November 24, 2013
When the brokenness of this world hits home, serving God is one of the best ways to heal.
I. The impact of John’s death (Matthew 14:1-12)
II. Jesus continues in compassion (Matthew 14:13-36)
Outside of a family member, what death has caused you the deepest grief? I’m pretty sure the answer for me is Paul Christiansen. Some of you knew Paul; most have heard me speak of him. He was the first person to invite Gail and me to a small group when we moved to Texas in 1981. He was a key accountability partner in my life from that time until we went to seminary. He was a founding elder at Trinity. In the late 90’s, Paul and Sandra moved to Arlington, near Dallas. In 1998 he had a minor heart attack that led to major bypass surgery. Just as he was feeling better from that, in early February 2000, he had a major heart attack. And he died. I went at once to Arlington and helped the family for a few days, and we mourned together. Then I went home and preached Sunday and brought my family back. I got to preach Paul’s memorial service. Those were difficult days, especially getting enough of my weeping done that I could speak without losing it. He was my friend, and I still miss him.
Something like that has probably happened to you. Not the details, but a loss you really needed to grieve, but you had to grieve while carrying on with life and ministry. I believe it happened to Jesus in Matthew 14. The chapter starts with an account of John the Baptist’s death, and ends with two of Jesus’ most amazing miracles. But in the niches we learn enough to know the miracles were done while Jesus was grieving. He shows us that when the brokenness of this world hits home, serving God is one of the best ways to heal.
Let’s begin by remembering how John the Baptist was killed: Matthew 14:1-12 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, 2and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” 3For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, 4because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” 5And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. 6But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, 7so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. 8Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” 9And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. 10He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, 11and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. 12And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus.
The first two verses are the introduction to a long flashback. Some have said that the flashback ends at verse 12, which we just read, but it seems to me Matthew intended the whole chapter to be read as ‘John’s death and Jesus’ reaction to it.’ Even the miracles themselves feel like they are from an earlier time in Jesus’ ministry than we reached in chapter 13, before the conflict started.
The Herod in verse 1 is Herod Antipas son of Herod the Great. As a tetrarch, he had, for about 30 years, been ruling a fourth of his father’s kingdom, mostly Galilee and Perea. Jesus’ ministry largely took place in his territory, as did much of John’s. It is evidence of Jesus’ growing fame that reports of his ministry reach Herod, and it may well be that Matthew does the flashback to the feeding of the 5000 and the walking on water to illustrate what he had heard. In any event, Herod concludes that Jesus is John the Baptist risen from the dead. He shares the Pharisee’s belief in a bodily resurrection. And it was apparently widely held that those who were resurrected would be able to do miracles.
But Matthew hasn’t told us yet that John had died, so he embarks on this flashback. In addition to Antipas, Herod the Great had six other sons by five wives. His second wife, Miriamme, whom he had killed, had a son named Aristobulus, whom he also had killed. But before that Aristobulus had married his cousin Bernice and they had a daughter named Herodias. She grew up to marry her uncle, Philip, another of Herod’s sons. Then she fell in love or something with her other uncle, Herod Antipas. Antipas divorced his wife, a politically bad move, to marry Herodias, a religiously bad move. It was against Jewish law to marry your brother’s wife. John the Baptist spoke out strongly against this marriage. And Herodias, the uncle-marrier, was apparently incensed at this public besmirching of her pristine reputation. So she forced Herod to imprison John, and wanted him killed. But Herod refused, being at that moment more afraid of a revolt by of the people, for they knew John was God’s prophet.
Then came Herod’s birthday party. Herodias had a daughter, Salome, by her first husband, and this daughter, who must have been an early teen, danced before Herod and the assembled feasters. Carson says “The dance may have been very sensual, and while the text does not say so, the outrageous morals of the Herodians suggest it, as does the low status of dancing girls.” In her dance Salome pleased Herod Antipas so much that he rashly and possibly drunkenly promised to give the girl ‘whatever she might ask.” Salome went to her mother for advice, and thus became the means for accomplishing Herodias's revenge, the death of the man whose offense had been telling the truth. The king was still reluctant to do this deed, but now fact of having made an oath and the expectations of his probably drunk guests combined with his wife’s demands to overwhelm that reluctance. And so John was beheaded.
And in a gruesome detail that reveals much of Herodias’ depravity, the head was brought to Salome, and the girl brought it to her mother. Matthew adds that John’s disciples retrieved the body to bury it, and then went and told Jesus.
So that’s the backstory. It reminds us that serving God with all our heart and soul is not a safe thing, that the prophets were often targets for people’s guilty wrath, and that Jesus has promised persecution. It makes us admire John’s courage and to repent of any Herod-like weaknesses in our own character. And it tells us that as we live the Christian life and as we serve Jesus, we too could become the victims of persecution, hatred, even betrayal and violence.
But the place I want us to focus is on how Jesus reacted to this news. It’s verses 13-36 but we’ll take it a little at a time: Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
It is implied rather than stated, but I think verse 13 shows Jesus grieving the loss of his friend, his cousin John. Even though the disciples were with him, Matthew says “He withdrew to a desolate place by himself.” It’s possible he had lost a friend: as cousins whose mothers loved each other, he and John might have spent time together as children. We do know he valued John: we studied Jesus’ testimony to John’s greatness. He saw John as a prophet who also fulfilled prophecy; a fearless prophet, not a reed shaken by the wind; a selfless prophet, not living in a fine house, wearing fine clothes. So his death was, on one level, tragic. On another, it was a threat. Matthew has been carefully sketching the rising opposition to Jesus, and this report reveals the depth of that opposition.
But on top of all this, or perhaps encompassing all this is the fact that Jesus mourns injustice and death itself. I don’t believe you can read the Gospels without seeing that. In Matthew 23, as Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion neared, he wept over Jerusalem, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!” He mourned the injustice God’s people had inflicted and would inflict on God’s messengers.
And the famous ‘shortest verse of the Bible,’ ‘Jesus wept,’ is recorded in response to the death of Lazarus and the bereavement of his sisters. Why? Because even though Jesus knew he was the resurrection and the life, he still saw death as the tragedy it was, the ultimate expression of man’s rebellion and fall. He saw death as the enemy and grieved its victories, especially where they were combined with injustice. So Jesus must have mourned the unjust death of John the Baptist, God’s prophetic messenger to his generation.
So, like many people who grieve, he sought to be alone. He went in a boat, with his disciples, to a desolate place by himself. Sometimes being alone with God, is the best place to find healing. I know that in the normal grieving of daily life in a fallen world, I’m greatly helped by being alone, often listening to worship music, talking with God, listening to or reading Scripture until I hear God’s voice of comfort and receive his strength. I suspect that’s what Jesus needed.
But sometimes life does not let you grieve in that ideal way: there are needs staring you in the face, and you just have to respond to them. Jesus gets to this so-called desolate place and finds the crowds have raced around the edge of the lake and gotten there before him. So he explodes at them and sends them away in anger. No? So he calmly explains that he’s having a hard moment and if they’ll just go away he’ll pick up ministry as soon as he is able. No? The second of those is something that we might reasonably do. But Jesus doesn’t.
Verse 14: When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. The key word in that sentence is compassion. Even though he himself was grieving, when he saw the needs of others he was suddenly in a place where he was able to put his own needs aside and meet theirs. He healed their sick, miraculously intervened in their lives.
So we ask ourselves, is this a model for us? Yes. Not entirely: we’re not as effective as the Son of God at helping others, and usually we’ll not be as effective at finding God’s strength in the midst of grief. But we can embrace compassion and reach out to help others, even when we are hurting. In fact even secular thinking applauds the healing value of helping others. Karl Menninger, the famous psychologist was once asked what a person should do if they felt a ‘nervous breakdown’ coming on. He said “Lock up your house, go across the railroad tracks, find someone in need, and do something for them.”
So in the midst of this grief and in the face of the threat, Jesus performs one of his greatest and most public miracles. Verses 15-21: Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20They all ate and were satisfied, and they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 21Those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
This is such a familiar, wonderful story. We’re not going to spend a lot of time here, but I do want to notice a few things. First, this is one of the few miracles that appears in all four Gospels. Matthew’s account, in fact, is the briefest of the four, and lacks some of the familiar details like the boy who brought the five loaves and two fish, the fact that the loaves were the barley bread of common people and the unbelief of the disciples. Even so, Matthew makes this a crucial miracle by including in the next chapter a second miracle, the feeding of the four thousand, and then including in chapter 16 the Pharisees request for a similar sign and Jesus’ reflection on these two miracles.
In the same way the Gospel of John, which does not use many miracle accounts from the other Gospels, makes much of this miracle, both for its theological implications and its impact on a ‘do-it-again, do-it-again’ crowd. In all the Gospels this is a very public and very bold miracle that cannot help but bring Jesus to the attention of both the religious and the political rulers of the day.
I love the nonchalant way the miracle happens. Jesus simply receives the five loaves and the two fish, blesses them the way any Jewish family would bless the food at their table, and breaks them. And somehow in breaking the five loaves he broke 2500 loaves. Maybe the five loaves were in a basket, and he kept pulling out the next loaf ceaselessly, and quickly enough to feed the whole crowd late in the day. They all ate and were satisfied, and there were twelve baskets of bread left over. There must not have been many teen-age boys in the crowd.
So again, in context, we see Jesus responding to his grief by recognizing the need to get alone, but when needs emerged, being open to ministry, compassion and caring. So when we are confronted with the sadness and pain of life in a fallen world, whether by the loss of a loved one, or the tragedy of a news report, or growing opposition and hatred toward the Gospel message, or a friends illness or a sinner’s hard-heartedness, we do need to process that before God, but we should not close ourselves off to a compassionate heart and acts of caring.
Is Jesus still grieving after this miracle? I believe so. Verses 22-24: Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them.
For the second time, Jesus seeks solitude to grieve before the Father the injustice of John’s execution, the hard-heartedness of the people’s leaders and the wrongness of death. Jesus seeks the peace, comfort and strength sot that he can boldly continue his rescue mission in this dark and fallen world.
Just as he wept and prayed in raising Lazarus, just as he wept and prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, so I believe he wept and prayed and was comforted on this mountain. We don’t know how long he prayed, but the disciples had made it most of the way across the lake, before being stopped by a strong wind and waves. One detail Mark includes would lead us to suspect the disciples had waited for Jesus a little way down the lake at Bethsaida, but then set out.
And this separation, plus the storm, becomes the occasion of another miracle. Verse 25: And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” 28And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. 30But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
I’m not going to try today to reconcile this account with the other Gospels which give slightly different details and motivations, but I will say I believe the accounts are compatible and the differences are mostly because the details and motivations were reported by the Gospel authors in keeping with what they were emphasizing about Jesus in order to develop their own unique themes.
But he comes to them, walking on the water. It is, by this time, the fourth watch of the night, sometime between 3:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. And when they see him they think it’s a ghost, a ‘phantasma.’ The simplest explanation of this mistake is that when you see someone walking on water, you think they’re weightless, which is one of the central qualities of a ghost in almost all cultures.
But Jesus reassures them ‘take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.’ The middle phrase of that is ‘ego eimi’ which could be translated ‘I am.’ Most of you know that that John paints his picture of Jesus using the ‘I am’ statements. The phrase itself has echoes of God’s personal name ‘Yahweh’ which is often defined as ‘I am that I am.’ As Carson says “Once again we find Jesus revealing himself in a veiled way that will prove especially rich to Christians after his resurrection.”
So Jesus comes to them, and Peter takes courage from this greeting “command me to come to you on the water.” Peter knows he can’t do this himself, but if Jesus says to do it, then he can. And for a few moments he does, but then his fear of the storm becomes greater than his faith in the Savior and he begins to sink.
As he does so he cries out ‘Lord, save me’ and Jesus immediately reaches out his hand to lift him up. This familiar image is a great comfort to all believers who step out in faith. But I think it’s especially comforting to us when we’re called, like Jesus, to care for others while grieving ourselves. We can have confidence when we cry out to God, saying ‘Lord, help’ that he will reach out his hand to strengthen and help us. And if there is anyone here who faces the sad prospect of walking into grief alone, without saving faith in Jesus, then Peter’s cry of ‘Lord, save me’ is a model for you this morning. Save me from sin, save me from this fallen world, save me from despair. Jesus does that by his death on the cross, by his blood that pays the price of our sin and by his resurrection which is the proof of the eternal life he promises. Cry out ‘Lord, save.’
Having seen all this, the disciples make a declaration which in many ways is the point of Matthew’s gospel: Truly this is the Son of God. They may have only meant, at this point, that as Messiah King Jesus stood in a special relationship to God – but Matthew’s purpose is to give us more and more evidence that as Son of God Jesus was fully divine, and in these miracles, truly the Lord of all God’s creation. Beginning in Chapter 4, climaxing in Chapter 27 Matthew is more and more showing that the Messiah King is God’s divine Son.
So we’re not surprised that the chapter ends with Jesus engaged in ministry. Verses 34-36 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. 35And when the men of that place recognized him, they sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick 36and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.
A little earlier in Matthew’s gospel some of those who lived on the far side of the lake had begged Jesus to leave. Now the people welcome him, and pursue him for his miracles of healing. Even those who touch the hem of his garment are healed. This is probably a reflection of Malachi 4, where God promises that “for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.” The corners or tassles of a Jewish prayer shawl were called the ‘wings.’ These people were touching the wings of Jesus’ garment for healing.
So what have we seen? The thread that ties this chapter together is that even under Herod’s threat, even while grieving John’s death, Jesus continues to care for people, to have compassion on people, and to boldly do ministry. He knows the need to get away and seek strength from his Father, but he also knows the value of continuing to care for others. And so, in the midst a fallen world where things that grieve come in every size from the tiny daily frustrations to the huge losses, the two disciplines of seeking care from our heavenly Father and being compassionate to those around us can bring us healing.
Let me illustrate this with a story I first told you back in 2006, a few days after a team of Trinity people went to Gulfport, Mississippe on a Hurricane Katrina re-building project. It’s about a friend I made there named Danny Sprayberry. He was the work coordinator for the relief teams that came to their rebuilding operation in Gulfport. In fact, we found Danny to be the key to that operation, the one who enabled our work to be effective. As a roofer of 25 years, he had the experience to get the right materials to the site and to make sure the work got done right.
But his own testimony is exactly what we’ve just been talking about. About a year before Katrina, in November 2004, Danny’s wife of 25 years died in a car accident. He told me the story; he’d followed her to town a few minutes after she left that day and came on the accident, came on her body. It’s got to be one of the most devastating losses anyone can ever experience, and Danny and his three children walked through a dark valley of depression, guilt, anger at God and just plain sorrow.
After Katrina, Danny’s first cousin Jimmy got involved in the relief effort and began to organize the work we eventually joined. But they had no one doing Danny’s job - it was hit or miss for the teams. So one day, which happened to be the first anniversary of his wife’s death, Danny got a call from Jimmy who said “don’t you think you’d feel better if you came down here and helped some people.” And after thinking about it for a few days Danny did – left his job, his home, everything, and went to Gulfport. And it transformed him and restored him to life. God used that crushing blow in Danny’s life to prepare him to bless many in the Gulfport area, and he used the hurricane as the means of healing for one of his children.