In the years that I knew him, at beginning of every sermon my Grandpa Surburg heard he would look at his watch. Then, at the end of the sermon, he would look at his watch again. He did this because he timed every sermon. I am not sure what length he considered to be an acceptable sermon, but he certainly frowned on short sermons that cheated the listener.
My dad and I used to joke about grandpa’s habit of timing the sermon. Little did I know that one day I would be timed every Sunday too. Now in my own case this is not a result of someone deliberately putting me on the clock to find out how long the sermons are. Instead, it is a result of the fact that the sermons are recorded so that the audio can be placed on the internet at the church’s website.
Frank Glaub is our church’s “sound engineer” and he dutifully makes sure the sermon is recorded so that it can go on the website. I learned that by digitally recording the sermons he is also getting an exact measure of how long each one is. From time to time he will mention how long a sermon was – particularly if it has gone longer than normal.
Generally speaking my sermons are usually around fourteen minutes. Some might be a little shorter; some might be a little longer, but they pretty much fall in that range. There are two reasons for this. First, we are such a text based, and now also video based culture, that we have real limitations in our ability to take in oral communication. There was a time when people thought nothing of listening to an hour long sermon, but those days are gone. If I started to preach for an hour every Sunday, I would probably hear about it at the next elders’ meeting – if not before then.
The other reason is that I am realistic about my own abilities as a preacher. If you are going to preach beyond fifteen minutes on a regular basis, you had better be really good. And while I think am certainly adequate for the preaching task, I am also realistic about the fact that I am not good enough to pull that off on a regular basis.
Our Lord Jesus had no such problems for several reasons. First of all, he did live in an oral culture that was used to listening for long periods of time. More importantly, he was a master teacher of great oratorical skill, who also happened to teach with an authority that was unique to his person as the Son of God. What he said and the way he said it was different. People recognized this and were drawn by it to hear him. And there was also the fact that his teaching was accompanied by miracles of healing.
When you put all of this together you find that people were drawn to listen to Jesus for long periods of time. Yet even by Jesus’ standards, the events in our text must have stood out as unusual. We learn that people had gathered in a deserted place and had been listening to Jesus for three days. Apparently it had not occurred to them that not only had their food run out, but they also were in a place where it wasn’t possible to get more. Either Jesus’ teaching and presence had captured their attention so greatly that they didn’t notice this, or if they did, they just didn’t care.
However, our Lord Jesus did notice and he did care. Our text begins by saying, “In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, ‘I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. 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.’”
Now we need to realize that this is not the first time something like this has happened. Two chapters earlier a crowd of five thousand men, plus women and children, had been listening to Jesus teach. On that occasion the disciples had called attention to the problem of food and asked Jesus to send the crowd away so that they could go and buy some for themselves. But instead Jesus said to them, “You give them something to eat.” The disciples mentioned the immense cost this would entail – far more than they could possibly afford. And then our Lord worked a miracle as he used five loaves of bread and two fish to feed the whole group.
This time, Jesus points out the problem. And the disciples respond by calling attention to their location. Literally, the Greek rendering of their question asks, “From where will someone here be able to satisfy these with loaves in the deserted place?” The focus was not on the cost, but instead on the location.
Now when we listen to this account, we are probably inclined to scratch our head and wonder about the disciples. After all, Jesus has in the past performed the miracle of feeding a large crowd. Why do they not have this in mind as they face this new pressing situation?
Of course when we ask this, we are conveniently overlooking the ways that we do the same thing. For you see, Jesus Christ has revealed to you something even more remarkable than the feeding of a large crowd with five loaves of bread and two fish. He has revealed to you his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. He has revealed that by his saving death you have been reconciled to God and have eternal life. He has revealed that the resurrection of the Last Day has already begun in Jesus, and because of your baptism you have the guarantee of sharing in that resurrection.
You know about this. Yet in spite of this fact, when faced with financial or health challenges you worry. You know about this. Yet in spite of this fact, when wronged you choose to bear a grudge instead of forgiving. You know about this. Yet in spite of this fact, when you see someone who could use your help you turn away and get on with your own business.
The disciples were not looking at the present in the light of who Jesus Christ is and the reign of God that was present in him. And so Jesus took the initiative. He asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” When they told him that they had seven, he commanded the people to sit down on the ground. Then he took the bread and when he had given thanks over it, he broke the loaves and he gave them to the disciples to set before the people. Likewise he blessed some small fish, and had the disciples give them to the people as well. All of the people ate and were satisfied, and the bread and fish never ran out. In fact when they were done eating they gathered up the broken pieces and there were seven baskets full.
Now perhaps you want to say, “Pastor, it’s really not a fair comparison. After all the disciples saw Jesus work a feeding miracle with their own eyes. In fact, they saw two of them. We on the other hand didn’t actually get to see the risen Lord on Easter morning. We have only heard about it through the disciples’ witness. If we had seen these feedings with our own eyes, it would be so much easier to have faith. It would be so much easier to trust in Jesus and share his love with others in our lives.”
We often think this. But the facts just don’t support it. The miracles did not convince the Pharisees. Immediately after our text they come to Jesus in order to argue with him and they ask him for a sign from heaven. The miracles didn’t convince large portions of the people. And in fact they didn’t even remove misunderstandings from the disciples.
After Jesus had responded to the Pharisees, he and the disciples got into a boat to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. We are told that the disciples had forgotten to bring along bread. Jesus warned them about the teaching and influence of the Pharisees when he said, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” Thinking that Jesus was referring to their absent mindedness, the disciples began talking about the fact that they had forgotten to bring bread.
Then Jesus responded, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are our hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?” Jesus reviewed with them the two feeding miracles: how much was used, how many were fed and how much was left over. And then he said, “Do you not yet understand?”
Simply seeing was no guarantee of understanding and faith. Instead, what was needed was to know about the event and to know what it meant. What was needed was to know who Jesus was and why he was doing it. What was needed was faith and trust in Jesus, because apart from that the event itself only hardened people in their own ideas about Jesus.
Jesus’ miracles called for faith. They called for belief in Jesus. And where this faith was present, the miracles strengthened faith and understanding. Where people were willing to take Jesus on his terms the miracles revealed that the reign of God was present in Christ, turning back the forces of Satan, sin, and death.
This is what Jesus still gives to us. He continues to work a feeding miracle in our midst. He doesn’t use bread and fish, but instead in the Sacrament of the Altar he uses bread and wine to give us his true body and blood. Like the miracles of Jesus earthly ministry, it is possible to misunderstand this feeding – to deny who is doing it, what it is and what it means.
But just like the feeding of the four thousand in our text, the Sacrament is a miracle by which Jesus feeds us and builds us up in the faith. It is a miracle whereby the reign of God comes into our midst turning back the forces of Satan, sin, and death. Through his body and blood given and shed on the cross for us our Christ gives us forgiveness, life and salvation. The risen Lord gives into our bodies his body and blood and so assures us that our bodies will share in his resurrection too on the Last Day.
The people in our text had to wait around for three days in a deserted place to experience the miracle of the feeding of the four thousand. And of course, they didn’t know that it was coming. Not even the disciples were expecting it. But in our case our Lord has told us ahead of time, and there is no waiting or surprise. He has invited us to come to the miracle. In fact, he has commanded us to come. Our Lord has promised the when his called servant speaks his words over bread and wine, he gives us his true body and blood to eat and to drink. It is the miracle that we can count on every time until he comes again in glory.