Our gospel lesson occurs in a “deserted place.” The Greek word Matthew uses here has multiple meanings. All of them apply to this story. A deserted place refers to the wilderness, which is not a forest with lots of trees. It’s a hot, humid desert. A deserted place means that there aren’t many people around. It’s an uninhabited place, a solitary place. A deserted place refers to the person who goes there. It’s a lonely place, a desolate place. The feeling it conveys is one of misery, suffering and sorrow.
This is where Jesus is, both geographically and emotionally. The reason why I know this is because of something that happened that is not mentioned in our gospel lesson. If we go back to the beginning of Chapter 14, we learn that Jesus had just received word that his cousin, John the Baptist, was dead. John’s death was not a pretty one. He was beheaded by Antipas after he made a promise to his daughter Salome to give her whatever she wanted. Her mother Herodias, who was Antipas’ second wife, convinced her to ask for John’s head on a platter. Antipas honored her request.
Jesus’ disciples then took John’s body and gave him a proper burial. Matthew does not tell us if John’s head was given to the disciples as well. When they had finished burying their friend, they had the horrible task of telling Jesus what had happened. This awful, devastating news is what prompted Jesus to leave the disciples, get in a boat, and sail across Lake Galilee to a deserted place.
Suddenly, our gospel lesson makes more sense. We understand how Jesus feels because there have been times in our lives when we, too, have received bad news and longed to set sail for a deserted place. It may have been the news of the death of a loved one, or an automobile accident; a diagnosis of a terminal disease, or the loss of employment. It may have been the news of someone who conspired against us or who violated a confidence we asked them to keep.
Whatever the occasion, we have all been where Jesus is in our gospel lesson. It’s a deserted place in the fullest sense of the word. It’s a place that makes us feel all hot and bothered; a place that is unfit for human habitation. It’s a place where we experience being cut-off from others; a place of isolation and loneliness. It’s a place where misery, suffering and sorrow are our only companions.
Some of us have been in such a deserted place this week. Some because of the death of our beloved Joe Langley. Others for reasons that are unknown to the rest of us. Personally, I had a particularly challenging week. The day before Joe went into Hospice, I had two drug overdose deaths during my night shift at Mission. Both were young and both had families that needed to be consoled. The staff needed support as well.
The next day I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I was in that deserted place Matthew speaks of in our gospel lesson. Then I got a call from Joe’s sister Tamra and learned that Joe had taken a sudden turn for the worse. Over the next two days Tamra, Joe’s close friend Tom, and I walked with Joe through the valley of the shadow of death. We surrounded him with love, prayers, and scripture. He received visits from loved ones and friends. He Skyped with those who lived far away.
Thanks be to God, our prayers for a peaceful passing were answered. I am grateful I was able to be there when he died. But one of the hard things about being the pastor of a small church is that everyone here is my family. I suspect you feel the same way. Because of this, the joys we share are even greater, but so are the losses.
I don’t have to tell you what a kind and humble soul, Joe was. You know that already. His presence among us will be greatly missed. His passing has left a sadness in my heart, that I had to place on top of the other sadnesses I experienced this past week.
So, when I read our gospel lesson on Monday morning, the first sentence hit me like a ton of bricks. To be honest I never really noticed this detail before, but the experiences of this past week gave me new eyes to see it. Perhaps, this detail also resonates with you the same way that it does with me. If you feel like you’re in a deserted place, a lonely and uninhabited place this week, I have some good news for you.
The first word of good news is that Jesus is not afraid to go there. In fact, in this story, he is there even before the crowds arrive! After the death of John the Baptist, Jesus retreats to a deserted place, but it wasn’t deserted for long! Matthew tells us that when the crowds had heard where Jesus was going, “They followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd.”
[Said sarcastically] Fantastic. I’m sure that’s EXACTLY what Jesus needed! He wanted to be alone, but no one would let hm be alone. He wanted space to mourn the loss of his cousin, but everyone around him was inconsiderate of his need for space. He needed to have time for self-care, but everyone started asking Jesus to do something for them.
I could preach a sermon on this topic alone! Grieving is a hard thing to do when everyone around us thinks we should just get over it. The word of advice I offer you is one that I offer to everyone after they’ve experienced a loss in their lives: Everyone grieves differently, so don’t let anyone tell you how to do it. Give yourself the time and space you need to mourn and to heal. Find rituals and activities that help you process what you’re feeling. Above all, remember that the journey is uniquely yours. So honor your process and don’t let others tell you how to do it.
If Jesus was a mere mortal, this is the advice I would give him, too. When the crowds began to swarm around him, I would tell him to get out of there as fast as he could. But this is not what Jesus does.
This brings us to our second word of good news. Matthew says that when Jesus saw the crowd “He had compassion for them and cured their sick.” Wow! Nobody would have blamed Jesus if he threw a hissy-fit and told the crowd to leave him alone. But Jesus doesn’t roll like that! Instead, he offers grace upon grace. He heals and comforts and loves. Thanks be to God he does this, not only for the crowd, but for us as well.
Sometimes people have the misconception that Jesus is way too busy for them. They feel like they are not worthy of his time. If we learn anything from our gospel lesson it’s the truth that we ARE worthy of his time. He is always there to comfort us and heal us when we find ourselves in the deserted places of life. If you are hurting or grieving this week, do not hesitate to call on Jesus for help, because he will be there for you.
As the story continues, the disciples echo the advice I would have given Jesus if he was a mere mortal. It was evening. The sun was setting. the disciples went to Jesus and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Send them away. Yep, that’s the advice I would have given Jesus if he was a mere moral.
But you know the rest of the story. Jesus surprises the crowd, once again, with grace upon grace. “They need not go away,” Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.”
The disciples are dumbfounded. They reply, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” In other words, we cannot meet the needs of this massive crowd of people in this deserted place.
Then Jesus asks them to give him the loaves and two fish. He looks up to heaven, blesses the offering, and hands it back to the disciples to give to the crowd. Miracle of miracles, everyone in that deserted place had more than enough to eat. In fact, there were twelve baskets full of leftovers, even more than they started with.
Friends in Christ, I don’t think I have to tell you that this is good news, but, THIS IS GOOD NEWS! For those of us who find ourselves in a deserted place this week, Jesus reminds us that he will feed us, he will take care of us. It’s not an imposition. He doesn’t have a limited supply. He’s not going to check our ID at the door. Instead, he offer grace upon grace that feeds us and overflows into the lives of others. All we have to do is receive the gift.
That’s it! We don’t have to have the Ten Commandment memorized. We don’t have to believe a specific set of doctrines about Jesus. We simply need to hold out our hands, and receive the gift. The good news our gospel lesson teach us is that Jesus is there for us. He meets us in the deserted places of life. He has compassion for us and offers us healing, comfort and love. He feeds us until our hungry souls are filled, once again.
Friend in Christ, trust that this is the truth of our gospel lesson. Receive the grace that Jesus has to offer all of us. AMEN.
Copyright ©2017 by David Eck