Lonely Places & God
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Matthew 14: 13 – 21. Focus on why we withdraw to lonely places when we are hurt and why God reconnects to others when we do.
Both testaments this morning deal with being alone. In Genesis Jacob is wrestling with an angel over his fears of facing his brother and in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is withdrawing to a lonely place upon hearing of the death of his cousin John.
Both of these lessons are sermons in and of themselves and they are both packed with other issues besides being alone, but that is what I want to focus us on this morning. I want to focus on the issue of being in a lonely place because that phrase is used twice in Matthews story, which tells me that he wants us to notice it. It’s used to describe a place and a condition.
If you’ve experienced real loss of any kind, the death of a loved one, the death of a dream, the loss of a seriously held expectation you can relate to this desire to find a place that is apart and away from everything else. It’s almost an instinctive response when we’ve been emotionally jolted.
What’s the first thing that happens to church going folks who suddenly go through a major loss? They stop coming to church and they drop out of their social circles and they literally go inside and turn within themselves. There seems to be this instinctive desire to find a lonely place and go to it and that’s what Jesus is doing.
The only difference is that he can’t find a lonely place because the crowds upon hearing the news of Jesus’ loss follow him. Maybe they were worried about him and wanted to provide comfort by just being with him. Maybe they were worried that he wouldn’t come back to them. We don’t’ know the reason all we know is that they probably came for a number of reasons and followed him.
Now what’s interesting is Jesus’ response to the crowd, because the Gospel states that he had compassion upon them and cured their sick. If had been me I don’t’ know that I would have been so gracious. I’d probably be annoyed or angry that all these folks were still expecting me to be there for them.
I’d probably be thinking, “Hey come on leave me alone!” I need a break! What do you mean you need me? Didn’t you hear? They just killed John! Give me a break.”
But that’s not what he does. He may have thought that, but that’s not what he did. Instead of going to that lonely place he had compassion on the crowd and he healed their sick.
Ever notice how the Bible never really tells us what Jesus is thinking or feeling. It only reports what they do, and that’s important because the only way to change a feeling or a thought is to change the behavior surrounding it. So Jesus forgets about finding a lonely place and begins to heal a bunch of people and hang out with a bunch more.
And before you know it, evening has come. The disciples approach Jesus and say, “this is a lonely place, and the day is now over, send the crowds away.” They say it’s because the crowds have nothing to eat, but that’s not really true, what’s going on is that the disciples want to eat and don’t want to be bothered with helping the crowd find food.
Now what’s interesting is the disciples’ description of this place. Jesus who was looking for a lonely place can’t find one because the crowds follow him. And his disciples describe this scene filled with people as being a lonely place. It’s anything but lonely; Jesus is surrounded by people who need him. He doesn’t have time to be lonely.
I think the reason that the disciples describe this as a lonely place is because they aren’t doing anything. That’s the crux of the problem, because while it may be natural to want to find a lonely place when you are hurting, it is not a good thing to stay in a lonely place because it leads to loneliness. And this is something that God knows, so God gives Jesus a crowd of people to take care of as a way of healing his hurt.
It’s the only way I know of to really heal from sadness and hurt. It works.
I’ll close with this story. At the Children’s Clinic in Dusseldorf, Germany in the early part of the twentieth century when modern medicine was still in its infancy there were a lot of people, especially children, who wasted away and ended up dying from unknown causes.
It wasn’t unusual to see the word “hopeless” written on many their admission charts, because there was no known cause for what brought them and there was no known cure.
There was one doctor who stood out from the rest as a beacon of hope for these hopeless children – His name was Dr. Fritz Talbot. The one thing that made him different from all of his colleagues was the fact that he had lost one of his own children to an unknown cause, which made him pretty sensitive to sick children.
And he had found more success in dealing with these sick children than any of his colleagues so for many years medical interns would follow him from ward to ward, trying to learn new ways of handling their diseases.
One of the interns took the time to write down his observations of Dr. Talbot. He observed that when Dr. Talbot came across a child where traditional medication and therapy had failed, he would take the child’s chart and scrawl something on it.
But it was nearly impossible to make out his scrawl so this intern didn’t know what he was writing. But this intern saw remarkable improvement in their health.
Finally he asked the head nurse to interpret the unreadable prescription. She chuckled and said, “Oh, that stand for Old Anna.” She pointed to a grandmotherly woman, seated in a large rocker with a baby on her lap.
“Whenever we have a baby for whom everything else has failed, we turn the child over to Old Anna. She has more success than all the doctors and nurses in this institution combined.
Compassion and love that’s what Old Anna and this doctor had to give.
And compassion and love can only be found by getting out of ourselves, which is why in spite of our natural desire to withdraw to a lonely place God does not let us, but instead gives us these opportunities to turn our losses and hurts into something meaningful and hopeful by giving us others to care for.
I think that’s the miracle of this story. I think the real miracle of this story is that Jesus told his disciples it was their turn to feed the people and they did. Jesus preformed many miracles, but the miracle that he gave then is a miracle we all can perform is the miracle of getting outside of ourselves by feeding someone else, by doing something of real value – by giving back. And if he was here with us he’d say, “Go and do likewise!” Amen