Mark 6:35-44 – You Want Us To Do What?

Late in the afternoon his disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go to the nearby farms and villages and buy something to eat.”

But Jesus said, “You feed them.”

“With what?” they asked. “We’d have to work for months to earn enough money to buy food for all these people!”

“How much bread do you have?” he asked. “Go and find out.”

They came back and reported, “We have five loaves of bread and two fish.”

Then Jesus told the disciples to have the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So, they sat down in groups of fifty or a hundred.

Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, looked up toward heaven, and blessed them. Then, breaking the loaves into pieces, he kept giving the bread to the disciples so they could distribute it to the people. He also divided the fish for everyone to share. They all ate as much as they wanted, and afterward, the disciples picked up twelve baskets of leftover bread and fish. A total of 5,000 men and their families were fed. (New Living Translation)

I once knew a dear church lady who made a pan of lasagna for a local soup kitchen. When she showed up, it turned out, other church ladies didn’t. Hers was to be one pan amongst many. Instead, it was the only one. When a long line formed of hungry impoverished people, she felt both compassion and heartsick. Her immediate thought was to go and buy several pans of lasagna. But she knew it would take too long, and she wasn’t even sure she could find enough to feed everyone.

So, rather than turning the people away, the dear woman looked up to heaven, uttered a prayer of thanksgiving to God for what little she had, and began serving. She said, “I just kept sticking my spatula into the pan, and lasagna kept coming out. By the time the last person in line came, I served the last of it. I can’t explain it. It just happened.”

No one left hungry.

Today’s Gospel lesson of Jesus feeding the five thousand men and their families is not just a nice account of something that happened a long time ago. Jesus is still doing miracles. The Lord is still expanding his benevolent reach all across God’s big world.

Jesus takes our meager resources and turns them into something with a large impact on a lot of people. For this to happen, all we need to do is follow our Lord’s simple instructions: “You feed them.” 

“But Jesus! I don’t have much money. I’m not a good organizer. I can’t do what you’re asking!”

“I don’t…” “I’m not…” “I can’t…” Jesus hears it every day.

Jesus really doesn’t want to hear about our “buts.” Maybe we ought to take the word “but” out of our language altogether. That’s because it’s not about us, at all.

Jesus can multiply whatever little we have to accomplish his benevolent work through us. 

Jesus could clearly do miracles without us having any involvement. Yet, he deliberately chooses to use us and our drop-in-the-bucket resources to participate in his work. Jesus wants to use our minds, our mouths, and the very marrow of our being to effect a miracle.

Our work is to bring Jesus our five small loaves and two fish. He’ll do the rest.

It is the compassion of Jesus which motivates him to miracles.

The crowd did not leave him alone. Rather than being annoyed by the situation because it was not on his agenda to deal with any people, Jesus looked at the large group of people and had compassion on them.  His heart went out to them.

God does not begrudgingly deal with us, as if we are an interruption to his day.

All these hungry people. What to do about it? “You feed them,” Jesus says. I perhaps detect a hint of sarcasm in the tone of the disciples reply: “We have only five loaves of bread and two fish.”  Their math was way off because they did not count Jesus. 

Through simple prayer and active obedience, we must give Jesus what we have, no matter how little or insignificant.

In this contemporary era, much of what we do is concerned to be reasonable and rational with a strong scientific or proven base for engaging ministry. Although I don’t have much of a stomach for believers who incessantly want a miracle for everything and see devils under every rock, I equally have no stomach for doing ministry as if it were an Enlightenment project, completely drained of all faith and the possibility of seeing God work in ways that are incomprehensible to our modern sensibilities.

Indeed, looking out at all the vast Western resources have accomplished with money and buildings and programs, it makes me want to explain, “This is amazing! It is incredible what we know-how American Christians can do without God!” 

I am curious what Christ’s Church would look like if we were to have an underlying presupposition and assumption that God is still in the business of doing miracles? I wonder: Would it impact the way we pray, and the way we act? 

What if we altogether forsook shame and had the boldness to say, “This might sound crazy, but what if we…”

  • “Found everyone in our city who needs food and go love on them and feed them” (instead of just going the rational route of only supplying the food pantry).
  • “Used our property to create a community garden and seek to help people grow their own food.” (instead of just giving out some food cards).
  • “Built a smart robot to plant the fields of disabled farmers and gave them the rights to the tech we developed.” (am I getting too crazy yet!?). 

In the kingdom of God, there are no boundaries – only unlimited opportunities to give our small ideas, little bits of strength, and puny resources to Jesus so that he can take it and feed the world.

Jesus is perfectly able to do his work without us and without what we have. However, he wants to use us and our meager resources to accomplish the miraculous meeting of needs far beyond what we could ever imagine. 

We too often do nothing. That’s because we mistakenly believe God either cannot or does not want to use me or what I have.

It just won’t do to stand afar off and expect God to work without us giving what we have, whether that something is time, money, conversation, food, hospitality, or whatever. Our excuses won’t do for Jesus – my home is too small, it is not clean enough, I don’t have enough money, I am not smart enough, my schedule won’t allow it, I don’t have enough resources…. All you need is something, no matter how seemingly insignificant it is.

You want me to do what? Feed thousands? The real pre-miracle work for many people is to be open, real, and transparent enough to believe Christ can do a miracle through confessing sin, participating in a ministry, having a spiritual conversation with somebody different than me, or just saying what I actually think and feel.  

The question is never, “Can God use me?” The real question is, “What miracle does Jesus want to do through me and through his Church?”

It was no accident when Jesus distributed the bread that it sounds a lot like communion.

The Lord’s Supper may seem to be irrelevant to some – as if it is only a way to remember Jesus, a mere regular ritual. Yet, God’s design is much bigger. Jesus wants to do a miracle through the distribution and ingestion of the common elements of bread and wine – a miracle of healing, a miracle of bringing true satisfaction the world can never give. 

It isn’t realistic to expect that Jesus can use the Table to feed and reach thousands. However, we don’t serve a God who is limited to work through rational means by only using our five senses. 

We serve a God who does unexpected miracles within the life of the community.

Lord, I believe. Help me in my unbelief! I open my mind and heart believing in your infinite power and possibility. I believe in your constant expression of perfect good in and through me. I know that with you all things are possible. All that I am, all I was, and all I hope to be I give to you. I am yours. Amen.

*Above painting: Feeding of the 5,000 by Laura James

**Above: Ethiopian Orthodox Church depiction of Christ feeding the 5,000

Psalm 98 – Sing a New Song

Sing to the Lord a new song
    because he has done wonderful things!
His own strong hand and his own holy arm
    have won the victory!
The Lord has made his salvation widely known;
    he has revealed his righteousness
    in the eyes of all the nations.
God has remembered his loyal love
    and faithfulness to the house of Israel;
    every corner of the earth has seen our God’s salvation.

Shout triumphantly to the Lord, all the earth!
    Be happy!
    Rejoice out loud!
    Sing your praises!
Sing your praises to the Lord with the lyre—
    with the lyre and the sound of music.
With trumpets and a horn blast,
    shout triumphantly before the Lord, the king!
Let the sea and everything in it roar;
    the world and all its inhabitants too.
Let all the rivers clap their hands;
    let the mountains rejoice out loud altogether before the Lord
    because he is coming to establish justice on the earth!
He will establish justice in the world rightly;
    he will establish justice among all people fairly. (Common English Bible)

Please notice the point of today’s psalm: Sing to the Lord a new song. Yes, a “new” song. This means we have an obligation to bring fresh music to our worship of God. This is a summons to get an original voice. Rather than going down the same ruts in our speaking and living, we are to exercise some creativity.

It seems as if those who want to stick with the “tried and true hymns” of the church have forgotten those hymns are only a few hundred years old in a church which is two-thousand years old. Back in the nineteenth century, a bitter worship battle ensued between those who wanted to sing the new hymns and those who had been singing the psalter for the past few hundred years.

The reason we sing new songs is because God is continually performing wonderful deeds in every generation. God has not only worked in the past; the Lord is doing the miraculous in the present, as well. The psalmist is thinking in cosmic, not provincial, terms. Included in the praising of new songs are a variety of creatures, along with all of creation.

Rivers Will Clap and Mountains Shout by Itamar Raz

We sing because of what God has done in the past, is doing in the present, and will do for the future. Creative and fresh praise that remembers previous divine works, experiences the now of the Spirit, and anticipates the coming of the Lord is the sort of praise called for in the psalm.

Being attentive to God’s mighty deeds helps us breakout into new vistas of living. Considering God’s works through new songs can become so invigorating that everyone and everything on earth is encouraged to join into the imaginative expression of praise.

We are to praise the Lord in this present time because of what God has done in the past, with a continual eye to the future when Christ will come again. If we don’t make the effort to offer praise that is fresh, creative, and thoughtful for our present time, then we ought not be surprised when a watching world gives a shoulder-shrugging “meh” to our tepid singing. And if such vibrant praise seems foreign, then the time is past due for a renewed focus on the works of God because the Lord really has done miraculous things for us.

Let’s jump start your creativity a bit:

  • Do some prayer walking through your neighborhood. See the community through another’s eyes.
  • Write in a journal or collect photos of significant experiences. No one needs to read or see it unless you want them to. Although, it’s a good idea to share with others.
  • Sketch, paint, or sculpt. Make a visual depiction of your joy or experience. It doesn’t matter if it looks like a second grade art project. It’s the process of creating that matters.
  • Participate in a new activity, like taking an online class or developing a different routine.
  • Don’t just do what somebody else did. Reflect on what is important to you. Then, make something to remind you of its value.

You are already a creative artist. You just might not know it, yet. Since you carry within yourself the DNA of a creative God, the Lord’s image and likeness within wants a creative outlet. Open yourself to the possibility of smelling colors, talking to trees, and listening to what animals have to say to you. In doing so, you just might discover that the miraculous has been under your nose all along.

Mighty God, your holy arm of power has done incredible works in history. What’s more, you have done influential works in my life, especially through deliverance from evil and transformation of heart.  For this, and for all your miraculously good work, I praise the gracious and wonderful name of Jesus Christ, my Savior and Lord. Amen.

Psalm 22:23-31 – Full of Suffering

Psalm 22 by Mike Moyers, 2016

All of you who revere the Lord—praise him!
    All of you who are Jacob’s descendants—honor him!
    All of you who are all Israel’s offspring—
        stand in awe of him!
Because he didn’t despise or detest
    the suffering of the one who suffered—
    he didn’t hide his face from me.
    No, he listened when I cried out to him for help.

I offer praise in the great congregation
    because of you;
    I will fulfill my promises
    in the presence of those who honor God.
Let all those who are suffering eat and be full!
    Let all who seek the Lord praise him!
        I pray your hearts live forever!
Every part of the earth
    will remember and come back to the Lord;
    every family among all the nations will worship you.
Because the right to rule belongs to the Lord,
    he rules all nations.
Indeed, all the earth’s powerful
    will worship him;
    all who are descending to the dust
    will kneel before him;
    my being also lives for him.
Future descendants will serve him;
    generations to come will be told about my Lord.
They will proclaim God’s righteousness
        to those not yet born,
        telling them what God has done. (CEB)

“Faith must be tested, because it can only become your intimate possession through conflict.”

oswald chambers

“Suffering” is a word we would like to avoid. Simply saying or reading the word might make us cringe. Suffering? No thanks. I think I’ll pass on that. Yet, something inside of us instinctively knows we cannot get around it. Everyone suffers in some way. It is endemic to the human condition that at times we will suffer physically, financially, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. 

That’s why I believe there is so much talk within some Christian circles about miracles. It’s more than understandable. A chronic pain sufferer wants relief; she prays for a miracle of health. A small business owner is bleeding financially; he looks to God for an immediate miracle of wealthy clients. A beloved senior saint knows she is afflicted with Alzheimer’s; she prays for the miracle of deliverance, even to be taken home to be with the Lord. A young adult finds himself in the throes of depression and has tried everything to cope and get out of it; he petitions God for a miracle out of the deep black hole. The believer in Jesus keeps experiencing a besetting sin and cannot get over it; she looks to God for the miracle of not struggling any more with it.

These scenarios and a thousand other maladies afflict people everywhere. There are a multitude of stories out there. Folks who have experienced a miracle tell of their wonderful deliverance. But what about the rest? Those without the miracle? Do they have a lack of faith? Has God forgotten them?

Oh, my, no! God sees, and God knows. God is acquainted with suffering. Jesus knows it first-hand. Remember, it was Jesus who said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Even Jesus cried out in his suffering.  But there was no deliverance coming for him.  There was, instead, deliverance coming for us.

Sometimes the greatest miracle and deliverance of all is to be freed from the need for a miracle. The reason God doesn’t just offer immediate relief from everyone’s suffering and bring a miracle is that he is doing something else: Walking with us through our suffering. God oftentimes has plans and purposes for us well beyond our understanding.  We simply are not privy to everything in God’s mind.

We may not get the miracle we desire. However, what we will get without fail is God’s provision and steadfast love all the way through the suffering. Where is God in your suffering? Jesus is suffering with you. You are not crying alone; Christ weeps with you.

Let, then, those who suffer, eat and be full. Let them be satisfied with the portion God has given them. What’s more, let them offer praise to the God who is squarely beside them in every affliction and each trouble.

God Almighty, you are the One who knows suffering and affliction better than anyone. I admit I don’t often understand what in the world you are doing or not doing in my life and in the lives of those I love. Yet, I admit that I have found in you the comfort, encouragement, and strength to live another day in my trouble. For this, I praise you, in the Name of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Authority of Jesus

They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

“Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee. (NIV)

When I was in college, I drove a big car – an Oldsmobile Delta 88 with a 455 Rocket engine. Because I had the largest car around, I could fit a lot of people into my vehicle to drive to church on Sundays. Since I often gave rides to people I did not know very well, one Sunday I picked up two sisters who had never been to my church before.

Everything went like a typical Sunday morning, until toward the end of the pastor’s sermon one of the sisters began yelling and crying out in the service, maybe much like the account we have in our Gospel account for today. The pastor quickly brought an end to the worship service and the congregation hurriedly filed out of the building. I stayed behind because, well, I was her ride.

What happened next is an entire story for another day. I will just say that I saw some crazy stuff that did not seem readily explainable with our five human senses. And, I might add, there was a deliverance on that Sunday from whatever or whomever was influencing the young lady.

Ever since my experience on that Sunday, I continually wonder: What are our expectations when we come to a worship service?  Do we anticipate Jesus will be present via the Holy Spirit?  If so, do we believe he is there to confront demons and bring deliverance to people? Do folks even believe there is such beings as angels and demons anymore? How do we make sense of stories like this?

Perhaps there is so little deliverance from evil in our own experiences and in many faith communities because we simply have no expectation that such a thing will happen. Maybe the demons just sleep through gatherings knowing that their influence is not being threatened.

This brings me to the bread and butter of today’s message. I will give you three pre-suppositions (that is, things that we assume or take for granted) from which I work from when approaching Scripture and ministry. I will also make three observations of this story about Jesus, because ultimately the story is really all about him and not about demons. Finally, I offer three applications based on today’s Gospel lesson.

First Pre-supposition: Demons are real.  We know almost nothing about the man in the Gospel story other than he was “possessed by an evil spirit” which meant he was being influenced by a demon. I believe there is an unseen reality we cannot perceive with our physical eyes.

Second Pre-supposition:  Jesus has authority over demons.  Jesus took charge of the situation because he had the authority to do so. Throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as one who came to decisively deal with the powers of sin and death, especially as expressed through the demonic realm.

Third Pre-supposition:  Demons could be here.  I do not mean to scare anyone. I simply intend to point out that demons, or any type of evil manifestations, are not just out there somewhere in the world. Today’s story takes place in the sacred space of worship to God: the synagogue. Although it is a rather dramatic story, most demonic activity goes unaware because demons do not like to be recognized; they like the anonymity of the shadows and to operate in the dark where no one can detect them.  If we knew they were around, we would do something about it!  Just because we have dedicated spaces to the worship of God does not mean that it magically keeps evil out. God’s people must be savvy to evil demonic ways and take charge to use our authority in Christ with truth, justice, peace, faith, and the message of the gospel so that we might live wisely and shoo the devil away.

Based upon those three assumptions, the following are three observations about God and Jesus concerning the Christian life. These realities ought to evoke confidence in our lives without fear of the demonic realm…

First Observation: Jesus is directly interested in people.  Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. Christ came to directly confront evil and deliver humanity from sin, death, and hell.  Jesus showed interest, care, and love to people.  In the story, Jesus went to Capernaum to begin his ministry. Capernaum was a non-descript small village that was of no interest to anybody outside of it. Yet, Jesus sought to reach common ordinary people as well as the rich and famous because all are in need.  Furthermore, Jesus is concerned about every part of our lives, and not just the spiritual matters.

Second Observation: Jesus deals with pain and suffering.  One of the truest theological statements I could ever say to you is this: God loves you in the person of Jesus through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus suffered on our behalf. Christ is against everything that destroys. In fact, Jesus did not even destroy the demon, who was probably expecting that to happen. Instead, the Lord Jesus took the demon’s power away.  Jesus has taken the sting out of death.  Anything that robs life of its intended flourishing, Jesus is ready to do away with.  This can be a tricky point because God will use pain and suffering to teach us and form us into faithful people. Yet, that does not mean God is the author of pain or enjoys suffering. It just means that God’s grace will bend any circumstance, whether good or evil, to divine purposes for our benefit.

Third Observation: Jesus gives grace.  Every instance of healing, each miracle, and every event of deliverance from evil are all because Jesus loves us and cares about us, despite whether we deserve it or not.

Now let’s pull this together into some points of application…

First Application: We need the deliverance of Jesus, and not only psychological therapy.  I am a big believer in counseling and therapy for all kinds of emotional issues. It seems to me that far too many persons do not take advantage of the resources we have today in the psychological realm. What is more, I daily provide a range of counseling for individuals as both a church pastor and hospital chaplain. However, this in no way diminishes the need for spiritual deliverance or that therapy can somehow replace Jesus. If demons are real, and evil truly present, then no amount of counseling will deal decisively with Satan because only Jesus can do that.  I believe Jesus is not merely one option among a smorgasbord of people who could help us. Rather, Jesus is the Messiah who delivers us from evil, like no other can.

Second Application: Amazement is not faith.  The people in the Gospel story were amazed at Christ’s teaching and deliverance ministry. They had never seen or heard anything like it. Yet being impressed is not the same as naked trust. Spreading news of what Jesus did is not the same as putting Christ’s teaching into practice and personally experiencing divine power to deliver from sin.

Third Application: The Lord’s Table brings healing.  Christian communion is neither only a remembrance of what Jesus did on the cross, nor a magical act of bringing deliverance. Rather, the Table is a means of grace in which we partake of the elements in faith knowing Jesus is victorious over the demonic realm. What is more, the Spirit will join us to Christ and give us the confidence and hope to confront all that ails us. Liturgical rhythms of grace consistently and surely work their way into us and bring about the healing we need and want.

Conclusion

Jesus Christ has authority over everything, including the demonic realm. This makes him perfectly suited and situated to provide spiritual deliverance from evil – which is precisely how Christ encouraged us to pray. So, let us pray the prayer our Lord taught us:

Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.