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February 8th, 2015

Trust and Do

In the midst of adversity or confusion, can you bring a soft heart that trusts Jesus?

Mark 6:30-44

February 8, 2015

Outrageous miracle

In his book on Miracles, Eric Metaxas includes a chapter titled “The Miracle of the Universe.”

I asked the smartest physicist I personally know, my son Phil (Ph.D. in physical oceanography), to read this chapter and tell me if what Metaxas says about the statistical improbability of the universe is generally accepted science. While not every scientist agrees the data points to a Creator, what Metaxas says about the physics is true, according to my son.

Metaxas says there are four fundamental forces that cause our universe to function as it does – 1) gravity, 2) the electromagnetic force, 3) the weak nuclear force, and 4) the strong nuclear force. Each of these forces, according to physicists, were established within a millionth of a second after the Big Bang, and have not varied even a little since.

If the idea of the Big Bang bothers you, let me repeat what I’ve often said. The big debate over origins is not whether God created the world in seven 24-hour days 6,000 years ago. It’s whether there is a Creator at all. Metaxas uses the Big Bang to say, “Yes.”

There’s much more in this chapter, but Metaxas specifically zeroes in on the ratio of the electromagnetic force to the gravitational force. He says that if that ratio had varied by one part in 1040 (10 followed by 40 zeroes), the universe would not exist. Then he borrows from a Caltech astrophysicist named Hugh Ross to illustrate.

Imagine if you could cover all of North America with a layer of dimes. Then add layer on layer until you reach the height of the moon, 238,000 miles. Then repeat that with one billion other continents the size of North America. In that stack of times place one red dime, blind-fold a friend, and ask him to find the red dime. The odds of your friend finding the dime are 10 to the fortieth power.

Again, if the ratio between two of the four physical forces in the universe had varied by one part in 1040 the universe as we know it would not exist, nor would you and I. So that either happened by chance from pre-existing matter (begging the question, where did that matter come from), or there is a God. Those are the options. It won’t surprise you to know that I go with the God option.

As Metaxas says, “Our existence is an outrageous and astonishing miracle, one so startlingly and perhaps so disturbingly miraculous that it makes any miracle like the parting of the Red Sea pale in such insignificance that it almost becomes unworthy of our consideration, as though it were something done easily by a small child, half-asleep.” Linda and I saw the new “Exodus” movie the other night, and although there were certainly parts we would quibble with, the physical depiction of the parting of the Red Sea far trumped Cecil B. DeMille, released the year of my birth (1956).

I would make the same statement about the Feeding of the 5000 that Metaxas makes about the Parting of the Red Sea. The reason I connect the feeding miracle to Creation is because when Jesus fed the crowd (twice), he was creating matter as he multiplied the loaves and fish. I have heard from time to time the theory that Jesus didn’t create any matter that day, or even do a miracle. He just inspired the crowd to share their food. That’s an interesting angle on the story, but I’ll tell you in a moment why I don’t think it happened that way. I believe Jesus by his own hands multiplied barley loaves and sardines ex nihilo on the spot. If indeed he made the universe out of nothing (John 1:3), creating food for a few thousand people is, as Metaxas says, child’s play.

This story is so important to the message of Jesus that it is the only miracle related in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I’ve been asking myself why all week, and I think it’s precisely because everyone can connect on some level with this miracle, but the connection is not always the same. I want to relate how Mark tells this story, and why he tells this story. Occasionally I might add in a detail from another gospel, but I will mostly stick to Mark. This passage sprang to life for me this week!

Must see

At the end of our Israel pilgrimage last fall, we asked members of our group to rate each site we had visited on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 indicating “must see.” Of the 50 or so sites we visited, only one scored a “1” from every pilgrim: the Sea of Galilee. I suppose we all had our reasons. Mine was just sensing the presence of Jesus – being where he was, seeing what he saw.

1 - fisherman

Mark 6 sets up the scene with the story of Jesus’ rejection in his hometown of Nazareth, followed by his commissioning of the twelve disciples to step out on their own and go two by two into the villages for preaching, exorcisms, and healings. King Herod hears about all this, and exclaims, “John the Baptist must have been raised from the dead!” This shows that Jesus was just coming on to Herod’s radar, and for Mark it prompts a flashback to an earlier story of John’s beheading.

Then in Mark 6:30 the disciples return to Jesus, but so do the crowds. It’s a little unclear where exactly this happens, but a reasonable assumption is that it takes place either in Capernaum on the north shore or somewhere along the shores to the west of Capernaum. These are places Jesus often taught and ministered during this phase of his ministry. It’s springtime, near Passover, according to John (6:4).

2 - aerial

As the disciples return to Jesus to report about their mission, a rather chaotic scene develops. The Twelve obviously don’t all return at the same time, maybe even not on the same day, and apparently the disciples themselves now have attracted followers. Plus, Jesus had disappeared off the radar for many people, and now they know where to find him. A growing mass of humanity is “coming and going” according to Mark, and the disciples really need a break.

“Come on,” Jesus tells them when they’re all back. “Let’s go find a secluded spot on the opposite shore for some rest.” They get in their boat and row east on the open water.

Here’s a detail of the story that comes alive when you’ve been to the Sea of Galilee. What happens next in the story couldn’t happen on Lake Hickory, for two reasons. The first is the number of coves and inlets in our manmade lake. The second is the quantity and height of our trees and vegetation.

3 - sea with boats

By contrast, the Sea of Galilee has mostly an even shoreline, with much less vegetation. This means from almost any vantage point along the shore (or the hills above the shoreline), you can see a boat for miles out into the water. This is the height of Jesus’ popularity, with his reputation for both teaching and healing spreading rapidly. The crowd is not going to give up easily on their intrigue with Jesus just because he and his boys got into a boat. He is a “must see.” They begin to race along the shoreline as well as up and down the hills and through the towns, all the while checking the water occasionally to make sure the boat is in sight. That part’s easy for them.

And what do you suppose happens hundreds or even thousands stampede all in one direction? Everyone else wonders, “What’s going on?” The crowd grows, like a snowball rolling downhill.

4 - shore from sea

“It’s Jesus! He’s in the boat, and he’s headed that way. Maybe he’ll do some more miracles. People are saying he’s the Messiah!” They can run/walk the shoreline quicker than the disciples can row their boat. The distance may have been a couple miles or maybe 5 or 6, we don’t know. I’m thinking Jesus is out in the boat for a good bit of the midday. Now it doesn’t matter where Jesus chooses to land, he’s going to be met with an even larger crowd than the one he left. By the time the meet the boat, the crowd has grown to five thousand men, plus an unknown number of women and children (Matthew 14:21). One boy, at least, brings a lunch basket.

No one knows for sure where the boat landed that day, but if you put the gospels together it needs to be a site that can be considered remote, wilderness, and grassy. The most likely place is probably close to a seaside town identified as Bethsaida. The problem is that Luke (9:10) indicates he came to Bethsaida and Mark (6:45) says after the miracle he departed for Bethsaida. Since “Bethsaida” means “house of fishing,” it’s not unreasonable to think more than one town along the coast would have used that name.

5 - grassy field

The Jordan River empties into the Sea of Galilee near Bethsaida, and this creates fertile grasslands in a relatively remote place surrounded mostly by wilderness in the foothills of what is now known as the Golan Heights. Wherever it is, when Jesus comes ashore he feels compassion for this crowd “because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). This metaphor has deep roots in the Old Testament, but also in this case it seems to indicate the chaotic, impulsive nature of this group of people. He gives them what they want and teaches them – maybe something like the Sermon on the Mount, but Mark doesn’t say. Matthew (14:31) and Luke (9:11) also say at this point he “healed their sick.”

This goes on for some time, and then it’s late. None of the Gospels tell us how late, but I’m thinking around 4:30 or 5:00. The sun sets around 6:00 in March in that area. People are going to be headed home in the dark, and they will be hungry. Nobody apparently thought about bringing food. They didn’t plan to stay all day, and didn’t plan to wind up in a remote area. The river is there, so they have water, but they’re hungry.

6 - sunrise (sunset)

The disciples come to Jesus and say, “Let’s wrap this up and send them home. If they leave now, there are enough towns in walking distance for them to buy supper.” Jesus now surprises the disciples and says, “You give them something to eat!”

“Are you kidding?” they answer. “That would cost eight months’ wage for a working man.”

“Well, what do you have? Look around.”

“So they do.” They mingle with the crowd, asking, “Anyone have anything to eat? Did you bring something? How about you?” All they come up with are five small loaves of barley bread (according to John), the poor man’s bread, and a couple of sardines.

“That’ll do,” Jesus says. “Tell them all to sit down on the green grass in rows of a hundred or fifty.” The Greek suggests garden-like furrows. One commentator suggests they make a hundred rows of fifty each, which would fit nicely with the 5000 men who were there. However they sat, it is clear that Jesus replaces the chaos with order.

Jesus takes that small lunch, looks up to heaven, and blesses God. “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” He begins to break the bread and divide the fish into baskets for the disciples to distribute. Jewish men carried baskets with them, comparable to a man-purse. The Romans were said to have made fun of the Jews for these baskets.

Every time he breaks the bread and puts it into their baskets, there’s still more to break. He keeps at this until everyone is full and there are twelve baskets full of leftovers. I wish I had a video of this scene.

I don’t think most of the crowd ever knew what happened at first. I suspect it was the best barley bread they ever had, and the sardines were particularly sardine-ish (sort of like saving the best wine for last at the wedding), and I would guess people started asking questions and the crowd became restless again. John tells eventually they did know, and they were so impressed they decided to crown him their king right there on the spot. But for all the wrong reasons, so Jesus dismissed the crowd into the moonlight and slipped into the Golan Heights for some time with his Father. He sent the disciples on ahead to the other fishing village in the boat.

Let’s talk about the meaning of this miracle. Miracles always have meaning. They are always designed to glorify God and to teach lessons of faith.

Trust

In the telling of the story, Mark doesn’t say what the faith lesson is. He lets it hang a bit. But it makes it fairly clear in a couple of passages that follow, both of which take place in a boat on the sea.

The first is the miracle-story that follows the feeding of the 5000. The disciples get back in the boat and head to open water, while Jesus remains in the hills praying. The wind starts working against the disciples in their rowboat, and they strain to make progress. Suddenly Jesus shows up, and he’s walking on top of the lake water. Mark says the disciples “were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened” (6:50-51).

In chapter 8, Jesus feeds another crowd over in the area of the Decapolis on the east side of the lake. It’s a different crowd, more than likely made up most of Gentiles. On the heels of the second feeding, Jesus tells his men to “watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod” (8:15). The disciples are puzzled about the metaphor, and take his word literally, like a child would. They think, “He’s mad at us because we forgot to bring bread for this trip.”

Jesus is annoyed, but not for that reason. “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened?…Don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” (8:17-19). Both conversations take place in the boat on the lake.

Here’s one of the points in the story that make me know that feeding of the 5000 was not about Jesus teaching a lesson on sharing, when everyone reluctantly brought out food they had hidden under their cloaks.  Jesus never follows up with a point about sharing. He says when he walks on the water and calms the wind, and later when they are confused, “Don’t you remember what I did? Having seen what I did, do you trust me? Do you think I can take care of you? When you’re not making any progress, when the forces are against you, when you don’t understand something, do you think I can handle it? If I can feed 5000 men plus women and children from five barley loaves and two sardines, do you think I can take care of you?”

Or is your heart hard? Do you remember what he’s done before, from the Big Bang to the big crowd to the last big provision for you personally? Even if you don’t know how this problem is going to be solved, and even if you’re thoroughly confused about what he’s trying to say to you, can you bring a soft heart, one that wants to trust him?

Do

The second lesson is not quite as directly stated in Mark’s gospel, but I think it is evident. One of the theoretical questions that has been on my mind all week is this: How else might Jesus have handled this situation?

Jesus could have sent them all home, with or without a lecture on impulsiveness.  He could have said, “You know what, it wouldn’t hurt you guys to miss a meal.” He could have miraculously caused them to remember to bring food. He could have sent the disciples to buy food, perhaps even with “miraculous” money. He could have caused bread or quail to drop from heaven. He could have dropped a few beans in the ground and made them magically grow. He could have filled their bellies miraculously, with or without commenting on it. He could have caused a basket of food to appear suddenly in each group. He could have had every person in the crowd line up and come to him personally.

Instead, he engaged the disciples. He had compassion, but he delivered his compassion with their hands. We say, “Jesus, don’t you care about hungry children in Kenya, about the homeless here in Hickory, about the malnourished kinds in Nicaragua?” He answers, “Yes, I care. My heart breaks. That’s why I gave you more than you need, so you can partner with me. You give them something to eat.”

Do you care about “sheep without a shepherd”? Do you have compassion on impulsive people who don’t plan ahead and seek Jesus only for shallow motives? The 5000+ are not all strong believers who know who Jesus is. John says they almost all desert him at the end of this sequence of events (John 6:66). They want a political Messiah; they want a king to replace Herod. They like a man who can capture a crowd’s attention and hold it. They love a guy who can fill their bellies. But they don’t “get” Jesus, not at all, not even after listening to him all day.  They in no way deserved a miracle.

But it wasn’t about them. Even though they came to know what happened, this miracle was not done for the benefit of the crowds. If it had been, it would have been a complete failure. This miracle was for the benefit of the disciples. They remembered it and they told it. That’s why you and I know about it.

God meets needs and does miracles, but he does it through us. And he doesn’t do it just for the deserving or those who have enough faith or the right kind of faith. Our part is not to look the crowd over and decide if they are worthy.   Our part is availability to do whatever, whenever, Jesus asks – to distribute his provision to others.

Today we open the “Connections Desk” at Corinth in the Rowe Welcome Center. Every Sunday after worship, you can go by and meet a live person – Charissa Loftin, our Volunteer Coordinator – who can help you connect your schedule, your gifts, your resources, and your passion to needs in the church and in the community.

When unmet needs are all around you – in your life or in your sight – trust His plan, and do what you can. That’s the lesson of the loves and fishes.

Amen.

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