Listen to it:
“The Garden in the Desert”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Success! “The apostles were gathered to Jesus and they told him all the things they did and all the things they taught” (Mark 6:30). And they had done and taught a lot of things. “They went out preaching that [people] should repent, and casting out many demons, and anointing with oil many sick [people] and they healed [them]” (Mark 6:13). They were eager to report back to Jesus how they had done. But all Jesus says is, “Come by yourselves into a desert place and rest a little while” (Mark 6:31). Apparently they needed the rest because Mark tells us, “Many were coming and going, and they had no good time [even] to eat” (ibid.). So they cross the lake to a desert place. Unfortunately for the apostles, other people were hungry, too. They were hungry for the words of Jesus, so hungry, in fact, that they ran around the lake to where they thought Jesus might land. Jesus sees the large crowd and He cannot let them go hungry. Instead of letting the apostles rest, instead of taking them to a nice restaurant to celebrate their achievements, Jesus has compassion on the crowd, because they are “as sheep who do not have a shepherd” (Mark 6:34; Numbers 27:17). And that’s bad, because sheep without a shepherd have no shelter from the dangers of the desert. Sheep without a shepherd are as good as supper for wolves or lions or whatever other hungry carnivores are prowling around. But these aren’t just sheep without a shepherd, they’re sheep who have been abandoned by their shepherds. And God saw it. So He raised up a righteous Branch out of David’s family tree, who would reign over the land and gather again those scattered sheep. “In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely” (Jeremiah 23:6, ESV). Jesus is the Shepherd of the lost and the missing, the abandoned and the scattered. He is God, come to gather the remnant of the flock, to set new shepherds over His sheep and put them in safe folds, “and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares [Yahweh]” (Jeremiah 23:4, ESV).
All of this is in Jesus’ mind and heart; He feels all of this in His gut as He looks out over the crowd and begins to “teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). Some people think that God is a drunkard for pain; that He sits passively in His remote heaven, watching people run around like ants and destroy each other. Sometimes God Himself blows away some of the ants, just because He can. But God is not a drunkard for causing pain, or for watching it unsympathetically. God is, if you will allow the expression, a drunkard for relieving pain, for entering into pain so that He can alleviate it. But we can only know this if the suffering and crucified Jesus is God. We know Jesus is compassionate; He does not heartlessly pass by these masses of men in the wilderness. He teaches the people. Which may seem a strange way of relieving their pain. Unless, again, Jesus is God. Because when God-in-the-flesh teaches you, He does not give you abstract intellectualisms or cute stories or bland, five-steps-to-financial-freedom life advice. He gives you the Words of eternal life. The Word is the very bread from heaven; taste and see that the Lord is good! But the apostles are weary and worn-out, tired and hungry. They think Jesus has gone on long enough. They hide it under a form of compassion: ‘Jesus, it’s late; surely these people have had enough for one day. They’re hungry; send them to wherever they can find some food. They can come back for more next week.’ But Jesus has some teaching for the apostles as well: “You yourselves give them [something] to eat” (Mark 6:37). What! We’re hungry, too. And it would cost more than six months’ pay to give them each even a little to eat! And, in case you’ve forgotten, we don’t get paid for this apostle job. (Now Jesus ignored that last comment, so Mark didn’t write it down.)
But those disciples, caught up in their accomplishments, and then in their weariness and hunger, seem to have forgotten that Jesus is Lord. Jesus is the God who makes the grain and the water that become bread. He creates the fish, each small minnow. Here, in this desert place, He simply does in an instant what normally takes much of the year. The disciples are so caught up in their own physical concerns—with money, food, and the lateness of the hour—that they are blind to the One who gives daily bread to all people and who put both sun and moon into their places. Their doubt threatens to eclipse their belief in Jesus as they respond to His command with skeptical questions. And us? How often do our questions betray our unbelief? Are the things that Jesus has left us sufficient for the survival of the Church? Preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins? Baptize and teach the whole counsel of God? Do this in remembrance of Me? Jesus says: You give them something to eat. Those things are alright, but can they save the Church? It’s not enough; it’s irrelevant to people today—it’s irrelevant to me!; how can we attract and keep people with only those things? Better to dress things up a bit; better to lay down some guilt; better to try a different structure; better to plead for more money. If we can’t make the green grass grow in this desert, if we can’t feed the people with what we think they want, then we’ve failed. And if we fail, it must be our fault. Because it’s all up to us.
But Jesus ignores skeptical questions and says, “‘How many loaves do you have? Go and see.’ And when they found out, they said, ‘Five, and two fish’” (6:38). Jesus told the apostles to have the crowd sit down in “banqueting groups” on the green grass. So they do: a group of fifty here, a group of one hundred there. And when they’re all ready to eat, they look sort of like a garden, or maybe like this area from an airplane: neat squares of produce laid out like an earthen quilt. And then the apostles feed the people, as Jesus told them to. Just like they preached, and just like they cast out demons, and just like they healed. They feed the people, but Mark makes it clear who is doing the feeding. Just as he made it clear who was causing the repentance, and casting out the demons, and healing. The apostles are as empty as those twelve baskets before the meal. They can’t bring about repentance in anyone; they can’t cast out demons; they can’t heal anyone. They know they can’t feed five thousand-plus with five loaves and two fish. Even so, Jesus says: “You yourselves give them something to eat.” Jesus commands, but His Words are not empty. He gives what He commands. “Taking the five loaves and the two fish, while looking up into heaven, he blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples so that they could put them before [the people]. And He divided the two fish for all [of them]” (Mark 6:41). And just in case the Twelve were worried that they wouldn’t have enough to give out, or maybe enough for themselves, they gather a basket each of leftovers. But who would demean that food with the put-down “leftovers”! That word conjures up, at least for me, images of something cold and tasteless from the back of the refrigerator. No, these baskets are full of the life-giving and life-sustaining goodness of the Lord, the Good Shepherd.
Which brings us back to the desert. Because that’s where all this is happening. Sort of. Yes and no. They are in “a desert place;” Mark records those words three times (vv. 31, 32, 35). But where are they sitting? On rocks? On sand? Among sparse and shadeless desert plants? No. Jesus told the apostles to have the people recline for the meal on the green grass. This is an oasis in the wilderness, a garden in the desert. This is Jesus bringing His new creation to earth, a foretaste of the wedding banquet here and now. Jesus isn’t waiting for a funeral to have the Twenty-third Psalm. Those people, sheep without a shepherd, now have one: a Good Shepherd, even Yahweh Himself. And they didn’t lack anything, as the psalm promised: “All of them ate and they were completely filled” (Mark 6:42). Stuffed, you might say. This is no light snack; this is all-you-can-eat. But, in God’s reality, it’s only the hors d’oeuvre. How much greater, then, will the main feast be! This Lord, who makes His people want for nothing, brings them to pastures of green grass to rest and eat and hear His Word before they return to the wilderness world. Even the disciples, who had no chance to eat before they were surrounded by the eager crowd, now eat their fill. Food for the disciples and food for the people: all from the Lord who is Lord of both.
It is no different for us: what do I, your pastor, have to give you but the Word and gifts of Him who is Lord over all of us? And that is surely more than sufficient. There is food enough here for you and me until we come to the full feast. And what do you have to give to those who still wander in the wilderness? Nothing but what you have received, what has filled your baskets today; nothing but the green grass at the feet of Jesus, who teaches you many things, who gives freely the words of eternal life. Nothing but bread blessed and broken and given; nothing but wine blessed and divided. Nothing but Jesus, Who is surely sufficient. Not only can those things save the Church, they’re the only things that can. So come and rest a while. “Even though the place is desolate, yet the one who feeds the world is present. And even though the hour is late, yet the one who is not subject to the hour is conversing with you” (Chrysostom, Mark (ACCS), 85). And when you go back out into that wilderness world, invite others to come and rest and be fed and live. “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price…. Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (Isaiah 55:1-2, ESV)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 7/14/09