Matthew’s Mundane Miracles
The year was 1980. The place was Lake Placid, New York. I bet you can remember what happened at that time.
The “Miracle on Ice” is the name in American popular culture for a medal-round men’s ice hockey game during the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, New York, on Friday, February 22. The United States team, made up of amateur and collegiate players and led by coach Herb Brooks, defeated the Soviet team, who were considered to be the best ice hockey team in the world at the time.
Unfortunately, if you weren’t alive back then, you wouldn’t realize how emotional this hockey game was. I can remember watching it on t.v., and feeling the tingles go up my spine and make my hair stand up on end. Sports Illustrated called it, “the top Sports Moment of the 20th century”.
It was an unlikely story of unknown amateurs doing something no one thought possible. It was a moment of glory for the people of the United States in the midst of the oppression of the “Cold War”.
Our passage for today recounts the miracle of Jesus multiplying loaves and bread. It was such an important story that all four Gospel writers included it in their accounts. This is good, too, because we can get a “fuller picture” of all that happened on that day.
Although the section begins with Jesus hearing about the meaningless execution of John the Baptist (his cousin), this is really a portion that is “in the middle” of Matthew’s thoughts. In fact, it is “in the middle” of the book of Matthew which contains 28 chapters. So, it’s a good idea to look at Mark’s version of events starting in chapter 6 verses 12 and 13. This tells us about how the disciples were sent out in pairs to tell people to repent (please turn with me there).
As they returned from doing these things, they hear about John the Baptist, and Jesus goes with them over the Sea of Galilee. Jesus wanted to pause in the middle of things to retreat with His disciples.
And this makes sense. Matthew tells us the gruesome story of John’s beheading in the section before Jesus feeding the 5,000. Jesus must have felt a deep sorrow in the loss of His cousin. Although the disciples had many stories to tell, Jesus wanted them to “get away” and go to a solitary place as a group. Some of them had been John’s disciples before they left to follow Jesus. You can’t get further from the exhilaration of healing someone with some oil to hearing of the death of your former mentor and friend. One word comes to mind, confusion. Jesus wanted them to go away to sort out their thoughts and feelings.
But, their plans to retreat would end the moment they stepped off the boat and got onto shore. A crowd of people, who had been with Jesus on the other side of the Sea, came over to this side on foot. There, they greeted Jesus with their sick and ill. Although He was going through a very personal time of mourning, the scripture tells us, “He had compassion on them, and healed their sick.”
Sometimes, you and I are tempted to believe that our God is disconnected from our suffering. We pray for healing, yet do not receive it. We pray for relief from pain, yet the pain remains. We ask these things for loved ones and acquaintances, but they are not always relieved.
Our peace of mind depends on God’s healing work, and when it doesn’t come, you and I feel disappointment. We are disappointed with God. Maybe we feel other things toward God, too. Anger, hurt, resentment. In our emotion, we are tempted to believe God is not there at all.
Well, here He is. Jesus is next to the Sea of Galilee healing people. It seems random and unfair to us. I mean, every average Joe got healed on that day. Why not us? Why is He withholding this work for our family members, for us, or for our friends?
A critical point is missing here. Jesus doesn’t heal people without a reason. Jesus heals people to make a declaration. That declaration in first-century Israel was “I am the King of all creation. I am the God who reverses the effect of illness, sickness, and even death.” And yet, since then people have had illnesses, sicknesses and to a person, all have died. Even Jesus died. But, that’s not the end.
Jesus is not a distant God who has separated Himself from our suffering like some plaster statue. Instead, He is the God who became a man in order to wholly experience the sorrow, suffering and death of this world. The creator became the creature and continues to feel for us in our pain, sorrow, and suffering. We are told from the author of Romans that He is currently interceding for us before the Father.
The suffering we endure then, is not empty and meaningless to Jesus. He joins with us and “feels our pain”. We must also remember that the people who were healed that day died from something later. if Jesus was just some fantastic doctor, then His life didn’t amount to much. But, that’s not the case.
We are told that, “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”. These guys had their eyes wide open. They saw that there were 5,000 men, and more than double this amount when you count women and children. The disciples lacked food, they lacked money, and there was no time left. They were emotionally spent, tired and probably wondered if the crowd would riot from lack of food. Their minds told them the only solution was to send them away.
In John’s story of this event, we read that the disciple Andrew found a boy who had five barley loaves and two fish. These loaves weren’t what you and I might find at Ralph’s. They were more like small cakes of bread. It was a pathetic situation. It was an impossible situation smack dab in the middle of the story. Andrew did his best, but there’s no way to feed thousands and thousands of people on what amounts to a couple meals for one person.
Or so the disciples thought. Jesus’ response to them was, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Jesus was testing the disciples’ faith. They thought in their minds and then said, “We have only five loaves here and two fish”. It was an expression of logic, but it was also a declaration of their unbelief.
Their reason could not imagine how the few food items they had could feed all these people. What was Jesus going to do? Call for take out? Order a pizza? Maybe He knew a guy who owed him a favor and owned a fast-food restaurant. Even if that was true, there were thousands who needed to be fed, and the need was urgent.
Aren’t we a bit like those disciples, too? I mean, they were completely stumped on how to give all of these people even a bite of food. You and I would have thought the same thing. And that is exactly the problem.
If you remember the beginning portion of this sermon, you will recall that the disciples had just come back from healing sick people, casting out demons, and calling on people to repent. They had just seen people be healed one at a time by Jesus. The miracles, it seems, had become mundane for them. Can you see them standing around while Jesus heals people? Can you hear them yawning? Jesus healing people was just a part of everyday life.
You might remember some magician performing a magic trick you have never seen before. The first time, it is amazing. When you grow up, though, you understand how the trick works and it takes a lot more to surprise you. You and I can become apathetic.
We lack awe even as we read this story. We’ve read it before, we know how it ends, so let’s keep moving on to the next part. “I know, I know, Jesus feeds all the people and there are 12 basketfuls of parts left … So?”
Has it even occurred to you that the miracle that follows has never been seen in our lifetime? I have never seen a person take five slices of Wonderbread and a couple of trout and feed over ten thousand people, have you? The passage doesn’t test the disciples’ faith only, it tests our faith.
Returning then to the story, Jesus answers these disciples in this way, “Bring them (that is, the bread and the fish) here to me.” As He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, we get the sense that there was silence all around Him. Some were probably asking, “What will He do next?” Or, “Has He lost His mind?” He then does three relatively mundane things:
First, He says a blessing over the bread.
Second, He breaks the loaves.
Third, He gives them to the disciples to give to the people.
Up to this point, even the most skeptical person could say, “Yeah, I believe Jesus did that … sure.” What comes next, though, confronts the minds of even the faithful. Jesus hands out this food to the disciples who then distribute it to the people … thousands of people. A stadium full of people. A concert hall full of people. A university full of people. All of these people ate and were full.
Not only this, but there were twelve baskets FULL of leftovers. Now, if you didn’t think this was a fairy tale before, you certainly are convinced that it’s a fairy tale now. What fool could believe such a story? Who in their right mind joins a religion based on such stories? This must be some kind of prank or joke that someone played on people who didn’t have a good education.
This story, however, was written down by Matthew at around 50 A.D. That’s about 20 years after these events occurred. Now, I don’t know about you, but I can remember the day Reagan was shot, the day the space shuttle blew up, and the Miracle on Ice. I know those events happened. And they happened publicly, so if my memory is wrong, I’ll get an earful after church.
Jesus’ ministry was public, too. As I said before, all of the four Gospel writers record this event. It happened.
Our problem is that we can’t explain it. That’s not because we’re bad communicators. It’s because we worship the mind in our culture. We think that we can understand all things simply by the application of our minds.
It’s not to say reason is bad. Reason is very good, in fact. God has given us reason and logic so that we can live lives that are elevated above the animals. Illnesses are cured, food is more reliably produced and safer to consume, and people are protected from dangerous diseases. But reason could not feed the people that day. Reason could come up with questions and options, but couldn’t solve the problem.
The ancient Israelites of the Exodus from Egypt had the same experience as they were in the wilderness. They did not have enough provisions to survive. They wanted to return to their slave owners in Egypt where they had plentiful food. They had no faith.
But God provided something that had never been seen before; manna. God told them in advance that He would “rain bread from Heaven for you.” Not only this, but He sent quail to them, as well. This wasn’t simply a carbohydrate diet.
And, as Exodus 16:18 points out, the people had more than enough to eat. They were satisfied. They weren’t hungry anymore. God took care of His people. Thousands of people.
You think this is a good religion for the simple minded? Consider the parallels between Jesus and the crowd with Moses and Israel from Exodus 14-16:
- Both cross a Sea
- God promises to be Israel’s healer; Jesus heals all who come to Him
- In Exodus 16, the Israelites wander in the wilderness; Jesus disciples called this place “desolate”
- Then, the Israelites complain that they have no food; The Disciples in our passage tell Jesus that the people should be sent away to get food
- Lord promises to rain bread from Heaven; After John’s version of this story, John quotes Jesus calling Himself, the true bread of Heaven, “the bread of God”, “the bread of life”, “the living bread” and, “not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
- God promises Israel meat and bread to eat; Jesus gives them fish and loaves
- In both cases, the people had more than enough to eat
- Thousands were fed in both cases
This is not coincidence. Matthew is such and intelligent writer that He sees the parallel to ancient Israel, and writes in such a way that the Jewish-Christian audience would immediately recognize the comparison.
Jesus is the New Moses. But He didn’t come to lead the Jews out of their Roman captivity. He came to lead them out of Sin, Death, and a future Hell. And He didn’t just choose certain people to come with Him. He healed all who came to Him here, and He fed all who stayed to eat.
Jesus did not discriminate. He fed the faithful, the faithless, the old, the young, the fools and the wise, the rich and the poor, the righteous and the unrighteous, the amazed and the bored, the disciples and the unknown thousands who came. He fed them all.
And later on the cross, He died for all. He died so that all could come and feed with Him in the Heavenly banquet. He died so that the only death we would have to face was in the waters of our baptism. His death was not the end, though, it was the beginning. He was resurrected. And He continues to intercede on our behalf. He puts Himself in the middle for us. And, He does this fervently.
He continues to serve us and identify with us in this life. The mundane things you see here on Sundays, like bread, and wine are the very means of grace by which He serves you Himself! We taste a cracker and some wine, but He is forgiving us, healing us and feeding our faith in this physical act. You hear a sermon with the words of Scripture, and He is feeding your faith.
And, He directly confronts reason with the statement about the bread and wine at communion by saying, “This is my body … this is my blood”. Although the mind searches for ways to “figure out” how this works, it is faith alone that understands and accepts what He says. These ordinary elements become the very life of Christ for us.
He is also in the middle of our circumstances, too. We may feel like our tithe is so small, our income is too small, the number of people coming to church is small, or our faith is too small. It’s easy to become disheartened and discouraged. But, to Jesus, it is more than enough. He comes to bless your tithe, bless this church and increase your faith and mine. Cast all your cares upon Him.
This Bible is God-breathed; meaning that He dwells in regular paper pages with some print on it. Reading it is not like reading a manual, because God dwells in the words.
He continues to bring the miracle of re-birthing people into this world through ordinary means like water and words. This Jesus is the God who works miracles in the middle of the mundane. All we need do is ask, and it shall be given.
And, His miracles are not just one-time actions. He is the God who is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is Jesus. He is our savior. In fact, He is the savior of the world. To His own eternal glory now and forever, Amen.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.