What is it abut Jesus that would compel thousands of people to follow him into a deserted, barren place?
Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.
What was it about Jesus that would compel thousands of people to follow him into a deserted, barren place?
I think most of the time, we just sort of accept that, of course, lots of people would want to be where Jesus is. But that’s mostly because we know where Jesus’ story is going. We know about the incarnation, we know about the resurrection
But the people who followed him into the desert? They don’t know any of that. They encountered a wandering sage and healer and just found something compelling in his person.
And let’s remember, Jesus isn’t the only person trying to do what he does. We know from history and even from elsewhere in scripture that Judea was rife with wandering healers and teachers making outrageous claims about themselves and God – Jesus wasn’t even the only one named Jesus!
Jesus asks a similar question concerning John – “what did you go out into the wilderness to see?”
I think that’s the answer – they went to see John and Jesus and all the other Jesuses because they were hungry for hope.
Today’s gospel is about feeding. On the surface it’s about food – fish and bread – it’s about nourishing hungry bodies.
But at a deeper level, it’s about filling hungry souls. We tend to imagine the Roman Empire as glorious; beautiful temples and plazas, with stately people in togas. But it was actually a pretty harsh place. In Jesus’ time, at least a third and maybe half of the population were slaves. Justice, such as there was, was cruel and capricious.
We tend to see the Coliseum, but forget that the popular entertainments there were stylized murders of people deemed unworthy for any number of things.
This is the world that Jesus walks in, and those who encountered him were beyond oppressed and beat down. Life was a constant struggle; little came easy, and it had been that way for centuries – since beyond the reckoning of any living person. So of course, they expected that to continue.
But then came Jesus.
Oh, lots of others had promised temporary relief, or visions of revolutionary change. But Jesus somehow offered… something else… something indefinable and yet compellingly real.
We understand that ineffable something to be the kingdom of God.
Jesus promised us that there was a power that under-girds all of the created universe and that this power yearned for dignity, for liberty, for peace – and not just for a special select few – but for everybody.
And Jesus did more than teach about the kingdom of God; Jesus lived there, in the here and now. He was fully present to everyone he encountered, he sought to relieve the fears and brokenness of those he met, he encouraged others to do the same, and he never acted out of his fear, but always out of his confidence in God’s ways.
Jesus lived that way to show us how we should live.
He also showed us how to face death without fear; accepting his own death with the faith that God would not allow it. In his death, Jesus defeated the power that death holds over us, showing us that there is nothing in this life that should hold us back from being the people we were created to be and that nothing should hold us back from responding to the world not in fear but with love.
And I think, that just like those people who followed Jesus into the desert then, there are people all around us who are hungry in their souls – and in their bodies too. There are people longing for an encounter with a hope that will set them free. Free from worry and fear and despair.
And we are Jesus now; that’s what it means when we say that the church is the body of Christ – we are literally empowered to be Jesus – to be bringers of hope to the hungry souls of the world.
I very much hope that for all of us, our faith isn’t a private matter. Jesus expects more of us. He expects us daily to pick up our crosses and follow. He invites us into himself that we might be him and continue his work; to shine light in the darkness, to mend what is broken, to respect the dignity of every person, and to stand against evil and all its forms with our selves, every day and every moment of our lives.
He expects us to embody the hope that stood out in that barren spot two millennia ago and to be the food the nourishes the souls of those who are in hunger.
Thanks be to God.