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We often want proof that God is there, a sign, something that will corroborate and confirm that God is and that God is there, and specifically that God is here with me (us). Today’s scripture story wrestles with that human tendency to demand proof, but then to curiously not accept it as it comes.
The story starts off with a ring of familiarity. Jesus and his closest friends, along with a great crowd are in the desert: the lonely place, the wilderness. It’s where the wild things are, far from cities and towns – the places that human beings can control, run and manage. Out of luck, having finally found a great teacher, the people are stuck. Yet Jesus is moved with compassion. He’s moved to action, to presence and to deliverance from the hunger that dominates and defines this hungry place.
In the desert the Israelites, having escaped from the Egypt and their desperate hunger for freedom from slavery find their stomachs growling. God provides for them – giving them bread in the desert where there is nothing. They call the bread “manna” – which in Hebrew literally means “what is it?” God provides them with a sign that God has not forgotten them and is near. [Exodus 16]
Here, as he did with the crowd of 5,000 men (not counting the women and children) Jesus again miraculously feeds a hungry multitude. He turns shortage into abundance. He transforms fear into gratitude. He moves them from a great crowd to a united people. This is more than a magic trick. It’s more than spontaneous sharing. It’s a God thing. [Mark 6:30-44]
Mark tells us that it’s a sign of God’s presence. The number seven is the sign of God’s presence and purpose. The Hebrews considered it to be the perfect number, holy, set apart, indicative of God’s full hope and whole creation, all that God wants for us. Seven days of creation. Rest came on the seventh day: a day of gratitude, recognition, rememberance and strength for the future.
The Pharisees in the subsequent scene, the conclusion in a sort of this story of miraculous feeding demand proof that Jesus is really about God’s work, corroboration of his pedigree and resumé. They want a sign: to authenticate that Jesus is on their side, I mean God’s side.
In Greek (the language of the story) the word sign is σημεῖον, [semion]; meaning a sign, miracle, indication, mark, token. Thfoguhout his telling of the life of Jesus, Mark principally uses this word for miracle – a “sign” from God. But the Pharisees don’t get it, don’t want to see it, or can’t see it. As readers of the gospel we’ve been told that the gospel is a sign, that Jesus is the sign – good news – “gospel” – that God is working in the world, redeeming the world, freeing us from the divisive and destructive power of sin, calling us to something bigger and better. It’s all there in Mark 1:1.
Woody Allen is quoted as saying “If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss Bank.” It’s sounds crazy…but maybe we’re only willing to accept a similar sort of sign when it comes to seeing God at work not just in the world, but also in our lives. Allen is being funny, yet his humor strikes a chord with the deeper utterance of this narrative of the 4,000 being fed. We often long for signs. But for ones other than those that we already have.
At our Recreation VBS camp this week I was marveled to awe again to see what God can do. I have yet to see a blind man see, a deaf woman hear, a lame person dance for joy…but I am the witness to acts of kindness and compassion, the mysterious power of Biblical story-telling, snack-serving with gentleness and the relational attention of people who know that they are already loved. I often ask for signs, to know where I should invest my time, where the Spirit of God might be moving in our community of faith, and in our community of Oakland. Maybe I’m more like the Pharisees than I care to admit, failing to recognize what is already right in front of me. How about you?
Questions for Going Deeper:
• What word, phrase or image shimmers for you in the text?
• How does this intersect or interact with your life today?
• What invitation do you hear from God in this text to act, say, be or do?