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Two Very Different Feasts: Matthew 14
Please go with me if you will to the book of Matthew, and we’re going to be reading from chapter 14.
We’ve been in a series through the book of Matthew for some time, and to understand the book of Matthew, you have to understand that in all of the kingdoms and great empires of the world—Rome, Greece, Persia—in Matthew’s mind there are only two kingdoms: the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of men, and Matthew is eager to draw your focus away from the kingdoms of this world and draw you into the kingdom of God, and it’s King.
Over and over again throughout the chapters we’ve been preaching, Jesus repeats the phrase: “the kingdom of heaven is like,” like a treasure in a field, like a small peal worth everything, like a mustard seed, like leaven in flour, like a farmer who casts his seed on road and field alike, and who waits all season to pull the weeds, lest any wheat be lost.
The kingdom of God, then, is filled with life and growth. The king is magnanimous and gives out everything he finds most valuable to all without finding fault, and those who receive his word grow and bear fruit to nourish themselves and the people around them. His kingdom is small, and sometimes dirty, but it’s worth more than any other fine thing you might hold onto.
Today Matthew is going to tell us about the king of this kingdom, and he’s going to tell this part of his story through contrast. I want you to notice, in the passage we’re about to read, there are two kings in it, not one, and there are two feasts given by the two kings. The question for each of us to answer for ourselves this morning is, which feast have you chosen? In your life, day to day, which king do you serve? Read with me, Matthew, chapter 14, starting in v.1. [Matthew 14:1-21] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
Two very different feasts, and two very different kings. Matthew is teaching us by contrast today what the kingdom and king of heaven are like. We talked last week about the hiddenness of the kingdom of God. If you’re not careful to look into the mysteries of God, the kingdoms of this world can easily become all you know; and if this world is all you know in life, if all your eyes take in is the darkness of this world, then your life and mind become quite dark, too.
I want you to understand, the kingdoms of this world are all we’ve ever known apart from Christ. Between the two feasts, Herod’s feast is probably the one we can most easily understand. I don’t have to explain any Greek words or cultural backgrounds for us to understand what moves this king to murder a man whom he, himself, considers a prophet of God among his own people. And it’s frightening to me, how easily we can understand this.
We recognize in Herod all of the other kings we’ve known—our politicians and rulers when they’re at their worst, their least godly; our celebrities and icons. There is a kind of insecurity in being in such a high place, the anxiety of expectation. Grasping at more power if only to keep what you already have. I want you to notice what is motivating Herod to do all that he does in this passage: he’s afraid. Everything he does he does out of fear and expectation. He’s afraid that someone somewhere might think that he doesn’t deserve everything he has. First, his wife. He arrests John the Baptist because of her expectation. John questioned her legitimacy, and she was afraid of losing her place at court, so she pressures her husband to arrest a man universally known to be a prophet.
Then, v.5 Herod’s afraid of the people. He doesn’t execute John because the people may revolt, and he would lose his place as king in Jerusalem. Then, he does execute him because he’s afraid of losing face at his birthday party, with all of the highest and most influential people of the city in attendance. All of John’s anxieties and worries turn his feast into gore, manipulation, and death. He literally ends up serving a man on a platter to his guests.
Most of all, though, what Herod is afraid of, is the resurrection. I want us to notice this: the very thing Christians in every age have hoped and longed for terrifies Herod. The victory of a holy God over death itself. Herod is worried that Jesus is John the Baptist raised back to life, because Herod has used death as a tool to secure his reign, and if death is broken, he is like a man in a duel who has his sword suddenly stripped from his hand.
But, Matthew reminds us, even though Herod’s rule is unchallenged in Jerusalem, he’s not the only king. And even though Herod’s rule is incredibly visible in his palace next to the temple at the top of the city, in truth the king and kingdom of God reign.
Probably my favorite author writes very succinctly the difference between earthly kings and heavenly ones, he says, “Divinity [is] the right to power (as distinct from its possession); the due worship.” I’m going to read that one more time, because this is worth really contemplating, and it will help us understand what Matthew is calling us toward today: “Divinity [is] the right to power (as distinct from its possession); the due worship.”
When we look at the other king in Jerusalem, the true king I believe, again, as we’ve seen over and over again in his life, instead of being tossed back and forth by expectation in life, Jesus is always simply—the word is free. He’s free from the anxiety of earning praise. It is simply his due. He doesn’t need to grasp at power. Power is his right, even if he chooses over and over again to give it away.
When we ask what is motivating Christ, our king, the answer the text gives over and over again is compassion. When he first hears of John’s death, he goes, the text says into a desolate place, that could also be translated, into the wild or the wilderness. The point is that it’s empty, undeveloped land. He sails to a place where he knows he can be alone. From other passages, we know this is commonly Jesus’ practice. He goes into the wild places of the world often, to fast and pray and cry out to his father. Far from seeking a high place in society, he’s seeking a desolate place to spend time with God.
So while Herod is holding a constant, empty celebration in his own honor, Jesus goes into the wilderness to mourn his friend and honor his father. But, the text tells us, the people go out into the wilderness to find him. I want you to see that these are the same people of whom Herod is afraid, but Jesus is anything but. V.14 says he had compassion on them and began to heal everyone who was sick.
That word, compassion, it goes deeper than you might think. Going back to the ancient conception of the soul being in three parts, this word talks about feeling the other persons’ pain in your gut—we would use the word gut-wrenching. Jesus is so broken over the pains of the people it’s gut-wrenching, and he begins to heal them. So instead of the constant, endless celebration of Herod’s court, what we find in the kingdom of God is mourning, healing, and compassionate community.
The celebration of the kingdom of God only begins after healing, and after hearing truth. All day, they sit and listen to Jesus’ teaching, witness his miraculous healing—healing which he is still, in every way, affecting in his churches, both rapidly, miraculously, or day by day. At the end of that day, Jesus institutes a feast, but a very different feast from Herod’s. Feasting in the kingdom of God is not empty, and neither does it honor men who aren’t really worthy of honor. Joy, faith, and celebration in the kingdom of God aren’t empty of content. It’s all wonderfully about something, filled with meaning.
There is joy in the kingdom of God because of the delight of our Father in his children. We have faith in the resurrection of Christ, and hope found in his promise to raise each and every one of us again, all the death of the kingdoms of this world undone. No more heads on platters on the tables of kings, but a feast to nourish and strengthen the people. There is celebration in the Kingdom of God because our God is making all of the sad things in our lives untrue, turning even our worst mistakes into his glorious grace and forgiveness.
The feast hall of God is filled with all of his people, not just some of them, and his provision for us does not run out—there’s no fear of not having enough; there’s no fear at all at the feast of this king. And far from a king using death to subject a people to rule and keep his own place on the throne, in the kingdom of God we see a king mourning death and giving life, even his own life at this communion feast, giving up his place on the throne to dwell wholly and richly with us.
I love that Jesus’ feast is loaves of bread and fish, because that’s about 95% of the meals we eat here in New Orleans. Apparently poboys are on the menu, y’all, at the wedding feast of the lamb, which is what this meal pre-figures. I was thinking all week how simple and beautiful this feast is, how poboys came from bakery owners supporting the streetcar workers on strike for fair wages, better lives, and here in our passage we have the king of heaven handing them out to any and all who will receive it, any who would go into the wilderness seeking him.
And I hope by now you’re seeing what Matthew is trying to bring out. There is a choice, here, friends. Two very different feasts, and two very different kings. Which will we choose day to day? And I know when I lay the choice out like that, the answer is obvious—we choose the feast without heads on platters, but the answer isn’t always so obvious. I’ll speak for myself. There have been many times in my life I’ve been tempted toward the palace more than toward the wilderness, for several reasons. One, because to attend Jesus’ feast, you have to follow him into the desolate places. To attend Jesus’ feast, you have to follow him into the desolate places.
In our passage this morning, the desolate place is a place of grief and mourning. Jesus goes out into the wilderness to mourn his cousin’s death, and we don’t always want to do that. We would prefer to stay in the places of celebration. I see it in the conversations we have when we get together, and I see it in the rhythms of our year—we’ve kept all of the celebrations and gotten rid of all the fasting. Easter we celebrate, but Lent not so much. Christmas, yes, but advent is an interruption. So often we Christians present Christ as a means of experiencing joy in this life—and that’s true. Following Christ is such a great joy that you could be forgiven for being overcome with mirth and joy in this life—and yet, we see in our passage, the path to joy in Christianity is though mourning and sharing each other’s burdens. It took mourning and healing before the desolate place could be anything like the wedding feast of the lamb.
Tim Keller, who died this year, a pastor and writer in New York, preached the baccalaureate sermon when I graduated from seminary as I was moving back to New Orleans to begin working as a pastor. That was now almost a decade ago, but I remember what he said. He said the pastors we need for the next thirty years of ministry in our context would be those who are willing to lead from a place of weakness, spiritual leaders who admit over and over again something Robyn reminded me of last week, but just how broken, sinful, and weak we are; I am. And how unnecessary to the work of God in the world we are.
I spent most of my week sitting and sleeping in a hospital room with my daughter, and one of my pastor friends came and sat with me. I’m not in his congregation, and neither of us really had anything to say, we just sat together in mourning. Because, again, the path to joy in Christianity is through mourning and bearing each other’s burden. Were our God a King like Herod, who was unwilling to join us in our mourning of all the prophets and good men who have gone from the world, we would have nothing to celebrate. But instead our God goes out into the wilderness to mourn, he has compassion on the people there, it’s gut-wrenching to him to see his people as refugees in this world.
C.S. Lewis writes that joy in Christianity, itself, is a kind of mourning, because in experiencing the joys of the kingdom we have to admit that we aren’t fully there yet. The kingdom of God is already not yet here, and the not yet of everything is brutal. Our bodies age and are not yet made new. Our loved ones die and are not yet raised again. Our societies stumble, and the true king is not yet come to rule.
If we want to choose Jesus’ feast over Herod’s, we have to follow Christ into the wilderness. Into grief and mourning, yes, and also into dependence upon God. This is a people who went out to hear a teacher, to be healed by a healer, not to eat a feast. They had no expectation of that. But Jesus miraculously provides for them anyway. They sought the kingdom, first, and the other things they needed were given.
The people of God eating bread in a desolate place should remind us all of the Exodus narrative, which teaches an important lesson for us today. Even though following Christ leads us into desolate places, leads us through mourning and dependence, God provides for us there. The connection to Exodus should also remind us that, so often the path towards Christ into desolation is a path out of slavery.
I know my testimony is one of being led into some very difficult aspects of life in Christ, into generational poverty, foster care, disaster relief, into ministry to the sick and people who are homeless. But each time I touched some new aspect of need in our city, I found mourning, yes, but freedom and joy in it. Because as I worked for the redemption of the people around me I realized my need for my own redemption, and found it there in Christ. My work with sinners and sufferers has allowed me to admit that I am one of them, and to receive grace and help in Christ.
So to choose Christ’s feast day by day, you have to let him lead you into desolate places, one, and secondly, to choose Christ’s feast day by day, you have to be willing to eat the food he gives you. The reality is, in the desolate places into which Jesus leads us, he doesn’t always give us what we want him to provide. He gives us what we need, and changes our desires in every way we need to be changed.
The man who desires the things of this world will never be satisfied; he’ll always be hungry. The man who desires the things of God will be filled, with more provision left over than when he first came to the Lord with desire in the first place. If what we want day by day is power, pride of place, honor, and position, you’ll probably be able to get it, but learn from Herod. You’ll never be satisfied. You’ll always be grasping for more, if only to maintain what you already have.
If you choose instead the desolate places, the truth and healing in the midst of mourning, your life will be full and overflowing. This is a thing like prayer that doesn’t make sense unless you trust God to act. But if you seek to satisfy your soul in the things of this world you will lose both the world and your soul. If you give up the world to follow Christ into the wild, you’ll be satisfied and inherit the earth.
My invitation this morning is an invitation into mourning and desolate places. May you find Christ there, and in him all joy.