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Sermon: "Come Away ... and Rest A While."

A Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on July 19, 2015.

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Ps. 89:20-37; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

        Jesus said to his disciples, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while."

          By and large, I don't know if we value rest and relaxation enough. On the contrary, we seem to make a virtue of unceasing labor; we boast about how busy we are, as if the hectic pace of our lives is proof that we're important and significant. We feel guilty when we're not working, and maybe even envious of those able to step away from the grindstone.

          I say this to highlight the way we approach work and leisure. I want to shake up some assumptions and invite you to consider a possible reassessment. Because God is very interested in the matter of rest. To God, rest is not just wasted time when we could be doing something useful and productive. No. Rest, properly understood, has value, worth and purpose. It's essential to our physical, mental and spiritual well-being. I hope that we all will examine the balance of work and rest in our lives; and not only the quantity, but the quality of our rest, to see if it's what we need. And perhaps more importantly, whether the balance of work and rest that we experience in our lives is pleasing and acceptable to God.

          First, let's establish that the Lord God rests. Anything that God does is by definition a good thing. We hear that again and again in the creation account in the Book of Genesis. No one would accuse God of being lazy or unproductive. Yet the Bible tells us clearly that both God the Creator and Christ the Redeemer regularly took time for rest.

          Why does the Bible tell us this? Because the balance of work and rest that we see in God's creative activity is intended to be a model for us. Whether or not you believe that we should set aside the seventh day of each week as a formal day of rest, Scripture tells us we should follow a regular pattern of ceasing from our labors. It tells us a lifestyle of uninterrupted labor, day after day, is not good for us, nor is it pleasing to the Lord. In other words, if God chose to rest, then we should also. We should strive to follow God's good example.

          In the same way, we see that Jesus also rested. He often withdrew from people in order to be alone with God. One of the striking things is that Jesus withdrew from crowds when he was most in demand. There were thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people waiting for Jesus to heal them, teach, and to bless them. They were primed; they were ready. And often, as in today's Gospel, Jesus shows compassion. The opportunity was great as was the need. Yet at other times, Jesus was nowhere to be found. Why? Jesus understood the need was endless. But in order to accomplish the purpose for which God had sent him, the Son of God had to remain spiritually strong. That required regular times of prayer and meditation, and regular times of rest and recuperation.

          We see this same pattern in Jesus' relationships with his disciples. Jesus did not demand, nor desire, that his followers labor to the point of exhaustion and burn-out. He knew they needed periods of rest in order to remain strong, just as we do.

      


Rest is so important for several reasons. One of the most important functions of rest is to allow us to listen to God. I know that for myself, I can get caught up in the actions and tasks of daily life that I don't listen often enough or hear so well that still, small voice of God. We all become so busy doing things for God's people that we can forget to simply rest in Christ. We get fixated on completing our tasks that we have no time for anything else but work. And somehow, that list of tasks never gets any shorter. For every thing we complete, two more items rise to take their place. It feels like we're on a treadmill, running toward a finish line that never gets any closer. And in the meantime, lacking that quiet, unhurried fellowship with the Lord, our perspective can warp and our attitudes become unhealthy. Instead of being guided by the Holy Spirit, we find ourselves being controlled by emotion, habit or circumstance. Martha, the busy sister of Lazarus, realized that when reminded by Jesus that her sister Mary, choosing to sit at his feet to hear him, had chosen the better course.

          Time away from our labors helps us reframe our mindset and realign our priorities. It helps us recall what's most important. It reminds us that things of God are eternal, while things of this life are temporary. Read the news and see stories of the recently unemployed who had invested years of late nights and long weekends trying to build a career, only to find dreams shattered with the sudden loss of wages and benefits. Yes, there are "many things" we can be doing, many things that are worthwhile and even important. But the one thing essential for us as the Body of Christ is spending time with God in Jesus.

          Second, rest reminds us of who we are, reaffirming our humanity as people made in the image of God. We are not merely the sum of what we accomplish. We are not only a means of production, like cogs in a machine. We are not horses, to be valued according to how well we pull a wagon or a plow; we are not tools, to be valued only for the tasks we can perform. Yes, our work does have value, but it's not our work that gives us value. Our value in inherent within us; it comes from the fact that God made us and gave his only Son for us. Workaholics are addicted to their labors, not because they enjoy it, but because it's the only thing that gives them a sense of worth. But that's pathology, a sickness. It's not true, nor is it healthy. We have great worth, regardless of how much or how little we accomplish. We have value because God is our Creator, and in and through Christ, we are God's children.

          The 17th century author John Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, became blind at the age of 44. And he wrote this poem as a reflection on that fact:

          When I consider how my light is spent

          E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,

          And that one talent which is death to hide,

          Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

          To serve therewith my Maker, and present,

          My true account, least he returning chide.

          "Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"

          I fondly ask.

          But Patience, to prevent that murmur, soon replies,

          "God doth not need either man's work or his own gifts:

          Who best bear his mild yoak, they serve him best.

          His state is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed

          and post o'er land and ocean without rest:

          They also serve who only stand and wait.    

          Milton's "rest," caused by his blindness, was not of his own choosing. But he correctly understood that his blindness did not reduce his value to God one iota. Did it diminish his ability to serve God as a writer and a poet? Perhaps. But it didn't matter. God doesn't require our works. God doesn't need our gifts; in fact, all that we can offer God is what we have already received from God in the first place.

          My point is this: Not only do we have worth when we are working, but we have equal worth when we are simply enjoying God's good gifts - reading the Scriptures, listening to music, walking through the woods, playing with others, enjoying coffee with our spouse, admiring different forms of art, or eating butt-buns with butter and apple-butter. And we need regular times of rest to help us remember that.

          Third, rest keeps us humble. It helps us understand our place in the grand scheme of things. A period of withdrawal from our usual responsibilities - without cell phones, iPads, conference calls, pagers or email - can demonstrate powerfully that we are not as indispensable as we imagine. Charles DeGaulle once said, "The graveyards are full of indispensable men." Somehow in our absence, the important tasks still get done and the company (or church) manages to stay in business; somehow, the earth continues to revolve on its axis and the sun rises and sets, day after day. This is a good thing and this is healthy. Because when we become too grandiose in thinking of ourselves as essential, then we become either arrogant and prideful, or stressed out and depressed. Either way, we're taking a load upon ourselves that only God is equipped to bear.

          Taking a break helps us to put the weight of ultimate responsibility back where it belongs, on God's shoulders, rather than ours. And should things fall apart when we're away, then we may need to restructure our work so that others are not so dependent upon us to get their work done.

          Fourth and lastly, a time of resting from our labors reminds us that it is God who provides what we need, and not we ourselves. Yes, we usually have to work to obtain food, clothing and shelter. But ultimately, everything we have comes from God as a gift. Even the ability to earn a living comes from God. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 4:7, "What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?"

          Again, the focus here is that it is God who provides for our needs. Stopping our work for a time reminds us of this. It is also an act of faith. I know people whose personal conviction it is to never work on Sundays. I have read this about farmers. Imagine the commitment required when a crop needs to be planted, that it's been raining for two weeks solid, and the first day the fields are dry enough to get the tractors out is a Sunday. But the confidence is always that the Lord will provide for their needs. They are content to cease from their labors once a week, regardless.

          This last reason for rest, reminding us we are wholly dependent upon God, is important, because it ties directly to our belief that salvation is a gift from God; by faith alone, and not by works. When we trust is Christ, we rest from our efforts alone to make ourselves acceptable to God. We cease from vain attempts at self-righteousness. We come to God with empty hands and open hearts, confessing our hope to receive Christ's righteousness, because our own efforts will never be sufficient. In Psalm 62:1-2, we hear, "My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from [God]. [God] alone is my rock and my salvation; [God] is my fortress, I will never be shaken." And from the prophet Isaiah [30:15], we read, "This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says: "In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength."

          In ancient Israel, consequences for breaking the Sabbath were severe. The Sabbath-rest of the Old Covenant was intended to be a picture, a foreshadowing, of the spiritual rest we can now have in Christ. So work was prohibited on the seventh day of the week, upon pain of death. It was essential to the understanding that salvation is entirely by grace, that there is nothing whatsoever of our works involved. It cannot be earned, it can only be received as a gift by those who place their faith and trust in Jesus Christ. As people of God made in the image of God, when we observe a day of rest, we acknowledge that everything we have - our salvation, our forgiveness of sins, and eternal life - all of those things come to us from God as a gift. Listen to the words of Christ:

          "Then they said to him, 'What must we do to perform the works of God? Jesus answered them, 'This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." (John 6:28-29)

          That's it. Believe. That's the only so-called "work" we have to do, or indeed can do, to be saved. Believe.

Mark’s gospel today makes clear how great was the press of the crowd, with its countless needs to be met, on Jesus and his disciples. Yet it speaks of Jesus advising his disciples to get away and rest, to take care of themselves. Sometimes we think that when others are in great need we shouldn’t think of ourselves at all; but Jesus also honors the caregivers’ needs. We are sent from here, from Christ’s table, to care for others and for ourselves.

So in conclusion, I ask you: Do you value times of rest? Do you plan for them, schedule them, and protect them? Do you set aside regular time alone with the Lord? Parents, do you ensure that your children have times of rest, when there are no demands on them from school work, sports, or other activities? Do you plan time away with family, when you can be together without distractions from work or school? Perhaps most importantly, are you resting in and with Christ? Have you given up all attempts to earn God's love and acceptance, and have you come to trust in Christ alone for salvation? Please think about these things and act upon them.

          Jesus says to all his disciples, including me and you, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourself and rest a while."

          Amen.