A Sacred Rhythm
Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on July 19 2009.
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
For Jesus and his disciples, it was such an exciting time. And a terribly stressful time.
As the sixth chapter of Mark opens, Jesus is trying hard to minister in his own hometown of Nazareth, and making little to no progress. The famous miracle-worker ran into a brick wall of unbelief, and could do little except heal a few sick people.
Undeterred, Jesus dispatched his disciples two-by-two into the neighboring villages and towns to minister to the people in his behalf. They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed sick people with oil and healed them (vv.12-13).
This had to be a heady experience for men who had been casting nets for fish and collecting taxes just a few days ago! My hunch is the disciples were brimming with joy over their new-found success, ready to conquer the world.
Then disaster struck. On a whim King Herod had John the Baptist executed. John was the cousin of Jesus, the man who prepared the way for Jesus and baptized him in the Jordan River. It didn’t bode well for Jesus and his disciples that a servant of God like John the Baptist was killed. No doubt Jesus and his disciples were grief-stricken and understandably anxious when they got word that John had been put to death.
With this strange brew of euphoria and grief fueling their emotions The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. A careful reader of Mark’s gospel would note that except for when Jesus first calls his disciples, the word “apostles” appears nowhere else in Mark. The fact that these twelve guys successfully follow through on their mission gives them elevated status. For a few minutes, at least, they are not just “the disciples.” They are “the apostles.”
In her book, Sacred Rhythms, Ruth Haley Barton speculates about the kinds of breathless reports the apostles share with Jesus:
· “You won’t believe it! We spoke to a demon that was holding someone in bondage, and he left that person!”
· “We preached the gospel and called for people to come forward and repent, and they all came forward!”
· “There was this person who was crippled, and we anointed him with oil and he was cured! It’s unbelievable what’s happening out there!”
Now, grief or no grief, you’d think Jesus would be just as fired up about these reports as his apostles are. These were his guys who’d just scored huge victories for the kingdom of God, and you’d expect Jesus to provide a lavish banquet and big performance bonuses, plus promises of greater rewards for those who got back out there and moved even greater mountains for Jesus.
But strangely, that’s not what happens. Here’s how Mark reports it: because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, Jesus said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place.
Who can think of food at a time like this? And who wants to lie down and take a nap after defeating the very devils of hell and taking so much territory for the kingdom of God? I can imagine the disciples felt disappointed that Jesus didn’t greet them with whoops and hollers and high-fives, and felt confused that they were boating away in retreat from the front lines of battle.
Of course, they needn’t worry. Mark reports that many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. So much for the extended time of rest! Again, Jesus responds in unpredictable fashion. He’s just taken great pains to pull himself and his disciples far from the maddening crowd, and you might expect him to be irritated with the persistent mob. Instead, Jesus had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
If you read on, you learn Jesus’ teaching lasted well into the dinner hour so that Jesus felt compelled to feed five thousand men—and their wives and children—with the meager portions of five loaves and two fish. What happens next is, as always, very interesting. Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray(vv. 45-46).
Again there’s not even a brief victory celebration after Jesus performs one of the most famous miracles of all time. Jesus is still adamant that his disciples get that promised rest, so he sends them on under cover of night to a new retreat place in Bethsaida. Meanwhile, he arranges for his own personal retreat as he hikes up a mountain to rest and pray.
Once again, his respite is cut short. The disciples find themselves in a windstorm at sea, and are suffering from a group panic attack in their boat. So just before dawn Jesus walks out onto the strong water, climbs into the pitching boat, and calms both the waves of the sea and the fears of the disciples. Before they have time to celebrate still another jaw-dropping miracle, Jesus and his disciples land at Gennesaret and find themselves in familiar circumstances, surrounded by a mass of broken humanity. And the process of teaching and healing starts all over again.
Simply reviewing this wild and wooly story makes me tired, which is why I so strongly identify with the recurring theme of rest in Mark 6. There are so many spectacular events in the sixth chapter of Mark, and I can easily understand why most readers want to dwell on the disciples casting out demons and Jesus walking on water. Meanwhile, I’m convinced the main focus of the chapter is the same as the main focus of Jesus—the sacred rhythm of rest.
Ruth Barton defines sacred rhythms as those spiritual practices followers of Jesus engage in to grow deeper in their relationship with God. We’re not surprised to learn that she considers reading scripture and praying to be sacred rhythms—if we’ve spent much time in church, we’ve heard plenty about them. But it might surprise us that something as mundane as rest is a valuable spiritual practice.
Not once did I hear growing up in a Christian home or church that rest is a valued spiritual practice. At home I was taught that work is the pinnacle of human activity, and idle hands are tools of the Devil. Woe be unto you if you were caught “just sitting around” at my house! At church I got the message through the heavy schedule of programs, activities, classes, and committee meetings that the most important thing I could ever do for God was work. On the Sabbath day at my church we worked ourselves silly. And I can remember feeling empathy for that Methodist friend who said she love to be a member of my Baptist church but she just didn’t have the stamina!
But Jesus doesn’t seem to be on the same page as his church! In the middle of all the coming and going, healing and preaching and miracle working, Jesus says, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
(Sitting in a rocking chair) Today we might say it has something to do with a rocking chair.
A man from Tennessee once wrote a short story about his grandfather that reminded me of my now deceased grandparents in Tennessee. The story details how his grandfather went out on his front porch every night, sat in his rocking chair, and looked up into the stars. That was his nightly sacred rhythm. And he insisted that the world would be a better place if everyone sat in a rocking chair at night and stared into the heavens.
Why would Jesus and this Tennessee grandfather make such a big deal about taking time to rest and rock and wonder?
Wayne Mueller explains it this way in his book entitled, Sabbath: “Because we do not rest, we lose our way. We miss the compass points that would show us where to go, we bypass the nourishment that would give us succor. We miss the quiet that would give us wisdom. We miss the joy and love born of effortless delight. Poisoned by this hypnotic belief that good things come only through unceasing determination and our tireless effort, we can never truly rest. And for want of rest our lives are in danger.”
For want of rest our lives are in danger.
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the wisest, the most powerful, and most productive human being to ever live knows that to live without rest is to live dangerously. Jesus knows that something as noble as a high-octane life of ministry can be a dangerous life because it can deplete us and drain us dry—without rest.
What does a dangerously depleted, “restless” life look like?
We lose sight of what we enjoy in our work. We find even the things we enjoy becoming a chore. We find ourselves struggling to be present in the moment, struggling to listen to others as they talk. We have no time to pray or to listen to God. We become obsessed with our to-do list. And when we’re not doing something, we feel guilty.
From the time we’re babies, we live by the natural rhythms of eating and sleeping. So how do we wind up living a life without rest?
Maybe we find ourselves with a heavy workload, working 40, 50, or 60 hours or more per week. And we have family members - young children and aging parents - to take care of. But that’s not all. We may function under the weight of lots of “oughts” and “shoulds” inherited from somebody else, and that can unbounded sense of obligation drives us into the dirt.
Maybe we have no sense of boundaries to tell us when it’s time to stop and sit in a rocking chair. Maybe, like Jesus’ disciples, we enjoy what we’re doing so much it’s hard to stop. We’re using our God-given gifts, we’re making unbelievable progress, and it’s just so energizing we don’t want to quit!
On the other hand, maybe we have a need to perform constantly because the only time we feel valuable and important is when we’re achieving and doing something worthwhile. Maybe we don’t make time to sit in the rocking chair because if we ever slowed down long enough we’d have to think about things that make us feel bad or anxious. We carry around too many inner wounds, and it’s easier just to stay busy with office work or housework or even church work.
If you know the scriptures you know they do not defend sloth. God calls us not to a life of ease but a life of faithful obedience. Jesus calls us not to go to seed but to bear much fruit.
But just as there is a time to labor in the fields, there is also a time to let the fields lie fallow. Jesus knows the internal rhythms of our soul better than anyone, and he calls us to an alternating rhythm of fruitful labor and guilt-free rest. We ignore that sacred rhythm at our own peril.
I have no better case study of this principle than myself. I grew up thinking work is what made my life worth living. And when you carry that kind of work ethic into ministry, who can complain? What can your wife or friends say if you spend 60+ hours a week working for the Lord? What nobler thing can you do than burn yourself out for God?
For many years I lived my life as if I had no limits. Others might need a day off, but I didn’t. A pastor’s work is never done. Or so I told myself. All the while, I could feel myself getting dangerously tired, and not knowing what to do about it. The only justifiable way to rest was to get sick. And even then I’d often keep pushing because my work was just too important to stop. Or so I told myself.
Dangerously depleted is exactly where I was in February of 2007 when we completed our capital funds campaign and we returned to our refurbished sanctuary. That’s when Ruth Barton, author of Sacred Rhythms, came here to speak. And before she left us, she invited me to join her and other church leaders from around the country for a quarterly time of rest and retreat with an organization she founded called The Transforming Center. I balked initially and said I didn’t have time for that. But Donna Wallace, our Personnel Committee chair at the time, wouldn’t take no for an answer. I enrolled in the program, and my life has not been the same.
In the last two weeks, I have had my usual whirlwind of ministry, and I’ve conducted two funerals that have taken a lot out of me. And there’s more to do this coming week. But come Wednesday night, I’ll be heading to the beach for some “r and r” with my best friends in this world. And come next Sunday morning, I won’t be here with you. Instead, I will be headed to Chicago for another retreat with the Transforming Center. There was a time when I wouldn’t have let myself do such a thing. It wouldn’t be proper. It wouldn’t be productive.
But now that I’ve integrated into my life that sacred rhythm of regularly resting in the rocking chair, I’m never going back. My soul has come too far, and my ministry is no worse. In fact, some of you even think it’s better.
Today, Jesus is saying, “Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” I hope you’ll take him up on his offer. There’s a rocking chair waiting, just for you.