July 31, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“Now when Jesus heard [about the death of John the Baptist], He withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by Himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed Him on foot from the towns. When He went ashore He saw a great crowd, and He had compassion on them and healed their sick.”
The Collect of the Day stated: “Heavenly Father, though we do not deserve Your goodness, still You provide for all our needs of body and soul.” Though seemingly simple, that is a profound statement. It tells about you and it tells about God. What did you admit, as you prayed those words? That you are deserving of nothing good from God. It is quite an admission, a statement that hardly anyone would say of themselves. People like to speak about what they are entitled to. There are large debates about such things in our Congress. Demands are made quickly to have what should be coming to you. But in the prayer, your admission was you don’t deserve goodness. It is a true statement rooted in your guilt, your sin, your rebellion against God’s will.
But the prayer spoke of another truth, a truth about God and His character: “still You provide for all our needs of body and soul.” Those words described God: that He has the ability to supply what you need. They also described His character: He is gracious and merciful, He gives what you need though you do not deserve it. And in the Scripture readings heard this morning, you had God’s will revealed to you: He desires to be generous for your benefit.
The events that took place around the Sea of Galilee reveal God, His character, and His will to you. There are more than words or propositions: here you see actions that reveal these things about God. The Gospel Reading began with a sentence recording Jesus’ actions: “Now when Jesus heard this, He withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by Himself.” What is the “this” in that sentence? What had Jesus heard? He had experienced rejection in Nazareth when He had preached in His hometown synagogue. Soon after that, Jesus heard about what King Herod had done to John the Baptist. Not only had Herod imprisoned the Forerunner of the Christ, now he had put him to the sword. Jesus’ kinsman, His servant, was now dead. In the face of this, Jesus goes away by Himself, sailing across the lake.
But what happened? Jesus doesn’t even get to the other side of the Sea of Galilee by Himself: “But when the crowds heard it, they followed Him on foot from the towns. When He went ashore He saw a great crowd. . . .” A greeting party is there for Jesus. But this is not a delegation to welcome Him and bestow great accolades upon Him. They are present because they believe Jesus. But even more so, they are there to get something from Jesus. Do they deserve such action? Can they demand Jesus give them some sort of entitlement? No. But what does Jesus do? “When He went ashore He saw a great crowd, and He had compassion on them and healed their sick.” When Jesus saw what the crowd needed, He had a pain in His stomach over their plight—that’s a literal way of understanding the Greek word ἐσπλαγχνίσθη. Jesus comes a people who are in need, and His character drives Him to action. He sees their diseases and heals them.
The Gospel Writer tells us that this went on for a while, so much that the day was ending: “Now when it was evening, the disciples came to Him and said, ‘This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’” The situation had changed. No longer were there only sick people around needing something from Jesus, the entire crowd has a need: stomachs to be filled. So how does Jesus react? “But Jesus said, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’” But the disciples cannot do that: “They said to Him, ‘We have only five loaves here and two fish.’” What the disciples are capable of doing will not meet the needs of the crowds. But what Jesus is capable and willing to do takes care of the situation.
“Jesus said, ‘Bring them here to Me.’ Then He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, He looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then He broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over.” The identity, character, and will of Jesus are on display; they are shown by what He does. He acts out of His compassion to heal the sick. He acts out of His compassion to take care of the hungry. He helps in ways that no earthly being could. His will is to give aid, and so He does, even in the midst of rejection and unbelief shown in Nazareth and by Herod.
So it also is for you, as Jesus acts out of compassion for you in this world full of sin, false worship, faithlessness, and rebellion. His will is to bring salvation. His character is show mercy. His identity is wrapped up in being the Redeemer. And so Jesus acts to help you. The greatest of the acts is what He accomplished by dying and rising again. That is what opened the gates of heaven to you. That is what made it possible for you to be a holy people. It is the source of absolution for your sin, renewal for your hearts and minds, life for your bodies and souls. Jesus’ identity, character, and will cause Him to give everything of Himself for you, as you heard well last Sunday in the words of His parables.
What was accomplished in the past has effects in the present day. Even more so, Jesus is active in the present day, acting in compassion even here. What does Jesus behold in this place? What does He see? He sees you, afflicted by so much. You suffer from illnesses—physical, mental, spiritual. You are hungry, wanting to have righteousness given to you. You are people who need aid. And yet, you deserve nothing good, due to your sin, guilt, and rebellion. But Jesus does not turn you away. He does not dismiss you. Instead, He acts out of compassion for you. Like the reaction He had when getting out of the boat and seeing the crowds, Jesus has a pain in His stomach over you and your plight.
So what does Jesus do? He invites you to come to Him. You have a need. Come to the One who can fulfill it. The invitation is the same one that the Lord gave to the people of old through the prophet Isaiah: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to Me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to Me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, My steadfast, sure love for David.” The invitation draws you to the provision that Jesus has for you.
Do you have a desire for life? Come to the One who has died and lives eternally. Do you hunger for justice and righteousness? Come to the One who has no fault in Him. Are you worn out by the impossible task of trying to live perfectly? Come to the One who has borne your burden. What Jesus has is meant for you. It is given freely for you. And it is given by being in His presence, listening to what He says: “Listen diligently to Me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to Me; hear that your soul may live.” His words deliver to you the divine provisions that He possesses, the forgiveness, life, and salvation that you need.
Do you deserve such blessing? Is it an entitlement that you have had since birth? No. But it is what the Lord chooses to give to you. It is what He makes to be your birthright, as you have been born again by water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism. The everlasting covenant has been made with you. You have been brought into it through the compassionate work of Jesus. You are connected to His death and resurrection. That part of the covenant is renewed every time you admit sin and are forgiven through Jesus’ words of absolution. What Jesus has done for you in His sacrifice is delivered again and again, as you partake of Him in the Lord’s Supper, eating the bread of life that Jesus offers to you. Jesus authorizes His apostles, His sent ministers, to give you something to eat, to give what you need for your salvation. And what Jesus offers to you is enough and more than enough, like the leftover baskets of bread that were collected after all had eaten and were satisfied.
Through these actions that Jesus does, that have Jesus as the actor, His life becomes your life. His righteousness has become your righteousness. And now you share Jesus’ character. You share His will. The Holy Spirit transforms and renews you. So there are actions that you do that reflect the same compassion that Jesus had for you. What does that look like? It looks like this: When you see the plight of others, you also get that pain in the stomach. You are driven to act selflessly, no longer for the benefit of yourself, but for others. You take what you have and provide aid. That is what happens when you share Jesus character and abide in His will.
But there is the limitation: like the disciples, you only have five loaves and two fish. The clothing closet has a finite amount of materials in it. The bank accounts only supply what is in the black numbers. Knowledge of medicine can only heal so much. But you also know that what Jesus provides is still present now. It isn’t bound by such earthy limits. What causes the soul to live, what forgives sins, what delivers from unending death is still given by Jesus. And you can direct the crowds to Him. You can repeat the invitation that was spoken by Isaiah and others sent by the Lord: “Incline your ear, and come to Me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, My steadfast, sure love for David.” Those words beckon people, drawing them to the source of provision. The promise is made concerning you, the Lord’s people: “Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know, and a nation that did not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for He has glorified you.” That is what happens, as you act according to the identity, character, and will that Jesus’ work has bestowed upon you.
The realization of all this becomes clear, as today’s collect said: “Heavenly Father, though we do not deserve Your goodness, still You provide for all our needs of body and soul.” The prayer continues: “Grant us Your Holy Spirit, that we may acknowledge Your gifts, give thanks for all Your benefits, and serve You in willing obedience.” You will do so, as you benefit from the compassion that Jesus has shown to you, acting according to His identity, character, and will. Receive those actions. Be transformed and renewed by them. Know that Jesus has provided well for you. And going from this place, you may carry that provision to others who suffer the same plight, so they also may share in what the gracious and merciful Jesus gives.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.