Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
TEXTS: Ephesians 3:14-21 and Matthew 14:14-33
Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled … he made the disciples get into a boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. (Matthew 14:19b-20a, 22-25)
Near the end of the last century—way back in 1995—the British writer Sara Maitland lamented the quality of contemporary Christian witness, saying: “The real sadness is not that we cause people to laugh at the idea of God and alienate them from the source of their very selves … but that we deprive ourselves of revelation, of knowledge of God.” 1
That quote is found about a quarter of the way through a book called A Big-Enough God, which (as you might guess) Maitland wrote to underscore the point that most people—including most professing Christians—have a conception of God that is, simply put, not big enough.
In this, she echoes something that another Brit—J.B. Phillips—wrote much earlier in the last century.
Those of you who are of my vintage may remember J.B. Phillips as the translator of one of the most celebrated post-war modern-English versions of the New Testament. But back in 1952, he wrote a book with the provocative title Your God is Too Small. He said: “The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs.” 2
Phillips’ observation was as true in his decade as Maitland’s was in hers. And, honestly, I don’t think the situation today is much different—on either side of the Atlantic.
Many of us do have a god who is too small. Without knowing it, we have substituted a feeble and feckless tutelary for the great and gracious God revealed in the Bible. The substitute deity we have fashioned is limited, and narrow, and—above all—tame. He does nothing surprising or amazing—and he is confined by our own understandings and preconceptions.
This god is stingy with mercy and has only enough love for “our kind of people”—whether that means our nation, or our tribe, or our race or family or social class … or denomination. This is a god of our own making. He is predictable. He is safe. And he is boring.
Trouble is, this kind of god hardly elicits praise. We may offer him rote and mumbled prayers—but this is entirely one-way communication. We may pray at this god of our own making … but it never occurs to us to listen for his response. And why would we? He could not possibly have anything interesting to say. We don’t expect this tiny god to restore or redeem or transform anyone or anything.
From him, the best we can hope for is sympathy. And those who proclaim him can do nothing more than offer banally humanistic advice and politically correct admonitions about caring for Mother Earth. Such preaching is about coping with the way things are, rather than about “preparing the way of the Lord.”
Apparently, many of us—even if we aren’t out-and-out atheists—conceive of God as being remote, passive, and—at most—innocuously voyeuristic. In other words, completely detached from our world and from our human experience. This far-away god never comes close enough to nourish and sustain us; he enlightens us about how to fend for and feed ourselves, perhaps … but that’s it. Far from being the bread of life for our hungry hearts, this god is like a report from the agriculture department about anticipated wheat production.
Like I said, this kind of god cannot restore, redeem, or transform anyone or anything.
Contrast this insipid picture of God with the portrait of Jesus painted for us by the gospel writers.
In today’s reading, Matthew has recorded two of Jesus’ great miracles, back-to-back. We first hear the story of a hillside full of people, who have come to Jesus because they are hungry for many things. Jesus’ disciples try to figure out how to feed this gigantic crowd—and they conclude that they simply don’t have the resources to accomplish it.
You know, the disciples really aren’t very quick on the uptake. You’d think that, by now, they would have clued in. Since when does Jesus do things the way anyone expects? And here again is yet one more example.
With five loaves of bread and two fish, we are told that Jesus fed 5,000 people that afternoon, with plenty left over—12 baskets full!
Not a small thing. And certainly not what you would expect from a small god.
Anyhow, in the evening of that very same day—with the grass still flattened from where all those people had been sitting—the disciples are out on the lake in a boat, and Jesus shows up … once again, in an unexpected way. When John’s gospel reports this same story (John 16:15-21), it tells us they were three or four miles from shore, huddled together in the middle of a storm—the dead of night all around them—when Jesus appears. Walking upon the water, first he calms the storm—and then he calms the disciples.
Again, not a small thing. Not a small god. And certainly not a god that we would have invented—because he is so surprising!
More importantly, though, this God whom we see revealed in Jesus—this God who became one of us—seeks not to merely surprise us or entertain us … but to transform us.
“Feeding the 5,000” and “walking on water”—what links these two stories together is that Jesus does something totally unexpected, and it forever changes the lives of those around him.
Nobody on that hillside could have imagined what was going to happen when Jesus got hold of that bread and those fish. Not one of the disciples expected Jesus to stroll up beside their boat and greet them in the middle of a storm.
Jesus is constantly doing things that no one expects. In all four gospels, we find stories about a Messiah who shows up in unexpected places—and in unexpected ways. And he continues doing this. Why does it still surprise us?
This Saviour, born in a manger to a frightened teenager and a humble carpenter … This man, born in our flesh, very God in human form … This King, killed upon a cross, and then resurrected into life …
No one was expecting the Messiah as he came the first time. And I’m sure no one will be expecting him when he comes again. But look—the truth is: he has never really left us! Through the power of the Holy Spirit, he has remained with us, doing the unexpected, loving the unexpected, caring for the unexpected … all the time.
Yeah. Our God is good—all the time. Even now! He is very real, and he is still “Emmanuel”—God with us, right here, right now. Not far away. Not distant or removed or uninterested. And this is very good news for us, my friends—because a distant god can’t do one thing about the empty hunger within our souls.
We all live through seasons which demand more of us than we can possibly deliver:
- Work grinds on, but our energy is long depleted.
- Needs pile up, but we lack resources to meet them.
- Our schedules are jammed full, and our hearts are alarmingly, achingly empty.
Maybe that’s how things are for you, right now. You’ve debited your emotional account into near-bankruptcy; you’re way over your limit; you’ve maxed-out your heart and soul.
Most days, we get up in the morning, put on our uniforms of responsibility, our practiced façades of “can-do” optimism, our masks of habit … and we do what we have to do.
To be sure, there’s a kind of grace in our being able to do that; but I can tell you that there are many people—many more than you might imagine—who worry and fret about how much longer they can cope with all the demands, respond to all the pressures, and meet all the expectations they feel weighing down upon them.
A lot of us feel that way, don’t we? We feel hollow. And our hollowness unsettles us. So we stuff it with things and experiences—food, drink, drugs, sex, noise, busy work, money, fantasy—anything that promises temporary relief.
Eventually—and inevitably—the emptiness threatens to consume us. It becomes like a spreading cancer, moving to take over everything that we are. And when it does, a small and distant god cannot possibly help us.
Thankfully, the apostle Paul’s words to the Ephesians remind us that we do not have a small and distant god. The real God—the living God revealed to us in the history of Israel and in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ … this God is magnificent, and mysterious, and mighty. Paul said:
I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:16-19)
The real God is vast beyond our comprehending, beautiful beyond our appreciating, and wonderful beyond our imagining. God encompasses everything: past and present and future; near and far; what we have discovered and what remains obscure. God is above and beyond, among and within, high and holy, close and compassionate. God’s great love should leave us breathless with astonishment!
Paul prayed that we would know what he admitted was beyond knowing: “the breadth and length and height and depth” of God’s love. It includes everyone and everything. It radiates with a redeeming grace which dissolves our shame and guilt. It shines with a dazzling glory that fills every dark corner of our human hearts.
Thankfully, this prayer that Paul offers is not a list of assignments for us to carry out, or expectations to meet, or demands to shoulder. The God who has been made known and real to us in Jesus is not standing over us with a clipboard and a checklist. Nothing in the apostle’s words even hints at a self-help project or a self-improvement regimen.
Paul’s prayer simply invites us to realize how deeply God loves us. It calls us to experience God surrounding us, and encompassing us, and holding us in his loving embrace. And it promises us that God will fill us when we are empty, make us strong when we are weak, and keep us rooted and grounded even when our world feels like a stormy sea.
I invite you to experience this prayer for yourself. Ask God to thrill you again with a sense of wonder. Ask him to fill you with his own life. Ask him to show you all you can comprehend about the wide embrace of divine love. Receive God’s strength. Open yourself to God’s fullness, so that the once-empty places in you may overflow with abundance and glory.
We have a vast, loving, and powerful God whose power is “at work within us” and who “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” To that God “be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.” Amen.
1 Sara Maitland, A Big-Enough God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995), p. 48.
2 J.B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small (New York: Macmillan, 1960), v.