more than meets the eye
When I finally relented to God’s call into pastoral ministry, I was in a hard place. I had just come off a separation and was living on my own, the boys were still very young, I had about sixth months before I was to begin seminary, I had just finished a master’s degree in communications, and as I was gearing up for ministry, I was working for myself as a freelance editor and writer. Things were tight, and I got by with whatever I had and however I could. I prayed fiercely in those days, and I worried seldom. I knew God called me to this ministry, and I already accepted and would follow faithfully. And God would faithfully provide. If I was faithful to God, God would be faithful to me in provision. They were lean, lean times. They were “How am I going to pay rent” times. And days before the rent check was due every month, a new writing assignment would come up that paid well. There was always something left over from that. God provides. When I was finally able to move into the parsonage here in Bellefonte, the apartment complex I was living at wouldn’t let me out of my lease — They said I had to pay for eight more months. But a couple of days before I was to move out, the landlord called me and said there someone interested in my apartment, and that if I could leave a couple of days early, I wouldn’t have to pay the next eight month’s rent at all. God provides. And when I needed to pay tuition and living and travel expenses in order to begin seminary in DC, I wondered how I would possibly swing that. I applied for a last-minute scholarship, and I was able to go. And once again, God provided. I was faithful to God’s calling in my life, and God provided.
God provides A lot of us might have stories — testimonies — such as these to tell. Times in our lives when it seemed there was really no way out, but yet we prayed, we stayed faithful, and God provided. Sometimes God provides in unexpected ways, ways that weren’t exactly maybe what we were thinking, and maybe still don’t realize yet, but God provides. And when God provides, we often seem surprised. I do it all the time. I can’t tell you how many of these stories — these testimonies — I hear. All these wonderful blessings — even the very, very hard ones. The ones that didn’t go the way maybe we wanted them to go, yet still, God showed up in some profound way that changed who we are. Can you think about a time such as this? When God came through, and you were just amazed? Still, we seem surprised, don’t we? Why is that? Well, maybe we can answer it with another question: Now, we didn’t read the account in Matthew or Mark — in the New Testament Gospels — about how Jesus fed 4,000 (which was probably exponentially more, given they only counted men and not women or children at the time). And when Jesus breaks seven loaves of bread and passes them around the crowd, there are even leftovers. And the apostles are surprised! Why should they be surprised? I ask that because previous to the miracle of the feeding of the 4,000, Jesus feeds 5,000 (which is most likely more than double that for the same reason of who was counted). And Jesus fed the 5,000 with five loaves. And the apostles (and everyone) were surprised. Here, in front of them, is Jesus. Jesus, the one who they call Messiah, Savior, King… The one whom they’ve left and gave everything to follow. The one who has done countless miracles. And they’re surprised. They were surprised because they only believe what they see when they see it. But that’s not faith, is it? Paul tells us that Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. That’s Hebrews 11.1. The disciples hoped that Jesus would come through in feeding these crowds, but they weren’t really certain of what they did not see. It was only until they saw — even if they saw the same thing happen recently — that they believed. That they were certain. And Jesus knew his Bible… He knew the Old Testament stories, and he knew the Prophets. He knew he could feed the masses because God always feeds the masses. We forget — just as the disciples did — that it was the great prophet Elisha who did the very same thing. We just read it in 2 Kings from the Old Testament, about 500 years before Christ’s miraculous feedings. In 2nd Kings, we have the story of the prophet Elisha, and we enter the story in a time of great famine in all the land. Judea was split into two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. There was much warring and suffering, and those kingdoms were falling apart. Add to that the fact that there was an eight-year famine in the land, and we begin to understand how desperate the times were. Elisha’s job as prophet was to warn the kingdoms of the ways they were breaking their covenant with God and have them repent. And tucked into all this narrative is the story of how Elisha feeds 100 people, our reading today and a precedent for Jesus’s feeding of 5,000 and 4,000. We hear that a nameless man came from the city of Baal-shalishah, which was in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The name Baal-shalishah is important. Originally, the area would have been called just Shalishah. And that word in the Hebrew translates to “three.” The number three for the Hebrews basically just meant small. It was like a figure of speech — like how we might say “I just need a couple of bucks” or “I’ll throw in my two cents…” Thing is, the Jews didn’t use the number Two in examples, because that number had another assigned connotation, which was duality, and they didn’t like that, so that wouldn’t be used. So when we see the number three in the Bible — Old and New Testaments — chances are it’s not just the assigned number of something, but it means “the least.” Just like 7 means “the most, many or eternal.” So basically, you had a small town. Thing is, when you put the word Baal in front of it, it signifies something else. Without an enormous discourse, Baal was another word for god, but not the God of the Jews; It was the god of the Canaanites, who had occupied the land before the Jews. And Baal was a false god. Baal worship was corrupt to the Jews, and the Northern Kingdom’s eventual fall was because the Jews there weren’t worshiping the One True God — that is YAHWEH — but they were worshipping Baal. So when you put the word or name Baal in front of a city’s name, you can bet the people there were worshiping a false God. You’ll see a whole lot of towns with this word in front of them at this period in history in the middle east. So here comes this man from Baal-worshiping country, trying desperately to do the right thing by bringing a sacrifice to Yahweh, the One True God. In fact he’s bringing his tithe — his first fruits, we learn: twenty loaves of barley bread and fresh ears of grain in his sack. And he gives them to Elisha, who is not a priest — which would have been the correct protocol — but a prophet. Still, Elisha honors the offering and tells this servant to “Give it to the people and let them eat” (Verse 42). The servant looks at the tiny offering and the crowd of people around and wonders how it can be done. And just as a parent repeats to the child the exact same words when they don’t do what the parent tells them, Elisha says it again more sternly: “Give it to the people and let them eat! Thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.” Of course, the servant now does what Elisha demands, and they all eat — about 100 people — and had some left over. Again, why should they be surprised? Elisha wasn’t, just as Jesus wasn’t. They had faith. And like Jesus, Elisha had this precedent as well. We go all the way back to Exodus 16, and God provides what from above? Manna. Bread. Enough for everyone to eat and to take some of the leftovers with them. God provides. And what is the precedent for the Exodus miracle? Creation. God gave this entire planet for us to care take, to grow, and to be sustained. In each event, it was not only provision in a time of hunger — for the 4 and 5000 gathered around Christ, they were hungry; For the 100 gathered around Elisha, they were literally famished’ For the Hebrews wandering in the desert, they were out of food! You see, God was nourishing all of them with food, but God also was nourishing their faith in a time of spiritual famine. Why would they be surprised that God would provide if they simply had faith. Or maybe more accurately: Why wouldn’t we expect God to provide for us if we simply had faith?
Faith misplaced Today, we put more faith in ourselves than we do in God. Our lives have somehow moved away from taking care of each other through God’s provision and instead taking care of ourselves through what we can accumulate. Investment portfolios, nest eggs, stocks and bonds… Accumulated wealth that just sits there while others are in need. I’m not simply talking about our own personal lives — although this applies; this is how our world, our countries’ and states’ governments operate. We hold onto this abundance when what we’re really doing is creating famine: Both physically for some, and morally or spiritually for all. We would be lying through our teeth if we said we can’t help those who are suffering and starving not only around the world, but around the block from us. The implications of this is what we are teaching our kids: Us first. Funny, I hear all the time how we want to bring God back into the schools and into our government, yet we’re incredibly selective at how we bring God into our homes or into our lives. We say we want Christ in all these places, but we don’t really want to heed Jesus’s commandments or model his examples to take care of one another as we take care of ourselves. Can’t have it both ways. ### I got to spend some time with a elderly member of the church who is homebound now. We sat in his living room, and I asked him all about his childhood. One of the stories he told, being well into his 90s now, was about how he was a child of the depression growing up here. He said he remembered the hobos that would come down the road and stop at his parents’ farm. He said his mother loved to bake, and always had food to share. That she would answer door, and a hobo would ask for any food. And she would tell them to sit on the porch, and she always would bring out a big spread of food — more than just what they asked for. His dad would even let them spend the night in the barn. You see, this is taking care of one another as Jesus did. It’s giving what you have, and knowing that there will be more. A famine of grace See, the famine in our lives today isn’t simply one of food; it’s one of love. It’s a famine of compassion, of empathy, and of grace. We forget that what we have — everything that we have — is a gift from God. And that we’re meant to take care of one another. Not just physically, but with all that we have and all that we are. Like Christ does for us. We have to take an inventory of those things, and we should do that when we give thanks to God in prayer. That’s the inventory. Sort of like counting your blessings.
Counting blessings So many mornings, I wake up early to pray and read and meditate on the word. I love the quiet mornings when the boys are still asleep, and I walk from my bedroom into the living room at the parsonage, sit and enjoy a cup of coffee, and just look around at the abundance that God has provided. I am amazed, and I know I shouldn’t be. Because whether I was in a one-bedroom apartment wondering how I’d make rent or feed my kids or whether I was in the parsonage with a full pantry of bread, it is God who provides. Whether I am going for a run on a sunny trail or stuck in a hospital bed, I know it’s God who provides. And whether I am meeting a new person on the street and trying to lead them to Christ or I am preaching a sermon on Sunday, I know it’s God who provides. I didn’t do this. I have no need to be amazed at myself. And honestly, I shouldn’t be so amazed at what God does for me; God has taken care of me every day of my life, and every step of the way! But I am amazed at the love God gives — that God’s love and mercy and goodness and grace is there with me always. That I — just like you — are eternally held by a generous and loving God. One who provides for us and teaches us that we are to provide for others and not hoard our blessings, but to share them. Because even in times of famine — physical or spiritual famine — there is abundance. There is always more than meets the eye. There are always leftovers. There is always more than enough. And there always will be. If we just have faith.
Of famines We create our own famines sometimes. And this world, my oh my, we know of the famines we’ve created and continue to create. Elisha tells us the Lord says there will be more than enough. We just have to trust. The man who came to Elisha, came from a place that was spiritually famished. The prevalent culture was spiritually skin and bones, malnourished, depleted… But he came and offered what he had because he believed. And God multiplied that gift and that faith exponentially. Not just for one man, either; for 100 — for all of them. As God always does just that. Comparatively, we have heaps of this bread. But it does the world no good if we keep it only for ourselves. When we give in faith, we get to experience the limitlessness of God’s grace. It’s not easy, leaving our Baal-Shalishahs… Our places where we’ve substituted faith in God for faith in ourselves. Start small. But trust God. Let God move you into greater things. Ask yourself: What are our neighbors hungry for? What can we give that was given to us by God? God wants your vision and perspective to grow, and not be so restricted. Because the kind of vision we’re used to is that which we can see. The kind of vision God wants to create in us is for that which we cannot see, but know is true. Of being certain of what we do not see.