Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13 [a]) August 2, 2020
13 Now when Jesus heard [of the death of John the Baptist], he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. 15 Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
In the Name of Jesus.
We all handle things differently, but Jesus’ handles things in a Jesus-way, a way belonging only to him.
Think of what you would’ve done in Jesus’ position.
John and Jesus were related through their mothers, May and Elizabeth. John the Baptist was dear to him. How much time Jesus and John may have spent together growing up, we don’t know. But we know that the birth of John was announced by an angel to Elizabeth, and so was the birth of Jesus to Mary.
We know that Jesus knew the Scriptures—he knew of the prophet Isaiah some 700 years prior having foretold John the Baptist, saying that he would be a voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of Jesus. [Isaiah 40:6]
We know that when Jesus as an adult began his ministry, it was by the hand of John the Baptist that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan—baptized into the sins of the world, so that John then announced him to be the Lamb of God taking away the sin of the world.
And we know that John was thrown into prison by King Herod—unjustly, without trial, with no opportunity of defense. Locked in prison because John had the gall to speak of the Lord’s institution of the marriage of a man and woman and the gall to point out that Herod had transgressed it.
So, in Jesus’ position, what would you have done?
In our text of Matthew 14, Jesus has just been told of the death of John. His hometown, Nazareth, had just expelled him—they did not believe that Jesus was the Christ—when John’s disciples came to Jesus and told him of how Herod’s dancing stepdaughter had demanded that Herod chop off John’s head, and Herod did it. He handed John’s head to her on a platter.
So, after being rejected by his own hometown, Jesus is told the news of how Herod murdered John.
What would you do?
Maybe appeal through the legal apparatus, accusing Herod of malfeasance so that the Caesar back in Rome might remove Herod and maybe even bring justice down on Herod’s head. Everyone knows Herod would deserve it.
If you were Jesus, maybe it’s time for power. Jesus had already healed paralytics; he had already given healthy skin to those with leprosy—it’s obvious Jesus has power to do whatever he wants.
But no fire came down from Heaven to consume Herod and his degenerate palace, no army of angels to destroy this morally debased government—no political movement, no rebellion, no destruction, no retribution.
What did Jesus do?
When Jesus heard [of the death of John the Baptist] he withdrew from there in a boat, to a deserted place by himself.
This is the Lord of all power and might emptying himself out of his power and coming in weakness.
This is the Lord of all justice, not demanding justice, but suffering injustice.
This is the Lord of life seeing the unjust taking of John’s life, and acting not in retribution, but withdrawing. Acting not out of his justice, but his compassion.
What did Jesus do in this withdrawal? We read no words of the planning of a counter-attack, no words of designs of retribution, no words of setting up of a movement, but Scripture tells us only that “he withdrew in a boat, to a deserted place by himself.”
What did he do in this withdrawal? A contemplating of the words of life, a remembering and reciting of the Psalms, a speaking to his Father, interceding to his Father for his disciples, praying to his Father for the care of the people and families of the towns he was going through, giving thanks to his Father for his good gifts.
We aren’t told what Jesus did in this withdrawal to a desolate place—for this particular time, we do not know. But we know elsewhere that Jesus would withdraw, be alone, and pray to his Father.
He would pray the words of the Psalms. He would pray for those he loved to be kept in the Word. He would pray that sins be forgiven and that people and families would be given good food and shelter and safety, he would pray that all people would be given repentance and would be turned to him for his grace and salvation.
And while Jesus had withdrawn and was alone,
the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
The compassion of Jesus.
In the Greek this is a vivid word. It’s not just compassion as a passing emotion. The Greek word means a pouring out of yourself toward someone, a pity and mercy coming from your deepest insides.
Jesus is alone, heartbroken over the murder of beloved John, and the crowds press in on him.
He is the One John baptized to be Christ who would stand in for all sinners, who would be the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world, and now Jesus is about that job.
He’s taking away people’s sin, taking it upon himself. He’s taking away their sickness, giving them bodies of health and life.
He’s taking it all upon himself—for into that John had baptized him—and taking all the sin and sickness and death upon himself, he’s going to the cross, to put it all the death in his own body.
So on the crowd, these sick and hungry people, he has compassion. He spills himself out.
The crowd will see from him no sword—the sword belongs to Herod. The crowd will see no retribution from him. They will see a Lord who came not be to served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for sinners. A Lord who meets power and degeneracy with withdrawing to dwell upon the Words of his Father, to pray to his Father, and to find his confidence not in the exercise of power, but in the receiving of gifts from his Father and the bestowal of gifts upon sinners.
The Church, those who belong to Jesus, those who bear his Name in Baptism and hear his Word—the Church is in the world of power, the world of Herod, in the world of people with bodies given over to sickness, and households in hunger, of broken families, of malice among neighbors and violence in the streets, of people living in fear and seeing no relief.
The Church, we withdraw.
We don’t withdraw as if we are apart from the world. We are not. We are in the world. Our Lord has given us this, to be neighbors to our neighbors.
But we withdraw to be alone, apart from the world, with our Father. We withdraw to leave behind the working of power in our world, and to come to the Word of our Lord and his world of gifts.
We withdraw to be with brothers and sisters who live not by bread alone, but by every Word from the mouth of the Father.
We withdraw, then, to the proclamation of the Gospel—a Gospel bearing no sward but coming in the weakness and gentleness of Jesus himself; we withdraw to the Sacrament, to receive the fullness of Jesus in his Body and Blood given us to eat and drink for the forgiveness of all sin; we withdraw to communion of saints, that is, to the fellowship of all those who hear the Word of Christ and live together in his forgiveness and grace.
We withdraw, not to leave our neighbor, not to ignore or self-isolate—we are still in the world, but we withdraw to the Word.
We withdraw to come to our Father and intercede for the Church, for our fellow saints, to pray to our Father for the care of all people and families of our neighborhood, of our nation, of the world, that they be provided with good food and shelter and safety, that they live in peace, and that all people would be given repentance and would be turned to Jesus for his grace and salvation.
Out of this world, while we are still in this world, we withdraw to the Word, and there we find our Lord Jesus, who is One with the Father and makes us one with himself and one with each other.
In the Name of Jesus.