Each of us has our own unique struggles in life. And each of us knows what it’s like to meet times in life when we find ourselves out of gas. So how do we keep pressing on when we feel completely depleted?
This reality is also true inside Angola, the largest maximum-security prison in the US, and home to 6,300 prisoners — a place reserved for “only murderers, rapists, armed robbers, and habitual felons, where the average sentence is 88 years, with 3,200 people in one place serving life sentences. Ninety percent of the inmates will die here” (Decision Magazine, “Violence to Peace”).
Warden Burl Cain led the place for years. He was an outspoken Christian and “a man with a near-mythical reputation for turning Angola, once known as the bloodiest prison in the South, into a model facility” (Mother Jones, “God’s Own Warden”).
Pastor John preached in Angola’s chapel on November 19, 2009, to about eight hundred prisoners. He preached on John 6, on Jesus’s feeding of the five thousand and his walk on water. Here’s one of my favorite clips, from what is one of my favorite sermons, on the goodness of Jesus when it feels like we have run out of gas for life. Here’s Pastor John.
So far, he’s done this miracle, the miracle of multiplying the loaves, with the point of the loaves being “Let your eyes run up the beam of glory to see the one who, with a simple word and a prayer, can feed five thousand people with a little basketful of food.” See him, love him, know him, make him your treasure. That’s what I hope is happening in your heart now. Let’s go to John 6:16–21.
When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea . . .
Let me stop there a minute and make a comment that Warden Cain mentioned to me earlier. He said you had a preacher here a couple of months ago that said what happened in the feeding of the five thousand was that when Jesus took the little boy’s lunch and gave it out, everybody was inspired to share their lunch and that’s how everybody got fed. Boy, is that ever classic liberal unbelief.
The reason we know that’s not what it means is not only because of the words I paused over, that he distributed the loaves — they all ate from the loaves that he distributed — but what’s he going to do with the walking on water? Who cooperated and gave their lunch to make that happen? Maybe the molecules cooperated: “Let’s turn into ice.” Well, I don’t like that kind of unbelief, and I’m sorry it was preached in this pulpit. You guys are smart enough to see through it, I am sure.
When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.
Now, there are several amazing, remarkable, surprising, almost inexplicable things about this, and I don’t mean the walking on the water merely. I’ll affirm it. I believe Jesus walks on water. He made water. He speaks water into being every moment of the day. “He upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). This is no problem for Jesus to walk on water. That’s there and that’s true. That’s our God, Jesus Christ.
Jesus in Your Boat
But here are a couple of puzzling things. I said that the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is unpacked in 71 verses in chapter 6. This miracle has no unpacking. It’s never mentioned again in this Gospel or in this chapter. It happens. The crowds never hear about it. Only the disciples see it, and it’s over, and it’s never mentioned again. You think, “What’s the function of it? What’s the purpose of this miracle?”
Here’s the second thing: When they see him, the wind is blowing, the boat’s about to be sunk. They’re three miles out from land; nobody’s swimming to shore probably in this kind of water. It’s dangerous. They could lose their lives. Jesus comes walking on that tortured sea, and they see him, and he says, “It’s I,” and they gladly, gladly welcome him into the boat. And you know the next thing it says? They’re at the shore. That story’s over. There is not a word said about the storm stopping like in the other Gospels. There’s not a word said about the waves going flat, and a great calm, and the wind ceasing. Not a word about this storm being conquered by Jesus. That’s not the point. The point is this: He got in the boat. He got in the boat in the storm — no comment about the storm. As soon as he’s in the boat, the story’s over.
Here’s what I think the point of this miracle is: I left out an important part of the bread story. Let me go back and pick it up and then relate it to this. What did I leave out? I left out the twelve baskets. Let’s go back and get to the twelve baskets. Tell me this now: How many apostles were collecting leftover pieces? Twelve. How many baskets did they take up? Twelve. Do you think there’s a reason for that? I do. What would be the point of Jesus seeing to it that five thousand people are fed from five loaves, and exactly twelve baskets are left over for twelve apostles? What’s the point of that?
Here’s what I think the point is: Picture yourself now as one of the distributors of the bread. You see this little boy who’s got five loaves and two fish. Jesus prays, gives you a basket, and you say, “Whoa, where’d that come from?” You start giving out, and you feel like, “I can’t feed five thousand people. He’s assigned me to feed five thousand people. I’m going to run out of food.” Or you might say, “I can’t do this prison thing! I’m going to run out of gas here. I’m going to run out of emotional gas. I can’t do this. This boat is going to sink with me in it.”
I think the reason for following the basket lesson with the boat lesson is to underline the basket lesson. The basket lesson is that if you join Jesus in his ministry here, there will always be just enough for you — just enough for you. You’re not going to get rich here. Of course, you may try and prove that you’re an idolater. “I’m going to get rich! Finally, I’m going to get rich.” Forget that.
We don’t get rich here. We don’t get rich on this planet. We get one basket — just enough. One for me — a personal attention from Jesus Christ. You join him in his cause, he looks on you as an individual and says, “I’ve got a basket for you. I know what your need is tonight in the cell. I know what your need is in the dormitory. I know what your need is tonight. There’ll be a basket for you tonight, and tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day.” “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).
But he will not supply everything you may think is a need. He knows what you need. You don’t know what you need. He knows what you need, and it’ll be there. God never runs my life the way I think he ought to — ever. I try to do stuff, and he’s always got a different plan for my day, a different plan for my marriage, a different plan for my kids. If I didn’t trust him as a good Shepherd, and a good Father, and a good Guide, and a good Provider, I’d get very, very discouraged.
The point of the baskets is he individually provides for his own when they join him in his cause and trust him. Then you get on the boat. The disciples are three miles out, but where’s Jesus? He’s three miles away up in the mountains, and they’re about to drown in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. They think to themselves, “Well, I guess the basket lesson doesn’t come true. It doesn’t work on the water.” And just when they think, “We’re history,” he comes walking on the water.
He Has Come to You
Now, what’s the point of that? “I will walk on water to do what I said I would do. I will walk on Angola water to get to you. I will go through bars to get to you. I will climb fences and cut my hands to get to you. Till I bleed to death, I will get to you.”
I think the function of these stories for the followers of Jesus is you get a basket when you need it — just one, for you, tailor-made. And in the moment when you think, “There can’t be any basket for me here, because the waves are slopping over the side of my boat, and Jesus is three miles away,” he comes walking on the water, and he gets in the boat, and the story’s over.
This is not a story about getting people out of storms. This is a story about getting Jesus in the boat. This prison, your situation, is the boat. I got my boat. I got my issues. They’re not yours, and I’ve got to trust him for my family issues, and my church issues, and my health issues. You’ve got your issues. You’ve got your boat, you’ve got your storms, you’ve got your hungers — and you can trust him.