In order to graduate, my college required its students to take one semester of American history. We had two choices: History 11 (which dealt with American history leading up to the Civil War) or History 12 (which focused on American history from the Civil War to the present day).
A begin-at-the-beginning person, I chose History 11. What I failed to realize was that my program didn’t give me a choice; I was required to complete History 12.
When I met with my advisor the following semester, he set me straight. Coming to my own defense, I argued that there was simply no way I could possibly understand what happened after the Civil War if I didn’t have a sense of what led up to it.
Either my explanation was convincing, or Dr. Rowe was in a hurry because he quickly reached for his pen, signed a waiver, and sent it over to the appropriate office.
Whether it’s American history, the nightly news, or our sacred texts, nearly always there is a story that informs the one that has our immediate attention. More often than not, knowing what led up to something makes all the difference.
Take today, for instance. August 6th is the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima by the United States in 1945. Then three days later, our country bombed Nagasaki. How could we possibly understand those actions without knowing what preceded them?
Whether it’s world history, national history, church history, or even our own personal histories, our todays are often informed by our yesterdays.
This is true as we approach scripture, too. Frequently when we open our Bibles, there is a story holding up the one that has our immediate attention.
For instance, during the Advent season, as we prepare to welcome the Christ Child, we hear numerous references to the stories that came to pass long before the story of Jesus’ birth. The ancient promises of a God-given savior found in the Hebrew Scriptures run through our worship in the weeks leading up to Christmas, don’t they? And well, they should—Jesus does not come to us out of nowhere.
In scripture, sometimes the story before our immediate story is centuries old, as we see during Advent. Other times, the ink has barely dried on the story that relates to the one we’re considering. This is the case this morning.
“Now, when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself,” our lesson begins.
What’s “this” that Jesus heard? What did Jesus learn that had him immediately go off in search of solitude, driven by a need for sacred privacy even though the crowd would refuse to let him leave?
“This” was heartbreaking, grotesque, godless news. News of the recent beheading of Jesus’ beloved cousin, John the Baptizer. Herod had ordered John’s execution when, after his stepdaughter danced at Herod’s very public, very lavish birthday party, she requested the prophet’s head on a platter.
Can you imagine anything worse for Jesus? Can you think of anything more emotionally and spiritually debilitating?
John wasn’t just Jesus’ cousin, John was the one who had prepared the way for Jesus’ coming. John was the one who, even though he had hesitated, went on to baptize Jesus in the Jordan, thereby partnering with the Spirit in ushering in Jesus’ public ministry.
I cannot imagine the depth of loss Jesus experienced when word of John’s beheading came.
Even so, I have to think that the impact of this hard and horrible news doubled, tripled, even quadrupled as Jesus was confronted not only with gruesome news about his cousin but was confronted, yet again, with the age-old chasm between what the powerful in this world so often want and will and what God always wants for every single one of us, a chasm Jesus’ ministry was bent on narrowing, even eliminating, a ministry John had helped bless.
I think many of us are inclined to picture Jesus always doing what he did from a full spiritual tank, from a place of complete grace, from a heart perpetually overflowing with compassion.
But the not-so-little little line that opens our lesson today, if we’re aware of the story it points to, gives us a Jesus who is in a very different place spiritually and emotionally. Jesus is raw here, emptied out.
How does knowing the story before today’s story of a miracle meal affect how we think about Jesus and how we relate to him? Does it?
Even before the incredibly meager rations of five loaves and two fish, even before the blessing and the breaking and the sharing, even before the gathering up of overflowing baskets of leftovers, before all that, Jesus found himself standing before a multitude with next to nothing. His inner shelves were all but bare—which perhaps explains why Jesus first tells the disciples to feed the people themselves.
And yet, Jesus did feed the multitude. How did Jesus manage a miracle like this when he himself was so utterly depleted? I wonder.
Years ago, a friend and I suffered losses at the exact same time. Mine felt like the end of the world, and I’m sure his did too.
But looking back, I can see how small my loss was compared to his. And yet, in spite of my friend’s profound grief, he managed to do what Jesus does in our lesson today—he found a way to meet me in my need; he found a way to be present to me that filled me up in the same way Jesus’ miracle satisfied the hungers of a multitude.
How? How did my friend do this? How did Jesus? How do we?
There’s an oft-repeated saying that goes like this: God doesn’t give us any more than we can handle. I think it’s meant to shore folks up when the going gets tough, a way to say “You’ve got this,” but I’ve always found this saying unhelpful and patently untrue. (Challenges are not sideways “compliments” from God.)
When the news that comes our way is hard and horrible and the needs around us won’t go away, when no matter how much we might wish we could go off and renew ourselves in some meaningful way, how do we rise to the occasion and meet it with grace and generativity? How did Jesus?
A good number of us have been in situations where we genuinely felt we had nothing to give but still managed somehow. Later we might say we powered through. Or that we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps.
And maybe that’s what Jesus did in our story today. Maybe he scraped the absolute bottom of his inner barrel and came up with just enough to meet the moment.
But I genuinely doubt it.
You see, unlike so many of us who experience God as apart from ourselves, as over there or up there, a God who is willing to come to our aid when needed but not inextricably bound to us,
I think Jesus (and perhaps the friend in my story) was so open to God that in a time of abject emptiness, in a moment of complete lack, he was able to draw upon God’s abundance rather than rely on his own meager inward resources.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus spoke to the immediacy of a provisioning God. To the woman at the well, Jesus spoke of living water being available to her.
She was not her questionable story, of course, and neither was she a self-contained unit. If she was open and willing, the Spirit of Love could fill her and fill her and fill her. Even when she ran dry, there was more life, more water, more love waiting to rush in, Jesus insisted.
When I was in high school, my father had a second gas tank installed in his Ford truck. This way, he never had to worry about hitting E.
I borrowed his truck once, and while I had it, the first tank went dry. And although I knew there was a topped-off second tank, I didn’t have the faintest idea how to switch over to it.
That’s sometimes how it is for me in my walk with God. When I’m empty, when I’m depleted, when I’m confronted with the call to meet the needs of others, I’m not always sure how to switch over to the God supply, the abundant flow that is God’s joy to provide.
Jesus knew, though. And I am perpetually grateful to him for reminding me that there are other ways to live and serve and love than ones that rely on my resources alone. When God is present, there is always plenty, always abundance.
This was true for Jesus, true for a hungry crowd, and it’s true for each of us and all of us together.