Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 08/03/2014

This wasn’t the first time Jesus had been in a deserted place, a wilderness place. That’s the setting for the feeding of the five thousand miracle, the only miracle story that appears in all the gospels, but Jesus had been there before. Following his baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he was tempted for forty days by the devil, the wilderness in that case symbolizing a place of temptation. In fact, one of the things the devil tempted Jesus to do was to change stones into bread in order to feed himself which would have been another version of a feeding miracle but one that Jesus didn’t perform during that wilderness time.

It’s also safe to assume that Jesus would have been familiar with the Moses story and its connection with the wilderness, the people of Israel out there searching for the Promised Land for forty years. In that case, the wilderness wasn’t so much a place of temptation, but a place of wandering and uncertainty, sometimes a place of rebellion against God with the incessant whining of the people and their lack of faith in Moses and in the Lord.

The deserted place, wilderness setting of today’s story and the association of such places with temptation, wandering and rebellion is more than an incidental detail. The setting and the way the feeding of the five thousand story is told is quite clearly intended to evoke images of the Old Testament bread in the wilderness part of the Moses story when, in response to the complaints of the people, the Lord provided them with bread to eat, manna as it is called. Today’s gospel lesson retells that story, retelling it with Jesus at the center as he provides for the people and that’s significant because it puts Jesus in the place of YHWH, the Lord of the Old Testament. The retelling puts Jesus in the place of God.

That provides a good reminder of the purpose of the gospels. The gospels weren’t written to be biographies of Jesus although biographical elements are certainly present; but the intent of those who wrote was to bring people to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, not the messiah as the political/military figure they had been expecting, but the messiah who would reveal God and act in the place of God. Part of the way they do that is to tell the story of Jesus using familiar outlines and images, in this case using this familiar story about Moses but telling it not with Jesus in the role of Moses, but as I said, with Jesus in the role of the Lord, Jesus as the one who provides thus giving him divine qualities. For Jesus to be understood as the Messiah he had to be a figure like Moses but also greater than Moses, and this story conveys that message as it makes connections and associations that would have registered with people of that time.

Jesus is at the center in this wilderness story that does include those wilderness themes of uncertainty, temptation and rebellion. There’s uncertainty on the part of the disciples as to where food to feed the crowd is going to come from like there was uncertainty with the people of Israel about how they were to be fed. They didn’t trust in the ability of Moses or the Lord to provide, the disciples despite having spent time with Jesus, despite the healings they’d seen him do, weren’t sure that he could handle this. This could also be seen as another temptation for Jesus similar to the temptations he had faced in that earlier wilderness experience. This time it was the temptation to go along with the disciples’ suggestion to just send the people away which was not an unreasonable suggestion under the circumstances.

As he had done in his earlier journey into the wilderness, Jesus resisted that temptation; he resisted it because he had to. Remember in those earlier temptations how the devil said to him, “If you are the son of God, change these stones into bread; if you are the son of God throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple” and so forth?? “If you are the son of God;” in those cases, if Jesus had done what the devil wanted him to he would have proved that he wasn’t the son of God which of course is what the tempter wanted. Jesus’ identity was at stake; it was at stake then and it was at stake again in this story because to send the people away without addressing their need would also show that he wasn’t the son of God, he wasn’t the messiah because God does address needs.

The stories in the gospels are intended to reveal Jesus identity, to help people come to faith in him as the messiah. To accomplish that, the character and nature of God has to be revealed through Jesus. Now, God is a complex character and the nature of God is portrayed in many different ways in the Bible but maybe the most frequently stated description of God is what we had in the first line of today’s psalm: “The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” That description gets reiterated over and over again. What that means is that as impressive and mysterious as it was to feed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish, what is even more significant for us is why Jesus did what he did. When he saw the crowd he had compassion on them, that’s why he acted: he revealed that compassion was at the core of who he was.

Gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; for Jesus to be the Messiah, that phrase had to describe him. Compassion was at the heart of the Lord, the God of the Old Testament so for Jesus to be the incarnation of that God, compassion had to be the heart of who he was and is and that was and is the case. Extending that, compassion is at the heart of the God we name as Trinity and identify as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and I have to tell you that that truth is at the center of what I believe. If God as gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love isn’t true, my faith falls apart.

To be the Messiah, Jesus had to act out of compassion with that crowd of people, he couldn’t just send them away. More than anything compassion is at the center of this story and Jesus’ compassion, God’s compassion is something that is good to be reminded of. What also can’t be ignored though is Jesus’ initial response to the disciples… “You give them something to eat.” The compassion of Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook, his compassion is to be reflected in and enacted by those who follow him.

The disciples were in a position we all find ourselves in sometimes, feeling helpless, what can we do, there’s not enough. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the need that is out there. But Jesus says, “You give them something to eat,” and that you, is us. “God’s work, our hands” as the ELCA slogan puts it and what we find is that while no one can do it all, together we can do a lot. Jesus calls us to change our vision of “not enough” and to recognize the abundance he offers. He calls us to act out of faith that God’s compassionate intentions for the world will ultimately prevail.

Every once in awhile I wind up driving by the food bank down the hill when they are open for business and I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by how long the line is, but I am; so many people apparently having trouble putting food on the table, something most of us don’t worry too much about. But then I think, every church around here, large and small, has some version of our food table. As part of VBS last week, the kids brought in canned goods and made their contribution.

If it was just one church, it would help a little bit, but when you put it all together, we provide for that long line of people, modeling the compassion of Jesus, answering his call of “You give them something to eat;” God’s work, our hands. The disciples thought they didn’t have enough, only five loaves and two fish, but God can do a lot with our “only.” Miracles do happen.

Jesus does reveal to us a God who is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. I need to know that and I think you do too. You won’t hear from me again for a few weeks with the picnic next week and then being gone for a couple of weeks to tend to my mother, but I can’t think of a better or more important reminder to leave with you. The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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