“I have compassion on the crowd”

The 7th Sunday after Trinity—26 July 2020

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

The Reading from Holy Scripture: Mark 8:1–9

1 In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, [Jesus] called his disciples to him and said to them,  2 “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. 3 And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.”  

4 And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?”  5 And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.”  6 And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd.  7 And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them.  8 And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full.  9 And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. (ESV)

It would appear we are living in times of desolation and hopelessness. Just last week, in the National Post, an editorial entitled “Canadians Crave a Reason to Hope” gave this dismal outlook: 

The coronavirus has cast a pall of uncertainty over our society. We don’t know when a vaccine will be ready or when the economy will recover or even if schools will be open in the fall. Given so many uncertainties, people can be forgiven for feeling unsure about the future. But what’s interesting is that a large majority of Canadians were already feeling pessimistic before the pandemic. A [recent poll] found that only 13 per cent think future generations will have a better quality of life than we do now. It’s a striking expression of individual and collective self-doubt. As [the pollsters] put it: “for many, we have reached the end of progress.”

In these stressful times, even Christians can suffer from a sense of pessimism and hopelessness. Part of our problem is that we have too high expectations of our life in this world. Even though God has revealed in Holy Scripture that this world is evil and is passing away, we often act in shock and dismay when we encounter just how desolate this world really is, with its troubles and evils. Instead of focusing on the blessed hope of the resurrection of the body on the Last Day, we cling tenaciously to the hope that things will go well for us in this desolate place. We also lack a spirit of contentment. God has not promised us a prosperous, healthy, and long life; and yet, we live in fear and worry of losing our wealth, of contracting COVID or some other disease, and of dying before we think we should. 

This current pandemic reminds us just how frail and fleeting life is, that there is but a step between us and death. That is a good thing, for as we live each day knowing it may be our last, the Holy Spirit is ever working in us the same outlook held by St. Paul, who said: For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.…I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. [Yes,] for the sake of Christ, … I am content with weaknesses, … hardships, …and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (Philippians 1: 21; 4:11; 2 Corinthians 12:10). 

We brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. Let us, then, be content with food, clothing, and a roof over our heads; let us keep our lives free from love of comfort and ease, and be content with what we have, for the Lord has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (see 1 Timothy 6:7 and Hebrews 13:5). With such a promise, the Lord gives you a holy, joyful confidence to persevere in the true faith. Yes, trusting our gracious Lord to be with us always, we discover our pessimism and hopelessness giving way to a spirit of thanksgiving, by we proclaim: Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; for His mercy endures forever! (1 Chronicles 16:34). 

In and through this coronavirus crisis, the Holy Spirit is at work, reminding us that this world is no paradise, but rather a desolate place that is passing away. As well, the Holy Spirit is ever renewing and refreshing us with a spirit of true contentment. As the Holy Spirt is turning us away from our unbelief, fear, and worry, He is also turning us to Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God, Who became Man and came to dwell among us to give eternal hope to sinners trapped in a desolate world.

Today’s reading presents in miniature what our Lord Jesus has done for the entire world. For starters, we have the setting of a desolate place. The disciples wonder how one could feed all these people with bread here in this desolate place. Now, this is the second time Jesus had miraculously fed a multitude. The first time was the feeding of five thousand Jews in Jewish territory. But this feeding of the four thousand happens in Gentile lands, with the implication being that the crowd consisted of Gentiles. Do you see? Jesus has entered a land full of people the Jews consider “defiled”. This miracle, then, takes place in an area that is desolate, not just in the sense of being remote but also in the sense of being defiled, unclean, and supposedly beyond God’s concern and help. Nonetheless, Jesus does here the same miracle that He performed in Israel; in Gentile lands, Jesus miraculously feeds the people just like he did in Israel. 

The lesson is clear: Jesus is to be sought by Jew and Gentile, and He gives His grace to both. Christ’s ministry keeps expanding to greater and greater horizons, fulfilling the Old Testament expectation that God would bless all families of the earth through Abraham. God had promised Abraham: I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Genesis 12:3). Of course, God was referring not to Abraham but to Abraham’s offspring— Jesus Christ, the long-promised Messiah, through whom the world would be blessed with eternal life and salvation. So inclusive is this salvation that even in heaven, a new song will be sung in praise of the Lamb of God, who laid down His life in this desolate, defiled, unclean world in order to give the blessing of salvation: Worthy are You…, for You were slain, and by Your blood You ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation (Revelation 5:9).

By performing this miracle of feeding a multitude in a desolate, defiled, unclean place, our Lord Jesus is showing that His salvation is for all people—no one is excluded.  And He is also showing that everyone is in great need. The great crowd had been with Jesus three days with nothing to eat and with no resources to obtain food. They desperately need food or they will surely faint on their way back home. This crowd represents the greater multitude of all the world’s sinners. We desperately need to get rid of our guilt and shame and to be reconciled to God. There is nothing we can do. Sin is the wilderness that separates us from God and that alienates us even from each other. We are truly defiled, unclean. For all the talk today of social isolation, the greatest isolation is the desolate isolation from God that we suffer because of our sin, guilt, and shame. We are surrounded by the goodness of God, and yet we have no sense of that goodness. We cannot satisfy our greatest need; we cannot rid our-selves of our guilt and shame and be reconciled to God. The Pharisee in us likes to think of ourselves as better people than tax collectors and prostitutes and other categories of sinners. But we are as helpless as they are and also in as great a need. As St. Paul writes: There is not a righteous person, not even one. There is not one who understands; there is not one who seeks out God. All turned away; together [we] became worthless. There is not one who does kindness; there is not even so much as one (Romans 3:10-11, translated by Middendorf, M. P.).

After Adam and Eve fell into sin, the LORD God said to Adam: cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3:17-19). Physically, to some degree, the world continues to be a place of great wonder and beauty. Nonetheless, the world also bears the scars of sin, evident most of all in the fact that all living things eventually die. And spiritually speaking, this fallen world is indeed a cursed and desolate place, defiled by evil and utterly unclean in the sight of the holy LORD God.

Adam’s curse is your curse. St. Paul calls this being a slave[] to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness (Romans 6:19). And that is how we all entered the world—as slaves burdened, corrupted, defiled, and destroyed by sin. 

And yet, in spite of this, Jesus has compassion. Jesus comes into this wild and evil desolate place to restore creation. He comes to right what is wrong, to undo the curse of Adam. He comes to make it all, even you, once again “very good” in God’s eyes. Having compassion on the weary multitudes, Jesus comes renewing the bounty of Eden, freely granting an abundance of bread.

Note well when this happens, for there are no coincidences in the Holy Scriptures. This multitude has fasted – grown hungry, weak, and weary – but on the third day, creation is restored. They are satisfied and rejoice. They are given rest and refreshment as their bellies are filled and their hearts made glad. This miracle – as do all of Jesus’ miracles – points to His complete overturning of Adam’s curse and His full restoration of creation in His Passion, death, and resurrection.

Jesus comes in Flesh of your flesh to take up your cause, to labour and toil under your sins. He bears your sins in the burden of the wood of the Cross laid upon Him as His hands and feet are pierced through. He comes to sweat and to bleed for you. All your troubles and sins, all the corruption and curse of the earth, is placed upon Him. Jesus dies your death. There is nothing for which He does not suffer.

And after three days, creation is restored as Life now reigns. For Jesus who was dead is alive again forevermore. On Good Friday, Jesus put His hand to the task of overturning Adam’s curse. His death was not in vain, for on the cross He won the victory of salvation for undeserving sinners. And now, risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father in glory, Jesus looks and He sees saints made holy and righteous in His own Blood—multitudes upon multitudes, from every tribe, language, and race. He sees even you, covered in His righteousness and innocence, so that Paradise is opened to you once more.

What Jesus did then in feeding the 4,000, He does for you now, today, in a far greater and more wonderful way. He feeds you with the Word of God, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion. These gifts of Christ are eternal and cannot be taken from you.

Indeed, Jesus gives you Himself, the Bread come down from Heaven, which never runs out, which feeds thousands upon thousands upon thousands as more yet remains. For as Adam and Eve and the whole human race were once undone by eating fruit from a tree, so now Jesus gives Himself on a Tree to be the Fruit that undoes the curse, that ends captivity and prison, that restores life and immortality, that sets you free. You shall never hunger again.

And He gives as He gave to the 4,000: freely, without any labour or merit on your part. But you receive the greater Gift. Jesus gives Himself, hidden in the Word and water and bread and wine, so that sinners would be in fellowship once again with Him and His Father by the Spirit. And this simply out of His great love and compassion for you.

The compassion of the Lord Jesus Christ is such that it drives Him to offer up His Body and pour out His Blood upon the holy Cross for your sake. It is a love that causes Him to wash you clean in His righteousness and innocence, placing His own Name upon you in Holy Baptism. Jesus is compelled to sacrifice Himself upon the Cross in your place and to now feed you in the Lord’s Supper with His Flesh and Blood, which bestows eternal life with the Father and the resurrection of the body. What is given you to eat and drink is exactly that which was offered up in death upon the holy Cross and raised again. And because He loves you, Jesus provides for your needs of both body and soul. Jesus’ love for you cannot be contained.

The world is grappling with this present pandemic and with so many uncertainties concerning the future. The world is paralyzed with pessimism. The world is craving a reason to hope. And you too have your struggles and your doubts. But blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you (1 Peter 1:3-4). 

Behold God’s great compassion! He gives us Jesus, the true Bread of heaven. Jesus is the Bread that gives life to the world in such a way that those who eat it will never hunger again. To receive Jesus by faith means to receive sustenance for life, to receive nourishment for our souls. We are satisfied, satiated, with what is really necessary for life. We are filled with good food, food from heaven. And filled with Jesus, we do not despair. For in the risen Christ, we have a living hope, for we know that Adam’s curse has been undone by Jesus, in whom we have received an eternal inheritance which cannot be undone. Let us[, then,] hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful (Hebrews 10:23)! Amen.