Sunday 2nd of August 2020, Year A
Rev Dr John McCulloch
Genesis 32: 22-31
Psalm 17: 1-7, 15
Romans 9: 1-5
St Matthew 14: 13-21
Our lectionary gospel reading from Matthew 14 is arguably one of the best know passages in the gospels, for it tells of how Jesus fed the five thousand with the five loaves and two fishes.
As I spent time re-reading this passage in the course of this week, it struck me that we tend to treat this story in isolation, without framing it within the context of what happens in the preceding verses of the chapter, and in so doing, we miss out on an important contrast that the gospel author is wanting us to see.
If you have a Bible open in front of you, you will see that Matthew 14 begins with John the Baptist in prison, and tells of how the prophet is be-headed by order of King Herod. In verse 12 we read of how the disciples take the decapitated body of John the Baptist and bury it. They then go and tell Jesus of his friend’s tragic end, and when Jesus hears the news, he departs to the wilderness.
The gospel writer does not tell us why Jesus heads into the desert, but I would imagine that he does so because he is stricken with grief, and wants to be alone. Not only was John the Baptist his cousin, but he was the one who had prophesied of Jesus’ coming. He had baptised Jesus in the river Jordan at the start of Jesus’s ministry.
We read in verse 13 that when Jesus departs into the desert, he is followed on foot by crowds of people from the surrounding villages.
What is Jesus’ response?
In verse 14 we read: ‘And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick’.
In Matthew chapter 14, two kingdoms are contrasted.
The Kingdom of Herod and the Kingdom of God.
Whilst the Kingdom of Herod beheads and kills those who stand in its way, the Kingdom of God is on the side of those who are imprisoned. Whilst the Kingdom of Herod locks up and kills its prophets, the Kingdom of God is with those who are tortured and killed for standing up for what is right. Whilst the Kingdom of Herod is corrupted by power and bent on brutal violence, the Kingdom of God is built on compassion and an identification with all who suffer, who are hungry, and who are crushed by the powerful.
The Kingdom of God is with the hungry and the dispossessed.
Jesus is moved by compassion, and not only heals the sick, but feeds the hungry.
In some ways, our world has not changed that much from the days of John the Baptist and Jesus. For do we not live in a world where power corrupts?
Do we not live in a world of profound inequality where some have untold wealth, whilst billions of our fellow human beings live in dire poverty and go to bed hungry?
Do we not live in a world, where injustice and inequality are propped up by militarised might?
All throughout history, the Kingdom of God is on the side of those who are despised, crushed, put down, and crucified outside of the city walls. This was the case for John the Baptist, for our saviour and Lord Jesus Christ and for his disciples and the early church, who responded to the call to take up their cross and follow him.
And today, as we look out onto our world, we too are called to take up our cross and follow Him.
We too, are called to be moved by compassion, so that our lives can be channels of God’s healing and nourishment in such a world as ours.
But can only do so by the grace of God who invites us, who draws us to himself and calls us into his service.
We cannot do so in our own strength or relying on our own abilities.
We need inner transformation and healing. We need to feed on the one who is the bread of life, so that our lives can bear his image.
By God’s grace, we need to be emptied of all those things which keep us from being changed by his love, if not our hearts will display the same selfishness, greed, lack of love and unforgiveness that we see in our world today. The Kingdom of God is at work in our world to change it, but it begins with the human heart, it begins with us. It is all by grace, and not because of any righteousness of our own, for we have none. We can only come, aware of our human weakness and dependency on God; depending on Him every step of the way.
Our OT reading from Genesis 32: 22-31 is a reminder of the limitations of human strength, for it tells of how Jacob wrestled with the angel all night until the breaking of the day. After wrestling all night, we read in verse 26 of how Jacob said to the angel ‘I will not let you go until you bless me’.
What follows is interesting, for Jacob is wounded in the hip by the angel, and from then on he walks with a limp.
In verses 30 & 31 of Genesis 32 we read: ‘And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh’.
Jacob is wounded. He can no longer rely on his own strength, but from will now will walk with a limp. His encounter with God makes him realise that he must rely on God. And it is striking that from that encounter, Jacob is now known as Israel, which means ‘wrestles with God’.
God is calling us, his church, to be part of building his Kingdom in our world. A kingdom where the hungry are fed, and those who are crushed under the weight of despair can find hope and healing.
May we come to the one who is the bread of life at the beginning of this new week, that our lives may reflect his presence in all that we do and say.