Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga., on November 22, 2009.
Mark 8: 11-21
The beginning point in the Bible…is of course God. The beginning point of God, so the Bible asserts, is the wonder and goodness of creation. It is not necessary to get caught up in such matters as “religion and science,” or “creation and evolution.” In the Bible, “creation” is an…expression of gratitude and amazement for the goodness and generosity of God. The theme that recurs is generosity and abundance. There is enough! There is more than enough. There is as much as the limitless, self-giving of God can imagine.
—Walter Brueggemann in The Covenanted Self
If you have watched much TV during the past year, particularly TV related to the financial crisis and the things that have transpired, chances are you may have heard a phrase that has been used to describe what life is going to be like moving forward. Many of them describe it as the “new normal.” When people talk about the new normal following the collapse of Bear Stearns, the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, and the near collapse of the financial system, what they really mean is lower your expectations because everybody is going to have less of everything. If you have savings and investments left, expect smaller returns. Expect, therefore, to have a smaller nest egg. Expect to have a smaller house, a lesser job. Expect GM to have smaller sales and, generally, everybody needs to expect to have lower living standards. Shrink your expectations because this is going to be the new normal.
I don’t know if that is true or not but I do know that a lot of people have been faced with this and have had to adjust certain things in their ways of thinking. Just hold the phrase “new normal” in the back of your mind for a moment.
Thinking about the great spiritual lessons that any of us have learned in a lifetime, some of them are simply learned once and for all. We have an experience. It has dawned on us that God is in it and we realize that somehow God’s spirit is trying to teach our spirit something and we learn it. It is like the light coming down from heaven. It changes us and it is one of those things that we cannot go back to the way we were before because now we know this truth about God.
It might be forgiveness. Forgiveness is a pathway to healing. We might be holding on to a grudge and, finally, in some moment of conviction or empowered by the spirit, we forgive and we think, “Wow! Why didn’t I do that before? That has set my heart free. I wish I had known that about forgiveness before.”
Maybe the lesson is that Christ is real. You come to church and read about it. You join a church someplace because everybody has to identify with one church or another. Then one day, all of a sudden, in a manner different than before, Christ is real and there is a power in Christ that changes our lives and it is something that we learn once and for all.
Some spiritual truths are like this. You just get it and it doesn’t go away, but there are others that we have to learn again and again. Sometimes the greatest spiritual lessons that we learn are not something that we pick up for the first time but something that comes back to us. Maybe it is something that has gotten away from us or something that we have become complacent about. Then another experience in life comes along, and it stares us in the face again and we realize how far we have gotten away from it. What we had once learned comes back and it is almost as if it slaps us in the face and we realize just how important it is.
For instance, giving up a burden to God is an example. We may come to know what it means to finally let go of something and simply trust it to God. Then we decide that we are really clever, or smart or strong or that we have the ability on our own. Then we realize that we have taken all the burden back. Once again, we come to that place where we realize, I’ve got to let this go. One of the greatest spiritual lessons is really not anything new but something that we already knew that comes back to us.
It is hard to tell but some things we do have to hear more than once. Times get to be too good and we go another way, and it comes back to us. It is an even greater lesson sometimes the second or third time we learn it than it was before.
Now you have two things to hold onto—the new normal and the idea that sometimes we have to learn the same thing over and over, but when we do it comes into our hearts in a powerful way.
With those two things in the background, let’s look at the story from Mark 8:11-21. This is really the end of a much longer story. It is the end of the story of Jesus feeding the multitude. The feeding of the multitude is the only miracle that appears in all four Gospels. That is a little tidbit that you can take home with you. In Mark, it even occurs twice. The encounter with Jesus in the boat with his disciples has come after Jesus has twice, in a very short period of time, fed two different crowds in a miraculous way.
We all know the general idea of the story. They are in the countryside. It is at a time and a place where there is no place to go buy food—no McDonald’s, no Kroger’s, no convenience store. They are out there and, all of a sudden, there is this concern, There are thousands of people here. What are we going to do for these thousands of people? In the different Gospels, it is told different ways, but we know about the little boy who has some fish and loaves and Jesus tells the disciples, “Have everybody sit down in groups.” Mark, in one of them says, “Have them sit down in the green grass.” Jesus takes the loaves and the fish and he blesses them and feeds them. As if that is not enough, Jesus said, “When it is done, pick up all that is left over.” In the first feeding, there are 12 baskets left over. The No. 12 was the symbol of the number of tribes of Israel and, clearly, there was enough for Israel. Then, in the second feeding, there are seven baskets left over. Seven was a number often associated with the Gentiles so now we know that there is enough left over for everybody.
On the heels of these two miracles, the Pharisees have the audacity to come to Jesus and say, “We need a sign. We need a miracle.” Can you imagine what that must have been like to Jesus? He must have thought, “Where have you been? What were you thinking?” It just goes to show that if you don’t want to believe, there is never enough evidence. So Jesus said, “No, no sign is going to be given to this generation.” We think about Jesus as being meek and mild, but Jesus is exasperated about this.
The disciples get in a boat and start across the sea and they have brought one loaf of bread. We are given an abbreviated story, but here’s how I think the story goes. In the Jewish way of thinking, the leaven (the yeast, what makes the bread rise) is the symbol for sin. They get in the boat, and there is one loaf of bread. It is an object lesson. Jesus looks at the loaf of bread and says, “You need to be aware of the yeast, the leaven, of the Pharisees and of Herod. Beware of the sin that would come in and ask for a miracle on the heels of having fed thousands of people.”
One of the great things about Mark is that he is so blunt when the disciples don’t get it. He often gives me great hope. I feel like if the disciples in Mark’s Gospel don’t get it, then maybe there is hope for me. The disciples begin to say, “He’s upset because we don’t have enough bread.” They are missing the point that he is trying to say something about the Pharisees. They think they are being chastised because they are not going to have enough bread for the journey. There is only one loaf of bread for 13 people making it across the Sea of Galilee in this boat. Then Jesus realizes what they are talking about and says, “OK. Wait a minute. Have you not been paying attention? When I fed the first crowd, how many baskets were left over?”
The disciples said, “Twelve.”
“When I fed the second crowd, how many baskets were left over?”
“This is not about bread.”
What Jesus has been trying to say to the disciples, the thing that they have forgotten that they have to learn again, is that he is going to provide. He is trying to teach them a lesson and it has nothing to do with whether or not they have enough. That should be taken care of and out of their minds after everything they have seen.
Do you realize that in the history of God’s people, God provided. If you just open the Bible and start looking, you don’t have to turn very far until you come across a story where God provides. It will just slap you in the face. As a matter of fact, I don’t know how they could have missed the symbolism of the miracles they have just seen. There were people out in a deserted area. This is just like the children of Israel. They were out following Moses and did not have anything to eat; Moses prayed, and God gave them manna.
What is that movement from Egypt to the Promised Land except a great tale of God’s provision? They needed water. Moses strikes the rock. There is water.
They get tired of manna and there is quail. God provides at every turn. Surely the people who were out there with Jesus on that hillside can have a sense, This is just like Moses. He is providing.
Then that great detail that Mark puts in there, “They sat down on the green grass.” They sat down on the green pastures. The Lord is my shepherd.
Where does he take us? To green pastures.
What happens there? He prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
What is the result of that? My cup overflows.
Turn a page, turn a chapter, turn a book and God’s faithful provision for his people is a part of the story.
Jesus has also taught his disciples, which includes us, to pray for our daily bread. The spiritual lesson that perhaps we need to learn over and over again, and in this particular financial climate maybe this is a lesson that is really here for us today, is that God provides. The gracious God of creation, the God of all abundance, provides.
There is a translation of the Bible that where Jesus is talking to the disciples about how much is left over it is described as enough. There is always enough. That is the trademark of God’s provision for us is that it is enough.
We have often tried to describe God’s provision for us and our sense of blessing and counting our blessings at Thanksgiving by huge abundance. Just look as this feast. Just look at everything we have. I am going to count my blessings and my list looks like one of those dropped rolls of toilet paper. I think it feels like that sometimes, but the truth is that God’s promise for provision for his children is that we will have enough. It is not that we can write a check for anything we want and God will cover it. It is not that we are only blessed if we have a certain net worth. It is that God has provided us with enough.
I promised to come back to the new normal. In a world where we have been enamored by how much we would like to have, and how much we see other people have, and how much we think we should be able to accumulate by the time we are done, we really need to remember that what God has promised us is enough.
I don’t know everybody’s circumstances. I do know that members of this congregation have lost jobs. I know that members of this congregation have seen their business decline. I know members of this congregation that are responsible for organizations—government, non-profits, and others—where income is down and things are hard, but this I want to say: As much as anybody may have lost, does anybody not have enough today?
Will you eat today? I will eat today.
Will you have a Thanksgiving dinner? I will have a Thanksgiving dinner.
And it will be enough. Enough is as good as a feast. When I get up from eating, if I have had enough, isn’t that as good as just the largest table of things spread out before with everything left over and gone to waste. Isn’t enough a feast?
Here this lesson again. It may be a new normal. I don’t know, but what I do know is this: The God who provided manna, the God who provided water from the rock and quail in the wilderness, his son Jesus Christ who fed one group and then another so much that there was enough left over, that God has more abundance to share with us, and it is enough. For that, let us give thanks with glad hearts this Thursday.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.