Originally written, April 2020
Are you tired? What do you do when you are exhausted? How do you recharge the batteries at the end of a long day or long week? We are going into week seven or eight of quarantine now—how are you doing? Feeling weary? Feeling okay? Normal life, if you’re doing it right, is filled with responsibilities to manage, tasks to accomplish, and problems to be solved—this is still true of quarantine life, but it all now has to be done in altered ways. We still are pursuing our responsibilities as students, parents, church members, and employees, but in strange ways that can yield a new kind of stress. When you’re a child your biggest stressor in life is waiting for mom to finish making your peanut butter and jelly sandwich or dealing with being told “no” when you ask to hang out with your friends. As you grow up, life gets more complicated. At each stage of life you look back at your previous self and think: Man! I had no idea how good I had it back then! I thought I was so busy, but I had no idea what I was talking about. It seems like the treadmill of responsibility in life just keeps speeding up. Even the things that bring us the most joy as adults are often born out of lots of hard work: a healthy marriage, raising children, successful career, even going on vacations, take work.
Add on top of this that Christians not only are to do all of these regular things in such a way that God is glorified in it (1 Cor 10:31), but they also have the added task of evangelizing the lost, edifying other church members, resisting temptation, remaining diligent in prayer and Bible reading, faithfully giving to support the work of the ministry, and on and on it goes. All of those things, joyful and glorious though they are, can at times be stressful, difficult, and even overwhelming.
So, what are we to do? How are we to keep ourselves from either snapping like a tightly wound spring or mentally and emotionally just checking out, numbing ourselves with Netflix and social media, or just neglecting our responsibilities altogether? Are we called to live miserable lives, falling on our own proverbial swords of “faithfulness”? Is that what the Bible teaches us? The Bible does teach that following Jesus looks like dying to yourself (Luke 14:25-33). But, 1 John also tells us this: “[God’s] commandments are not burdensome,” 1 John 5:3. God’s commands are not burdensome—they are not another frustration. Listen to what Jesus says in John 15, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full,” John 15:11. “These things” Jesus is referring to is what He just taught on abiding in Jesus and keeping His commands; if you do that, your joy will be full. Following God’s commands in your marriage, in your family, in your schoolwork, with your unsaved neighbor, when you are all alone, when you are tempted are not burdensome, but lead to an increase in joy!
But, the dilemma is, why do we so often feel weary and joyless in our Christian life? In our text today we will read about a story that shows us the tension between exhaustion and rest in the Christian’s life. Turn with me now to Mark 6:
30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. 35 And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. 36 Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” 37 But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” 38 And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. 41 And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And they all ate and were satisfied. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.
The disciples return from the missionary journey that Jesus sent them out on back in Mark 6:7-12. Jesus’ first response to them is, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while,” Mark 6:31a. Jesus recognizes that they are weary. It seems that their need to rest isn’t only from the journey but the subsequent popularity that the journey (and likely Jesus’ ministry Himself) had brought to the disciples, “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat,” Mark 6:31b. The disciples are so harried by the needy crowds and their requests that sitting down for a meal uninterrupted is nearly impossible, which is just exhausting (And all the stay-at-home mothers said, Amen). So they all climb into a boat and head to a “desolate place” Mark 6:32. A “desolate place” is really just a place that is remote, far away from the cities and villages.
We have seen Jesus retreat to “desolate places” for times to have special communion with His Father, perhaps to seek refreshment before beginning or after completing a heavy load of ministry. After spending a whole day teaching, casting out demons, and healing the sick, the next day we are told that Jesus rose very early in the morning and went to a “desolate place” to pray and remains there until Peter comes looking for Him (Mark 1:35-36). And here, you notice that it is Jesus who recommends they retreat—Jesus knows what it is like to feel weary and need refreshment, so He pulls them aside to rest in a wilderness, an uninhabited place. In the Old Testament, it is often in “wilderness” places where people experience difficulty but also find God’s abounding provision (Ex 16, Num 11).
One of my favorite stories from the Old Testament is about the prophet Elijah. After defeating the prophets of Baal in a kind of old western showdown, Elijah is told that the wicked queen, Jezebel, has sworn an oath to have him killed. Out of fear for his life, he flees to a “wilderness”:
“But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.” 1 Kings 19:4-8
Elijah had reached a place of complete exhaustion—he feels like a total failure and doesn’t even want to live anymore. How does God respond to Elijah? Slap him around and tell him to suck it up? The famous WWII General Patton was almost fired from his command after he reportedly slapped two soldiers in field hospitals who were suffering from shell-shock, yelling that he would have no cowards being coddled in his army. Is that what God does to Elijah? No, he just lets him sleep, eat, and drink. He knows that Elijah was at the point of collapse and the most spiritual, important thing that he could do for the kingdom at that moment was to rest, eat, and recuperate. I think this is what Jesus is doing with His disciples. They don’t appear to be in a state as severe as Elijah was, but Jesus recognizes that they were weary from the work God had given them, and knew that they, like Himself at times, needed a break.
What does this show us today? I think this shows us that Jesus knows we need rest, friends. Pushing yourself to the point of burn-out is not the hallmark of spiritual maturity. If Jesus recognized that He and His disciples needed times of rest, to slow down, to refocus on the Lord, than we ought not think we are somehow above that. Friend, do you need rest? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you exercising? Are you filling your restful time with meaningful, soul-filling recreation that lifts your heart up to the Lord? Or do you basically feel like if you aren’t always working, everything will fall apart? Only God is always working and only God doesn’t sleep—let’s not try and pretend we are Him.
Maybe you should consider, if you are able to, taking some of your money from that stimulus check and just plan an end-of-quarantine celebration. Maybe you need a weekend getaway where you can take a step back, get quiet, and seek the Lord in a way that you simply haven’t been able to while all the pistons are firing. This is what Jesus does for the disciples. But, what I would assume would feel frustrating, the disciples retreat appears to be ruined; Jesus’ compassion leads His disciples to put the needs of others over their own.
Somehow, people saw that Jesus and His disciples are heading to this desolate place, so the surrounding villages empty themselves and 5,000 men rush to the place where Jesus and His disciples intend to land. How a crowd of that size were able to beat Jesus and the disciples to the location is puzzling—perhaps Jesus wanted their journey across the lake to be leisurely, maybe even stopping at other places along the way? Either way, when Jesus comes to the shore there is a great crowd assembled there clamoring for help. Now, this is precisely the burden that Jesus and His disciples were looking to avoid—crowds!
But how does Jesus respond? “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things,” Mark 6:34. I am trying to imagine how the disciples would have felt when arriving at the shore: We took this trip to get away from work! Now the work has followed us here! Jesus, this was YOUR idea to take a break! But Jesus’ compassion for the crowds seems to overshadow the original plan, because they were, “like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus, of course, is the “great shepherd” (John 10:11). Mark has told us from the very first few verses of his gospel to understand his gospel in light of Isaiah 40 (Mark 1:1-3), where we are told that the Messiah will, “tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms,” Isa 40:11. So Jesus responds to the needy crowds with compassion and teaches them.
Eventually the disciples approach Jesus, “And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat,” Mark 6:35-36. Okay, Jesus. You have been teaching these people for hours now. These people need to leave before the markets close down for the day…and remember how we came out here for a break? But Jesus’ response is shocking: “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” Mark 6:37. “Two hundred denarii” would have been about six to seven months of wages. How on earth are the disciples supposed to get their hands on that kind of money? Again, just try to imagine the disciples flinch response to this: they had been brought out here for rest because they couldn’t even get time for themselves to eat and now their vacation has been upended by even more work, and now Jesus has the audacity to tell them to feed the crowds!? If I were there I would likely have burst out in frustration and stormed off. How would you have responded? Jesus is asking His disciples to meet an insurmountable need—it just simply isn’t possible.
Jesus asks His disciples to take an inventory of what food they have on hand: “five loaves and two fish,” Mark 6:38. Jesus then directs the whole crowd to sit in groups, “And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish,” Mark 6:41-43. Jesus asks His disciples to meet an insurmountable need, something that is humanly impossible, but then proceeds to supply that need out of His abundant power. The disciples have five loaves and two fish, they don’t have enough to fulfill what God has commanded them to do (Give them something to eat), but Jesus can take those little resources and can expand them to fulfill the command! Somehow, like Elijah with widow’s jug of oil (1 Kings 17:8-16), the bread and the fish do not run out, but are multiplied. Jesus stands like a new Moses, who provided the manna from heaven (cf. John 6); Jesus can miraculously make bread to satisfy His people. And there is such an abundance that “all ate and were satisfied,” and there are twelve baskets of food left over! Do you know how rare it would have been for the common villagers of this time to eat until they were “satisfied”? This would have been a remarkable experience for them all.
What does this teach us?
God supplies what He commands
Jesus tells His disciples to do something that they cannot do—feed five thousand men with five loaves and two fish. But, this is what all of the commands of Gods do. If we are left to ourselves, we cannot obey God—our natural state is to resist God totally (Rom 3:10-11; 8:7-8). When God tells us to love our neighbor more than ourselves, to say no to the desires of the flesh, to make disciples of all nations—we cannot do those things. We are all like Peter sitting in the boat, hearing Jesus telling us to step out onto the water and come to Him (Matt 14:28-31). We can’t walk on water! We can’t feed five thousand people with this little food! We can’t put the needs of our spouse ahead of our own, or disciple our children in the Lord, or keep our mouths quiet when we are angry—it is just impossible! And we are right! You, left to yourself, are no more capable of obeying God than the disciples were of feeding five thousand or walking on water. But, Jesus tells Peter: Come! And Peter steps out and walks on water. When his foot hits the waves, it is immediately met with power! A power from heaven that can hold him up and accomplish what would be otherwise impossible for him to do!
Friends, that is a wonderful parable of the whole of Christian life. How will you follow God’s Law? You hear the command, step out in faith, and trust that God will provide the power to do what you by yourself cannot otherwise do. Augustine, the 5th century church father, summarizes so perfectly with his little prayer: Lord, command what you will, and will what you command! God’s commands are possible for you to obey because God is there to help you obey them. 1 Pet 4:11 exhorts us to, “serve in the strength that God supplies—so that in all things God may be glorified in Jesus Christ.” So it is possible for you to try to serve not with the strength that God supplies, but with your own! This is the danger of the Christian life. And maybe, friends, this is why you are so weary—you have not been serving in the strength that God supplies. You have been agonizing over how to divide five loaves and two fish among 5,000, when the omnipotent Savior who can multiply your resources is standing at your side. Lean into Him in prayer and faith, and then step out of the boat expecting that a power from outside of yourself will bear you up. So, what does that actually look like? Well, for example, when 1 Corinthians 10:13 tells us, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it,” we can lean into that promise with faith when temptation comes our way. We can tell ourselves, God has promised that no temptation He sends my way is so powerful that I cannot resist it, He will provide a means of escape, so I will dig my heels in and resist this temptation till the Lord sends in the cavalry to deliver me—because He has promised to! So as you are stewing in anger and want to snap, or your all alone on your computer late at night, and temptation just feels so strong, it feels like it is just irresistible, what do you do? You hold on to this promise. And God will meet you with power, and you will say no to sin. That’s a miracle.
Finding rest in the work
Lastly, how are we to think about the dilemma of Jesus leading His weary disciples to rest and only giving them more work? Does this mean that Jesus was essentially wrong to tell the disciples they needed to rest? Should Christians never rest or retreat?
No, I don’t think so. If Jesus didn’t think His disciples needed a retreat, He wouldn’t have told them to rest (remember, they didn’t ask for it, Jesus told them to go away and rest)—and He certainly wouldn’t have retreated Himself (Mark 1:35). But, if the rest His disciples needed could only be found in the absence of serving the crowds, Jesus could have simply dismissed the crowds or slipped away to a different place—something He does elsewhere in the gospels (Mark 1:35-36; Luke 5:16). In fact, immediately after this story, Jesus will dismiss the crowds and the disciples and go up to a mountain by Himself to pray (Mark 6:45-46). So, what does this mean? This means that Jesus intends for His disciples to find the rest they need through the work of feeding the crowds. What is it that led the disciples to need rest? They aren’t able to eat because of the crowds’ needs. What happens here? Jesus provides a superabundance of food so that all—including the disciples—eat and are satisfied. Jesus plans to meet the needs of the disciples through their service to the crowds. Sometimes the rest God has in store for us comes through our service to others. What does this mean for us?
We should plan times of rest. We should schedule breaks in our life where we pause from our normal routine. Our family does this weekly by always choosing one day that serves as a “family day,” where I don’t do any work and we spend time together as a family. But this could also look like going on vacations, drives, or just going to a new restaurant.
We should look for “rest” in our work. The “rest” that the disciples receive looks an awful lot like work. And sometimes God intends to refresh us and restore our souls through serving others. So, plan a vacation, but when you’re on the vacation and suddenly an opportunity to share the gospel with someone presents itself, don’t say, Nope, its vacation time, not work time! When you’re having some “me” time and your child interrupts you, you don’t lash out in anger, but respond with faithfulness to the calling that God has given you as a parent, serve in the strength that God supplies, and trust that God knows exactly what you need, and maybe in this mundane, regular, even frustrating circumstance, there may be the exact refreshment your soul needs. Elisabeth Elliot famously puts the summarize the work of a Christian like this: “This job has been given to me to do. Therefore, it is a gift. Therefore, it is a privilege. Therefore, it is an offering I may make to God. Therefore, it is to be done gladly, if it is done for Him. Here, not somewhere else, I may learn God’s way. In this job, not in some other, God looks for faithfulness.”
Parents, students, retirees, children: are you able to find joy and refreshment in serving others? Maybe your “vacation” should look like going and caring for another member who needs help with something you can help with. Maybe you should use some of your stimulus check not on giving yourself a vacation, but gifting a vacation to someone else you know could really use it. Is putting the needs of others over your own hard work? Yes. But Jesus tells us that we will be happier by giving than receiving (Acts 20:35). So work hard to give, and get the joy.