The sixth chapter of Mark’s gospel is bursting at the seams with activity. The chapter relates what is probably the busiest and most difficult period of Jesus’ life on earth other than the week of his passion. It begins with Jesus in his hometown, confronting people who will not believe in him and who frustrate his ministry of the kingdom of God. Then the disciples are sent two-by-two into the towns of Galilee, proclaiming repentance, healing the sick, and casting out demons. While they are out, Mark tells us the story of John the Baptist’s execution. The Forerunner, the one who baptized our Lord, undergoes a baptism of his own at the cruel, incestuous hands of King Herod and his family. And now, Jesus’ disciples have returned from their wandering ministries, and Jesus, very wisely, decides to take them away on a retreat to “rest a while.” Only the crowds catch word of his plan and race ahead, cutting him and the disciples off from their escape.
Friends, the work of Christian ministry, the life of true Christian discipleship, can be exhausting. There is always something else to do, there is often no end in sight to the work at hand, and there are so many things that pull at us, that try to capture our attention. On top of that, there is no guarantee that following Jesus means your life will be full of good news all the time; in fact, the very opposite is a real possibility. The death of friends and family, the cruelty of the world toward people we love and care for, affect us every bit as much as they do anyone else. And since we share in the joys and sufferings of all who are part of the body of Christ, there’s a good chance we will be buffeted frequently by disheartening events.
Our situation is not helped by our cultural fascination with busyness. We are more connected than ever before to vast networks of jobs, families, friends, and fellow enthusiasts for our favorite pastimes. But that also means it is harder than ever to escape those connections, to find a place of retreat and rest. Emails and phone calls and text messages can interrupt us even when we’re thousands of miles from home. Not too long ago Germany actually considered a country-wide ban on accessing email outside of normal business hours, just to restore some measure of sanity to a day increasingly consumed by job responsibilities, and a few companies worldwide have already experimented with such a ban. A century ago most employees were farmers, manufacturers, construction workers, or laborers, whose jobs produced a finished item that could be bought and sold. Companies stressed increasing productivity as they tried to squeeze whatever they could out of their workers. Now that automation has succeeded so well, most jobs produce nothing, and busyness has replaced productivity as the new gold standard for employment efficiency and for the value of a human life. We are so busy, even going to church or leaving our busyness behind for a retreat can seem like just one more thing to do.
This is not what we were created for, friends. Genesis 1 provides us a litany of creation: 7 poetic days of God giving shape and form and life to the universe. The climax of creation is the Sabbath, a day of rest and peace, even for God. Genesis also tells us that we are made in God’s image and likeness, which means that our lives are meant to conform to who God has revealed himself to be. We human beings are made to rest as God rests on the Sabbath. The image of the constantly busy person with a million things to do and no space in her schedule even to catch a breath is one of the costliest and most destructive of the many false images our world holds up for imitation. It is an idol. We must resist the temptation to conform to its likeness.
And this is not something we can do as individuals. Whenever someone says something to me about how busy I must be, I push back. I play down the importance of busyness, and I try not to use it as an excuse for not doing important things or for not being available for everything. I don’t go to every meeting, make dozens of appointments every week, or sign up for every exciting idea that passes across my desk—not because I am already too busy, but because I don’t want to be consumed by busyness. But I cannot escape this idol all on my own. The church needs to be a community where the regular pattern of life is different from what we see in the rest of the world. This is true for how we treat each other, for how we talk about things like money and possessions, and also for how we structure our life together. We were made for a regular pattern of good work and good rest.
So when we hear about Jesus and the crowds that will not leave him alone, we need to realize that this is not a model for how our life together as the body of Christ is meant to go. This is not a model for ministry. The space for rest and retreat that Jesus tries and fails to find for himself and his disciples is space we cannot afford to lose. And if it is space we have lost, we need to work together to reclaim it for the sake of the kingdom of God.
What does that mean for us at Centre? It means that those of us who have not been as active in leadership roles need to step up so that those who have served many years can enjoy a Sabbath without feeling like they are shirking their responsibilities. It means we need to be careful to praise people for their faithfulness, and not their busyness, as disciples of Jesus Christ. It means that when we, as a congregation, have undertaken and completed work of real significance for the sake of Christ, we then give ourselves, as a congregation, room to enjoy Sabbath rest in the Lord before moving to the next project. It means learning and talking about how we can keep Sabbath regularly, how we can cut back on the things that fill our schedules, and how we can give each other permission to come away to a deserted place by ourselves.
Sabbath is not a vacation. It is peace from the schedule the world wants us to take and rest in the way God created us to live. We justify our vacations by being busy the rest of the year, but learning to take Sabbath means we rethink everything. Sabbath justifies work, for when we work without Sabbath, we build up for ourselves a life apart from the Lord of the Sabbath. The Sabbath we take now is the first taste of the promise that we will all one day rest from our labors in the joy of the Lord.
Thanks be to God that Jesus has compassion on us when we run to him in our frantic search for a good, kind, and loving shepherd. And praise be to God that our restless hearts may find their peace in the Sabbath love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.