Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
The disciples came back tittering with excitement. Their mission, it seemed, had been a success, and they couldn’t wait to tell Jesus all about it. A few days ago, Jesus sent his disciples out, two by two into the surrounding towns to spread the good news of the Kingdom of God. Simon and Andrew came back telling of how they had cast out demons. James and John came back telling of how they had talked with many about the Kingdom of God. Philip and Thaddeus had healed people. Matthew and Thomas had fed the poor.
It was really happening. This Kingdom of God stuff was real.
As the disciples excitedly swapped stories of all they had accomplished, a small crowd started to form around them. Jesus was immensely popular and people were begging to see him, to listen to him teach, to touch his robes and be healed. Before long, it wasn’t a little crowd anymore. It was a big one. Jesus taught and healed and each of the disciples did the same. It went on for hours. Lunchtime came and went. Dinnertime came and went. And yet there was no time to stop and eat and rest.
But the disciples’ excitement continued. Between healings and sermons they would steal glances at each other and at Jesus. “We’re really making a difference here,” they said. “Look at all we’ve accomplished! I could get addicted to this!”
That’s when Jesus stopped. He just stopped. He stopped healing. He stopped teaching. He turned to the disciples and said: “It’s time to go. We need to rest.”
“But Jesus!” They disciples protested, “Look at everything we’re doing! Look at the impact we’re having! We can’t stop now!”
But Jesus insisted. “Everyone into the boat.” He said, “We’re going to find a nice, quiet, deserted place to rest and to eat.” And so they all climbed into the boat, the disciples all looking a little disappointed, and Jesus, a little worried.
“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” That’s what Jesus says to his disciples. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Why does Jesus pull his disciples away from their work? Why does he demand that his disciples take a break?
Have you ever had one of those days when you just can’t quit working? When you’ve put in a good long day and you feel good about yourself? When you know you should hang it up but you’re on a roll and you don’t want to stop? I like to think that’s how the disciples were feeling when they came back from their mission. They had done good work spreading the good news of the Kingdom of God. And when they came back from that, they continued to do good work at Jesus’ side, tending to the needs of the crowd. Maybe they were tired and hungry, but I think the excitement of seeing Jesus in action, of being important and useful, of making a real difference in the world was just too good to pass up. The disciples wanted to keep going.
Why would Jesus want to pull them away from all that? Why not just touch his disciples and heal them of their fatigue so they all could keep ministering to the needy crowds?
To understand that better, let’s take a step back to everyone’s favorite book of the Bible: Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is Moses’ big farewell speech. Israel has been freed from slavery in Egypt and they’ve wandered the wilderness for forty years. Now Moses is old and about to die, and the Israelites are about to pass into the promised land. Moses uses his dying breaths to remind the Israelites of some important things, including the commandment to keep the Sabbath. Moses says, on God’s behalf: “the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work…Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:14-15).
God tells the Israelites through Moses that it is absolutely imperative that they rest. Why? Well, it all comes down to identity. As slaves, the Israelites found their identity in their work. The were taught that their value was bound up entirely in their accomplishments. It was literally beaten into them. After so long living in such a culture, it is hard to break the habit. Even though they were free, they were still tempted to work like slaves, finding their identity in their work.
Does that sound familiar at all? Have you ever heard of something called the Protestant work ethic? Have you ever heard of that most American of values: pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps? It feels like “laziness” is a mortal sin in this country. We humans, and I think particularly we Americans, have never really gotten over the idolatry of work. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to do a good job and to work hard. The problem starts when we place our value, or the value of others, on work.
So often we consider people only as valuable as the work they do. Someone is alright as long as they are are “contributing to society.” They’re a “hard worker,” a title of honor in our workaholic culture. But what kind of title do we give to people we think are not contributing to society, are not “hard workers”? We call them “welfare trash.” We value them little more than garbage.
But that’s not how God sees them.
But God finds our value in a different place. God values us not because of anything we do, but simply because God loves us. God demands that the Israelites take a Sabbath because God wants to remind these former slaves that their value is not in their work but in their God. This is a countercultural idea for us today, but really it is the heart of our Christian faith. This is what it means to be saved by grace. We find our value not in our own accomplishments but in our God. God says that we are valuable because we are valuable to God. God loves us and, like any good lover, God loves us just as we are.
I think this is what Jesus was trying to communicate to his disciples when they all climbed into the boat and headed for that deserted place. I think Jesus was growing nervous that the disciples were starting to place their value in how many people they had healed or how many sermons they had preached or how many demons they had cast out. But you see, that’s a slippery slope. Finding your value in your work is all well and good when you’re doing a good job. But what happens when you screw up? What happens when you fail? In a short time, the disciples would betray and abandoned their teacher in his hour of need. Is that a job well done? Is that a moment worthy of praise? If your value is bound up in good actions and good work, what happens when you fail? If the disciples kept finding their value in their actions, then at the moment of their betrayal and abandonment, they would come to see themselves as utterly worthless.
And that’s the last thing that Jesus wanted for them because to Jesus, they were utterly valuable. So he started teaching them early on, right there in that boat, to remember that their value is in God’s unconditional love, not in their accomplishments.
This week, I’m going to give you some homework. It might sound like easy homework at first, but I bet it will be a challenge. Your assignment is to rest. And I mean rest—for a whole day. This means you don’t spend your day off mowing the lawn and cleaning the house and running your errands. It means you truly rest. Put the chores away; they’ll keep. Instead, take some time to care for yourself. Cook a good meal and take as much time eating it as you spent making it. Go for a long walk—not for exercise, but simply for the joy of taking a stroll. Go to the library and read a good book, maybe even a frivolous one. Invite a friend from work out for dinner and talk about anything but work. Play with your children or grandchildren. Take your spouse out to dinner. Sit by the lake and do absolutely nothing.
This is not laziness. This is discipleship. These kinds of activities remind us that our value is not in our work. It is in God. “But Jim,” you say, “life’s just too busy for me to do something like that right now.” Maybe. But I think that it’s precisely in those crazy moments that we have to stop. The moment you say you’re too busy to take care of yourself is the moment you need to drop what you’re doing, right then and there, and take care of yourself.
Your value is not in your work. Your value is in God’s unconditional love, and God loves you unconditionally. So come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.