Jesus’ compassion for those who are with Him

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Sermon for Trinity 7

Mark 8:1-9  +  Genesis 2:7-17  +  Romans 6:19-23

Today’s Gospel of the feeding of the 4,000 teaches us many things:  The grace and compassion of Jesus toward those who follow him; that we are right to trust to him and to spend our time hearing his Word, even when it looks like doing so will deprive us of the things we need for this life; and we also learn in this Gospel that sometimes, even those whom we consider to be the strongest Christians can completely lose their minds, or at least, stumble in their faith.

God’s compassion is one of His attributes.  He is a compassionate and merciful God.  And His compassion extends in some ways to all of His creatures.  Maybe you remember that from the last chapter of Jonah, where God teaches the Prophet Jonah how desperately He desires for the wicked people of Nineveh to repent of their wickedness so that they will not be destroyed by God’s justice. He asks Jonah, “Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

The Psalm says the same thing, The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.   Or the words we sometimes include in our table prayers from the same Psalm, The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing.  As Jesus says, He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

In the same way, God’s mercy extended to all men in that Jesus died on the cross for His enemies, too, most of whom would never repent of their sin, believe in Him and be saved.  And God wants all men—even those who want nothing to do with Him, even the worst sinner you can imagine (maybe that’s you!)—God wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.  Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is worth enough and the Holy Spirit’s Gospel invitation is broad enough so that if the whole world were to believe in Christ, then the whole world would taste of the tree of life in the mansions of heaven.

But the world misses out on the mercy of God through unbelief. Most people want nothing to do with the compassion of Christ.  They would prefer to go out gambling, drinking, working, sleeping, movie-watching, game playing, partying with their friends, hanging out with their family, patting themselves on the back—anything but confront their miserable condition (the same one that infects us all!); anything but repent of their sins; anything but turn to the Lord for forgiveness; anything but study and learn the Holy Scriptures; anything but spend time with Jesus and hear His Word.  Their condemnation is deserved.

But when the Holy Spirit gathers a crowd of people around Jesus’ Word; when people leave house and home and job in order to go where Jesus is and hear what Jesus says, as was the case in our Gospel, then see what special mercy and compassion Jesus showers on them.  When again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, Jesus 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.”

Isn’t this also what the Psalms say about God? The same Psalm (145) that spoke of His mercy toward all He has made speaks of this special mercy of God toward His people, His believers, His saints: The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them. The LORD preserves all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.  And the Virgin Mary sang about it in her Song, And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

The 4,000 people in the crowds that Jesus fed in our Gospel were not the well-to-do people of Galilee. They left work, home, income, food. Why? Because this was their chance to see Jesus, to hear Jesus.  And they stayed with Him—three days. Now, they must have noticed their own food supply running low, and yet they stayed.  They stayed because Jesus was still willing to have them; because Jesus hadn’t yet dismissed them.

And did you notice who it was who was worried, or concerned about the fact that they had nothing to eat at this point?  The people themselves? No!  It was Jesus who saw their need, before they were concerned about it, before they could even bring it up, Jesus saw. Jesus knew.  And Jesus, in His compassion, stepped in to help, providing from 7 loaves of bread and a few fish, enough food to satisfy 4,000 people and still have seven baskets of pieces left over.

Why?  “Because they have been with me.”  Not, “because they are such good people.”  Not, “because they have done such good things.”  Not, “because they aren’t such bad sinners after all.”  No, just, “because they have been with me.”  This is what it is to live under grace, and not under the Law, to live as “slaves to righteousness,” as Paul said in the Epistle today.  Isn’t it terrible—this slavery to righteousness?  Constant love and care and compassion and forgiveness from your Slave-driver Jesus!

You see the irony, don’t you?  When you lived as slaves to sin, you fed your own sinful cravings, and what good did it do you?  Or maybe you tried to earn God’s mercy with your works of obedience, your works of righteousness living according to the law.  But in the end, you couldn’t get rid of your sin that infects everything you do.  You were slaves to sin, and the wages sin pays out is death.

But then comes Jesus with his love and perfect righteousness and calls you out of your slavery to sin, to repent and believe in Him and the righteousness that He covers you with—His own righteousness.  He has called you into the “slavery” of the righteousness of faith, where you don’t work for God’s mercy.  You receive it as a gift.  And while the wages of sin is death, the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

That’s what you get with Jesus.  Mercy and compassion and forgiveness and the gift of eternal life.  Jesus knows what you sacrifice to be with Him, even your own self, and the painful putting to death of your sinful flesh. He sees what you’ve given up. He sees the hardships you go through and the worldly comfort and security you sacrifice in order to be with Him, to listen to Him, to be faithful to Him. He sees what you lack, even before you notice, and His compassion will always step in to help in just the right way.  He showed you that compassion already with the feeding of the 5,000, but He thought it was worth confirming with the feeding of the 4,000.

Why would you ever live apart from this Jesus?  Why would you go back to gratifying the desires of your sinful nature, back to a life in which you don’t spend time with Jesus around His Word and Sacraments? Because you have, what?, a slavery to sin to pursue?  Don’t be foolish.  You don’t want to be on the receiving end when sin’s wages are paid.

Speaking of foolish, you noticed who the foolish ones were in our Gospel, didn’t you?  This time it wasn’t the crowds.  It wasn’t the congregation.  They were there with Jesus and weren’t the least bit concerned about the fact that their food supply had run out.  But Jesus’ disciples—the apostles—the pastors—they were the doubters! They were the ones who saw all those people, and only seven little loaves of bread, and didn’t have the foggiest idea how they could feed so many people.

I suppose it would be one thing, maybe, if they didn’t know that Jesus had recently fed 5,000 men with five loaves of bread and two fish.  But they did know about it.  They were all there for it. They were the ones who handed out the miracle to the people. And yet suddenly, in their minds, it’s as if it never happened. How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?

You can relate to these men, can’t you?  I know I can!  You’ve seen God’s providence throughout your life—for yourself, for other people, for the whole Christian Church for the last 2,000 years.  You’ve seen God’s mercy, God’s providence for His people in body and soul, and Jesus’ own promise fulfilled that the gates of Hades will not prevail against His Church. Here she still stands after countless threats and crises.

And yet a crisis comes along, whatever it may be—job loss, sickness, false doctrine or sin or strife threatening the Church—and suddenly it’s as if God didn’t exist, as if all of His promises were worthless, as if Jesus weren’t right here with His body and blood to help.  How can we deal with this?!?

But see again the compassion of Jesus in action.  He doesn’t smack His disciples upside the head.  He patiently asks, How many loaves do you have? They said, “Seven.” And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people.  But seven loaves of bread and a few fish can’t feed 4,000 people!  Sure they can.  Of course they can.  Because Jesus took them and blessed them and multiplied them far beyond the people’s need.

Do you think He’ll do less for you who are with Him, for us and for our Church?  But we have such little strength, no way of providing for our needs!  I, your pastor, have such little strength—surely not enough even to take care of all these people here with all your spiritual needs, much less to deal with the problems that confront the Church at large!

Foolish.  We have Jesus with us, as really and truly as they had Him with them out in the middle of nowhere in the Galilean desert. How many loaves do you have?  A few pennies, a little food, a shamefully inadequate knowledge of the Scriptures, a couple of talents, some cracking voices and some faltering lips. Oh, and a little bread, and little wine.  But such little strength can’t sustain a congregation, or deal with the problems of the Church at large!  Sure they can.  Of course they can.  Because as we give them to Jesus, he takes them and blesses them and multiplies them far beyond anyone’s need.  He even adds His own body and blood to this bread and wine, and gives it to His disciple to distribute to you.  And where Jesus is, there nothing can be lacking.  Amen.

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