Work and Rest
Formations: August 5, 2018
Scripture: Mark 6:6b-13, 30-32
It was inevitable. Jesus had been teaching his recruits about God’s grace and demonstrating the kingdom way of living in the real world, so they should have suspected there would be a sending out. The twelve were an interesting collection of people, including former fishermen and a tax collector, none of them with a degree in theology or recommendations from the religious establishment. They were like you and me, seeing in Jesus the heart of God and hope for the emptiness of the world. Jesus had spoken on the sabbath at his home town synagogue and been rejected. The time has come to learn resilience, to be tested, to find God adequate and to experience the joys of sharing God’s love. Jesus had told the twelve when he first called them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” (Mark 1:17).
With all the excitement and miracles the apostles witnessed, they were not focused on the challenges and obstacles of discipleship. So Jesus sends them out “two by two and gave them authority over the unclean spirits” (v. 7). Judging by the practical instructions Jesus offered about where to lodge and how to handle rejection, there is no suggestion that serving God is easy or glamorous. Rather than limit this text as a primer for young preachers, let’s focus on its sound advice for every follower of Jesus who recognizes life is ministry. Rest is a healthy component of work and, if we are to serve God joyfully, a balance is necessary.
Jesus offers practical advice (vv. 7-9). Take only the essentials: “a staff, a single tunic, and a pair of sandals.” Stay where you are invited without regard to your host’s social standing or wealth. Be grateful for a welcome and place to rest. In our modern wealth-focused society, these simple guidelines are very important. Jesus treated all people the same, was grateful for any kindness and shared meal, and offered God’s love to whomever he met.
Jesus also gives guidelines for when a disciple faces rejection: “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them” (v. 11). Jesus did this very thing later when passing through Samaria on his way to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-62). Look beyond what seems harsh to this significant truth: God does not coerce anyone to believe. If someone refuses to hear the word of God’s grace we simply move on to another opportunity to share. It took me a few years to get the message, but in spite of my disinterest in Christ, God’s messengers appeared from time to time until I was willing to listen.
Those first disciples went out, probably with a mixture of fear and excitement, calling people to repent and believe. They experienced the thrill of God answering their prayers as they cast out demons and healed the sick. Can you hear the excitement in their voices when they come back and tell Jesus about all they had done and taught? Space does not permit me to tell stories of people who accepted Christ or found him near in a time of illness or tragedy, when God allowed me to be his voice and presence. There is no joy greater than that of a moment when you witness God’s grace at work in a life. In Mark’s telling of Jesus’ life there is probably an intentional connection between the instruction about “repentance” (v. 12) and Herod’s beheading of John the Baptizer who preached repentance as he pointed people to Jesus. There is a progression here of John preparing for Jesus’ appearance, then Jesus preparing his disciples to go out into the world, and the ensuing generations of believers who would circle the earth with the message of repentance and salvation.
With the first “sending out” and the excited reports of his disciples, Jesus prepares for the nest key teaching experience. But before they head to the miracle of feeding the five thousand (Mark 6:34-45), there is an almost unnoticed pause as Jesus says to his disciples, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while … for many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat” (v. 31). This emphasis on rest should not surprise us because the idea of “sabbath rest” is built into the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11). Just as the body requires rest from physical activity and stress, so too the soul needs breathing space to contemplate, evaluate and celebrate the presence and blessings of God. Meditation is not the invention of eastern religions. There is a time for God’s people to step back from duty and activity to examine and learn from what God’s Spirit is doing within and through you. King David reminds us the Lord “makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul” (Psalm 23:2-3).
Our society generates activity to the extreme, too often leaving us exhausted and out of touch with our spiritual identity. Even as Christians we are focused on activity: worship, programs, events, study groups, projects and more. When I had gone to my first large church with multiple ministries, a large staff, and university connections, I jumped in feet-first with excitement. My contract specified one day a week for time with my family and rest. But I was excited and busy and skipped my designated Fridays out of the office.
One of the deacons called my wife to ask if we were enjoying my day off each week. Not knowing this I was surprised at the next deacon’s meeting when that deacon made a motion that “if the pastor does not take his day off we dock his salary a day’s pay!” The motion did not come to a vote, but I was told that the church loved me and they wanted me to stay healthy and have some time for my family every week. Lesson learned!
Rest is a matter of self-care for both body and soul. Jesus sometimes went away to a quiet place, escaped the crowds by crossing Galilee in a boat, or simply took his disciples to a little town like Bethany where friends lived. A healthy rhythm of life balances work and rest. Whether it is a day away from responsibility, or a time of enjoyable activity, we need a change of pace and scenery if we are to be healthy in every way.
The next chapter of this story will show Jesus teaching a crowd of thousands on a hillside above the Sea of Galilee. The disciples will watch Jesus capture the attention of that vast crowd for an entire day, and then, trust God to feed them all with a simple lunch of five loaves of bread and two fish (Mark 6:33-44)! The energy level must have been incredible. The twelve had experienced the amazing power of God on their first solo ministry, spent time sharing and resting with Jesus, and now were experiencing a renewal as God’s Spirit touched so many.
It is possible and necessary to balance work and rest. God rested on the seventh day of creation, but not because he was tired. In the miracle of creation God was teaching us about the balance of life, day and night, birth and death, today and tomorrow, labor and rest. Farmers know the rhythm and importance of crop rotation. No matter the time or season, God is present. We must learn the value of both work and rest as gifts of opportunity to celebrate, learn and thank God for his faithful love and guidance.
Retired after almost 50 years in pastoral ministry, Michael K. Olmsted enjoys family, supply preaching and interim work, literature, history, the arts and antiques.
Formations is a curriculum series from Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc. through NextSunday Resources.
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