Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Ministry in Desolate Places (Matthew 14:13-21)

I was caught recently by two events in Matthew 14 - the death of John the Baptist and the feeding of the five thousand. They are in the same chapter but, in my recollection of them, I did not realize the connection between the two. From this chapter I gleaned two major lessons that have ministered to me in the past few weeks. One is "Ministry in Desolate Places" and the other is "Pursuing the Withdrawing Lord."

Jesus' response to the death of his friend, cousin and ministry partner colors the feeding in such a human way. When we think of our Savior's expressions of human emotion, a certain few events come to mind - the death of Lazarus, his weeping over Jerusalem and the Garden of Gethsemane. However, Jesus was also deeply moved by the death of John. When he got the news, the scripture says, "he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself." The blow of such tragedy effected Jesus and he felt the need to get alone and deal with it. The emotional pain that Jesus was feeling was represented by his withdrawal to "a desolate place." Jesus was in a desolate place on the inside, so he retreated to a desolate place physically in order to mourn.

The crowds followed Jesus (see "Pursuing the Withdrawing Lord") and, when Jesus saw them, "he had compassion on them and healed their sick." As the day grew late, the disciples came to Jesus 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." Jesus was moved by the needs of the people in their sickness; the disciples were now moved by the needs of the people in their hunger. Notice the phrase "desolate place" coming up again. The disciples saw the need but felt ill-equipped to supply it. However, Jesus' response challenged them - "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." When the disciples protested that they had only meager supplies (obviously not enough for such an incredible need), Jesus said "Bring them here to me." And we know the rest of the story...

We are surrounded by people in desolate places; pain abounds in our world. Two things from this passage are incredibly encouraging when facing the reality of our current desolation.

1) Jesus finds himself in desolate places. He is not immune to our pain but, instead, "in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin." He did not simply mimic humanity; he was (and is) completely human in every way. "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses..."

2) Jesus will use what little we have to minister to others in their desolation, even when we are there ourselves. Like we often do, the disciples felt dramatically unprepared to meet the needs of the masses. However, their supply didn't determine their ability; their Savior did! Certainly the disciples were also hungry, feeling their own needs in this desolate place. However, when they gave their supply to Jesus, he was able to minister to the crowds.

As we find ourselves in desolate places, let us be encouraged that Jesus is with us in our desolation and he longs to use us to minister to others in the same place. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God."

Matthew 14:13-21
Hebrews 4:14-16
2 Corinthians 1:3-4

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