For anyone who is interested, I generally share my words from the solo side of the pulpit. Sunday, I filled in at West Fayette Presbyterian Church in New York. This week, I will be presiding at Dover-Foxcroft United Methodist Church in Maine. I thank you for your prayers and support — both last week and this week.
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.
I once read the story of a family which was sitting down at the dinner table for their evening meal. But one of the girls wasn’t happy because they were having leftovers, and she complained about it.
The dad was not happy about that and spent a few moments explaining to her she needed to be more thankful for what she had. In order to make sure she understood his point, he decided she should say grace and her prayer should show her appreciation for what she had.
So she bowed her head and then prayed, “Thank You for this food … again.”
We’ve all heard this story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, probably many times. It’s a favorite Bible school theme. There isn’t a lot we can add. It’s a lesson in trust … even when looking at leftovers.
But as Paul Harvey used to say, “…and now for the rest of the story.”
There’s a theological move afoot to call Matthew’s text – and Mark’s, Luke’s and John’s as well — a parable. They say Jesus didn’t really feed the 5,000 with a mere five loaves of bread and a couple of fish. They theorize the crowd, moved by the example of Jesus and the disciples, shared what they had with each other … a little bread, maybe some figs, whatever. They say the event was more a mandate for the apostles – not the followers – to give all their resources and then some to preach the “substance” of Christ’s ministry. Christ, then, will be with them to assure those who hear the apostles’ message are filled.
Ummmmm. That’s certainly plausible and a good theological take except … this wasn’t a parable. It was an event. I believe it was a miracle, and as with other miracles, it’s not up to us to determine how it happened but to accept it did happen and learn the lesson from it.
I say that because it is found in all four Gospel tracts. To find it in Matthew, Mark and Luke isn’t all that unusual. But even John, who generally follows his own path, includes the event. And all four generally use the same language.
Were there 5,000 or was that number an Israeli Park Service estimate? Were there really just five loaves of bread? What kind of bread was it? What kind of fish was it? Does it matter?
To set the stage, Jesus was nearing the end of His public ministry. The demands on Him were enormous. And He just heard about John the Baptist’s beheading. As a result of the natural fatigue and grieving, Jesus heads out to a deserted place to be alone.
But the townsfolk hear about Jesus’ departure. After all the miracles and healings and teaching, they sought Him out – 5,000 men plus women and children we are told. Instead of resting, Jesus continued ministering … an impromptu tent meeting stretching through the day and Jesus had compassion on them. As the day waned, the disciples came to Jesus and asked Him to turn the crowd away so they could get some food.
According to all four evangelists, Jesus says, “No, bring me what you have.” When they protest saying they had only five loaves of bread and two fish, not nearly enough for the assembled crowd, Jesus affirms, Bring them.
An important point here is Jesus doesn’t feed the crowd. He commissions the disciples to do so after looking up to heaven … blessing … and breaking [the bread]. The disciples, after assembling the crowd into companies, did what they were instructed to do. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, 12 baskets full.
So, what’s the significance?
Well, that is the theological rub. That’s the fodder leading to the conclusion this was more of a parable.
We’ve discussed parables before. A parable is a short tale that illustrates a universal truth; it is a simple narrative. It sketches a setting, describes an action and shows the results. But typically, parables are stories within a story. In that sense, the theologians are correct.
However, miracles are real, too. This wasn’t the first time Scripture tells us how God provides. Remember the 40 years in the wilderness? God sent manna every day to feed not 5,000 but perhaps two million people with a breakfast of champions. He caused quail to come into the camp in such great numbers so the people were able to have meat to eat.
Do you remember Elijah in 1 Kings 17 being sent to the widow’s house and asking for bread? She replied she had only a handful of flour and a little oil, and she was just about to make a little cake for herself and her son after which they expected to die. Elijah told her she should first make something for him. For thus says the Lord God of Israel: “The bin of flour shall not be used up, nor shall the jar of oil run dry, until the day the Lord sends rain on the earth.” She obeyed and we read in 1 Kings 17:16 the bin of flour was not used up, nor did the jar of oil run dry, according to the word of the Lord which He spoke by Elijah.
Do you remember the story of Elisha who was approached by a widow lady who was hopelessly in debt? The only thing in her house was a jar of oil and he told her to borrow as many vessels as she could and to start pouring oil out of that jar into those vessels. She filled every vessel until there were no more, and Elisha told her to sell the oil and pay her debt and she and her sons shall live on the rest.
Of course the other noteworthy miracle performed by the Lord Jesus was at the wedding feast when he had the huge water pots filled with water, which was turned into the best wine. And Jesus does this food thing once before, a couple chapters later in Mark for another crowd of 4,000.
You can probably muster up a story or two how God’s providence far exceeded your efforts as well. I’ll share just one personal tidbit.
To set the stage, I interviewed for a job in Illinois and since it meant an 837 mile change in location, Karen went with me for the whirlwind weekend. It meant a substantial raise and a different direction in my career.
The weekend went well and I knew Karen and I had a lot to talk about. I figured we could discuss it further over dinner at the Seven Continents, a five star restaurant overlooking the O’Hare Airport. The only problem was I didn’t realize it was a five-star restaurant. I remember vividly we ordered the Caesar Salad and Chateaubriand and I nearly fainted when the bill came. We didn’t have any credit cards, just cash, and unbeknownst to Karen, the tab left me with $9.10 in my pocket. The waiter got stiffed. We got to the long term parking lot in Newark and I forked over $9 for parking. We got home and I plunked the dime on the table. Karen asked what that was for and I told her the story. Boy did my arm hurt!!!
But I had faith. During the meal I had lifted my eyes to the spectacular star-studded mural at the restaurant and asked God to stretch my meager funds just far enough. He didn’t disappoint.
Up in Maine I had an experience that didn’t go quite as well. I stopped for dinner and even had my arm twisted for a strawberry sundae for dessert. The bill came to $19 and change. I handed the waitress my credit card. She meekishly came back and said the card was declined. It was the only one in my possession and I only had a little more than eight bucks in my pocket. Again I asked for help from above. As I think about it, I do that a lot.
I talked to the manager and explained the situation. He tried running it a couple more times, then went next door to try and run it through their machines. Nothing. Nada. Just wouldn’t go through. As I was wondering when the police would arrive, the manager said, “Just give me what you have. We’ll call it even.”
So, I plunked down the eight bucks and change, thanked him and God, and left. That was Saturday. Monday morning when I was able to get through to the bank, I discovered the bank’s computers were down and since my card is technically a debit/credit card, Visa couldn’t communicate with the bank, thus the charge was rejected. Of course, I sent the restaurant an apology note along with a check for $25, designating the different to the poor waitress.
You all have similar stories.
God is still feeding the multitudes through everyday life. We work to provide funds to buy our food.Even those on welfare and disability pensions are supplied with their food through the work of those who are able to earn their own living by paying taxes which governments distribute. And what of food banks and holiday events which assist through the generosity of others. Surely God is still performing miracles every day of the year for the six billion inhabitants of earth … and through local agencies close to our hearts, like the House of Concern, right here in Seneca County.
What else do we learn from this story within a story?
Well, God’s supply is not only sufficient but super abundant. Have you thought about the logistics of distributing food to more than 5,000 people? How long did it take to pass out this food? And did they supply tartar sauce for the fish?
We also learn God’s supply must not be wasted. Not only were all filled, but after all had eaten, Jesus sent the disciples through the crowd again to gather up what was left over.
I have wondered, what was done with the 12 basketsful that were collected. Were these scraps that had been simply thrown on the ground, or were they food that was left over in baskets after everyone had eaten? Was this just an environmental concern or were these remainders carried with Jesus and His disciples to meet their own need for coming meals, or were they taken to other people who had need?
None of these answers are given to us. We simply read all ate and were filled. The supply never stopped until the need was met. The Bible always gives us enough truth to promote faith, but not enough to satisfy curiosity.
And yet, even with the miracles of feeding 4,000 with seven baskets of leftovers and 5,000 with 12 baskets of leftovers, the disciples still didn’t understand Jesus could supply all their needs. They had been there when Jesus fed the 5,000 and when He fed the 4,000, but they still struggled with the idea Jesus could supply all their needs.
And frankly, we all struggle with that at one time or another. We all struggle with the faith to believe God will supply all our needs in Christ Jesus.
In the old movie Shenandoah, Jimmy Stewart played the self-reliant father of the family. He’d go to church, but essentially he didn’t spend much time thinking about God. At the meal time prayer early in the movie Stewart prayed like this, “Lord, we cleared this land, we plowed it, sowed it and harvested it and we’ve cooked the harvest. It wouldn’t be here, and we wouldn’t be eatin’ it, if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-boned hard for every crumb and morsel, But we thank You just the same anyway, Lord, for this food we’re about to eat. Amen.”
Toward the end of the movie Stewart’s heart changes and he ends up going to church, but the reason I quoted that prayer is it reflects a truth in our lives. We have to make money. We have to pay the bills. We have to make repairs on the house. We have to put gas in our cars. We have to do this/have to do that.
And God doesn’t do that stuff for you. You do. It’s called being a responsible individual. It’s called doing what has to be done. But then something happens in our lives we can’t do. Something happens we can’t control and we can’t overcome. What do we do then?
You know what happens when that happens to me?
I get mad. I get frustrated. I often go into panic- and I can handle this-mode. Sorry, I know I should give you a more spiritual answer than that … but it’s the truth. And if it’s my fault things are going wrong… I get really upset.
But what has life taught me, especially as I move to this side of the pulpit, is to not stay upset. When I go into panic mode, and when find myself becoming frustrated and angry, I don’t let that control me. I’ve learned how to control those emotions. I pray. I tell God “I can’t do this. I don’t how to fix this. I don’t have any resources or power to overcome this obstacle in my life. So God I need You to do what I can’t.”
Jeff Strit, an evangelist/missionary with the Church of Christ in Logansport, IN, has been a preacher for over 30 years. He reflects, “I’ve been a preacher for years and I’ve been blessed with a whole list of leftovers. If you sit down and ask me to tell you of the things God has done in my life over the years I could talk all day long. And I’m hardly ever the hero in those stories. God’s the hero. They’re His stories. They’re the stories of how God has fulfilled all my needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus.
“I’ve got a boatload of leftovers I’ve seen in my life.
“But now, what if you don’t have those personal leftovers to chew on? What if you’re new to the faith? Or what if you haven’t had much experience with God’s kindnesses in your life?
“Well, if you don’t have your own personal leftovers God says, ‘Here let Me give you a few’. That’s what Romans 15:4 is talking about when we’re told, … everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
“Everything God has had written down here in the Bible was meant to be snack food for us. It was all written for you!
“When you read about Joseph being sold into slavery and then unjustly thrown into prison … that was written for you.
“When you read about David facing off against a giant he had no business fighting … that was written for you.
“When you read about Esther facing possible death to save her people … that was written for you.
“When you read about Daniel being thrown into the lion’s den and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego being thrown into the fiery furnace … those stories were written for you.
“Those stories were all written down so you’d see real people facing real problems – people who may have struggled with their faith. Most of the time those people struggled but ultimately obeyed God. And because they were willing to obey God even in their fears and doubts God worked a miracle in their lives.
“Those tales were not written down so you’d have bed time stories to read to your kids! They were written down so through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures (you) might have hope.
“If you don’t have your own leftovers to feed off … feed off these stories.
“I pity the person who refuses to accept these stories as real. I feel sorry for the folks who don’t believe what God has written down for them, because they go to bed hungry. They have nothing to feed their hunger for hope and a future. They don’t believe in a God who can supply all their needs for them according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”
Does that mean I should sit back and do nothing but wait on God? Do I just sit back in my easy chair and put my feet up and say “Que sera, sera – whatever will be will be” and just don’t do anything?
No … that’s not the way this thing works.
When Jesus fed the 5,000 do you remember what He asked His disciples? How many loaves do you have?” Mark 6:38 (five loaves, two fish)
And when Jesus fed the 4,000 do you know what He said to His disciples? “How many loaves do you have?” Mark 8:5 (seven loaves)
Are you sensing a pattern here?
What do you have to give to God? What can you supply?
Well then give it?
I know, you’re asking, “But what if it’s not enough!”
That’s ok… God will make up the difference. If God wants 10 and all you have is two … God will make up the difference.
He wants you to believe so strongly in the fact He can do what He promises, sometimes He expects you to pony up and do what you can – not because He needs your strength or your resources or your influence in the miracle. Rather, God wants you to partner with Him in His miracle. He wants you to share in the wonder of what He’s going to do in your life. He wants to give you a story all your own.
That’s the story within the story. That’s the lesson.
The disciples didn’t understand it … and they were there! They saw God’s benevolence over and over and over again.
What about us? Do we understand it? Do we see the message? Do we see the lesson? Do we recognize God’s presence in our lives?
God used an ordinary boy and his ordinary lunch to feed 5,000 people. God can use you and me and our ordinary things to do something amazing, too! We trust God to provide, and sometimes He might even provide for others in marvelous ways through us.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: The will of God will not take you where the peace of God will not keep you.