The Guinness Book of World Records says the largest picnic in history occurred in Britain when over 8300 people picnicked together in 2009, well, sort of together. You see, the real story is that the count for this picnic included people in over a hundred different locations in Great Britain. They were ‘together’ only in the sense that it was organized that they would all start their picnic at the same time on the same day. And they all brought their own food.
Maybe the Guinness Book people need to read the Gospels because Jesus hosted a picnic a couple thousand years ago in which 5000 men ate. Include women and children and there may have been 15000 people or more and all in one location. And they didn’t bring their own food to this picnic; they had come to feast on the Word of God alone. Jesus gave them this but Jesus also gave them a meal of bread and fish.
The feeding of the 5000 may be the most well-known of Jesus’ miracles. Indeed, it is the only earthly miracle of Jesus that is recorded in all four Gospels, a sure sign that the early Christians had no doubt that what Jesus did that day was a miracle. You have to admit that it’s pretty amazing to feed a massive crowd with only five loaves of bread and a couple of fish.
But let’s take a look at the situation and see if we can get to the real story. In the previous verses of this chapter of Matthew, John the Baptist had been beheaded at Herod the tetrarch’s order and Jesus had just been told about it. Jesus was in mourning for His cousin; the one who had prepared His way and baptized Him and He was looking to get away to be alone with His disciples. So He got in a boat to go to ‘a solitary place’. But when people heard about it, they went on foot to meet Him. I would imagine that Jesus, being fully human, may have felt like telling them, “Can’t you people just let me alone for a while. I need some time to myself once in a while.” But He is also fully God, so He didn’t send them away. Instead of being concerned with His own heartache, He had compassion for the people and began healing all those who were sick.
It was starting to get late and the disciples brought it to Jesus’ attention that it was getting close to supper time. They were probably getting hungry themselves, and with such a large crowd, they knew they’d never be able to have enough food for so many people. And it was a huge crowd. Try to imagine how large a buffet line it would take to handle a group that large. In fact, imagine our church announced a free fish dinner to anyone who wanted to come. We open the north doors and people start filing in in a single line. (You know this is an imaginary story because the people are in an orderly line not a pushing, shoving mob). As the serving begins, someone who volunteered to help arrives late because that always happens – even in imaginary stories. As this person walks in to the kitchen, they say, “Wow! Have you seen the line? It stretches over to Burlington Ave. and down Burlington all the way past St. Mary Catholic Church to Sunny Brook. Oh, and Vera and Erma say, “Hi.” And, just to be clear, this is a pre-pandemic line so no distancing; these folks are standing a few inches from each other. That’s the kind of crowd the disciples are facing. But Jesus tells His disciples to give them something to eat. After they picked their jaws up off the ground, they brought Him the 5 loaves of bread and two fishes and had the people sit in groups on the ground.
We’re not told how the loaves and fishes multiplied to feed so many people. We’re just told that Jesus gave thanks to His Father for the food and handed the loaves and fishes to the disciples. It seems that the disciples probably took a basket or two of food to each of the groups. The amount of food must have grown at each and every step of the way, as the baskets were filled and as it was passed around in the group of people. This was a miracle that probably few people actually noticed. All they knew was that their stomachs were full. It wouldn’t have been evident except to those who may have noticed that Jesus and the disciples hadn’t brought a couple of trailer loads of food with them. As long as our needs get met, we rarely look behind the scenes to see how a meal gets prepared for us. Have you ever sat down in a restaurant and thought about all the deliveries and all the work that went into preparing your meal?
With this miracle, we see what Jesus can do with so little. The Gospel of John tells us that the loaves and fishes were given to the disciples by a little boy. It wasn’t much but he gave all that he had. It is interesting to watch the disciples as the story unfolds. They have just agreed that they understand the parable of the mustard seed, and then they promptly forget its point. Jesus tells them that they should care for the people. The disciples respond in verse 18, “We have nothing, but two fish and five loaves of bread.” The emphasis is on “we have nothing.
Isn’t that often our response? It certainly was Moses’, Isaiah’s, Jeremiah’s and David’s responses when God called them. I know it was my response when I sensed the Spirit calling me into the ministry. All of the pastors whom I know thought the same way. We didn’t have anything to offer. We couldn’t do the task that was placed before us. Many people when asked to serve in a specific ministry respond this way. And yet it was a meager gift that Jesus used to feed so many people. This story points out at least two areas of faulty thinking we have in regard to God.
The first is that we keep thinking that God is a stingy God – a God of scarcity. This is usually because our list of wants is much longer than our needs. When we change our perspective, stop focusing on our wants and offer prayers of thanks for what we do have, God suddenly appears to be a God of abundance. God has provided for each and every one of us. We are here (and if you are here electronically, that’s another provision), we are clothed, fed and each have residences that shelter us.
We struggle with this truth, though. We take a tentative step of faith because we wonder if God will help us and use our talents. We hesitate to increase our giving because we aren’t sure if God will continue to provide for our needs. We content ourselves with a fairly full life rather than an abundant life because we keep trying to compromise with what the Spirit is leading us to do. That brings us to the second concern.
We often think that the gifts that we have been given, our abilities and talents, even our money, are of no real consequence. We so often say to ourselves, “I just don’t have enough talent to serve God. I can’t [fill in the blank] (lead a Bible study, organize a Shoe box drive or other mission outreach, visit the sick in hospitals, etc.). We might say to ourselves “My testimony of the power of Jesus Christ in my life is just not very compelling, there’s no point in me sharing with others or even inviting my neighbor to church.” And so we don’t make use of what God has given us. We think we have to rely on only our own abilities and we are underwhelmed with our God-given talents but overwhelmed by the task; we don’t recognize that the real story is this: God wants us to use even our weakness to His glory.
We forget that we can do all things through Him who gives us strength. We don’t think about what God can do with us. But God did not give us a spirit of timidity and yet we are afraid. He gives us what He wants us to have and He wants us to rely on Him. See what God can do with you. You can use the gifts that you have been given for the glory of the Lord and your gifts can be multiplied just as Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes.
And those times when we do muster the courage to serve the Lord, we quickly get frustrated when we don’t see any results. We tell ourselves, “Well, I tried giving my co-worker/my neighbor a Bible and it didn’t do any good. But at least I’ve done my part.” Sometimes we don’t even know what the result of our efforts are.
I want to share with you a true story of African missionaries from Sweden. This story, from Alison Pickrell, is found in the book Fresh Power by Jim Cymbala. A young couple, David and Svea Flood, went to the Congo in Africa in 1921 to share the Gospel message of salvation through Jesus Christ to the African people. They went to a remote village but the chief would not allow them to enter or even to speak to anyone. They didn’t give up but built a mud hut a short distance away. The chief allowed only one little boy to take chickens and eggs to them twice a week. A lot of time went by, and many prayers were lifted to God, but the only person in the village that they were ever allowed to speak to was this one little boy. But this little boy did become a believer in Christ. In time, Svea became pregnant and gave birth to a little girl who they named Aina, but the mother, having been weakened by malaria, died a few weeks later. David became enraged that God would bring so much suffering upon him and have absolutely nothing come from it. He returned to the mission center where he left his infant daughter with another missionary couple and returned to Sweden, and spent his life angry and bitter towards God, with a bottle by his side.
Aina was raised in America by that couple. She married and settled in Seattle where she came upon a Swedish missionary magazine that had a picture of her mother’s grave in Africa. Unable to read the Swedish magazine, she had a college professor translate it for her. As she read the translation, she found out that the little boy who had become a believer in Christ through the seemingly fruitless efforts of her parents had grown up and built a school in the village. The Holy Spirit worked through him to bring faith to the children of the school and through the children to bring their parents to faith in Jesus Christ. The whole village of 600 worshiped the one true God and eventually many, many more in the surrounding areas. Aina eventually met the boy who had delivered chickens to her parents at an evangelism conference. He was now the head of the national Christian church body of Zaire, what was once the Congo, representing over 100,000 believers.
See what God can do. He took the apparent failure of a young couple and created His church, strong and vibrant, where once there was none. Using just a few chickens and some eggs, God fed an entire nation with His Word.
Aina was able to locate and visit with her father in Sweden just weeks before he died. She told him that his life had not been in vain after all, that God had used his efforts for wonderful things. And the bitterness and anger towards God that had overwhelmed him for so long fled away into the dark night and David Flood was once again able to rejoice in the Lord.
The people who ate loaves and fishes probably didn’t see what Jesus had done for them; they were just happy to have a meal. David Flood became terribly discouraged because he didn’t see what God was doing through him. God works through the people who trust in Him but often God leaves us in the dark about the results. We already feel inadequate to serve God and when we finally work up the courage to act, we get easily discouraged when God doesn’t allow us to see the results. But if we trust in God and allow His power to flow through us, He can do great things.
It’s not about what we can do; the real story is about what God can do working through us. See what God can do through you. Throw away your fear of failure because God is powerful even if you are weak. Rid yourself of the frustration of not seeing the fruit of your efforts because God works in unseen ways. Trust in the Lord and all glory be to God in the highest. Use the gifts that you have been given for the glory of the Lord and your gifts can be multiplied. See what God can do – in you, with you, and through you.