“This is a Lonely Place…”
a sermon based upon Matthew 14:6-21
It was Mark’s Gospel that first told the story of the beheading of John the Baptist by King Herod. This king is the son of Herod, the King, who killed the children in Bethlehem 30 years earlier in an effort to eliminate the baby Jesus. (!) I guess brutality was still a hallmark of the Herod family in this second generation.
The Gospel of Matthew re-tells the story of the beheading for his Jewish audience, but neither Luke nor John choose to include this horrible event when they wrote their Gospels. This was a sad and traumatic experience – then as now!
Beheading is a gruesome act… intended not only to execute the victim, but to heighten terror in the people who care about them. It is nauseating, vicious, and bloody… as we have seen in the news over the years from the Middle East, where terrorists still do it and then they post pictures on the internet -- gruesome, X-rated videos!
The callous, almost frivolous, reason given as to “why” King Herod executed John the Baptist – a promise that he made to his step-daughter during the King’s birthday party – adds to our revulsion. How simple, and sad, is the next sentence: “His disciples came and took the body and buried it; and they went and told Jesus.” (14:12)
It was Mark’s Gospel also that first told of Jesus feeding 5,000 men (plus women & children) from the five loaves and two fish that the disciples had on hand. Apparently, this miracle was memorable!
This event was picked up not only by both Matthew and Luke when they wrote their gospels, but even by the Gospel of John two or three generations later. It’s the only miracle that is reported in all four of our New Testament gospels.
Now, I’m going to have us look at both of these stories side-by-side this morning. First, the death of John the Baptist… and then, the feeding of the 5,000.
I preached a sermon about the beheading of John the Baptist back on July 3, 2016 (some of you may remember it, because I told the story in “first person” -- from the perspective of “Joanna, the wife of Cuza”, who was King Herod’s chief steward, and responsible for the silver platter on which the Baptist’s head was presented). YUCK!
But the good news that came out of that horrible story was that Cuza’s wife, Joanna, became a follower of Jesus! She is named in the Gospel of Luke (8:2-3) right alongside Mary Magdalene and other female disciples, who followed Jesus and “provided for them from their means”. Joanna, Suzanna, & Mary Magdalene… served Jesus.
Looking back in my sermon files, I realize that I first wrote about the beheading of John the Baptist all the way back in March of 1984, in a Lenten devotional that we published in Zurich, Switzerland, where I was serving as an Interim Minister at the International Protestant Church…. (36 years ago!)
Only two times in my career have I focused on the death of John the Baptist. (!) I guess that means I tend to avoid the bad news of public brutality as much as Luke and John did in their day.
Regarding the miracle of Jesus’ multiplication of fishes and loaves to feed 5,000… I first preached about it in August of 1988, at Bay Shore Church in Patty’s hometown (Long Beach, California), where I was an Associate Minister (31 years ago); then again 16 years later in March of 2004, in Torrance, where I was the Minister of the Seaside Community Church; and I preached on it yet a third time (seven years later) in 2011, at Los Altos UCC in Long Beach.
“Feeding so many with so little” was a challenge each of those three churches were struggling with. And so I thought that preaching on the miracle of unexpected abundance, of sharing what one has with others, and of trusting God to be a generous provider, needed to be said. In effect: “Trust God! Have faith – we can do this!”
In six-&-a-half years, I have never preached on this Bible story here at First Church Alpena.(!) Even though this “feeding of the 5,000” story is the only miracle that is included in all four of our Gospels, I have never preached about it here. (!) And I’m not going to today, either! That’s because I do not think that this congregation has that problem. However, I have discussed it at length in Monday morning Bible Study (twice) and in the Tuesday afternoon Bible study (first at Barb & Glen Kett’s house, and again at Jim & Patty McNeil’s home).
What I am going to do, however, is have you notice the linkage between those two stories. We talk about King Herod’s execution of John the Baptist, and we talk about the feeding of the 5,000. I have shelves of “commentaries” on one or the other of those passages -- books of sermons by other Ministers preaching on one or the other of those stories -- because they are always treated as separate events.
(That’s how the “lectionary” works. Selections of Scripture are packaged in a pre-arranged bundle for Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and other more “liturgical” churches to use according to a three-year rotation calendar. Sunday School curricula is also produced in tandem with the “assigned” readings. But the “link” between the stories is often neglected.)
Here’s how I see it: The butchering of John the Baptist as a public spectacle at King Herod’s birthday party would have been gruesome to witness. This would have been a public act of terrorism at the highest level of government, letting the disciples of John know that they were outside the law – perhaps subject to the same fate!
And yet, Matthew tells us that “his disciples came and took the body and buried it; and they went and told Jesus.” (Matt. 14:12)
This was a bold thing to do. (!) To come forward in public and provide for the burial of your recently-executed leader -- removing a beheaded corpse from inside King Herod’s prison -- took courage!
Then they went and told Jesus (!)
As you know, Jesus had been baptized by John. Jesus was a significant part of the Baptist’s movement from the very beginning.(!) The Gospel of John begins by having the Baptist telling everyone that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John told everyone who asked who he was, that he himself was not the Messiah. John the Baptist said he was not even worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals. He had come, says the Baptist, as “a voice in the wilderness, to make a straight path for the Lord.” And then he pointed to Jesus as the one his disciples should follow. (John 1:19-37)
John’s disciples bring word to Jesus that the Baptist had been beheaded, and that his body had been buried. Matthew tells us: “Now, when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a lonely place apart.” Jesus wants to mourn in private. Jesus needs to grieve. (!) Jesus goes on a “retreat” (in effect) to find solitude… I suppose he needed to to process the news that rocked his world.
There’s an old hymn: “I love in solitude to shed the penitential tear, and all God’s promises to plead, when none but God is near.”
I get that! I so get that! Getting away, getting out of town, being alone; being “out there” in solitude, with no one but God beside you… I think Jesus had feelings just like you and I do. He was human, after all. Yes, he expressed the fullness of divinity, but in a fully human way. Jesus wanted to mourn in private. Jesus needed to grieve.
But when the crowds heard it (Matthew goes on to say), they followed him on foot from the towns. As he went ashore, he saw a great throng. And he had compassion on them, and healed their sick.
I tell you, I feel for Jesus! He wants the time and the space to grieve the death of his faithful friend – and to process his anger at the brutal beheading. Jesus needs to make sense of the senseless – buck up his courage to face these new terrors – find a way to carry on the legacy of ministry that John the Baptist had begun.
But the crowd won’t give him the time, nor the space. Even though Jesus has taken a boat out onto the lake, and has come to shore in a “lonely place apart”, the crowd comes by foot… following him. Jesus was confronted by “a great throng”… and he healed their sick. I can tell you that Jesus Christ was much more patient, more compassionate, more of a caregiver/healer than I would have been!
John the Baptist has been beheaded. This is a crisis moment! Jesus has been told the news, and he is in grief! And yet… he has compassion on people who are needier than himself. He heals them. Well into the evening…
Jesus’ disciples come to him and say (in effect) they’ve had enough. It’s late. It’s been