Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Mark 6:30-44
Come away by yourselves, to a desolate place, and rest awhile. Today that is Jesus’s invitation. That is what he wants for his disciples; that is what he wants for you. “Come away to a desolate place and rest.”
It is of course ironic that Jesus calls his disciples to rest in the wilderness (a ‘desolate’ place). In Mark’s gospel (to this point) the wilderness is a place of crying out, of repentance, of camel’s hair and locust, and the temptation of the devil. It is a place of lepers and unclean spirits, it seems, not a place for you or for me.
“Come away by yourselves, to a desolate place, and rest awhile,” says Jesus. And, if you were listening last week to the holy gospel, you understand why. Last week you were given a sneak peak into a royal feast, a view into the heart of the culture, of the so-called-civilization. It was King Herod’s birthday and it was a who’s who of the movers and shakers of the day. But in that palace, at that feast, when the platter is passed to the king, it carries the head of John the Baptist.
So you can understand why the crowds in the gospel today are roaming the wilderness like sheep without a shepherd. In the Bible, kings were called shepherds; and with a king (with a shepherd) like Herod (devouring his subjects), you would be searching, too.
And what the crowds are seeking, they find. Jesus comes ashore and they run from all the towns and villages to meet him. But we should notice in our text today, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, that the first thing Jesus does for the crowds is not feed them. He has compassion on the people by teaching them many things. The crowds are not yet ready for bread. They first need the word of Jesus, and they are willing to brave the wilderness (and starvation) to go and get it.
They are not the first to do so. In Exodus, God saves his people from slavery in Egypt by calling them into the wilderness (to a desolate place, to speak to them and give them bread). And after that, after he has brought his people into his promised land—and after they reject him and turn to every other god—he preserves a remnant for himself by deporting them to a hostile empire (giving them safety, again, in the wilderness). And when the word of God comes at last to John the Baptist, herald of Christ himself, John proclaims this new kingdom of God from the wilderness.
Today our gospel contrasts the reign of Herod with the reign of Jesus, and it goes like this: In response to persecution at the hands of Herod and rejection by his own people, Jesus forms a wilderness kingdom: baptizing, teaching and feeding his people in a desolate place. He fulfills Jeremiah’s prophesy; he takes back his people from their half-hearted shepherds into his own hands.
Jesus finds them in the wilderness; he teaches them, and then he shapes them, forms them up in groups of hundreds and fifties, under the apostles, just like Moses formed Israel under the elders in the wilderness (Exodus 18).
Then he commands them to sit down, to rest on the green grass, and provides a feast of his own. Actually he has them sit down in rows—which is a gardening term, like the rows of a vineyard. Jesus is planting a kingdom in the wilderness and it is taking root. He is turning this desolate place into another Eden, except this time instead of trees, he is planting people (the pillars of a new kind of palace, a new temple). And by the time he’s done, his feast has five thousand men.
And this feast is not served to nobles and high ranking officials in a palace. In Jesus’s wilderness kingdom, in this oasis putting down roots in the hard ground of the desert, the high-ranking officials are the ones serving the feast: the Apostles. This is Herod’s feast turned on its head: a garden grown in the wilderness, a king come not to be served but to serve, and five thousand men daring to be seated in his presence.
This is how we should think of our feast here today, this Divine Service. The Chruch of Jesus Christ is built up as a wilderness kingdom. It is not built to be a picture perfect palace. Which means here we deal with wilderness things: with temptation and repentance, and all the things which are unclean in us. We deal with our spiritual hunger and thirst, what our souls need to survive. We deal with our idols, with our demons, and with the sins which drive us apart from one another and apart from God.
The Church is built in the midst of a desolate place, in the midst of unclean spirits and in the midst of contentious cultures the world over. And it is built as a fortress for those fleeing this world, for those seeking something more permanent than the ephemeral feasts of this world—that they might hear the teaching of Jesus, that they might turn from their sins, that they might find food so they can join us in the good fight.
Jesus receives all comers; he has compassion on the crowds because he knows the sting of the wilderness himself. He is pierced for their iniquities, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. He is the anti-Herod. He gathers his saints out of this world and unto himself. And as we wait in this place, he prepares a table before you in the presence of your enemies, in the midst of this wilderness. “Come away,” he says, “and, even in this desolate place, I will give you rest.”