A Sermon by Rev. Ian Arnold
In the internal sense sustainment is nothing else than the influx of goodness and truth from the Lord by way of heaven. This is how the angels are sustained, and it is how a persons soul, that is his internal man, is sustained.
This sustainment is what the sustaining of the external man by means of food and drink corresponds to; and for this reason good is meant by food and truth by drink. The nature of this correspondence is also such that when a person is eating food, the angels present with him think of goodness and truth; and, what is amazing, their ideas vary according to the different kinds of food that he eats.
When, therefore, in the Holy Supper a person receives bread and wine, the angels present with him think about the good of love and the good of faith, for the reason that bread corresponds to the good of love and wine to the good of faith. And because they correspond to them, they also carry the same meanings in the Word.
The fact that a persons soul, that is, his internal man, is sustained by spiritual food and drink, which are goodness and truth, is clear from the Lords words in Moses: Man does not live by bread only, but man lives by every utterance of the mouth of Jehovah. [Deut 8:3; Matt 4:4]
(Arcana Caelestia, paragraph 5915)
I would like you, friends, to focus on these words from Mark’s gospel, chapter 6:
When the day was now far spent, [Jesus] disciples came to Him and said, “This is a deserted place, and already the hour is late. Send them away, that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves bread; for they have nothing to eat.” But He answered them and said to them, “You give them something to eat.”
As I pondered and reflected on those words during the week, it came to me more and more how shocked and how taken aback the disciples would have been to have the Lord swing the situation back onto them as He did do. It was totally unexpected, because immediately beforehand they were saying to Him, “Send them away, that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves bread; for they have nothing to eat”, and I assume that they expected Him to do exactly that. But no, He answers and says to them, “You give them something to eat.”; and I guess they thought to themselves, “Is he joking? Did we hear Him correctly? What is He going on about here?”
And they said to Him, “Shall we go and buy 200 denarii worth of bread and give them something to eat?”
Thats their response you see, and they are incredulous. “What do you mean? What are you getting at here?”
But He said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.”
So He’s not going to cave in. Instead there is something that is enormously important highlighted here, and which I want to spend a moment or two with you talking about.
The Lord typically, and this is not out of character, put the responsibility back onto the disciples. He wasn’t going to be some sort of rescuer. He wasn’t going to provide the answers. He wasn’t jumping up with a solution like they expected Him to do. He fairly and squarely put the responsibility onto them:
“Send them away, [the disciples are saying] that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves bread; for they have nothing to eat.” But [Jesus] answered them and said to them, “You give them something to eat.”
Difficult, like I say, but by no means out of character. The Lord never takes responsibility away from us when the responsibility should be ours.
On another occasion, the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus and asked Him, “Are you the Christ, or do we look for another?” By this time, John the Baptist was in prison and he wanted to check Jesus out. And Jesus does not give them a straightforward answer; He does not give them the ready solution they were looking for:
Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: the blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”
You see what He’s doing here? He’s not taking responsibility onto Himself, He’s leaving people to work through issues and come to their own conclusions.
And this has immense practical, pastoral and emotional implications for us. It is not the Lord’s way to be a rescuer in the way we would sometimes like Him to be. He doesn’t do for us that which we can do for ourselves. The Lord doesn’t just provide the answers, saving us the trouble of working through to those answers ourselves. The Lord sometimes allows us to hang out there for our own good. We wonder, we anguish; we yearn for Him to give us a sign or to step in, as we often would like Him to do so. We may complain that He does not do these things, but that is not His way. The Lord does not take the responsibility onto Himself when that responsibility should be, and needs to be, ours.
Now having said that, what we need to bear in mind so as to balance that particular point, is this: whilst it is the case that He does not step in as a deliverer in that immediate and obvious way, He nevertheless provides the resources for us to deal with the situations that arise. This is incredibly important also.
I’ve been in touch for several years, as some of you know, with a young Christian pastor in Pakistan; he’d email three times a day if I let him! But just now, this very week just gone past, he’s raised with me his expectation, that he shares with a whole group of Christians, of the Lord intervening in human affairs. Things have got out of hand! The problems are too big! Hurricanes and all these other things that are happening! (Goodness, doesn’t our heart ache to hear about Bali again and what has happened there overnight?) And so he’s saying to me, “Look, I believe that the situation is ripe for the Lord to intervene.” How coincidental (but theres no such thing as a coincidence) is it that I should be working on a sermon about this? My reply had to be, “No, I’m not comfortable with what you’re saying because the Lord never has, and never will, step in to rescue the situation.” This is what they expected Him to do in His first coming. The words of the disciples walking to Emmaus on the evening of the resurrection, along the mines of: “We thought he was going to come and rescue us,” best describe what they thought He meant. But He doesn’t do it! He does however give us the resources to deal with the problems and the challenges and the needs that arise along the way.
So friends, dont buy into the doomsday talk that the problems that we grapple with in our day and age are insolvable. They will be solved, with the Lord’s help working in us and through us. He will resource us to see through all these challenges and difficulties and needs that arise. And that’s why I read from 1 Kings, chapter 19. What does Elijah the prophet do? Remember, at that time he is wanting to throw the towel in: “Take me out of this, Lord; rescue me!” And the Lord doesn’t oblige. But what the Lord did do was make sure that he was sustained for the journey. And so the human race will be sustained for the journey, but not rescued, because we would be the poorer if we were. If it weren’t for that attempt, if it weren’t for people giving attention and thought and study, and accepting the challenges to the human situation in any given day and age, we would be the weaker for it. What sort of people would we be, if we were constantly being rescued out of situations that, and I stress with the Lord’s help working in us and through us, are solvable?
Another thing I reflected on, so far as this passage is concerned, is the way that the disciples underestimated the Lord. In fact, I was quite astonished that they had been with Him now for months: seeing miracles (of which there are many recorded up to this point), hearing Him teach they must have known something of what He was capable of; and yet it doesn’t seem to have dawned on them that He could handle or manage this situation that had arisen:
When the day was now far spent, His disciples came to Him and said, “This is a deserted place, and already the hour is late. Send them away, that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves bread; for they have nothing to eat.”
Not a hint, not a suggestion that He might do something amazing in this set of circumstances.
But then it occurred to me: would we be any different when it comes to underestimating the Lord? When we are faced with challenges and needs, hungry and unsatisfied within, with the sense that our life is a dry place, even a wilderness, we too underestimate the Lord’s ability to respond to our need. We too think that we will find relief in places where, in fact, it will not be found. We forget so easily our experiences of the Lord working within us and we cannot believe it, any more than the disciples believed, that the Lord will come from within us and strengthen us in our present time of need.
When we look out on the world, friends, there are indeed a multitude of needs and challenges: huge needs and huge challenges, almost unending. And one of the lessons we can take from this particular miracle is this: whilst we look out on these challenges, as the disciples looked out on the multitudes, those same needs and problems and difficulties and challenges that are too big for us are not too big for the Lord, they are not too big for the Lord.
As it is with the world around us, so it is with the world inside us. “The multitudes”, so far as this world inside us is concerned, is the multitudes of needs and challenges, the times of doubt and uncertainty, decision-making occasions which come upon us. They are too big for us on own, but never too big for the Lord working with us, in us, and through us. I wish the message here in the Word could be proclaimed amongst people who face despair, discouragement and depression: what looks so big for them is not too big as far as the Lord is concerned.
The Lord sustains us. And here’s how He does it:
But He said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they found out they said, “Five. And two fish.”
Five loaves and two fishes are all about the basics. If the Lord is going to be able to sustain us and see us through, then we need to identify the basics of what He asks of us. The basics, the five loaves and two fishes; the basics. Its not so much about quantity; its more about quality. Many is the time when we are faced with decisions regarding other people: how to respond to them, “What should I do?”, “Should I or shouldn’t I?”, “What does this situation require of me?”; and we can thrash around and we can ask the Lord, “how should I react to this situation?” And the Lord says, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.”
What are the basics? The basic thing in most situations is the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So, if for the sixteen-hundredth time, someone rings you in the middle of your dinner asking you to sign up with a new telephone company, put yourself in their shoes and tell yourself, “Do unto them as I would have them do unto me”. Dont abuse them, or shout down the phone at them. Put yourself in their situation. “How many loaves have you?” I’ve got the Golden Rule. Another one comes to mind, another basic more specific to this church: the doctrine of use. Shall I buy a car? Shall we change our home? Should we get the floors polished? “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” Well, there is the doctrine of uses: is this useful? Will it enhance my ability to live a life of service to my family, to my neighbour, to my God?
Five loaves and two fishes: they are the basics that the Lord challenges us to identify. And once we have identified them, then amazingly He causes those basics to become such that we see all sorts of implications and applications in them, such as to fill twelve basketfuls. Never-ending are the implications and the insights that we can see once we have identified what those basics are.
Friends, I never preach a sermon unless I have preached it to myself first. I believe it is as true of you as it is of me, that we have our times when we are in a desert place, a wilderness: we have needs that we feel are unfulfilled and unsupported. We feel as if our strength is draining from us and we are becoming weak in certain areas. Who doesn’t know times and occasions like that? And yet here is this amazing, wonderful miracle, the feeding of the 5000, in which the Lord is assuring us, affirming and teaching us, promising us that however desperate and unpromising a particular set of circumstances may be, He can with our cooperation work in partnership with us to turn it around.