First Lutheran Church
NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Text: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
THE SIGNS OF JESUS
Miracles were not a big deal for Jesus. Jesus was very very reluctant to perform a miracle. In fact, Jesus didn’t even call them miracles. He called them “signs”! When Jesus performed a “sign,” He did not want anyone to tell others about it! Jesus did not want anyone to focus on miracles. Yet, in spite of the clear and unambiguous message of the New Testament regarding miracles, a majority of Christians still focus on God’s power to perform miracles.
Remember the story of Jesus’s Temptation by Satan after 40 days in the wilderness? Let me remind you of that story. According to Matthew’s account, following His baptism, Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards He was famished.” It was when Jesus was famished, when Jesus was most vulnerable that He was tempted. The primary purpose of all of three of the temptations was to persuade Jesus, as the Son of God, to exercise His power! Satan was trying to tempt Jesus to engage in a ministry where people would be attracted to Him because of His power to perform miracles. Satan was saying in effect, “Wow the people with miracles, Jesus, then they will certainly follow you! They will flock to you!” Satan was right! This is precisely how to succeed in the numbers game: Perform a miracle! Satan was trying to tempt Jesus into proving His divinity, into proving to Himself that He really is the Son of God, by exercising supernatural power to accomplish miraculous deeds. Jesus refused! Jesus refused!
Although the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is not spelled out in our Gospel Lesson this morning, if you read this story in the other Gospels you will discover that this miracle, like all of Jesus’ miracles, produced the kind of results Satan claimed they would—that is, the people who observed or benefited from this miracle consequently missed the whole point of what God was seeking to reveal and accomplish in His Son, Jesus Christ. The exercise of Almighty Power to accomplish miracles, produces in people the wrong motivation for following Jesus Christ.
When Jesus reluctantly (His disciples had to beg Him to do it) performed the miracle of feeding 5,000 people, He called it a sign, rather than a miracle. But the people missed the sign and only saw the miracle. They want to take Him by force to make Him king. They get the brilliant idea that anyone who can produce food like that ought to be made king—by force if necessary. In any case, “when Jesus realized that the crowd was about to come, and take Him by force, to make Him king, He withdrew again to the mountain by Himself.” Obviously, the crowd’s response was not what Jesus wanted. As Satan had warned as a consequence of the miracle the crowd wants to institutionalize Jesus’s role as provider and deliverer. Jesus, they reasoned, can satisfy ALL of their needs! Having seen power at work, they wanted to harness it for their own needs and purposes. If this was the second Moses, He would surely do for them what the first Moses had done for their ancestors and deliver them from oppression.
The crowd’s response was predictable. They wished to claim Jesus as their own personal genie. They got it wrong! Jesus had compassion on them initially because they were like sheep without a shepherd and then later Jesus had compassion on them because they were hungry. Instead of seeing his compassion, which reveals who God is, all they saw was the miracle. All they could focus on was the miracle. The miracle was intended to be a “sign” pointing to God’s compassion for those who suffer from hunger. As God’s people, when we recognize the sign, we then know how we are to follow Jesus, by showing compassion, by feeding those who are hungry. Jesus’s disciples did the actual feeding! God works through us! The miracle was merely the medium. The crowd focused on the medium, rather than the message. Here is a case where the medium is not the message. However, for the crowd the medium became a substitute for the message. The crowd got it wrong. They missed the point. We too often miss the point.
Jesus’s miracles are intended to reveal what God cares about, what is important to God. Miracles are best understood as acted-out parables, living sermon illustrations. The crowd mistakenly assumed that they could count on Jesus to meet all of their needs by performing miracles. They missed the point. Today we also often miss the point by placing emphasis on Jesus’ power to perform miracles, rather than on HIS SUFFERING LOVE revealed in His death on the cross, and His resurrection.
The first part of our Gospel this morning ends just prior to the miracle of Feeding the Five Thousand. When Jesus and His disciples went ashore, “He saw a great crowd” that had arrived ahead of them, and He had compassion for them,” not because they were hungry, but “because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things.”
From the Feeding of the Five Thousand on, Jesus had a much firmer grip on the truth that the Messiah is not going to save the world by miraculous Band-Aid interventions: a storm calmed here, a crowd fed there, the sick healed, a mother-in-law cured back down the road. Rather, it is going to be saved by means of a deeper, darker mystery at the center of which lay Jesus’ own death on a cross.
Suffering Love seems to be less attractive than All Mighty Power. We seem to be influenced by a philosophical view of God, but this is not how God is viewed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many Christians have a problem accepting, or taking seriously, the offensive concept of the ‘self-emptying’ of God spelled out clearly in Chapter 2, Verse 7 of the Letter of Paul to the Philippians. In verse 7 Paul states that Jesus “emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” This is certainly NOT about power as we normally understand it! This, as some of you may know, is the concept of kenosis, which has been traditionally used in our Lutheran tradition to indicate the nature of God’s condescension in the incarnation, when the Word became flesh and blood in the Person of Jesus Christ. God’s love could then be revealed and demonstrated in a very concrete, tangible, historical, personal, and human way when the Word became flesh in Jesus Christ. Kenotic love defines who God is. It is revealed in Jesus. This kind of love does not manipulate and control by using Almighty Power. This kind of love does not insist on its own way, as Paul states it in 1 Corinthians 13. This kind of love allows the one loved to have freewill to either accept or reject this love. Love has no meaning without freewill! God’s love, expressed through reciprocal (that’s Trump’s favorite word, isn’t it?), God’s love, expressed through reciprocal divine-human self-giving in Christ, overcomes evil and brings people together through death and resurrection. In Christ, God’s Power is always subordinate to God’s Love.
In Christ, God’s Power is always subordinate to God’s Love. This is what Luther calls the Theology of the Cross. Its opposite, which, unfortunately, is the characteristic of so much of pop culture Christianity, is called the Theology of Glory. The theology of glory focuses on God’s power to perform miracles, which produces in people the wrong motivation for following Jesus Christ.
When we, those of us here this morning, think of “God,” which attributes are most likely to come into our mind? Almighty Power, or Suffering Love? Which kind of God is revealed in Jesus Christ? A God of Almighty Power, or a God of Suffering Love? The answer, from the perspective of the theology of the cross is clear and unequivocal: it is a God of Suffering Love; a God who identifies Himself with US; a God who seeks solidarity with humanity; a God who suffers with us and for us, and God who feels our pain; a God who grieves; Jesus grieved; a God of compassion; a God of justice, kindness, mercy and caring, who relates to us primarily in our relationships with each other. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is a God who does not manipulate and control us with His Power, but a God, as seen in 1 Corinthians 13, who is patient and kind, who does not insist on His own way, who honors our freedom to choose.
In Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, which was the second reading from this pulpit on July 8th, Paul puts into the mouth of God these words, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” “My power is made perfect in WEAKNESS.” Think about that! In the words of the great theologian of this past century, Reinhold Niebuhr, we read, “The crux of the cross is its revelation of the fact that the final power of God over human beings is derived from the self-imposed weakness of His love.” This is persuasive power, rather than controlling power. Niebuhr’s qualifying adjective is tremendously important here: “self-imposed weakness.” This is God’s choice, not ours! We may want to focus on supernatural power, we may want to focus on miracles, as the way we want God to act, but God has chosen the way of the “self-imposed weakness” of Suffering Love.
The Lutheran martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, more strikingly still, wrote that while “Human religiosity makes us look in our distress to the power of God in the world…the Bible directs us to God’s powerlessness and suffering.” And he added from the depths of his own suffering, “Only the suffering God can help.” The Christian God, revealed in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh and blood, must be seen as a suffering God. One of Luther’s most profound insights was that God made Himself small for us in Christ; God made Himself small for us in Christ. In so doing, He left us our freedom and humanity. He showed us His heart, so that our hearts could be won. In short, God does not manipulate and control us (we are not puppets) with His power to perform miracles, rather He loves us, comforts us, enables us to endure in the midst of pain and suffering. In Christ, God’s power is always subordinate to God’s love.
We are called through our Baptism to become “little Christs” in relationship with one another. We are in partnership with God! God’s work is done through us! This is how Grace becomes active in Love. This is who we are as baptized Christians, as pastors, in every kind word we can say, in every thoughtful deed we can do, in every warm handclasp we can offer, in every sorrow and joy we can share, in every healing touch we can bring to the hurt of another—partners with God in the ways we use whatever loaves and whatever fish we shall ever have at our command to give.