13 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. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 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." 16 Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." 17 They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish." 18 And he said, "Bring them here to me." 19 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. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Like you, I watched in horror this past week as the story of the Norway attack that left over 90 dead continued to pore forth. This is the sort of thing from which we find it impossible to turn our heads, even as continual coverage just makes us feel more and more helpless. You can gauge our helplessness by the amount of analysis that is attached to any such event. The more helpless we feel, the more analysis, political, psychological, spiritual we will see. This is just how we cope with events of untold cruelty and utterly pointless evil. This is how we put a buffer between these sorts of acts and ourselves, a little distance that will somehow keep us from feeling so helpless in our response. In the end, though, the helplessness and lack of control remain, which is why all that can really be said, is “Lord have mercy.” All that can really be done is a hurling ourselves on the mercy of God and one another, knowing that there is a darkness within and without us that exerts itself in some terrifying ways.
From an observer’s perspective, one of the most interesting elements of this whole gruesome saga was the response of the Norwegian people. Last Sunday, you see, the Cathedral in Oslo was brimming with people who turned out for a service of mourning, the Cathedral being so packed that those outside outnumbered those who were able to get into the service. There are pictures of the streets outside the Cathedral in which the streets literally appear to be paved with flowers and notes of mourning and remembrance. Now this is a very interesting response, given that we tend to think of Northern Europe as an increasingly Post-Christian region. In the face of numbing tragedy, in the face of illogical evil, the good people of Norway gathered together to sigh and grieve and find each, find God, in the midst of tragedy. The early 20th century Spanish theologian Miguel Unamuno said it well, “the chiefest sanctity of a temple is it a place to which people go to weep in common.” This is a truth that we have again discovered, watching our Norwegian brothers and sisters struggle with this tragedy.
That crowd, that gathering of the poor and unwashed, that riff-raff that chased Jesus into the desert, they too were a group who had just suffered an unexpected tragedy. While the lectionary begins our reading with this miraculous feeding in the desert, the story actually begins in the first verses of Ch. 14 and will the grisly political execution of John of the Baptizer. The Baptizer, you see, got caught up in the games of the politically powerful and was executed for speaking truth to that power. In one of the most terrible and terrifying texts in all of the New Testament, the poor man ends up with his head on a platter, simply so that Herod will not disappoint the guests who are, perversely enough, “reclining” at his banquet, a banquet whose air was thick with lusty cruelty. And it is precisely this news that sends Jesus back to the place of temptation, the desert, presumably so that he can be alone with his Father, after having heard of the baptizer’s death.
When the crowds, the same crowds who followed John out in the wilderness, for they regarded him as a prophet, yes, when they hear of John’s death, they immediately go and search out this Jesus. What exactly, then, were they expecting as they sought out Jesus in the desert? To what temptation were they willing to succumb? Though one cannot be certain of this, it is my guess that they were hoping that this Christ, this one powerful in word and deed, this one who had already clashed with those who controlled the Temple and their political allies, well, perhaps the crowd was hoping that he, too, had finally had enough. That in spite of those earlier sermons about forgiveness, turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemies, maybe, just maybe, he had seen enough of the cruelty and indifference that had ground them down for years. If this is what was expected, how to make sense of what actually happened?
For right in the midst of this anger, this hope for revenge for the death of a righteous man, indeed a prophet, something else entirely is given. Yes, for when Christ sees the crowds, sees them milling about without direction or identity, his first response is one of compassion: in the Greek, his guts literally go out to them. The King James Version of the Bible says that Jesus responded with tenderness to them. Yes, rather than succumb to the mob pressure that would have probably burned down a city if given the chance, Jesus stands in their midst, full of tenderness, ready and willing to heal their bodily sickness, but perhaps even more significantly, heal the sickness that believes revenge will result in peace. Yes, here in God, right in the midst of temptation, indeed in the time of trial as we have been taught to say, offering not vengeance, but compassion, not blood thirsty revenge, but divine tenderness.
It is no wonder, then, with this unexpected turn of events that everyone forgot about that inconvenient matter of food. Thanks be to the disciples for interjecting a little prudence back into the story. The hour was indeed getting late and being stranded in the dark, in the desert, well, that would be indeed be a dangerous situation. The disciples attempt to appeal to Jesus’ common sense: it is dark, it is late, we are in the desert and these people are hungry. But to these clearly correct observations, Jesus responds with a statement of pure gospel, “they need not go away.” For what they need, instead who they need, is right there with them, and what is more, this Christ will not let them go. And it is here that the story comes full circle. For Jesus himself will line up a different sort of banquet, his guests will recline not in securely monitored banquet halls, atmosphere choked with importance, but rather in the desert, right in the midst of temptation and human vulnerability. And this host, this Christ, will not offer up the vulnerable for the sake of political expediency, but rather will offer up his own body, will have it hoisted upon the cross, for it is in this that the vulnerable will be protected and the weary given rest. Yes, in this banquet, this Christ will give his own body, his own blood, and that will be enough to feed the masses and indeed to feed masses more. For the gift he gives is the life eternal, and no amount of baskets can contain the leftovers. And what is more, Christ gives this gift, throws this banquet, right in the midst of human sufferings; of fears of questions and doubts. Yes, the gift comes to us in the desert, in those places of lonely temptation when this old world feels stale and inert. In those famous words of Psalm 23, a feast has been prepared for you in the presence of your enemies, in the presence of all that which haunts and troubles you. Yes, the gift is given as a nation watches on in disbelief at the farce of its elected leaders, and as another nation mourns the indescribable tragedy of senseless death and horror. The gift that Christ gives meets us in our grief, and takes our deserts and makes of them a holy banquet that spills over with its abundance. Yes, for this why the temple may be made holy by tears, because Christ has not left us alone in them, and instead meets us there and promises that he will not send us away. So then, lift your voice, be in praise or lamentation, in joy or in sorrow, or in that strange combination which attends our living. For Christ has set a place for you at his banquet and from there, you will never be sent away. In Jesus’ name, amen.