Clever detective though he was, the late lamented Inspector Morse did not always see what was staring him in the face. Listen to this scene from one of Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse detective novels:
It was no new thing to realise that the Christian church had a great deal to answer for, with so much blood on the hands of its temporal administrators, and so much hatred and bitterness in the hearts of its spiritual lords. But, behind it all, as Morse knew – and transcending it all – stood the simple, historical, unpalatable figure of its founder – an enigma with which Morse's mind had wrestled so earnestly as a youth, and which even now troubled his pervasive scepticism.
People like Morse look at the church, and often they find little difficulty in dismissing it out of hand. But Jesus is another matter. Jesus disturbs people. There is a persistent question that will not let them go: 'Who is this man?' And it is the 'simple, historical, unpalatable' record of his life and deeds which hammers away at people's convenient agnosticism. This morning we come to the end of our series looking at Matthew 14 and 15. Our passage is Matthew 15.29-39. Do please have that open in front of you. You'll find it on p 982 of the Bibles in the pews. It's a passage that raises two questions that are never far from the surface as we read the gospel accounts of his life. The first question is: Who is Jesus? The second is: What has he come to do? What happens here points us to the answers. As you can see from my two headings on the back of the service sheet, this passage falls into two sections: verses 29-31; and verses 32-39. My first heading, then, is simply this:
First, Jesus heals the sick who come to him and they are made well (vv 29-31).
At this point, you may recall, Jesus has been up in the north-west, in the region of Tyre of Sidon. He has healed the Gentile, Caananite woman, despite the priority of his earthly ministry which was to the Jews. Verse 29:
Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. Great crowds came to him…
There are indications in this passage, confirmed by the account in Mark, that Jesus in fact went to the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, into the Decapolis region – that is, into what was predominantly Gentile, non-Jewish territory. So the likelihood is that this is a largely Gentile crowd. They have heard of Jesus' power, and they want a slice of the action. And that's not surprising, because the power that Jesus displays is astounding. Our familiarity with these events must not be allowed to blind us to the astonishing things that Jesus does. Verses 30-31 :
Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.
Why did they praise the God of Israel? Because they realised that that is who they had seen at work in the person of Jesus, even if they didn't realise the full implications. Look again at that little phrase: 'and he healed them'. Forget ever-escalating demands on the National Health Service. For a time, Jesus shut it down completely. GP's waiting rooms were emptied. Waiting lists for surgery were eliminated. Jesus healed them all. He is displaying the almighty power of God here. And he is fulfilling prophecy. Isaiah 29.18-19 says this:
In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see. Once more the humble will rejoice in the Lord; the needy will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.
And again in Isaiah 35.5-6, in the context of a promise that God will come, there is this prediction:
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.
These amazing and wonderful things happen when the Holy One of Israel, the Almighty God arrives on the scene. I am reminded of a very interesting article that appeared in a newspaper some time ago. It ran like this:
"Twenty people are claiming to be Jesus and the rightful heir to £30,000 left in the will of religious recluse Ernest Digweed. Mr Digweed was found dead four years ago in a tent in the living room of his home in Portsmouth. The walls were covered in crosses. He also lived sometimes under piles of deckchairs.
He left his entire estate to Jesus, so that He [Jesus] would have some money if the Second Coming should actually occur. But until then, Mr Digweed named the Public Trustees as executors and it is they who must decide whether any claimant is Jesus. They refuse to reveal the identities of the hopefuls, though one is rumoured to be a steelworker from Sheffield. And they will not say what their criteria are for checking each claim.
An official said: 'We have politely acknowledged all claims. Usually people go away after a while or admit that they cannot support the claim. If however there was a claim that appeared to be theologically sound, then it would have to be considered very carefully.'"
Maybe the first stage of the process should be that applicants should demonstrate their ability instantly to heal anyone who came to them, however severe the disease or disability. And that was just for starters as far as Jesus was concerned. I am reminded also of the famous words of C.S.Lewis, who sums up the central question of the identity of Jesus. He says:
I am trying to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about [Jesus]: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God'. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.
You can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. That's what we have to do. Now and always. But there is a question that needs to be asked. Is this passage giving us warrant to expect that Jesus will today instantly heal physically everyone who comes to him? The answer is surely 'no'. On the one hand, Jesus is pointing forward to what life will be like with him in eternity. And on the other hand, he is giving a sign of the power of the gospel to heal our relationship with God. The gospel opens the eyes of those who are blind to the truth. The gospel breaks the power of sin in our lives, which is like a deadly spiritual disease. One thing that Jesus doesn't do is promise that if you follow him, your earthly life, this side of heaven, will be trouble and sickness free. In fact even here you can see that these crowds get hungry for lack of food, until Jesus eventually feeds them. The life of discipleship is a life of faith, and of service of Christ which is self-sacrificial.
We should not use passages such as this as a prop for our desire to be pampered in a way that Jesus never promised. After all, we need to remember that not all Christians are as cossetted as us. A book that I won't forget is called 'Killing Fields, Living Fields'. It's the true story of the Cambodian church, particularly during the genocidal Pol Pot era. Many, many of our brothers and sisters gave their lives for Christ in those years. They knew what it was like to follow him. One Christian, as he and his wife and children were on the point of being executed, said to his distraught son who wanted to try to escape:
'What comparison, my son, stealing a few more days of life in the wilderness, a fugitive, wretched and alone, to joining your family here momentarily around this grave but soon around the throne of God, free forever in Paradise?' The lad accepted his fate. 'Now we are ready to go,' the father said to the Khmer Rouge. And they were killed.
There is unimaginable glory in being a follower of Jesus. But too many people talk about discipleship as if it is all glory and no suffering. And the danger then is that we raise expectations in others and even in ourselves that are just plain wrong. Being a Christian is a hard road. There are real, and daily, sacrifices to be made. Don't kid yourself. And don't kid other people. But then, when the going is hard, remember what Jesus says: 'whoever loses his life for me will save it'. The healing will come. Be patient. Trust Jesus, who is Immanuel – God With Us. He has almighty power to save. So that's the first part of the passage. Jesus heals the sick who come to him and they are made well. Now to the second part.
Secondly, Jesus feeds the hungry who stay with him and they are satisfied (vv 32-39).
Jesus heals miraculously as a sign of who he is. Jesus feeds the crowds miraculously as a sign of what he has come to do. Three days have gone by. No doubt many of them hadn't even got round to throwing together a packed lunch. If they had, the last packet of crisps had been finished and the last stick of Kit Kat shared out long before. They were hungry. Verse 32:
Jesus called his disciples to him and said, "I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way."
'No Tesco anywhere round here,' the disciples reply. Or something to that effect. They are slow to learn. Despite the feeding of the five thousand that they have already seen, they don't get it. Jesus is never short of resources. He has almighty power. Of course, we're not in a position to point the finger at them. This side of the resurrection, we know so much more than they did at that stage. But do we learn any faster? I think not. But Jesus is patient with them as he is with us. He graciously uses them and the meager resources that they do have – seven loaves and a few small fish…
… and when he had given thanks (v 36), he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. They all ate and were satisfied. Afterwards the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was four thousand, besides women and children.
Now again this is pointing beyond the temporary meeting of physical need to the food of eternal life. After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus had warned the crowds not to come to him merely for physical food. He was offering much more than that. John 6.26:
"I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you."
We cannot just have a bit of Jesus. We cannot treat him like an insurance policy. That is a point that people often miss, not least at Christmas time. Christmas, of course, means a great deal more than turkey and presents – though I hope you enjoyed both. But it is clear that the significance of who Jesus is does not always get through to people. I remember one Alan Ayckbourn play set at Christmas time. One of the characters is a lazy, self-important man. On Christmas morning he comes back from church and announces: 'I always go to church at Christmas. I like to keep my options open.' Jesus will not have that. He wants the whole of us, unconditionally, every day and always. And he gives us himself. He is the bread of life. He is on a rescue mission to heal the dying and to feed the starving. I once heard the evangelist Billy Graham tell the story of a time when he went out for a walk with his young son and they came across an ant hill. Someone a bit earlier must have given it a kick or something because all around there were ants dead and dying, and others charging about the collapsed ant hill looking completely lost, with the pattern of their life destroyed. Billy said to his son:
Wouldn't it be good if you could become an ant for a while and go and show them what's wrong, and organise them and help them to bury their dead and get things straight?
And then he said:
That's what God did. He sent his Son to earth, to become a man, so he could straighten it out and rescue the world which has been so badly damaged by sin.
That's what Jesus is about: not sticking plaster, short term solutions; not just providing one meal; but feeding us with himself, the bread of eternal life. When we feed on him by faith, we have a taste of heaven now, and the promise of heaven to come. Do we understand that? Do we constantly look forward to that great family feast when all God's children will finally gather in heaven before the throne of God? Have we felt the thrill of that hope?
Last year, you may recall, Lena Zavaroni died. She was in her mid-thirties. For those who don't remember her, she became a star as a teenager. She had an extraordinary singing voice that made her, for a while, a household name. But her career collapsed. For years, she suffered from anorexia. When she died, she weighed less than five stone. She had all the food she could ever need available to her. But she wouldn't eat. So she'll never sing again. If we are going to live, we need food. And we need to keep eating it. But far more important than physical life is eternal life. And Jesus is the food of eternal life. In John 6.53 he says to the crowds by the Sea of Galilee:
I tell you truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.
We don't literally, physically, eat him. When he said that he was standing in front of them. Now he is in heaven. He is not on our plates or in our picnic baskets. So what does it mean to eat Jesus? Back in John 5.24 Jesus put it like this:
I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.
To eat the food of eternal life is to hear and believe God's word. It's no good hearing only. It's no good if what Jesus says goes in one ear and out the other. We have to take it in. We have to hear and believe. God's word has to become a part of us – the fuel for our lives. If we're going to have eternal life, we have to eat and drink Jesus. We have to believe in him. And that means hearing and believing his word, the Bible. This book has in it all that we need to know for eternal life. All the major food groups are here. If you eat this, there won't be anything missing from your diet.
The great thing is you can't over-eat the food of eternal life. So make sure you eat the ready prepared, pre-packed meals of sermons and bible talks. Get plenty of the good home-cooking of Bible reading and study on your own. And get involved in bring and share meals with others – in other words a Bible study group, whether it's in CYFA or Food for Thought or Home Groups or Focus or whereever. Feed on Jesus, by faith. The amazing and tragic truth is that so many people won't eat the food of eternal life. They won't see that Jesus heals. They won't see that he is God With Us, with almighty power to save. They won't see that he feeds us with the bread of eternal life. They have spiritual anorexia. Don't be like them.