God meets us in the wilderness places, providing what we need and equipping us for the journey.
Vicar Bristol Reading
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 18 A
Texts: Genesis 32:22-31; Matthew 14:13-21
Grace and peace to you all, in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus just wants a little time away.
He’s just received some devastating news about the death of his relative John the Baptist, a man whom Jesus admired greatly. It isn’t necessarily unexpected news: John’s popularity and outspokenness had long irritated the local ruler, Herod, who’d had John imprisoned.
Still, even if John’s death had been a long time coming, this had to have been tough news for Jesus and his disciples – not only because they’d lost an influential teacher of the Gospel, but also because John’s execution served as a reminder. It’s dangerous to be on the wrong side of those in power. It can cost you your life. That’s a lesson Jesus certainly won’t be able to forget.
Although he just wants a little time away to process this news, crowds of people end up following him way out into the wilderness, to “a deserted place,” as the text says. The crowds are hungry to hear Jesus’ healing words, to feel his healing touch. And then, as the day wears on, they’re just plain hungry.
All these people have walked a long way, and now everyone realizes there is no good plan for supper.
No one packed picnics. There are no food trucks. They can’t drop by the nearest falafel joint. Thousands of tired and hungry people gathered way out in the middle of nowhere. How will the mood shift when they realize they’re in for a long night without a meal?
The disciples get nervous and tell Jesus it’s time to send the people away. Let them travel back to their villages and buy their own dinner there. But Jesus feels differently. Sometimes the wilderness is exactly where you’re meant to be. “They don’t need to leave,” he says, “We’ll just feed them here.” “Here? We have nothing here,” the disciples respond, holding up a few loaves of bread and prepared fish. Too meager a meal for even a few, let alone a crowd. That may be so… but not in the hands of Jesus.
Have the disciples already forgotten all those parables that Jesus told about the abundance of life in God?
The kingdom of God is like a tiny seed, Jesus had said, that grows into an untamable shrub. It is like a pinch of yeast that transforms flour into rising dough. It is like a fishing net that is unable to contain the weight of its copious catch. Life in God expands and overflows. In God’s realm, there is enough for everyone!
When Jesus had told the disciples those stories and asked them, “Do you understand what I’m telling you?” they’d said, “Yes, sure, we understand.” So why don’t they know that in the kingdom of God, a few loaves and fishes can become a meal for thousands, with leftovers besides? Why do they see scarcity where God can create plenty?
Perhaps it’s the gnawing hunger in their own bellies. Perhaps it’s the growing anxiety in their own hearts. It can be easy to trust in God’s provision when it’s a story about someone else, when it’s just a metaphor about a farmer or a fisherman. It’s harder to trust in God’s abundance when you’re tired and hungry. It’s harder to trust when you’re far from home and night is falling. It’s harder to trust when you’re coping with news of death and violence and your own future feels uncertain.
Despite the disciples’ fear and doubt, God-in-Christ is right there with them, present with them and providing for them.
Providing for everyone, actually. Jesus makes a way where there seemed to be no way. Somehow, out in that deserted place, with so few provisions, there is healing and food to go around. The text says “all were filled.” Everyone gets what they need.
It’s an encouraging reminder that God can provide even when there seems to be so little, even when the wilderness surrounding you seems so barren.
Actually, today we heard two stories of God’s unexpected provision in the wilderness, because this is also Jacob’s situation in the Genesis reading.
Jacob, too, has traveled a long way and finds himself out in the wilderness as night draws near. He has sent his household caravan ahead of him, so he is empty-handed, without supplies. Jacob is journeying to meet his brother, Esau, the same brother he deceived and stole from, the same brother he’s been avoiding for years. Jacob must have been nervous, wondering how that reunion would go. Facing an uncertain future, Jacob is left alone in the dark, alone with his fear and doubt.
Except, of course, he isn’t really alone; God is there with him in the wilderness.
And, again, God provides. Certainly not in the way Jacob expects, though. God shows up like a force to be reckoned with. Sometimes when God meets you in the wilderness, you will be healed and fed, and sometimes, you will be wrestled to the ground and irreversibly changed – but both can be gifts.
Jacob leaves that mysterious encounter with a limp. But he also leaves with a blessing and a new name. Like the crowds who followed Jesus into the wilderness, Jacob gets what he needs. His future is still uncertain, to be sure; he still has to face the consequences of his past and the realities of his future. But he can be confident that God goes with him into the unknown. He can know that, even in the darkest wilderness, God is present and God provides.
I know for many of you, these last few months have felt like a journey into a barren wilderness.
Perhaps you have faced nights when all you are left with is your exhaustion and longing. The news is so scary, the future is so uncertain, and you’re so unprepared. So much has been taken away that it’s hard not to focus on what’s missing, not to be aware of what you don’t have.
Out in that deserted place, the disciples looked at their situation and told Jesus: “We have nothing here.” But of course, they didn’t have nothing. They had five loaves of bread, two fish, and one savior whose love for them could conquer anything– scarcity, fear, even death.
You have that, too.
No matter what has been taken away from you, no matter what you’ve lost, no matter what you’re hungering for, no matter how uncertain a future you face, your savior is present with you, right now, right where you are. There is no wilderness place, literal or spiritual, that is so remote that God won’t meet you there.
And however little it feels like you have to contribute, it is enough for God to work with.
Like Jesus did with the disciples, putting that food in their hands that they might share it with others, God can work miraculous generosity through your hands, your actions. Like God did with Jacob, transforming him and guiding him that he might become an ancestor of the faithful, God can use your life, your story to tell of God’s goodness and mercy.
So, when you’re out there in the wilderness feeling like you have nothing left, feeling like you have no idea what comes next, trust in God’s abundance. Know that even in the wilderness, it is enough for you, enough for everyone, enough forever.