This week the lectionary begins a series of three consecutive miracle texts from Matthew’s Gospel. This week Jesus feeds the 5000. Next week He walks on water and calms the storm. The following week He heals the daughter of the Canaanite woman. This string of miraculous acts of Jesus invites a sermon series which will tie all three readings together. To that end, I suggest you consider preaching a three-part series of sermons exploring Jesus’ miracles.
If you do so (and even if you do not), it is worth giving some thought to preaching on miracle texts in general. To help with this, you might read Francis Rossow’s recent article, “The Functions of Jesus’ Miracles,” in Concordia Journal (Fall 2018:164-171). Rossow identifies three functions of miracle texts and how those functions might figure into a sermon. In short, the preacher has three options for how he might use a miracle text to proclaim the Gospel:
- Miracles have an “evidential function.” That is, they show us what Jesus can do as God. A sermon that goes this direction might emphasize Jesus’ AUTHORITY over creation as Lord of all. This would be appropriate for hearers who are helpless, vulnerable, or afraid.
- Miracles have a “typological function.” That is, they give us a glimpse of what God has done for us in Christ. A sermon moving in this direction might emphasize the COMPASSION of Jesus as He suffered with and for His people. This would be appropriate for hearers who are stricken by guilt and question God’s mercy.
- Miracles have a “didactic function.” That is, they teach us about ourselves, the fallen nature of creation, and God’s manner of operating in the world. A sermon working with this function might emphasize HOW God works in Christ. This would be appropriate for hearers who are confused or mistaken about how God works in their lives.
Depending on the text, one of these approaches might be more natural than the others, but many miracles could be preached from more than one angle. Here are the kinds of questions you should ask about your potential sermon:
- What will the sermon do, theologically speaking, with the miracle?
- Which details of the text will you highlight? Which will you ignore?
- What will you promise to your hearers based on this text?
*You will want to make sure, of course, you do not promise something to your hearers the text does not authorize promising for hearers of all times and places.
- What do your specific hearers need to hear from this specific sermon?
With these preliminary thoughts in mind for this and the next two sermons, I will suggest a few options for this familiar reading of Jesus’ feeding of the 5000. I will also recommend you begin by listening to Jeff Gibbs’ brief and careful translation of the text here.
Of the functions offered by Rossow, all three of them could provide guidance. You might emphasize Jesus’ AUTHORITY over all creation by highlighting His ability to multiply the loaves and fish. If you go this route, consider making a connection to His ability to provide bread and wine for many thousands on a regular basis at the Lord’s Table. Be careful not to overstate the case, however. This text is not directly or obviously about Holy Communion.
You could also use this text to help your hearers understand HOW God works in Christ. While Jesus certainly could have fed the people Himself, instead He instructed His disciples to feed them (Jesus’ instructions to Peter in John 21:15-19 come to mind here). You could also highlight Jesus’ blessing of the food. The miracle took place through Jesus’ speaking, which reminds us He works through His Word to fill His people with every good gift.
The miracle took place through Jesus’ speaking, which reminds us He works through His Word to fill His people with every good gift.
A third option, which I would probably take, would be to highlight Jesus’ COMPASSION. Verse 14 invites this approach by identifying the motive that led Jesus to engage the crowd in the first place. Despite the fact He had withdrawn by Himself upon hearing of John’s death, Jesus’ compassion led Him to heal their sick. And even though this apparently took all day (see verse 15) and He was certainly ready for some time alone to rest (which Jesus finally got in verses 22-23), He refused to send them away without first providing for them. These are the actions of one who cares about those in need.
Jesus’ miracle in this sermon, then, is a type of the compassion He has for your hearers. While they certainly have many physical needs, your hearers also (more fundamentally) need Jesus’ mercy and forgiveness. We all do. In our own way, we all share Alexander Hamilton’s deep guilt and disturbed conscience as portrayed in the recent hit musical (see Ken Sundet Jones’ reflection here).
A sermon on this text that highlights Jesus’ compassion for the crowds and proclaims His compassion for your hearers now would not need to spiritualize Jesus’ feeding of the 5000. It really happened. And He really provides for us today—both physically and spiritually. Because of His compassion for His creation, Jesus willingly suffered to provide for all people of all time. Through His Son and by the power of His Spirit, God the Father offers mercy for mistakes from the past and forgiveness for the habitual sins of the present. His forgiveness is ultimately the only source of true and lasting satisfaction (see verse 20), and there is always more left over to share with others.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 14:13-21.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 14:13-21.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 14:13-21.