At the end of the week, this past week, the headlines told of an awful tragedy. A gun man walked into a crowded theater in Colorado and began shooting. This was front page news, but not in Burgas, a city in the Eastern European nation of Bulgaria. There, the big story was a terrorist attack. A suicide bomber blew up a crowded bus. And in Iraq, the big news was the seizure of border stations along the Syrian border by rebel militia groups.
Where you live determines what you would call the biggest news of the day. Everything I mentioned would fall in the category of bad news. Horrific; awful; tragic; depressing.
As followers of Christ, we are called beyond our own lives. We have our individual problems which are significant. Our individual stories are stories of faith. We are also a body of believers, bonded together in Jesus. As individual disciples and as a body, we are called to respond to the happenings of the world, elections, wars, random violence, weather patterns (like extreme drought) and natural disasters. When chaos is unleashed and humanity panics, people look to the church because they’re looking for someone – anyone – to help bring order and reveal meaning in all that goes on.
We’re in our 3rd week of seeing Jesus in the pages of Mark’s gospel. In today’s passage, we find a key component, not the only one, but an important aspect of a Christ-follower’s response to a world afflicted with suffering, chaos, fear, and hurt.
We pick the story up with Jesus and the disciples on the move again. This time the location is not specifically named, nor is the exact spot important. What catches our attention is Jesus’ care for his disciples. A lot has happened. His popularity is at its peak. Mobs overwhelm him and them. He has endowed the 12 with his miraculous powers, and he knows that as they cure diseases and defeat demons, crowds would come upon them just like the do on him. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile,” Jesus tells his friends and followers.
They get in the boat, a sure way to separate from the crowd that hungers for every word that falls from Jesus’ lips just as much as they long for every wonder he performs. The thing is, when Jesus works miracles, he’s not performing. He’s revealing God’s love and he does this through his inclusion of people who are rejected everywhere else. He does it through a radical new understanding of the Law that sees it as a door to God and not a burden that keeps people under heel. And he does it through his ceaseless sharing of grace and mercy. But he gets tired. The disciples are tired. They need down time.
The mob travels faster. When Jesus and the disciples arrive at the location of their prayer retreat, we see a throng waiting for them. What does Jesus do? Get back in the boat? Mark writes, “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them” (v.34). Get the highlighter out, underline verse 34, and on your notes session in the worship bulletin, write that Mark 6:34 is one of the most important verses in the entire Gospel. Confronted by the crowd he wanted to escape, Jesus was filled with compassion.
Someone is traumatized because they go to be entertained by the comic book violence of Batman on the screen and instead have to deal with real life, senseless violence right in their face. Do we love them? Even when we don’t have the words or the energy, do we reach out to them and walk with as Jesus does? Do we, as compassion literally means, “suffer with” them?
A nation, Iraq, beleaguered and broken by a decades of war and tyranny is now trying to get it together, and it’s neighbor, Syria is bringing her war onto Iraqi grounds. And Iran and Israel are trying to fight their own battles and Iraq is right in the middle. How does the church – you, me, churches all round – respond? With compassion? A compassionate response could take on many forms from care for refugees to financial contribution to Christian ministries to political advocacy. It begins with prayer. Do we pray for Iraq?
Or Iran? Or Bulgaria? Or Israel? Or victims of drought in our own nation? Or victims of insidious combination of drought and terrorism in Somalia? Are we gripped by the Spirit to pray compassionately?
“As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them.” Why? Why did they need Jesus so much? Mark’s narrative continues. “They were like sheep without a shepherd.” If I were in that crowd, I might not like being characterized that way. Americans have self-sufficiency woven into our worldview. The pioneer spirit and protestant work ethic on which our nation stands say that we are never meek, directionless sheep. By our will and courage, we’ll find a way. The truth is our nation is great, but sin has been around longer. We as a nation and as individuals are fallen and will fall short of God’s glory just as that hungering crowd fell short in Mark 6. We may not like it, but we are often also sheep without any guidance or protection against wolves that would use our greed, our sense of independence, and our pride to devour us.
In describing those around Jesus in this way, Mark reaches back to the prophet Ezekiel. He wrote,
Ezekiel 34 New Living Translation (NLT)
34 Then this message came to me from the Lord: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds, the leaders of Israel. Give them this message from the Sovereign Lord: What sorrow awaits you shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. Shouldn’t shepherds feed their sheep? 3 You drink the milk, wear the wool, and butcher the best animals, but you let your flocks starve. 4 You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Instead, you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty. 5 So my sheep have been scattered without a shepherd, and they are easy prey for any wild animal. 6 They have wandered through all the mountains and all the hills, across the face of the earth, yet no one has gone to search for them.
7 “Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Lord, you abandoned my flock and left them to be attacked by every wild animal. And though you were my shepherds, you didn’t search for my sheep when they were lost. You took care of yourselves and left the sheep to starve. 9 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord. 10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I now consider these shepherds my enemies, and I will hold them responsible for what has happened to my flock. I will take away their right to feed the flock, and I will stop them from feeding themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths; the sheep will no longer be their prey.
Jesus came to seek out and save the lost, to rescue the sheep who were being devoured. Yes, he and the disciples were tired, but they were needed. So compassion ruled and he welcomed the crowd and began to teach them. Mark says he taught many things until late into the day. The crowd, captivated by Jesus’ gentle but unquestioned authority, drank in his words without thought of provisions.
The disciples finally had to interrupt him to say, “Hey, enough compassion for now. It’s supper time. We’re kind of compassioned-out. Send them away. They can fill up the Cracker Barrel and the Chik-Fil-A. They can sit around and discuss your great teachings. Send them away so they can eat and we can have some peace.”
But Jesus wasn’t compassioned-out. He was full of compassion. He was driven by deep love for people who were hurting spiritually, politically, emotionally, and physically. Jesus never runs out of compassion. He runs on compassion. It fuels him and comes from him.
Mark 1, Peter’s mother-in-law cannot perform hospitality her most crucial service as a first century lady of the house. She’s down with a fever. Jesus takes her tenderly by the hand and lifts to her feet. By the time she’s standing, the weakness and sickness is gone and she’s 100%, ready to do her thing.
Also in Mark 1, a leper runs to Jesus. Lepers were, by law, to keep their distance. In approaching, this one broke the rules, but his disease made him so desperate, he did not care. Seeing him, Jesus was moved with pity. He healed the leprosy (1:41).
In Mark 2, Jesus is surrounded by tax collectors, those in Israel who were treated as hated turncoats because they collected taxes for Rome. Jesus never minimized the base sin in the crowd at the party that surely included gamblers and prostitutes. He saw the very shepherdless sheep Ezekiel lamented. In response to the Pharisees who complained about the company he kept, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (2:17). Jesus saw sin as an evil disease that puts sons and daughters of God in harm’s way. He came to cure us of what ails us because he loves us.
In Mark 5, he meets another woman, sick, bleeding, cast out from society. The law called her untouchable, unclean, unworthy. Jesus called her “daughter.” This forgotten, stepped on woman was a daughter of God in the eyes of the compassionate one.
In two other healing miracles, one with a deaf mute, and another with a blind man, Jesus could see that the healing was going to be an involved process. It included rubbing mud on the blind man’s eyes and spitting on the mute man’s tongue. Knowing this and knowing that the diseases would be attributed to sin by some legalists; in other words, the deaf mute and the blind man would not only suffer their maladies but be blamed for them; knowing this, Jesus first took both individuals, again by the hand, away from the crowd. Not only did he heal these illnesses. He preserved the dignity and restored these lost souls to society.
Jesus was driven by compassion. Jesus we have to send the crowd away so they can eat.
No. The teaching I give comes from God and if the people hear it and heed it they will understand that in my coming the Kingdom has arrived. A kingdom where the rejected are welcomed and compassion and love are the rule. No. No one is sent away. You feed them.
We know what happens next. The disciples protest and Jesus takes a meal of 5 pieces of pita bread and a few fish, and he feeds 5000 people and there are 12 baskets of leftovers.
Flipping over to Mark 8, it happens again. The circumstances there are slightly different, but again, Jesus takes the food from an individual’s meal, miraculously multiplies it, and feeds thousands.
People were so desperate for what Jesus had they would follow him. He was on the move, so to keep up, they had to move. They may have meant traveling without making adequate preparation and then being caught in the wilderness with no food. Jesus, driven by compassion as he always was, determined to teach the truths of the Kingdom of God would not allow hunger to distract his followers any more than he allowed storms at sea to consume the 12 disciples.
I think miracles can still happen, but I don’t know when. It’s the Holy Spirit’s call, not ours. But, whether miracles happen our not, the body of Christ, the church, is to be driven by compassion every bit as much as he was. Middle class Americans living high-tech, educated, affluent lives may feel like we have it all together. But then we have a week where people die going to the movies. That reminds us of our history of senseless violence. Drought and heat remind us that we’ll never be more powerful than the weather and when it is dangerously bad, it can hurt us. News from wars and terrorism from around the world remind us that the chaos of sin is all around us and no matter how independent we want to feel, in truth, we need Jesus like never before.
Can the church command miracles with ease of Jesus? Not every time. I have never worked a miracle. But you and I, we can be driven by compassion as he was. We can show his love even it means standing with someone who is suffering. We don’t know what to do, so we stand with them as long as we need to. In coming alongside, God shows us what forms compassion takes.
Jesus is the compassionate one. If we want to see Him, we go where there is pain and we love those who hurt. When we do, we realize He is in us, working through us. And in our compassion, which is His compassion in us, the world sees the Kingdom of God.