Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, AD 2020
Jesus has not abandoned us to ourselves but strengthens us in body and soul. This is the message that God’s Word gives us today. There is sickness and disease, there is desperation and injury, there is desolation and death. In the midst of all of this, Jesus has not abandoned us, but strengthens us in body and soul.
Jesus is no stranger to death. In the beginning of our gospel lesson, we hear, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself.” What Jesus heard of was the execution of his cousin, John the Baptist. King Herod threw John in prison for speaking against his immoral life, and ultimately, in the king’s cowardice, had John beheaded. Yet John, even in his martyr’s death, was never abandoned by God. John knew that a worldly ruler could only kill the body, and that would be restored to him on the last day in the resurrection of the dead.
Jesus withdraws then, but not for himself. Jesus is a man. Jesus can at this time, die. Yet he withdraws not in fear, but because this is not his time. Jesus knows his ministry is not over yet. He will suffer and die, but at the time God appoints, in God’s perfect plan, to save us from our sins. For now he goes to a desolate place so that ultimately all may be saved.
And the people follow. “But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.” They are so in love with divine words that Christ speaks that they come even despite the fear of the king. They know what Christ had to give is so important that they follow on foot even despite going out into a desolate place. They often put us to shame. For who would get up early in the morning to get a black Friday deal, but finds Sundays better to sleep in than hear the word of God? Who would travel days to go to a theme park vacation, but thinks it is not worth taking a few mile trip to church every week? So often we do everything to satisfy ourselves, but decline from the Lord’s things due to the least inconvenience.
This is not you: you, who come to the Lord’s house to receive His Word and His body and blood. You like anyone else are likely suffering – financially, socially, missing loved ones, feeling alone. Yet you are here because you know this is the place where you receive the Word of Life. This is the place where you hear that death has been overcome. Here you are united in fellowship with each other and with the Son of God who has defeated death for ever.
So too were the crowds that followed Jesus. Maybe they did not fully understand why they came, but they knew what He had was what they needed. They were suffering, and then received the reward for their love - “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” In a rare moment, St. Matthew shows us the inner workings of Jesus mind. He retreated alone, and the people followed. Jesus’ response is compassion. He doesn’t work out of frustration or annoyance, trying to get them to leave him alone. He is full of love and compassion for lost sinners like us. They did not earn his compassion by coming to Him, and neither do we earn anything by coming to this place. We know where Christ promises to be, and we make sure we are there to receive what his compassion and love desires for us.
Often our physical senses, our common sense, or our reason can cloud this faith that we have. Despite what Jesus was doing, the disciples didn’t really get it. “Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”” The disciples made the most reasonable conclusion they could from the circumstances. They were rightly concerned with the welfare of the crowds coming to Jesus. It was a desolate place. There were no food trucks, restaurants, or even farms or houses. Certainly not enough for 5000 people. They were far from the towns and most vulnerable could weary from the journey home. It would be best for them to leave Jesus for now and fend for themselves.
They forgot that Jesus strengthens us in body and soul. They saw Jesus healing people, they heard his teaching, but thought feeding those people was beyond him. The disciples either think Jesus cannot or does not want to do anything about the crowds’ need for food. Not understanding him, they say the place is desolate. There are many errors people can fall into concerning the provision of Christ. And the disciples fell into them.
First, there is the pagan error that fails to see that everything we have is provided by God. This is the truth of the first article of the creed “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them…and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.” (Small Catechism, Part 2) Too often we think we are in control. We drive in our cars trusting in our own ability to keep us safe from an accident, yet it is the heavenly Father who truly protects us. This doesn’t mean we should drive rashly and wildly, but just because we have the ability to thwart and deny God’s protection doesn’t mean it is not He who holds our lives in His hands.
Second, there is the error that thinks religion is all about bread. This is the pharisees’ error, that everything is only the physical. The disciples could have thought this way, having a right compassion on the people, they turn them away from Jesus to look for food for themselves. In this way, they make the free thing a law (you must leave Jesus to get food) and they make the most important thing free – seeing Jesus is secondary to their hunger. Yet whether the people ate are not was secondary to being where Christ is.
This then is related to the third and final error, that Jesus only has compassion for spiritual needs of the people. It’s the idea that physical things are too low or unimportant for Him. In the middle of this sits the point of view that plagues the other errors as well – that the physical and spiritual are separate. That the care for the body is unrelated to the soul. That while Christ reigns and cares for us in soul and wants us in heaven, what happens to our bodies is how we fend for ourselves.
Jesus has not abandoned us to ourselves but strengthens us in body and soul. In His death Christ took on our sins, our spiritual sufferings, and our physical diseases, burdens, and afflictions. He is risen from the dead. We do not need to be afraid. We do not need to fend for ourselves.
This is good because Christ has not softened the attacks of the world and the devil. Look at what Herod did to John the Baptist, and what has happened to so many Christian martyrs even today. Christ’s work has cause the attacks to be intensified because they hate Him and His church with great hatred. They hate Him, and they hate us, because Christ has defeated them. They rage because all they can do is kill us. And Christ has defeated death as well.
So we also see in our desolate place that Christ has not softened death or made disease more easy. Death still comes to us all. Our lives our so short, and pass in the blinking of an eye. Yet Christ has defeated death. He suffered as we do with sickness and pain. He bears our burdens with us. We can trust that whatever illness or pain we suffer, Christ is with us. He is caring for us. He may not heal us in this life, but he preserves us to the life to come. For death threw everything against Christ, it tried to destroy him with all the pain and sorrow that our sin deserves. The whole wrath of God was thrown on Christ, bearing your sin and mine, and Christ defeated it. Death spent everything to take out Christ and lost that Easter morning.
So not because we are in control, but because He has won, we need not fear the world, the devil, sickness, or death. Christ is with us, and Christ has won. And when the fears and doubts do assail us, and we, like the apostles say, “this place is desolate,” Jesus provides.
“Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over.” How does Jesus feed so many with only five loaves and two fish? How does Jesus care for us body and soul with so little bread and wine? The one who cares for us is with us, in His body and blood. The one who cares for us has not abandoned us, but gives us his Word.
This Jesus Christ rules the world and provides for us day by day. He provided to the five thousand to show us that all preservation of body and soul come from Him. He provides us in this sacrament His body and blood to strengthen us in this faith, not just that we are forgiven from sin, but that we are always under His care, no matter the circumstances. In this we are pointed to that final resurrection, where all the sin and pain and disease will be gone forever, where we will be sustained perfectly in resurrected bodies forever. The blur between physical and spiritual will end, and we will see clearly that Jesus Christ reigns over all things. Jesus has not abandoned us to ourselves, and he never will, but strengthens us in body and soul.
Let us pray – Lord Jesus Christ, even in the wilderness you provided for the crowds out of your great love and compassion, and by your death and resurrection we know that you will provide for us forever. Erase from our hearts all fear and doubt and strengthen in us our trust in your provision. Never leave us to fend for ourselves, but always teach us that you are the provider of health, life, and salvation. May your Holy Spirit work on our hearts to train us to better love and trust you for all things, and bring us to that final resurrection in the world to come, where you reign with the Father and same Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. AMEN.
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