August 20, 2023. Sermon Title: Grieving, Yet Full of Compassion

First Mennonite Church

August 20, 2023

Grieving, Yet Full of Compassion

Text: Matthew 14:1-21

Last Sunday, in Raymond’s prayer, before we started our Sunday school lesson, he prayed, “Lord, as we consider this familiar passage, we ask you to open our eyes to see things in your Word that we have not seen before.” I guess, that is the prayer of every Bible teacher and preacher for his or her class or congregation. I want to tell you that this is my prayer for us today as we consider a familiar passage.

The feeding of the five thousand in Matthew 14 is a beautiful story in many ways. It reveals Jesus’ practical display of compassion for the huge hungry crowd after it spent a full day listening to him teach. It also reveals God’s mighty power operating in Jesus as he multiplied those five loaves and two fishes to feed such a large gathering. The feeding of the crowd became a test to his disciples. When they asked Jesus to dismiss the crowds to find food for themselves before nightfall, he told them the crowd had no reason to go away, but that they should give them something to eat! This story also shows God’s bounty provision in the midst of a desert, similar to when God gave manna to the Israelites in their journey through the desert. There were 12 basketfuls of leftover bread after no less than seven thousand people had eaten from what were only five loaves of bread and two fish.

Oftentimes, the story of Jesus feeding the crowd is preached without taking into account the larger context, at least according to Matthew’s version of this account. For that reason, I want to invite you to take a look at the situation that led to this special and beautiful moment in Jesus’ ministry. Therefore, let us read Matthew 14: 1-21.

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted 10 and had John beheaded in the prison. 11 His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. 12 John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus.

Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand

13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

15 As evening approached, the 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 villages and buy themselves some food.”

16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

In Mark’s version of this story, John the Baptist was arrested because Herodias, upset at John’s condemnation of Herod’s marrying her, wanted to kill John. So, Herod arrested John the Baptist and was put in jail. For his part, Herod liked John’s preaching and considered him a holy man. Herod did not want to kill John because he feared public condemnation for such an evil action.

On the occasion of Herod’s birthday, the celebration included a banquet, guests, and merry-making. Herod’s stepdaughter’s dance pleased him and he offered her anything she would ask from him. At the advice of Herodias, the girl asked for John’s head on a platter. (Yes, it is a bizarre story)

John’s disciples came to pick up the mutilated body to bury, after which they went and told Jesus of John’s death.

Remember now, Jesus and John the Baptist were relatives. Their mothers had gotten together when they were pregnant with each of them. They were both servants of God, sent to preach the Good News. What is more, John introduced Jesus to the public and baptized him. Therefore, for a very short period of time, both were preaching, but now, John was gone. He had been murdered.

Upon hearing the news of John’s death, Jesus withdrew to a solitary place. His reaction is the same reaction that many of us might have when we hear such news: we retreat, either physically or emotionally and internally. In times of loss, some people take time to be alone to process it. To weep. To pray. To remember times gone by—better times. Sometimes, to even wonder “What if?” There were moments when I did that after my brother died almost two years ago.

So, Jesus withdrew. To do what, we do not know. Matthew does not tell us. However, Jesus had the power to draw people to himself. What was his mood when the crowds started to show up? Did he allow his pain to overrun his heart? Did he feign being at peace or happy? Was he sullen? No, upon seeing the crowds, maybe the very same crowds Herod had feared and which caused him to refrain from killing John, had come to Jesus. Did the crowd also hear the news of John and were seeking solace and comfort too? We cannot know that.

Whatever the crowd knew or did not know about John’s death, it sought to be wherever Jesus went. And Jesus, despite his grief, pain, and desire to be alone, spoke to the crowd about the kingdom of God and healed their sick. Not only that, he fed them too. Jesus welcoming the crowd, teaching it, and feeding it, truly reveals the extent of his compassion.

Let me point out two general lessons from our passage. First, this story shows that our lives do not happen in a power vacuum. There are forces that confront our values, message, purpose in life, and especially our relationship with God. In our story, Herod is not only a character. He is actually the representation of an anti-kingdom of God agent. John’s life was made the mere price of a good dance. He paid the ultimate price for obeying his call. God did not rescue him. His desecrated body was picked up and buried without any hope of vindication.

The second lesson from our passage which includes both the story of John’s death and the feeding of the five thousand is a portrait a bit more like what we typically do when someone dies. There is grief, mourning, gatherings, eating, acts of compassion, and when the deceased was a person of faith, the gathering, eating, mourning, and acts of compassion take place in the presence of Jesus Christ who brings healing and words of assurance.

This story is the very testimony of what we say about our Lord Jesus Christ that he truly understands what is to be human. Jesus’ humanity is not only in the physical aspect, that is, that he had to drink water when he was thirsty or that after a long day of outdoor ministry, he was tired and exhausted, but also in the sense that he experienced how it feels when you lose a loved one. His attempt to withdraw shows that John’s death did affect him, even when did not get to carry out his purpose of withdrawal. Thus, he understands when we grieve for the loss of a loved one. Thus, the story of the feeding of five thousand serves as the perfect example of Jesus’ sacrificial love even before he endured the cross. It is a story where we see Jesus putting others first. 

May we find comfort in knowing whom we have believed. Jesus’ compassion is for you and me in the good times and in the hard times. He not only speaks to us but also satisfies the needs of our body and soul. His ultimate show of sacrificial love was demonstrated on the cross. There, he gave his all on our behalf. Today, he asks us to give our all to him. May all glory and honor be to Him. Amen!

Pastor Romero