Sermon preached on 22nd July 2012 by Jan Betts
Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Ephesians 2:11-end; Mark 6:30-34 and 53-end
The question I’ve been faced with as I looked at the readings for today is what does it mean to rest
Maybe I’m drawn to that question because I’m rubbish at resting. I really enjoy dashing around and doing things and making myself exhausted and having that great feeling that I’ve ticked things off on a list which never gets any shorter. I put easy things on my list so that I can do them quickly and get the same satisfaction as a difficult one. I think there is quite a lot of pathology in this which it’s probably FAR too late in my life to sort out. I am instead trying to head for damage limitation through simply being conscious of my tendency to escape into activity and to think about what Jesus says about it. How did he teach his disciples to rest?
Before we get to the readings we can note that Jesus himself often seemed to relate rest and prayer. He would go away to pray, finding hidden spaces. This is such contract to the way in which I often find it hard to pray, to rest in the presence of God that I think it must mean somehow that I am not really tuned into that great business of knowing I am loved and not valued for my doing but for my being: that God is love and this is what we need to soak ourselves in, including that God loves us. Rest is surely partly about peace? What gives us peace? All the way through the bible, old and new testament, God says that our rest lies in our relationship with God. Our hearts are restless till they rest in thee, said Augustine, and both mystics and more active evangelicals have found that the most crucial part of their lives is resting in the presence of God. Physical rest for our bodies comes after the rest for our souls, but is also intimately connected with it and todays readings say something about this.
So today we have:
Firstly the teaching that Jesus gives his disciples about resting.
Then the teaching from Ephesians about how we rest in the saving grace of Jesus
And lastly in the related passages from the old testament there is a different tack on resting, in times of real strain and depression, which I’m only going to refer to briefly.
In the Mark reading, the disciples have returned from their first venture out in pairs, proclaiming repentance and casting out demons and anointing sick people with oil. Jesus hadn’t let them take provisions or a spare tunic. It may have been very hard psychologically for these men to beg, effectively, to have the status of people who were holy but lowly! The whole combination of a new life, Jesus not being there to support them, uncertainty about where to stay or eat, would they be up to the job of using the authority over unclean spirits which Jesus had given them? It had probably been utterly knackering and also very wonderful. We know Jesus was aware when power went out of him in healing. We know that listening carefully to people and hearing about their troubles and engaging with them is very tiring- and we need to support each other in this, especially our Steve, David and Alison.
The disciples came back to Jesus very tired indeed. They wanted time with him. They wanted to rest and listen to him and ask him questions about the puzzling or difficult things which had happened. The gang was back together and they just wanted to relax. Jesus was part of this – he must have missed his friends when they were away and been anxious about them too.
So they went to try and find a lonely place. It doesn’t seem to have been all that lonely somehow – their intentions were spotted very quickly. So instead of a break and a chat and time to sleep and joke together, Jesus sees in front of him a crowd like sheep without a shepherd.
What do sheep without a shepherd look like? In the UK they are usually quite peaceful, grazing the hills without too much to care about. But it’s different where there is little green stuff to feed on and someone needs to know where it is and guide you to where you might find nourishment and stay alive, and where there are predators who might swoop or jump on you at any time. This is an image of people who don’t know how to feed themselves and don’t know how to protect themselves, who were running in all sorts of different directions. No wonder Jesus had compassion on them. What’s the equivalent now? Do we know where we’re going? Do we have any sense of being aware of what is nourishing to us, and what we need protecting from?
The disciples need rest, they hadn’t eaten and what does Jesus do? He settles down to teach them AT SOME LENGTH. Was the gospel writer remembering how tired they all were. ‘it was great teaching, thinks Mark as he’s writing but it did go on!!’ Jesus sees the crowd at their point of need and makes a judgment call about whose needs come first. What the lost sheep needed was teaching, about ways to be less lost and ways to resist the threats. I have thought about what Jesus was teaching his disciples here. Was it that rest is important but we rest when we can, and not when there are those around us who are lost and under threat? That they had to be as he was, serving even when tired? I notice that they didn’t have to teach – maybe they went off and slept and woke up even hungrier. The Gospel doesn’t say that they protested, they didn’t say ‘it’s our turn not theirs. We want you to ourselves for a while. We’re your friends, not these people. We’ve worked so hard, give us a break’. They accepted that teaching was a form of feeding, the most important form, and that’s what Jesus was there for. We rest in God to be made able to rest in our bodies. BUT maybe when the disciples said the crowd was hungry they were hungry too!
This makes me ask when do we have a right to rest? Is this about the same principle as in sharing money? That there should be enough for all. I think it’s that we let some rest while some work and vice versa? There are needs to be met – but we as the body of Christ, are careful not to burn each other out, physically or spiritually. How do we uphold each other? Do we pray for each other, really? Do we offer each other the gift or resting?
How does rest link to the Ephesians passage? Well it may be straining this a bit but doesn’t a lot of our anxiety which makes us unhappy and tired come from a sense that we are excluded, that we are not part of things, that we don’t know who we are? Don’t we fret and worry because we don’t feel included? And what is being said here is that we are included. Jesus in his death has made us part of the one inclusive kingdom of citizens of heaven. We don’t need to worry about doing all the ‘works’ which the Jewish Law commands, including circumcision. We are part of the kingdom by means of the faith and grace and obedience and death and resurrection of Jesus and we don’t need to feel excluded or restless. We belong to the most glorious company of all. And so does the rest of the world!! We have rest for our hearts which gives us the resting confidence for our lives.
Finally I want to say something about the OT readings. I looked at these and I ducked out of including them because it was too hard but I commend them to you. In the reading from 2 Samuel 7. David wants to build a temple for the Ark of the Covenant, which rests under a simple awning while David lives in a palace. He wants to stay busy. Nathan however brings him a message from God which is one of the most loving and warm and relational passages about God which could be written. David feels totally secure. BUT in Psalm 89 we find him saying ‘I shall sing the faithful love of Yahweh for ever…I know you are faithful BUT..I feel you have left me to my enemies, and Lord what of those pledges of your faithful love? I am totally lost. He cries a really awful cry – ‘For what pointless end did you create all the children of Adam?’
How does he do it? How does he stay hanging on to God? Somehow he manages to rest in the final stanza saying Blessed be Yahweh forever. There is something about finally resting in the incomprehensible love of God, as Jesus did on the cross, which is our true end.