A Homily for Sunday, Aug. 2 – This is a Desolate Place

Texts: Matthew 14:13-21; Psalm 17:1-7, 15

I want to begin with a few lines from Psalm 17. The psalms have a prime place in our worship and spiritual practice. They did for Jesus also. He probably heard his mother sing them when he was very young. Psalm 17 is a prayer.

Hear a just cause, O Lord; attend to my cry;

    give ear to my prayer . . .

I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God;

    incline your ear to me, hear my words.

Wondrously show your steadfast love,

    O savior of those who seek refuge . . .

Today we find Jesus speaking once again to a crowd of people (this is Matthew 14). In this instance, though, the background matters. This isn’t a Zoom meeting, with a generic background. Jesus is in deserted place. And he’s there, the Bible tells us, because he had just received horrible news. Jesus had just learned that one of his relatives was murdered by a king who was no more just than a mob boss. It was Jesus’ cousin named John.

Of all the people in the world, it was John and his work that most closely resembled Jesus. This fact would have escaped no one. Jesus and John were raising awareness of many of the same things. Their methods were similar. And John had been viciously killed.

When Jesus heard that news he had set out to find some privacy. He and a few of his friends had gotten into a boat and made their way to what Matthew says was a “deserted place.” We can imagine, I think, that Jesus was hoping for some time alone, some time to grapple with his own grief and fear, some time away from the crowds. He would have known that the crowds contained spies reporting directly to the people who had just killed John. Jesus, we can assume, wanted a safe space.

What Jesus and his friends found, however, was that the crowds were a step ahead of them. They were waiting for Jesus. Yet, according to the parallel account in Mark’s gospel, Jesus had compassion on the people because they appeared to be “like sheep without a shepherd.” And so, exhausted and worn out or not, Jesus began to heal the sick. We can imagine Jesus moving among the great crowd, speaking and praying for those who were ill.

And then, late in the afternoon, the strain of the situation began to get to some of Jesus’s friends. They realized that in addition to Jesus’s need to be alone, there was another problem. They had no food! They were in a deserted place. Some translations describe the place as “desolate” others use the words “isolated” or “remote.” Some say it was a “desert place.” Others say the place was “lonely” or that it was a “wilderness.” Eugene Peterson has Jesus’ friends say, “We are out in the country and it’s getting late.”

Some years ago, my wife and I were traveling in the U.K. We were doing some hiking and camping in an area known as the Lake District. It’s a beautiful part of the world, with steep, open hills, rushing streams and old stone fences. We found it especially charming because we could hike for hours in the mist and rain, stop for a meal at a traditional pub and dry out by an actual fire in a hearth.

When we arrived at the campground where we were going to stay I remember the look of incredulity on the faces of the park attendants. These were young, outdoorsy guys. They could not comprehend why we would come from Canada to hike in the Lake District. For them, Canada was the epitome of wilderness. One of the park attendants hoped one day to be able to travel to northern Canada to experience real, uninhabited, untrammeled wilderness. We had made the trip in the opposite direction. They couldn’t understand it.

We may live in a country with great outdoor spaces, with lots of wilderness, but that isn’t the connection I see between ourselves and the crowd gathered around Jesus. Friends, I don’t know how you are experiencing life right now.

Maybe you invested in Zoom or Purell and things are going great. Maybe you were always hoping you would get to work from home. Maybe you’re loving the window visits and driveway conversations. Maybe you’ve found that you appreciate your family or your roommates much more when you can feel them breathing on you all day long. Maybe you’re excited about a second wave of this pandemic so that you’ll have a chance to fine-tune your sour dough bread or break the record for pushups in a minute—maybe.

Or maybe your experience is that this is a pretty desolate space. Some people are referring to 2020 as a lost year—a lost year for a career or school or relationships. I think that’s where some of us are.

It’s from there that we’ve come to join the crowd watching Jesus. We see his exhaustion, maybe even his fear, and it matches our own. And we look around, and despite the presence of others, we know this is a desolate space. It feels isolated. We may be in a condo tower or a shared residence, but it feels lonely. We see people on screens. We watch shows and even church services, but the sense of isolation doesn’t go away.

So when we hear the disciples say, “This is a deserted place, the hour is now late.” We nod in agreement. Yes, it is. And in that moment I think we can see Jesus look around, maybe even at the faces of his enemies, and his heart is moved with compassion. Jesus had been so formed by the scriptures that he knows something important as deeply as one can know anything: he knows that even here God can meet us, even here God can provide.

And so Jesus does not send the crowd out of the desolate place to have their problems solved. He does not say, the circumstances need to change for us to find a solution. There are things beyond our control. Jesus says, “they need not go away.” The deserted place, the barren place of isolation—that will be the site of God’s provision.

You probably know what I think God’s Spirit is saying to us. Certainly this is what I hope God will do for us: meet us in this space and turn this lost, barren year into a year of healing and growth. There is far more to work with here than a few loaves and fish. We do not need to leave this barren place to experience God’s provision.

So once again, those lines of prayer from Psalm 17:

I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God;

    incline your ear to me, hear my words.

Wondrously show your steadfast love,

    O savior of those who seek refuge . . . .

As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;

    when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.

A fitting prayer, as this too is a space where God provides. Amen.




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