Straight Licks with Crooked Sticks
Dr. Jim Denison
This afternoon, the largest sporting event in the universe will take place. 715 million people watched the last World Cup final in 2006. Today’s final between Spain and the Netherlands will probably break all records. Raise your hand if you’re going to watch the match. That’s what I thought. I don’t understand the appeal of the game. Watching a game which is high-scoring when it ends 2-1 is like watching someone else fish. But that many people can’t be wrong.
I don’t understand what happened Thursday night, either. As you know, ESPN aired a primetime special to announce that LeBron James is moving from Cleveland to Miami. Millions watched. I understand that LeBron is a great basketball player, but a primetime special so he can tell us where he wants to play next? When he defeats the Taliban or stops the leak in the Gulf, then I’ll watch his special. But that many people can’t be wrong.
Last Thursday I was speaking in Arlington and drove past Cowboys Stadium. Janet and I were privileged to be present for the first event in the stadium, and have been to several games since. I still have not gotten used to it. At $1.3 billion, it is the most expensive sports stadium in human history. The two spans which suspend the roof are a quarter-mile in length. The video screen is the largest in the world. More than 108,000 people attended last year’s NBA All-Star Game in the stadium; the video screen was larger than the court.
Our culture measures success by size. The bigger, the more, the stronger, the better. God doesn’t see things the same way. As we explore some of Jesus’ miracles this summer, today we’ll focus on one of his most famous. I’d like you to see not just what Jesus did, but what he used.
Most of us know that success is not enough. We’ve achieved enough success to know that it’s not all there is. Someone asked one of the Rockefellers how much money was enough. He smiled and answered, “Just a little more.” There’s always the next deal, the next buy, the next thing.
We want our lives to count, to know that we mattered for something. Next to my fear that something would happen to my family, my greatest fear is that I would stand before God one day and hear him tell me that I missed what he made me to do. You want your life to be significant, to leave a legacy, to matter. How can we know that God is using us for eternal significance today? Let’s find out.
Give God your need (vs. 1-7)
As this week’s miracle begins, our Lord wanted time alone with his disciples for teaching and rest. They’ve just been down to Jerusalem, a 90-mile hike (from Dallas to Waco) and back, and have been in a demanding season of ministry. However, the crowds did not cooperate: “A great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick” (v. 2). So he withdrew to this remote location. But they could follow him around the shore of the Sea, so that “Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him” (v. 5).
They were 5,000 men in number (v. 10), not including their families (Matthew 14.21: “The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children”). Philip’s estimate of the money required to feed them (v. 7) would indicate that as many as 10,000 were present in total.
With their arrival, the only miracle (except the Resurrection) to be recorded in all four Gospels began. Jesus spent the day with this persistent crowd, teaching them about the kingdom of God (Luke 9:11).
Now the hour was late, the location remote. The crowd has been with Jesus all day, with no food or supplies. Jesus’ disciples urged him to send them away to find their own food (Matthew 14.15, Mark 6.35-36, Luke 9.12). But he was unwilling to feed spiritual hunger while ignoring the physical. And he saw in the need of the multitude a spiritual opportunity for one particular disciple.
So Jesus said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” (v. 5). Did he need his help? No: “He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do” (v.6). He knew already how to meet this need. But Philip did not.
Here was an opportunity for faith. A chance to believe that the One who had turned water to wine could feed this crowd as well. An opportunity to trust the Healer of the nobleman’s son and the Bethesda paralytic. Philip has seen Jesus calm storms and raise corpses—surely he could trust him with lunch. Philip could have asked Jesus what he wanted done; he could have found the resources at hand and delivered them to his Master; at the very least he could have prayed.
Instead, he gave up: “Philip answered him, ‘Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!'” (v. 7). In the Greek, 200 denarii. A denarius was a Roman coin, the usual pay for a day’s labor; 200 would be payment for eight months of work. Even then, the people of the crowd would have only “a bite” (a detail only John supplies).
If Philip had been the only follower of Jesus present, the story would likely have ended here, with the words of a discouraged disciple. Disheartened by a need greater than he could meet, frustrated by a request he could not possibly honor, Philip responded with fear rather than faith. He was not the last.
Give Jesus all you have (vs. 8-13)
By contrast, Andrew had more faith than Philip, but not by much: “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” (v. 9).
“Boy” translates the Greek for a very small or young “lad.” His mother had made him a lunch which contained “barley,” an inferior kind of bread much despised by the cultured (cf. Ezekiel 13.19).
His barley was in “loaves,” not the bread loaves we use but round, flat sheets of bread. A fried tortilla is probably the closest our food comes to the boy’s, though I have eaten “flatbread” like his in Israel.
With his flatbread were “two fishes,” small, sardine-like fish caught by the thousands out of the Sea of Galilee. They were salted and used as a kind of topping for the bread; one scholar calls them a “tidbit.” It was not much, but it was all the boy had. And he gave it—all of it—to Jesus.
Jesus tells the crowd to “sit down,” “fall back” or “lie down” in the Greek. This was the position for a feast, reclining at table. Jesus would give them more than they could hold in their hands. This would not be a “fast food” meal, but a feast. And somehow they believed it would be so: “There was plenty of grass in that place, and the men sat down, about five thousand of them” (v. 10b).
With this result: “Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish” (v. 11). He “gave thanks,” the usual Jewish practice before eating a meal (cf. Deuteronomy 8.10: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you”).
Once he gave thanks, Jesus then “distributed to those who were seated” through his disciples. When was the food actually multiplied? For the sake of efficient distribution, probably as it was given out. And so Jesus’ faith had to become that of his disciples, as they continued his miracle by distributing it to the crowd. Imagine their delight and surprise as the tiny lunch continued to grow until those who were seated had “as much as they wanted” (v. 11). The Greek is the imperfect active tense—they were continually fed until they wanted no more, until “they had all had enough to eat” (v. 12a).
In fact, Jesus gave the crowd far more food than it was accustomed to receiving, as the typical first-century peasant seldom had enough food to eat all he wanted. Jesus always meets our needs according to his riches in glory (Philippians 4.19). Not always our wants, but always our needs.
And the miracle was not finished: “he said to his disciples, ‘Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.’ So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten” (vs. 12-13).
Their “baskets” were “stout wicker baskets.” All four Gospels record these baskets as kophinoi (we get “coffin” from this word). These would be the baskets carried by itinerants as they traveled a great distance on foot. We would use backpacks for the same purpose today.
And the tiny lunch with which Jesus began became enough to feed his disciples as well, with more in abundance. The “baskets” they used were large enough that Paul could escape from Damascus in one (Ac 9.25). And they were “filled” with food, much more than a man could consume in one meal. Jesus met their needs with his abundance. He always does.
God can hit straight licks with crooked sticks. He can do much with little.
One man built an Ark which saved the world.
A fugitive shepherd and a rod parted the Red Sea and defeated the mightiest army the world had ever seen.
A shepherd boy with a slingshot killed a mighty giant and became the favorite king in Israel’s history.
Fishermen and tax collectors and peasants led the early church into the mightiest movement in human history.
God does much with little.
An unknown monk in a tiny German town was outraged by abuses he found in the church Who knew he would spark a Reformation which would change Christianity forever?
A teenage boy walking the streets of London in a blizzard stumbled into a tiny Methodist chapel for shelter. The preacher couldn’t get to the church, so an illiterate farmer preached. He couldn’t do much more than quote Scripture; then he pointed a bony finger to the teenager huddled in the back of the room and said, “Look to God and be saved.” Who knew that Charles Spurgeon would become the greatest Baptist preacher in history.
When Dwight Moody came to Christ, he was functionally illiterate. The church asked him some simple Bible questions which he could not answer, so they refused him membership. Who knew he would preach to 10 million people?
When famed evangelist Mordecai Ham came to North Carolina for an evangelistic rally, he was distressed that only one person came to Christ—a farmer’s son named Billy. Who knew he would preach to more people than anyone in history?
When a bus driver named Julian Unger bought an old school bus, restored it, and began using it to drive kids to church, he didn’t know I would be on that bus one day. He didn’t know that God would use him to bring me to church and to Christ and to this chapel this morning, but God did.
God does much with little, but the little must be given to him. The boy couldn’t keep his lunch and give it to Jesus. He had to choose. So do we.
Our culture divides Sunday from Monday, the spiritual from the secular, religion from the real world. We think of God as a hobby and church as a place to make us feel better. It’s all a means to our end.
But even God can lead only those who will follow, and heal only what he can touch. I’m going to New York City on Tuesday; the pilot can fly me there only if I’ll get on the plane. A doctor can help me only if I’ll do what he says. Even Warren Buffett can manage only the money I’ll trust to him.
When last did you give your lunch to Jesus?