Sunday, July 19, 2009

The God of Conflict

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
July 19, 2009
Mark 6.30-44

No one likes conflict. Okay, there are some who thrive off conflict. But most people try to avoid it like the plague. People have different ways of dealing with it, they’ll get angry, subdued, or defensive, but most people would do almost anything to avoid it.

God is not one of those people. God actively engages in conflict. He seeks it out.

How do I say this? The Bible gives ample description of God’s engaging in conflict with a host of things—but they really boil down to two things: Satan and our sinful nature.

Galatians 5 says that the Holy Spirit opposes the flesh and the flesh opposes the Holy Spirit. This is God actively engaging in conflict with us, opposing our sinful nature.

The Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are filled with God’s active engagement with people and Satan in conflict in the Person and Work of Jesus, God in the flesh. The Pharisees and other religious leaders are well known examples of this. They sought to destroy Jesus, and Jesus did not shy away from the conflict. He actively engaged in it with them.

There are a number of examples of Jesus fighting with Satan and the demons in His healings of people’s various infirmities. There are the conflicts He had with His own disciples; perhaps the most famous one when He called Peter Satan. You can read the four Gospel accounts with an eye toward Jesus engaging in conflict with Satan and the sinful flesh of man and you’d have a good understanding of what Christianity is all about.

So why did I choose this as the theme for the sermon this morning when the Gospel reading is the account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, rather than one of those examples I just mentioned? There doesn’t appear to be much, if any, conflict here. It really appears to be the opposite, speaking of Jesus’ compassion for all and His action in serving them; of His power and love at work.

But this passage is precisely a clear example of God’s conflict with us, His people, who are by nature sinful and unclean. It is a great example of God’s continuing war against Satan who actively seeks to destroy us and against the world which wants to have nothing to do with God and His salvation in Jesus Christ.

The Gospel reading picks up where we were two weeks ago when Jesus had sent His disciples out on a mission. “The apostles returned to Jesus and told Him all that they had done and taught.” Jesus sending them out to proclaim the Gospel and heal people produced some conflict, with some rejecting their message. Now the apostles had returned to Jesus “and He said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.”

We know how these things go. At the moment there was no conflict. They were on a high. They had much to report to Jesus. They were excited to tell Him about all that had happened. They were also glad to have some downtime. Time where they could be by themselves, to rest, to get away from some of the pressure. But while they were feeling good now, could they hope it would last? Serving can drain a person. Did they know in the back of their minds that Jesus was expecting more of this from them, and their rest would be brief?

As if on cue, guess who showed up? The curiosity seekers. Along came the crowd that had seen and heard about the mighty things that had been done. “Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When He went ashore He saw a great crowd, and He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” That was Jesus for you, always having compassion on people, especially ones that didn’t seem to deserve it or that most people wouldn’t give even a glance to.

And this certainly is the opposite of conflict, but have you thought about how this affected the disciples? What did they think about Jesus ignoring them after He had planned to have some downtime with them? We can imagine that Jesus’ actions here were in conflict with the disciples’ need for rest and rejuvenation. But that’s exactly why Jesus came, to produce this conflict in our lives. Where we would like to sit comfortably with Jesus and He wants to get us up off of our seats and keep serving others—even when they barge in on our times of needed rest. How many times have you declined to help people in need because it wasn’t convenient for you? How many times because you yourself were in need of someone serving you?

Well, no rest for the weary. Jesus welcomed the crowd gladly. “And He began to teach them many things.” He had compassion on them. He saw them and His heart went out to them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So what did He do? He taught them. He gave them what they needed. They came seeking a Jesus they had seen and had heard about, He gave them what would benefit their souls. He taught them many things.

I’m one of those people that wants to know what’s not said. Mark says Jesus taught them “many things.” I wonder, what things? How many things? Did He cover a bunch of the main doctrines of Christianity? Did He open it up for a question and answer session? We don’t know the words of what Jesus said that day when He taught them. But we do know what He taught them. We have ample passages in the Scriptures of Jesus’ teaching that we know what He taught them. He taught them God’s love for them in Him. He called them to repentance and proclaimed the Gospel of salvation in Himself. You can bet that there were many people there that day who were conflicted with His message that they were sinners in need of salvation—and that it could only come through Him.

What was their reaction? Speculation can take us only so far. Were there some who got up and left because they were offended? Perhaps. We know it happened on other occasions. We know that there were a lot who stayed because we’re told there were five thousand men in addition to the women and children who there. So even if no one or a few people left, we can imagine some sitting there the entire time taking issue with Jesus and not taking His teaching to heart.

“…It grew late, [and] His disciples came to Him and said, ‘This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.’ But He answered them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ And they said to Him, ‘Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?’” There Jesus goes again with more conflict. To the crowds He’s all about serving them. To His disciples, however, He’s an enigma. Why aren’t you just sending them way so they can get food for themselves and get home? But no, Jesus needs to stir up conflict. He needs to get the disciples out of their mode of serving people on their own terms and doing it on God’s terms.

You give them something to eat. How in the world are we supposed to do that? Now, what do you think is the kind of answer Jesus was expecting? Was He expecting the common sense answer that they obviously could not do such a thing? Or was He expecting some creative thinking on their part of how they might attempt to accomplish such a thing? No, what Jesus was expecting is what He always expects from us and that is the answer of faith. He was expecting them to acknowledge that while it was indeed impossible for them to do such a thing, He could indeed accomplish it through them and so they would trust that He would bring it about.

Why didn’t Jesus just do what He had planned to do? Because then there’s no conflict. And with no conflict there is no growth in faith. Have you ever noticed that it’s easy to believe in Jesus when things are going well but hard when it seems that you have no time for the rest and rejuvenation you need? This is why He is intent on being in conflict with us, because our sinful nature is all too eager to take the easy way out rather than the hard way of serving even when it’s inconvenient.

Jesus takes five loaves of bread and two fish and feeds thousands and thousands of people. This doesn’t seem to be much in the way of causing conflict in the lives of the people. It is in fact pure Gospel, Jesus feeding people who are hungry, feeding those He has just fed spiritually with His teaching. But Jesus is also doing much more than feeding people food for their stomachs. The language used to describe Jesus feeding the multitude is sacramental: taking the loaves “He looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples.”

Jesus hadn’t yet instituted His Holy Supper. But He knew what He would do. He knew He would be betrayed into the hands of sinners. He knew that He would suffer at the hands of sinners. He came to suffer and die for those very sinners, for every sinner. He came into the world to save the world. He came to produce conflict. It is the Gospel the Bible says is an offense. God brings conflict into our lives by bringing the Gospel into our lives.

Jesus coming to be our Savior means that we need to be saved. Calling us to eternal life means that we have no life of eternal value apart from Him and only eternal suffering without Him. Feeding us with His Body and Blood means that we need to be fed. It means that He calls upon us to respond to Him with the answer of faith, not of convenience or self-centered needs. This is the conflict He brings into our lives, always in opposition to our sinful flesh. But always to save us from our sinful flesh and Satan. Always to feed us and finally to bring us to that eternal Home where is no conflict but only eternal glory. Amen.


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