Sermon on St. Mark 8:1-9
18 July 2010
+ Jesu Juva +
You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.
– Psalm 23:5
Today’s Gospel Lesson is the fulfillment of Psalm 23. In the Psalm, the Good Shepherd gently tends and leads His flock, feeds her beside the still waters, and prepares a table for her. In Mark 8, Jesus meets the needs of the multitude, makes them sit down in His presence, and multiplies bread and fish for them to eat. This morning, then, I’d like to take a “split screen” approach to this Gospel lesson, looking simultaneously at the prophecies of Psalm 23 and the feeding of the 4,000 in Mark 8 to see how Jesus is here proclaimed to be Psalm 23 in the flesh.
This miracle took place in the wilderness. In the Old Testament, the wilderness was the place of desolation and death. Recall Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness, where they lived on manna, miraculously dropped out of heaven. On their own, they would have died in the wilderness. But with a miracle from heaven, they lived for nearly 40 years in the wilderness. Along the same lines, Psalm 23 describes the valley with a similar connotation to the wilderness: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (23:4). The valley suggested the place where bones collected from the dead, where an enemy could cover you from an elevated position, and where life was no more. In Mark’s Gospel, the wilderness is the first place mentioned in Mark 1, where we read that John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness (1:4). And, in this Gospel Lesson, they are once again in the wilderness, waiting to be fed temporally and spiritually by Jesus. So the wilderness suggests not just temporal death, but also spiritual death. The wilderness reminds us that we are all spiritually lost, vulnerable to Satan, and, apart from our Lord and Shepherd, bound to die.
And then what happens? His disciples asked the right question, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” They had seven loaves, but what good were seven loaves among so many people? Here we see a transition from unbelief to faith. The disciples were poor, miserable sinners, walking by sight instead of by faith, trusting in themselves instead of in God. We must especially highlight that, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus recently fed the 5,000 with a small boy’s sack lunch (6:30-44). So the disciples should have remembered the feeding of the 5,000 and asked the Lord if He was going to work another feeding miracle in their midst. Moreover, shortly after today’s Gospel Lesson, Jesus and His disciples got into a boat, but we read that the disciples forgot to bring bread (8:13-14). Here we see a picture of the church and the need for the Lord’s grace and guidance. Men are weak and frail. As one newly elected church leader told an electoral assembly this past week, “You have kept your perfect record of electing a sinner to this office.” But Christ is strong to save, able to meet our deepest need, even when the odds are against us and our faith has faltered. As the Psalmist said, “He leads me in the path of righteousness for His name’s sake”(23:3). In other words, He takes us out of the dangerous valleys and the steep highways of our own choosing and places us on the path of righteousness that leads to life everlasting.
And then what happens? “[Jesus] directed the crowd to sit down on the ground.” We are probably tempted to pass over this detail as something we could have figured out for ourselves and as apparently unnecessary. However, everything in the Scriptures is important, especially in Mark’s Gospel, who tends to go “straightaway” to the key persons and events in the life of Christ. So why does St. Mark include sitting down in this familiar story? Sitting was the posture of feasting in the ancient world. It was common to stand for breakfast or lunch, somewhat parallel to having a bagel in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, while being tossed to and fro on the city bus. I would suggest that, on the rare occasion that one would eat in the wilderness, it was probably time for a quick lunch on the go. However, to sit suggested fulfillment, feasting, and the real presence of God Himself. Recall, for instance, the Passover meal in Exodus, where we read that Israel was told to “eat it with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste, it is the Lord’s Passover” (Ex. 12:11). Compare this ready-to-travel posture with the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament, where the disciples “were reclining at table” (14:17). I have often said that the standing posture of old Israel means we are going somewhere, but the reclining posture of New Testament meal means that we have arrived. In this meal, Christ is truly present to feed you. There is nowhere else to go, nothing greater to long for. The table is ready! Sit down and feast with the very Son of God, even in the wilderness of this life. As the Psalmist said, “He makes me lie down in green pastures” (23:2).
And then what happens? A meal of life from the Lord of Life. He took the loaves, He gave thanks, He broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples who, in turn, gave them to the people. He even threw in a few fish and multiplied them to feed the crowd, after He blessed them. Again, from Psalm 23[:5], “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” In short, Christ feeds His people, even when they are surrounded by sin and death, yes, even when they would die without His immediate help. There’s much to be said here about God providing food for us, about how He uses the farmer, the truck driver, and the local retailer to put food on our plates, for all of which it is our duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him. But I would especially like to highlight how this meal foreshadows the Lord’s Supper. The language of this Gospel lesson is the same language as the Words of Institution, where we read that Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to His disciples, followed by their eating His body and then drinking His blood. Jesus, of course, did not give the Lord’s Supper to this multitude. But just like the Old Testament is a preliminary sketch of the New Testament, this meal is a pencil drawing of the meal that would be given in full color on the night Jesus was betrayed, and then celebrated every Sunday and Holy Day to the end of time. He gives us the same body and blood that won our salvation on the cross and now delivers our salvation in this meal. We eat and we are filled with forgiveness and eternal salvation, yes, with the very life of Him who loved us and gave Himself for us.
And then what happens? St. Mark highlights the abundance of this feeding. After a miraculous meal in the wilderness, “[T]hey took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full.” It was common to gather up the fragments remaining after a meal, usually taking up anything that was about the size of an olive or larger. So the gathering of leftovers is nothing unusual. However, the amount and message of the leftovers is miraculous. The basket in Mark’s account is the same basket used in Acts 9, where Saul was lowered through a city wall in a basket (v. 25). So the baskets were big enough to carry a man. A little approximate math suggests not seven little shopping bags of leftover, but a significant quantity of bread and fish fragments. So also Psalm 23, where the Psalmist, confident in the Lord’s work and identity as the Good Shepherd, says, “I shall not want” (1). To pray “I shall not want” is to acknowledge the Lord as the Author and Giver of all good things, to proclaim that, for those who stand in His presence and trust in Him, there is nothing more to long for. He feeds our bodies; He nourishes our souls, and there is enough left over to share the surplus with our neighbor, living out our faith in acts of mercy.
Finally, we read that Jesus sent them away. Perhaps you’ve wondered from time to time (as I have) why Mark ends his account of this miracle with a “travel notice,” i.e., the news that the multitude went home. It may seem like an unnecessary detail. However, the word translated as “sent away” was also used at the beginning of the Gospel Lesson when Jesus said, “And if I send them away hungry... they will faint on the way.” So the idea of sending away is sort of a “bookend” for this account. On the Law side, Jesus could conceivably send them away in hunger and desolation. But, on the Gospel side, He could fill them with all that they need and send them away satisfied. So it is for us! Imagine coming to church, as people do every Sunday around the world, and not being given the rightly preached Gospel or the rightly administered sacraments. PowerPoint screens, praise bands, and “how to” preaching only distract from the Son of God and His work for us. The sheep are sent home with good feelings and higher self esteem, but at heart they are spiritually destitute. But where the liturgy of word and sacrament is central to the church’s life, where the waters of baptism flow, where the word of absolution is spoken, where the table is set with his true body and blood, the sheep are sent home full of “the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1) – the good news of God’s loving kindness and tender mercies that was “in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.” As the Psalmist said, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Brian Hamer