Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"JESUS ENCOURAGES HIS BELABOURED DISCIPLES WITH HIS INSTRUCTION TO REST."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
The churches have designated the third Sunday of February as Thanksgiving Day, as well as a day to pray for God’s blessing on the labors of the year before us. It’s this second element –prayer for God’s blessing on labor and harvest- that I draw out with you in the preaching this morning.
Labor. As we look into the work before us this year we see so much that needs to be done. The world stands on the brink of war, and we parents need to give leadership to our children in that situation. The churches hope to meet together in Synod this year, and that means work and study by all who live along in the churches. The schools need to keep developing their thought in relation to Curriculum Framework, and that involves all of us as parents and church community. Our daily employment in this world keeps us on our toes, and the more so as the Lord would have us live as ambassadors of the gospel in the godlessness of today’s workplace. The list goes on; there’s so much that needs to be done.
As I mention these things and we reflect on what’s before us, ours stomachs tighten in a little knot of anxiety because we know our own limitations – and maybe each other’s too. What with our brokenness and finiteness, who can rightly put his shoulders back and declare that he’s up to the challenges and responsibilities of the tasks ahead?! Anyone with a modicum of humility will readily admit that the tasks before us are too burdensome….
The gospel of our Lord as we read it in Mk 6, brothers and sisters, gives us much encouragement. Here the Lord instructs us that we’re not to be burdened on account of our limitations. He would have us know that success depends not on our efforts but on His blessing. And that blessing is promised.
I summarize the sermon this morning with this theme:
JESUS ENCOURAGES HIS BELABOURED DISCIPLES WITH HIS INSTRUCTION TO REST.
1. The nature of the rest.
The passage we read from Mk 6, brothers and sisters, appears to contain accounts of two separate events. On the one hand there is the matter of the disciples being sent out to heal and to preach, and their reporting on their efforts; on the other hand there’s the matter concerning the multiplication of the loaves.
As it is, though, the reporting of the 12 disciples in vs 30 may not be separated from the multiplication of the loaves in vss 33ff. The reporting about their work and the multiplication of the loaves are joined by the instruction of our text to "come aside by yourselves … and rest a while."
Back in chap 6:7, Jesus sent out His 12 disciples in six teams of two each with the mandate to cast out unclean spirits and to preach the gospel of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, the gospel of the forgiveness of sins and the defeat of Satan. The response of the disciples to their mandate is recorded in vs 12f: "So they went out and preached that people should repent. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them."
At the end of the day, the six groups of two disciples each gathered again around Jesus, coming –we may imagine- a group at a time, each in turn having stories to relate to their Sender about what they were able to do and how the demons had been subject to them. The six groups of two, however, did not return alone from their missions; even as they returned to Jesus from their forays into the towns of Galilee, the crowds clung to them. So says the second part of vs 31: "...there were many coming and going." In fact, so many people came back with the disciples to Jesus that even when they reached their Sender the disciples still had no time to eat. That crowd continued to demand their attention, wanted to hear more and more about the Messiah, more about the defeat of sin and Satan, wanted also to have more of their sick healed and their demon-possessed cleansed. In a word: even as the disciples returned to Jesus they remained busy, very busy. And given the crowds milling about, there wasn’t an end in sight to the busyness…. That’s tiring….
In that context we read the words of our text: "[Jesus] said to them, ‘Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.’" We conclude: Jesus considered the disciples so tired from the labors of the day –all that preaching and all those healings- that they were exhausted, and so He in mercy suggested a break. "Come away, rest a while." It’s a tidbit of advice we appreciate in the busyness of our lives too….
But is it really so, beloved, that Jesus in our text simply suggested a break for weary disciples, an opportunity to recharge their exhausted batteries? The answer turns out to be No, Jesus’ purpose in inviting them to rest awhile was not to give the disciples an opportunity to recharge their exhausted batteries; Jesus has more in mind here. I say that for the following two reasons.
In the first place, the word Jesus used here for "rest" has a deeper meaning than simply rest-as-we-understand-it. For the term catches also the purpose for a rest. And what’s that? We know from the Bible that the Lord has created the human race to care for God’s world (Gen 1: 26ff). So God put man in the Garden "to till it and keep it", that is, to work. Whatever rest God would give to mankind is given with a view to being refreshed for further service. The point is: all rest has a goal, a purpose; through rest we’re equipped to take up again our tasks in God’s world. It’s a perspective we need to keep in mind as we enjoy holidays or weekends this year; we are not to work in order to enjoy time off, but we take time off so that we’re equipped again to work.
So it follows too that "rest" is not necessarily the same as relaxing the body or mind. "Rest" can refer also to receiving encouragement – shall we say: refreshing the inner man. In fact, it’s in this way that the word "rest" appears repeatedly in the New Testament. I think of Paul’s testimony to the Corinthians concerning Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus: "they refreshed my spirit and yours" (I Cor 16:18). Similarly, Paul asks Philemon a favor, and says: "Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord" (vs 20). One may think too of the 4th commandment, where the Lord tells us to rest on the 7th day. This command to rest is not meant to instruct us to loaf and sleep, but its purpose is to provide us with opportunity to be refreshed through the preaching of the gospel and so be equipped and encouraged to pick up our daily work again.
Conclusion: when Jesus in our text instructs the disciples to "rest a while", His point is not that He wants the disciples to sleep or to loaf. Rather, the word Jesus used tells us that Jesus pulled His disciples aside to refresh, to encourage them.
There’s a second reason why I say that Jesus did not intend His disciples simply to take a break. The second reason is the simple fact that a break never materialized, and if it didn’t materialize it can’t have been Jesus’ intent. For we read in vs 32 that the disciples departed by boat to this lonely spot, and in vs 33 that by the time the disciples arrived the crowds were already there and waiting. Jesus is sovereign God; it is just not possible that Jesus’ plan to give His disciples a break was frustrated by circumstances Jesus did not expect.
So we need to conclude that Jesus purposefully invited the twelve to this lonely place not in order to give them a break, but instead to refresh, that is, to encourage them after their hard day’s labor among the crowds.
So we come to our second point:
2. The purpose of the rest.
The multitudes had known where Jesus and His disciples were going. It wasn’t far away; the trip on foot took no longer than the trip did by boat.
Mark tells us that when Jesus arrived at the selected spot, He "saw" the multitude "and was moved with compassion for them" (vs 34). His compassion was prompted by the observation that the crowds "were like sheep not having a shepherd" (vs 34). We wonder: what was there about this crowd that prompted this observation? Why did Jesus consider them to be "like sheep not having a shepherd"?
We’re to recall: the crowds who came together at this deserted place were the same people who had milled around the disciples when they returned from their preaching and healing tours. These are the people, then, whom the disciples had contacted during the day with their message of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, their message of deliverance from bondage to sin and Satan. These people were so touched by the disciples’ words and works that they dropped their daily work to follow the disciples to Jesus; more, they were so touched by the preaching of the disciples that they refused to go home when Jesus and His disciples got into the boat, wanted instead to go to where Jesus was going. This crowd, then, hungered for the word of the Lord, this crowd wanted to hear more, wanted leadership in the affairs of the kingdom of heaven – and therefore walked with empty stomachs to wherever Jesus was. Hence the Lord’s observation: "they were like sheep not having a shepherd." So we can understand Jesus’ response also; as the "Good Shepherd" He "began to teach them many things."
The fact that Jesus is the Shepherd, though, does not leave the disciples without responsibility. After all, their mandate had been to go out and tell the people about Jesus and His saving work. It’s what they’d done, a hard day’s labor, and so they considered their task done; now was time to rest. Hence vs 35: they came to Jesus and asked Him to send the crowds away because the hour was late and wouldn’t the crowds want something to eat?
How we can understand their feelings. Isn’t there a time to work and a time to rest? And if that whole crowd –5000 men, let alone their women and children- needed to be taught about God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, look, that’s more than could be done this evening; tomorrow is a new day. ‘The hour is late, Lord, it’s past tea time, send them away; we’ve had enough for the day.’
But here’s now the thing, beloved: though the disciples are tired after their busy day, Jesus sees work for the disciples, work that they’re not doing. They’d been sent out with a mandate to tell the people of what God was doing in Jesus of Nazareth, and the crowds obviously hungered to hear it. If that’s the mandate, it’s for the disciples to go and teach, to keep on teaching, for God created man to look after God’s world for God’s glory, and here was a task that needed doing. Suggesting that the crowds be dismissed because ‘we want a break’ was not in order.
Here we’re confronted, brothers and sisters, with the limitations of the disciples; they (like we!) feel they’ve done enough for the day. Yes, limitations are very real, tiredness is real, ill health is real, limited insight is real. It’s at precisely this point that Jesus now wishes to teach the disciples, and so encourage, refresh them. They’re to know: human limitations are not a problem in the kingdom of heaven!
How the point is driven home? Jesus tells them to go feed this huge crowd themselves (vs 37). Just imagine: 5000 men plus women and children, how do you buy food for that?! It’s what the disciples ask: "shall we go and buy 200 denarii worth of bread and give them something to eat?" 200 denarii was approximately one year’s wages for the average worker! Go figure: today too it would take an average annual wage to feed a crowd of 5000 plus women and children a single meal. Lord, the disciples are saying, ‘we’re limited, we haven’t the money to buy that kind of food.’
But that’s no problem for Jesus! He tells them to go do their best, find what food there is. They come back with a meager five loaves of bread and two fish; a drop in a bucket for a crowd this big. But now Jesus makes it His business to demonstrate what effect God’s blessing has on the limited abilities of His servants. For from those five loaves and two fish, Jesus Christ spreads a feast before the crowd of 5000 men plus their women and children. Indeed, so great is the miracle that the 12 disciples end up with an extra basket of food each.
So we come to our last point:
3. The lesson of the rest.
What were the disciples to learn from this miracle, a miracle that finds its context in their work of teaching the hungry crowds? What the disciples were supposed to learn was this: their human limitations are no hindrance in God’s kingdom; more, Jesus takes their limited and broken efforts and uses them for good in His kingdom. All the disciples could produce was a scant five loaves and two fish, but Jesus –sovereign God that He was- could use this little contribution to feed so many. Similarly, the disciples did not have the where-with-all to shepherd the crowds of Israel, to instruct them all in the ways the Lord was going with Jesus of Nazareth. But never mind; God would use their limited efforts so that His kingdom comes anyway. The point is: the disciples should not despair at the fact that they can do only so little in the tasks given to them. God would use the little and turn it into much. Behold there the encouragement the Lord was pleased to give to His disciples at that lonely place. Talk about refreshment, about filling one with new zeal and energy to carry on with the work given! One may feel so inadequate to the tasks one receives, and the work that’s waiting to be done may strike one as so impossibly much. But Jesus’ instruction is this: your limitations don’t matter! In the kingdom of God one’s labor is never in vain; since the kingdom is God’s, there can be no ultimate opposition or setbacks. If sovereign God is pleased to use broken, sinful people in His kingdom, who can prevent that the limited efforts of His people bear fruit? What encouragement for us too as we see the formidable mountains of work before us in home, church, school, society!
Question, though. Did the disciples learn the lesson of Mk 6? Actually, truth be said, they showed themselves to be real people, as human as the rest of us…. For it took them a long time to learn the lesson. Mark tells us that after the multiplication of the loaves, Jesus "immediately" sent His disciples away in the boat, while He dismissed the crowds; that’s what we read in vs 45. Mark tells us too that on the lake the winds were so contrary that the disciples made no real progress in crossing the lake, with as result that Jesus had to come to still the wind. Then we read these words in vs 51: "And they were greatly amazed in themselves beyond measure, and marveled." Why they marveled so much when Jesus bade the wind be still? Vs 52: "they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was hardened." That is: they still saw the wind as an obstacle to themselves and so to Jesus too. They had not learned from the multiplication of the loaves that for Jesus there were no limitations, had not learned that the limitations which hinder people in their labors do not hinder the Son of God. They had not learned to stop looking at the events around them in human terms, had not learned to see what was happening around them from God’s side and so conclude that nothing in all creation could stop the coming of God’s kingdom.
The reluctance of the disciples to learn the lesson of the multiplication of the loaves comes out also in Mark 8. Again the disciples were in a boat with Jesus, and this time they had "forgotten to take bread" with them. "Forgotten": it’s the limitation of the mind, and so they had nothing to eat. Jesus’ response? Vs 17: "Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Is your heart still hardened? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear?" Jesus reminds them of the miracle of Mk 6, the multiplication of the five loaves and two fish, and asks His question again: "How is it you do not understand?" (vs 21).
You see, beloved, all the evidence conspired together to demonstrate that the limitations of the disciples –including limitations due to inability to nourish the crowd of 5000 men with the necessary food, and limitations due to being unable to row against the wind, and limitations due to lapses of the mind - all such limitations did not and could not make the disciples useless in God’s kingdom. God in Christ nourished the crowd with the needed food, God in Christ laid to rest the contrary winds, and God in Christ would certainly provide the food the disciples needed: "how is it you do not understand?!" Human limitations do not mean that one cannot function in God’s kingdom.
Jesus took the disciples aside to a deserted place for a while to refresh, encourage them. It took them a while to learn the lesson Christ wished to impress on them, but they learned. After the Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, the disciples labored diligently amongst the hungry of the world, telling all who would listen of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. Certainly they were confronted with their own limitations, but their sinfulness and their forgetfulness, their tiredness and their fear of persecution did not prompt the disciples to give up performing the tasks received. For in the strength of the Spirit they knew and understood that God was pleased to use broken people, with their limitations, for the coming of His kingdom. What is weak to the world is treasured by the Lord.
And we? Have we learned? We recall our performance in the year past and recognize so many limitations, so much brokenness. We look at the work before us this year, and consider that our abilities are not up to the demands. And all of it together is enough to knock the wind out of our sails….
That’s why the Lord impresses it upon us: our limitations –real as they are- are no ground for despair! No more than the disciples are we able to feed 5000 at once, nor are we able to conquer the wind. And we too forget so much also. But discouraged by our handicaps and limitations we may not become! For God uses us with our limitations, and so those limitations are not to bog us down; we’re instead simply to do what God gives us to do this year, and leave the results to the Lord.
Come aside and rest awhile, Jesus told His disciples. Today, on this day of rest, He brought us to church so that we might be rested, refreshed, encouraged for the task before us this week, this year.
And what encouragement, what refreshment this gospel is! Amen.