I’m really excited about Lutheran theology.

I don’t think that surprises anyone, but I’ve said in bible classes and sermons and conversations—and this may have surprised you—I’ve said that we, Lutherans faithful to the historic, Evangelical Lutheran Church, we actually have the Gospel.

The implication, there, is that other church bodies may not.

Today’s Gospel lesson provides a good example of what I mean.

What’s the point of the miraculous feeding of the four thousand?

Ask around.

This is a quotation from the conclusion to a sermon available on a popular, American Evangelical Christian website, but this is par for the course in terms of getting the gospel wrong: “This miracle reminds us that Jesus is more than sufficient to meet the needs that exist in His people’s lives…He’s able to meet the needs in your life…It doesn’t matter how big your giant; how tall your mountain; how deep your valley; He’s more than sufficient for the need! He’s able to give you comfort through all the storms of life. He’s able to empower you to do His will. He’s able to walk with you every mile of the way. He’s able to be exactly who you need Him to be in all the stages of your life…This miracle teaches us that great things can happen if we just get the need into His hands! A small amount of bread and fish became sufficient for a multitude because they got it into His hands. Do you have a need? Get it into His hands today!”

That’s not the Gospel.

The Gospel doesn’t depend on you getting anything into Jesus’ hands—as though all things are not already His.

The Gospel doesn’t depend on you taking it to the Lord in prayer—as though God doesn’t already know our need and the Holy Spirit intercede for with groanings too deep for words (cf. Romans 8:26).

It’s not the Gospel if it’s conditional.

It’s not the Gospel if God is only able to—but has not already in fact—forgiven all sin in Jesus.

Telling people to “get it into Jesus’ hands” isn’t the Gospel. Understanding the miraculous feeding of the four thousand as a reminder of Jesus’ ability to help is not the Gospel. This miracle doesn’t teach that great things can happen if we just get the need to Jesus.

The sermon I quoted is available on a website that has over seventy-four million hits.

Many people have been taught to think that way—but that’s the Way. That’s not the Gospel.

As nice and friendly as that message sounds, here’s where it fails.

Do you have a need?

Anybody?

Get it into Jesus’ hands today.

If the solution really is as simple as “getting it into Jesus’ hands,” why do your problems persist? Or do you never pray for the same things more than once?

It’s not the Gospel if it depends on you.

And it gets worse.

Let’s ask the question this way:

How many of you want your spouse to be “able” to be faithful to you?

Is that how your vows were written?

“Will you love, honor, and keep [him/her] in sickness and in health, and, forsaking all others, remain united to [her/him] alone, so long as you both shall live? Then say…”

I will—if I’m able to.

You don’t want your spouse to be able to be faithful to you. You want your spouse to be faithful to you.

Likewise, you don’t want God to be able to help.

You want God to help.

From that Gospel-less sermon I quoted moments ago, it said: “[God] is able to give you comfort…Able to empower you…Able to walk with you…Able to be exactly who you need Him to be.”

But is He what you need? Or is He just able to be?

What hope do you have if God is merely able?

Enough with that.

Don’t read the Bible thinking it’s about you.

God destroys Pharaoh and all his hosts, not you.

God kills Goliath, not you.

He uses us as instruments, but the sun doesn’t rise and fall by our say so.

“For every beast of the forest is [His], the cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10).

And you’re a sheep in the fold of the Good Shepherd, a face in the great crowd, upon whom Jesus has compassion.

This is the miracle.

This is the Gospel.

Jesus says, “I have compassion on the crowd…”

He’s not just able to.

He has compassion on the crowd.

“…Because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away” (Mark 8:2-3).

The problem isn’t hunger.

First of all, Jesus didn’t come to eradicate earthly hunger—otherwise we wouldn’t have to subsist, from time to time, on government cheese or questionable meat.

The problem is—Jesus led a crowd of four thousand people into a desolate place without food.

Why?

Why would Jesus do that?

Had I asked, to begin with, if God ever led a group of people into an impossible-to-overcome situation, it’s likely that we would think not.

And I’ve asked the same question this way before: Does God ever lead us into temptation?

The answer is yes.

Consider the Exodus.

“When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near…”

If you look at this on a map, God didn’t have to lead the people through the Red Sea.

But He did…

“…‘Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.’ God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea…Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea. For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, “They are wandering in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.” And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.’ And they did so” (Exodus 13:17-18; 14:1-4).

How many times do we think about the exodus and not realize that God led His people into an impossible-to-overcome situation.

He purposely led them away from safety.

He purposely led Israel between Pharaoh and all his hosts and the Red Sea.

He led them into temptation—not so that they would sin, God tempts no one to sin, but that they would hold fast to Him and remain faithful.

“When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, ‘Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt?” (Exodus 14:10-11).

Why would God do such a thing?

Why would Jesus lead the crowd into a desolate place?

Why would God allow you to suffer all the slings and arrows of this life?

Thus says the Lord, “I will get glory over [them all]” (Exodus 14:4).

And Moses said, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord [fights] for you. You have only to be silent” (Exodus 14:13-14).

And—Pharaoh and all his host were drowned in the Red Sea.

God led His people into an impossible situation, one they could not overcome.

He did that so He could deliver them from evil.

The Lord fought for them.

They had only to be silent.

The same is true in today’s Gospel lesson.

Jesus led this crowd into temptation.

The disciples, like Israel, were afraid: “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” (Mark 8:4).

They forgot who the Lord is.

In Mark chapter six, Jesus fed the five thousand. Today’s Gospel lesson is from Mark chapter eight.

They’ve forgotten.

And Jesus has already said—He’s just said—“I have compassion on the crowd” (Mark 8:2).

It’s not “I will have compassion” and it’s certainly not “I am able to have compassion” but simply “I have compassion on the crowd.”

God’s compassion and love are not without action.

God doesn’t love standing still.

He doesn’t love in a few minutes when He’s done scrolling endlessly on His phone.

The love and action of God depends not on you.

Here, loving a hungry crowd, He has compassion on them and feeds them miraculously.

But again, this isn’t about hunger.

It’s not about giving our needs to Jesus.

It’s about God’s love for sinners—giving and providing and doing all that is truly necessary to save the world.

When Jesus teaches us the Lord’s Prayer, we pray it this way, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

I’m not suggesting we change the words.

But Jesus does want us to understand Him this way: God does lead us into temptation. It happened in the Exodus. It happened in the desolate place. It happens, in our life when we lack, when we need, when we hurt, and when we hate.

The Lord will get glory over all who hate Him.

Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and though you die, yet shall you live, to the glory of God.

He has compassion on the crowd, on you, on us.

God loves the world.

He loves you.

He loves us.

Setting our earthly hunger and satisfaction aside, Jesus “emptied himself, by taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11).

What’s the Gospel?

It’s not your power to pray or give to God.

The Gospel is the power of God for salvation to all who believe in Jesus Christ.

The Lord fights for you.

He loves you.

He has compassion on you.

Israel had only to be silent and wait for God to deliver them.

Now—we rejoice, because the Lord has indeed delivered us from evil.

That’s the Gospel.

And that’s something to be excited about.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Trinity 7 Sermon, 2021
Mark 8:1-9
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

In the feeding of the five-thousand, there were five loaves, two fish, and twelve baskets full of pieces.

Five is Moses’ number—like the Pentateuch.

Two calls to mind the tablets, inscribed with the Ten Commandments by the finger of God that Moses brought down from the mountain.

And twelve is the tribes of Israel.

The feeding of the five-thousand in Mark chapter six was for the Jews.

As St. Paul writes: “[The Gospel is] the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the [Gentile]” (Romans 1:16).

But the feeding of the four-thousand in Mark chapter eight, today’s Gospel lesson, is for you.

Four calls to mind the four winds, the four cardinal directions, the four corners of a map—all of which stand for the entire world.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the four evangelists for this reason: Jesus says, “[As you are going,] make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them” (cf. Matthew 28:19).

Four accounts of the one gospel proclaim the reconciliation of God to the world redeemed in Christ.

And there were seven loaves—a perfect number.

The people ate and were satisfied such that there were seven baskets full of pieces left over—again, a perfect number. That’s what seven is—perfect and complete.

In six, literal, natural, evening-and-morning, twenty-four hour days did our Lord create the world and all that’s in it. But He rested on the seventh—not because He needed it but because we do, and so, seven is the number for full and complete things, like a week.

A week full of work is not yet complete until it also includes rest and hope. 

That’s true for a week and the life of a Christian. Both work without faith and faith without works is dead.

In feeding the people, Jesus gave thanks and blessed the fish. All that we have is a gift from God—and all that God gives is a blessing, for our good.

Against our flesh we make that confession.

And against the false-god of fallible autonomous human reason, we receive this miracle as God intended it.

Miracles show God’s power and command over nature, His transcendence.

But they also show His mercy, His compassion.

In feeding the hungry, we see that God’s heart is turned to you and all the world, and what He gives doesn’t merely address the problem—it solves it.

They ate and were satisfied with baskets leftover.

“Cast your cares upon the Lord and He will sustain you” (cf. Psalm 55:22), we pray in the Psalms.

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus says, “and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

That’s what we learn from the feeding of the four-thousand, and that is most certainly true.

But—woe to that pastor who fails to tell you that the Christian life is more complicated and more difficult than that.

The Gospel according to St. Mark is always doing a combination of at least three things: 1. Proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God, telling us who Jesus is. 2. Calling sinners to repentance and faith, saying what Jesus says. And 3. Teaching us to take up our cross and follow Jesus, showing us what our lives will look like.

Christian preaching must proclaim Jesus as the Son of God or it’s worthless and unchristian.

Christian preaching must call sinners to repentance and exhort them to a living faith or it’s worthless and unchristian.

And Christian preaching must prepare the saints of God for the tribulation that is being wrought right now.

Cooped up for months, surrounded by constant fear-mongering, with physical death—always nearby-enough to sink our spirits anyway—now, seemingly closer still, how well-prepared are you to take up your cross and follow Jesus?

The pandemic has been good for us, because it’s shattered the illusion that we’re guaranteed a pain-free life. Christianity in general, and Lutheranism specifically, is no longer some box you check by rote memory on a form. It’s the faith you live out at home—at church—and everywhere else—or it’s not.

On every page in the Gospel according to St. Mark, we find the cross.

After the feeding of the four-thousand, St. Mark records that the Pharisees demand a sign.

Of course they do. Jesus has just fed the five-thousand, walked on water, healed the sick, taught with authority, healed a Gentile woman’s daughter, healed a deaf man, and fed the four-thousand.

But the Pharisees seek a sign.

They don’t know who Jesus is or care for what He has to say, but the disciples are no better.

They forget to bring bread with them, having only one loaf. “And [having only one loaf] they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread” (Mark 8:16).

Jesus rebukes them for their lack of faith.

“Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember?” (Mark 8:17-18).

At the feeding of the five-thousand there were five loaves and twelve baskets full.

At the feeding of the four-thousand there were seven loaves and seven baskets full.

“Do you not yet understand?” (Mark 8:21).

Jesus, next, heals a blind man and we’ll come right back to that.

Peter, then, confesses Jesus as the Christ—which is great—but then he ruins it by rebuking Jesus for teaching the gospel, that “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).

Jesus teaches the Gospel—and Peter rebukes Him.

So consider now the blind man that Jesus healed.

“[Jesus] took the blind man…and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Do you see anything?’ And he looked up and said, ‘I see men, but they look like trees, walking.’ Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly” (cf. Mark 8:23-25).

That’s not a failed first attempt. That’s two miracles.

St. Mark is always doing a combination of at least three things, one of which is teaching us to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

And in the context of miracles, Pharisees, disciples who don’t get it, and Jesus foretelling His own death and resurrection, we need to know what that might look like.

And, having compassion on us all, Jesus heals the blind man, twice.

He sees men as trees walking.

He sees men carrying their cross, following Jesus.

He sees men struggling to understand or deal with who Jesus is and what He says. But he sees those men following Jesus, walking. They do not depart from Him.

Ten verses after the man sees men as trees walking, Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (cf. Mark 8:34-38).

It’s three times in the book of Acts that the cross is called a tree.

St. Paul writes in Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13).

And it’s St. Peter, of course, who writes that, “[Christ] himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).

The tree is known by its fruit, and Christian trees walk, following Jesus.

So take up your cross, and take heart.

Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

But He adds to that: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30).

Jesus’ burden wasn’t light for Him, but He carried it and completed it out of love. The light burden He gives you to bear is not His heavy burden but the benefit of Him having carried it.

Cast your cares upon the Lord, and He will sustain you. Go to Him, all who labor and are heavy laden, and He will give you rest.

Behold, the Son of Man takes your burdens away and lays on you the benefit of His work: forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation.

Take His yoke upon you, and learn from Him, for He is gentle and lowly in heart. Follow Him, and you will find rest for your souls.

Work the week, but know that it’s not complete without rest and hope.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Trinity 7 Sermon, 2020
Mark 8:1-9
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt