a closer look this morning.
It is one of the central episodes in Jesus' ministry. It happens just after Jesus hears that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been murdered. Jesus is naturally very upset by this; he respected John as a prophet of God, as well as the fact that he was a relation. Jesus wants to go off by himself to talk to God about it and grieve, but the crowds follow him. In fact, he does get a chance to go off later, but then it is very late indeed, and the disciples go on home without him, according to instructions, and he catches them up by walking on the water.
But at this stage, that hasn't happened. Jesus hasn't had a chance to get away by himself, and the crowds are there, tired and hungry. John says it was about 5,000 people, but Matthew says that was only the men - it was about 5,000 families, so anything up to 20,000 people. The disciples know that Jesus ought to eat, and they could use a break themselves, so they try to get him to make everyone go away. But they've all followed Jesus further away from town than they meant, and it would be rather a long way to go back without a breather first, and some food. But there is no food - and nowhere to buy any, even if they could have afforded it. Just one small boy, who shyly goes up to Andrew and offers his packed lunch, if that's any good to Jesus.
Of course, I don't suppose the small boy was the only one with food. After all, there were mothers in the crowd, mothers with small children. They would have made sure they were well-provisioned for the day. Probably many of the men had lunchboxes, or whatever they carried their food in; certainly the children would have. Mothers do tend to see to it that their families are provisioned, and few people would go out for the day without some sort of arrangements for lunch!
But it was, so we are told, a small boy who was the catalyst, who offers his lunch. And Jesus takes it, and blesses it, and breaks it, and shares it. And everyone has enough food, and there are twelve basketsful left over.
So what are we to make of this story? I think there are three points I want to make this morning. Firstly, the story tells us something about Jesus; secondly, it tells us something about God; and thirdly, it tells us something about ourselves.
2. Something About Jesus
So what does the story tell us about Jesus? This sort of food-stretching isn't unique to him, you know! It happens in the Old Testament, too. Elijah goes to stay with the Widow of Zarephath during a famine and promises that her oil and flour won't run out if she will feed him, too. Which she does, and it doesn't.
Elisha, Elijah's successor, performs a miracle very like Jesus', making 20 barley loaves stretch to feed 100 people, with some left over. Which mightn't sound too bad to us, but those loaves were only about the size of our baps - and if you were only given 1/5 of a bap, you might well want to complain that it wasn't quite enough!
So this kind of miracle was something that prophets did. You
might have noticed that John doesn't tend to record Jesus'
miracles unless they teach us something about who Jesus is. So on
one level, John is using the story to show that Jesus was not
only a prophet like Elisha, but something greater.
And did you notice something else? Jesus took the food, blessed it, broke it and shared it. Doesn't that sound awfully familiar? Doesn't that sound like something we do some Sundays, those Sundays we have a Communion service? In John's gospel, the story leads straight in to that famous speech about "I am the Bread of Life", and, in fact, John doesn't bother to record the "Do this in remembrance of me" that the other evangelists have - for him, the symbolism of this story and the Bread of Life speech are sufficient.
So the story is saying something about who Jesus is; it is showing us that Jesus is a prophet, and more than a prophet.
3. Something About God
Then secondly, the story tells us something about God. You see, Jesus says elsewhere that he only does what he sees his Father doing. And one of the things that always strikes me about this story, when I read it, is the amount left over. Twelve basketfuls.
It isn't that there was just enough food to keep everyone going until they got home. It isn't that there was enough for everyone to have a decent meal. There was enough for everyone to have a decent meal and still have masses left over!
That seems to be so typical of Jesus, though. When he turned the water into wine at the wedding at Cana, he made enough wine to stock a young off-licence, never mind be enough for a few guests at the tag-end of a party. And when people were healed, they were healed! He made a proper job of it, even if it took him two goes.
It's typical of Jesus, and it's typical of God. I mean, look at the sort of extravagance we see in the natural world - all those desert flowers, for instance, and nobody knew they were there. All those stars, all those universes.....
This story, with the twelve basketsful left over, reminds us that God is generous to the point of extravagance. And also, it was Jesus who broke the bread and shared it out. He did the serving. It was Jesus, elsewhere in John's gospel, who kneels with towel and basin, washing the disciples' feet. It was Jesus who said of himself, "The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve."
So this story helps to remind us that God longs and longs and longs to give us, his children, more good things than we can possibly handle. God wants to serve us, to heal us, to make us whole, to give us what we need - not just grudgingly, barely enough, but pressed down, shaken together and running over!
4. Something About Us
But the third thing that this story tells us is something about us. And I'm afraid that it isn't very flattering. All those thousands of people - five thousand men, and maybe up to four times that number when you include the women and children - all those people, and one, just one, was willing to share what he had! One little boy who came up to Andrew and whispered, shyly, "Jesus can share my lunch if he'd like". Nobody else was willing to share.
Yet most people probably had more than they needed that day. We tend to take along more food than we'll need, just in case. And if we make a packed lunch for our family, if they're going on an outing, there's usually enough that we could share it, if we wanted to, without going hungry ourselves.
But the people in the crowd weren't willing to risk going hungry. They weren't willing to share their food, not even with Jesus and his disciples. That was too great a risk. Perhaps they wouldn't have minded missing lunch, for once, but what about their children?
Incidentally, I'm aware that I'm sounding as though the sole source of food was from the crowd, rather than from Jesus. I rather suspect it was a case of "both, and" - I'm perfectly certain that if the small boy's five loaves and two fishes were really all the food there was, Jesus would have produced a delicious meal for everyone from just that. However, I find it almost impossible to believe that nobody else at all had brought any supplies with them! Like so much of Christianity, the truth is probably somewhere in between; a case of "both, and", rather than "either, or".
And, in fact, the mechanics of the thing don't matter all that much. After all, someone has even commented that the real miracle was that the boy still had five loaves and two fishes left by lunchtime, knowing how boys so often eat their packed lunches before the coach has left the school gates!
Seriously, though, the crowd was selfish. Either they had come out without any food, or, if they had brought food, they weren't willing to share it. Either way, they expected Jesus to do something about it. They weren't going to do anything. They were going to hedge their bets, to wait and see, to look out for Number One.
And are we like that? Well, yes, we are, some of the time, aren't we. We can be extraordinarily selfish. I know people, Christian people, who will quite happily spend a pound on a Lottery ticket, but try asking them to give a pound to a missionary society and see how far you get! Usually they can't possibly spare more than 10p, if that!
And we can be extraordinarily faithless. We can't offer more than ourselves to Jesus, but how often do we offer even that? The small boy offered what he had - five loaves, and two fishes. It wasn't much, but he had the courage to offer it. Nobody else seems to have had the nerve. But why not?
Partly, of course, it was selfishness and fear - if I give my lunch to Jesus, maybe I won't get any. Maybe my kids won't get any. I'm not going to offer; I need what I have for myself.
But partly it was a different sort of fear. Fear of rejection. And that is one of the most difficult of all fears to overcome. Been there, done that, read the book bought the T-shirt! You don't go to Jesus with your five loaves and two fish because you're afraid he'll shriek with laughter and say "Who on earth do you think you are!" You don't go to Jesus and say "Use me as you will", because you're afraid he'll either send you off to work somewhere highly disagreeable, like somewhere with a seriously nasty climate far away from all your friends and family - Brixton, for instance. Or else we're afraid that he won't! That he will say "I couldn't possibly use *you*" and sort of throw you aside like a used tissue.
But, you know, that's not God! We've just seen how God longs and longs to be far more generous to us than we can possibly imagine. And when we say "Use me as you will", he says "Great! Now, here's this present, and do take some of that, and are you sure you won't have any more of the other, and you really need some of this, and...." until you practically have to say, "Hey, hang on, give me a chance to breathe!"
Oh, but, you are saying, I've offered and offered and nothing has happened. God doesn't want me! Well, I have to ask two questions, then. The first is, did you really mean your offering, or did you pull it back as soon as you'd made it. And the second question is, are you sure God isn't helping you do exactly what you're meant to be doing right now? Not all of us are called to spectacular tasks, or to go and work somewhere with a disagreeable climate, and so on. Not even Brixton! Some of us are asked to stay right where we are, and be salt and light in our own families and communities. Students are probably meant to be studying hard and waiting to see where the road leads to next. Parents are probably meant to be making a safe home for their children. The elderly are often such enormous lights to the rest of us - we need you so much in our churches, just for who you are and what you have learnt about our dear Lord as you have followed him!
In fact, it's always safer to assume that God will want you to stay where you are, doing what you're doing. If that should change, you can be quite sure you will know about it totally unmistakeably! But God can't use you unless you offer yourself to him, and he will use you if you do! And if you hold back, whether from fear, or from selfishness, or from any other motive, then not only do you prevent the Kingdom of God from going forward in the way God would like, but you also cut yourself off from all the good things God wanted to give you!
I've gone on quite long enough for one morning! But this story, this central story, of how Jesus fed a huge crowd, does teach us that Jesus is greater even than Elijah and Elisha, and does foreshadow the taking, blessing, breaking and sharing of bread that is so important to us. It reminds us of how extravagantly generous God can be, and how much he longs and longs to share that generosity with you and with me. And it reminds us that all too often we can be selfish and afraid, and hold back from offering what we have and who we are to Jesus.
So lets make an effort this morning to conquer our fear and selfishness, and to offer ourselves anew to the God whose response is always so infinitely greater than our terrified offerings.
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