Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” Matthew 14:13-33 (NRSV)
Grace and peace to you from God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
Did you catch the opening phrase of our reading today? Did you notice it? “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat…” When Jesus heard this. Did you wonder what exactly it was that Jesus heard?
If, this past Friday, you read the appointed reading for the day in the handout that I push towards you each week at the door as you’re leaving, you already know that John the Baptist has been arrested by Herod. John had become a problem for Herod, because John had begun to publicly criticize Herod about a woman he was involved with - a woman who happened to be the wife of his brother. And, so, at the beginning of this chapter - chapter 14 - we hear that John is arrested. Then, in the verse just before today’s reading, Jesus learns that John is dead. That he has been beheaded by Herod.
So, it’s no wonder, is it, that, after hearing this devastating news, Jesus retreats in a boat to a deserted place? One has to wonder what he is thinking and feeling. Certainly, he was grieving over the loss of his friend and forerunner. Yet, it’s also hard to ignore that things seem to be escalating. That the conflicts between Jesus and the religious leaders over the Sabbath and other issues have begun. Conflicts that, we know will eventually result in Good Friday.
This moment at the beginning of our story seems particularly dark, doesn’t it?
It’s kind of how I’ve been feeling over the past few weeks as I’ve accompanied several of you who have been going through hard challenges in your lives - issues related to health, to work, to the very real potential of losing loved ones in your lives. Then, with this winter weather in Kentucky, which, I guess, is the norm, but that I’m still adjusting to. Skies that are so constantly grey. The rain that seems never-ending. And the lack of sunshine. Then, if you add in the daily news out of Washington and from across the world - the ongoing news of our divided country and the seeming growth of totalitarian regimes - well, it all just feels so dark, doesn’t it? Is it just me that feels like this? I don't think so.
Then, just a couple of days ago, I received a text from my son, Michael. He sent me a message that Chip, their beloved guinea pig had died that morning. Now, I don’t mean to be trite. I grew up on a farm and have a very realistic understanding of the difference between the death of a human family member and that of a pet. Yet, our pets can certainly be as beloved as our family, can’t they? And in Chip’s case, well, for a guinea pig, he was pretty beloved.
But, there’s another aspect to this that Chip’s life and death represents. You see, it was at the end of my son’s year-long deployment in Afghanistan, that Chip and Chestnut, another guinea pig, joined the family of my son and daughter-in-law. It’s as if their arrival marked a turning point for my son. Chip and Chestnut came at the end of a very dark period for him. And, in looking back these 7 years (Chip lived a long time for a guinea pig!), one can see how much Michael’s life has been renewed, finishing his degree in accounting and passing his CPA exam, plus beginning a new career and new life with his new wife. His life has been re-created, coming out of darkness into a new place. Into the light.
There’s something about God and darkness. And, particularly, about God’s power in darkness. Did you notice in our reading this morning, that both of these events - the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’ walking on water - take place in the darkness? In the evening?
In the feeding of the 5,000 - and we should note that the number 5,000 represents only the men and not the women and children who were also present. In this story, Jesus has spent the daylight hours healing people in the huge crowd that had gathered. People have come from miles around, bringing their loved ones to Jesus to be healed. The time has passed quickly. They’ve been incredibly busy. The disciples, recognizing that it is evening, that this crowd is huge, and that they are in the middle of nowhere with no provisions to feed 15-20,000 people - they go to Jesus and say to him, “Send them away!”
One has to wonder what they are thinking when Jesus tells them to give the crowd something to eat. Especially after the disciples had taken stock of how much food they actually had. Five loaves of bread. Two fish. My guess is that they were not very happy with Jesus. My guess, too, is that they completely underestimated the power of Jesus. Perhaps, even doubted the depth and breadth of that power.
And, then, there’s the story of Jesus’ walking on water. We won’t even go into the rules of matter that Jesus destroys with this one act. This week in a meeting, a few of us were dwelling in this story, focused more on Peter. And laughing at him a little bit. Initially, he seems so bold, doesn’t he? But, then, as we continued to wonder through the story, we came up with the scenario that, perhaps, it was the other disciples who sent Peter out there. That they knew that Peter would be bold (or, perhaps, stupid) enough to be the one to try to walk on water. And, so, they sent him to go first out into the darkness. And, he almost made it, didn’t he? But, then, he became just a little afraid. And began to sink. And called out to Jesus, who grabbed his hand and who then accompanied him - walking on water with him - back to the boat. And to safety.
You see, I don’t think it’s an accident that both of these stories happen in the evening. At night. In the darkness. Because it is the midst of darkness, where God seems to do God’s best work. Whether it is in the midst of the darkness of the doubt and fear that the disciples experienced that night in the countryside or the next night on the lake. Or whether it’s in the midst of the darkness of our own lives - in times of doubt and fear, or grief and despair. Times that we so often seek to avoid.
Richard Rohr is a contemporary Roman Catholic theologian. He writes these words: “We can’t leap over our grief work. Nor can we skip over our despair work. We have to feel it. That means that in our life we have some blue or dark days. Historic cultures saw it as the time of incubation, transformation, and necessary hibernation. It becomes sacred space, and yet this is the very space we avoid. When we avoid darkness, we avoid tension, spiritual creativity, and finally transformation. We avoid God who works in the darkness - where we are not in control! Maybe that is the secret.”
Maybe that is the secret. That, in the darkness where we are not in control, where our fear has gotten the better of us. Or where we, as Emmet Fox writes, “...[H]ave more faith in evil than in God.” It is in this darkness, where we are not in control, that God is. And is at work. Because, it is in the darkness where God does God’s best work. It was on that Friday afternoon, as darkness unexpectedly fell in the middle of the day, that God performed God’s most amazing and awe-some display of power. For you. And for me. On the cross. Because God loves us. And continues to love us. Not just once. But over and over and over again. And comes to us, like Peter, gently nudging us in the midst of our doubt and fear. “Oh, you! My beloved! You of such little and weak faith. Why did you doubt? Take courage. It is I. Don’t be afraid!”
May we be like those disciples, who witnessed Jesus feeding the thousands - Jesus, who continues to care for our every need. May we be like those disciples, after the winds and turbulence of our lives have settled down. May we be like those disciples, after we have witnessed the awe-some power of God at work in our lives. May we be like them. Worshipping Jesus. And declaring for all the world to hear, “Truly, You are the Son of God.” Amen.
Preached February 24, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Readings: Matthew 14:13-33, Psalm 95:1-5.