Monday, July 23, 2012

The Desolate Place

Living in America, the busiest place on Earth, we all know what rest means, right?  It means leisure.  It means sleep.  It means vegging out.  Right?  Actually, leisure is what is killing the country right now.  Laziness is destroying us.  Technology is keeping us distracted and unthinking.  This is not really rest.  It's a temporary cure for exhaustion, maybe, but it is not true rest.  We are not lightswitches that are either on or off.  Keep turning the light on and off over and over again and what happens to the bulb?  It burns out faster.

What did Jesus mean by rest?  Well, let's look at our gospel reading for this week (Mark 6:30-44).  This is a passage about the feeding of the 5000.  In your bibles that is the subhead.  However, we are not going to get that far.  I want to look at the beginning of this passage.  The apostles have just come back from the mission that Jesus sent them out to do.  He sent them out two by two to the villages to proclaim that all should repent.  They also cast out demons, and they anointed the sick with oil.  This was tough work, especially the spiritual warfare part, and we can see that since Jesus has not done his work on the cross yet, the proclamation is that of repentance.

Verse 31: Jesus says to the returned apostles, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for awhile.”  This is interesting, because this is the only place where Jesus teaches the apostles to take a rest.  They have finally done the work of the Lord, and so they need a rest, much in the same way that Christ himself rested after a long day of work.  Rest is necessary when we are immersed in the Lord's work.

But the key word in this sentence is the word “deserted.”  How many of us retreat to a deserted place when we need rest?  Don't we just go on Facebook?  Get on our computers?  Veg in front of the TV?  These aren't deserted places.  Even going to the bedroom and reading a novel until you fall asleep for a nap is not retreating to a deserted place.  What is a deserted place?

The Greek word for deserted helps us here: eraymoss.  This is the same word for wilderness or desert.  It's not just a deserted place—it is a DESOLATE place.  If we look through the gospels, a desolate place is where Jesus retreats to each time.  Let's look at the qualities of such a place and try to discern if there is such a place in our lives.  If not, can we think of such a place for us?

First, a desolate place is a place of quiet.  It is a place for listening.  Not a place to fill the space with something else or with things we want. It's a place where God can fill us with himself and the things he wants.  It is a place of prayer, as we see whenever Jesus leaves the squabble to find a quiet place to pray.  It is also a place without food, so there is FASTING in the place.  We don't head to the fridge for some “rest.”  The place of desolation is a place of self denial.  How many times have we been told to get our cup of coffee and  muffin and sit in our easy chair to have our quiet time with God?  Rest is being naked and empty before God so that we can be filled.

This leads to another attribute of the place.  It is the place where we meet God.  This seems like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how many of us use this place to just get our own bearings, so we can face the world on our own again.  Also, how many of us become bored, because we don't really believe that we are in the presence of God?  Think about it.  How long did the Israelites wander in the wilderness?  40 years, right?  We think about those passages of scripture and we think, “wow, that is horrible.”  We wish they had made the right decision about entering the promised land.  But wait!  Here is a group or people in the place of desolation—with God.  He is with them—physically with them.  They have his ear, and he technically has theirs.  What do they do with that time of rest with the Lord?  They abuse it.  The complain.  They test God.  They prove themselves not worthy of the salvation he gave them from Egypt.

Here is something interesting if we look at the first chapter of Luke, we read at the very end of the chapter about John the Baptist's childhood: “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the WILDERNESS until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.”  What is this?  I think two things when I read this.  First, the place of desolation is a place where we grow.  We can infer this.  But also, it is a place we spend a LOT of time.  Not just a little bit out of every day.  Ok, it's time for my 15 minutes of quiet prayer time.  No, it seems that whenever we are not engaged in ministry, in the Lord's work, we are spending time of rest in our place of desolation.  We are not coming home from a hard day of work and kicking our feet up in front of the TV, and then maybe we will go for a walk in the night and pray before bed.  When we are not engaged in ministry, we are NOT engaging the world but God in our places of desolation.

Rest is a big part of life.  It's not just something we need to GET when we can.  It makes up a bulk of life, because it is this special rest of desolation.  Not the kind of rest that we think, the kind that means laziness, sleep or distraction.  Augustine writes at the end of his City of God, heaven is a place where there is eternal rest.  I don't think it means lying around on clouds all day, plucking harps.  It means being in a close, prayerful, quiet relationship with the creator of the universe, a relationship in which the Lord preoccupies our souls.  We don't DESIRE to loaf in front of entertainment.  We don't DESIRE to pig out on a smorgasbord or delicacies.

Which brings me to another aspect of the place of desolation.  It is a place of safety from the world.  It was a place where Jesus knew he wouldn't be attacked, and as we see from the gospels, when he was in a very public place, he was threatened and often attacked.  So, it is a place of safety from other people who might hurt us.  Here is something strange: what else happened to Jesus in the wilderness?  He was tempted by the devil.

The place of desolation is a place of trial!  That doesn't sound very restful, does it?  Hebrews 3:8 even confirms that the wilderness is a place of testing.  We read about many church fathers who retreat to the desert and have struggles with the devil there.  However, it also says that Jesus was ministered to by angels in that same wilderness during those same trials.  This may be a place of desolation but not disaster.  God gets us through these trials.  In these times of rest, our minds wander to God, and he reveals to us our struggles.  We face them in the place of desolation, not when we are distracted by Twitter.  This is a place where God grows us stronger.

Finally, this last aspect of a desolate place is something very counter-intuitive, we do not expect it.  It is a place where we can be found.  When Jesus retreats to these places, he is eventually found.  At the end of Luke 4, the crowds find Jesus where he has retreated to, and they try to prevent him from leaving town.  In our gospel passage today, the people follow Jesus and the apostles to the place where they retreat.

Is this a problem?  Actually, no.  Jesus never gets frustrated with his rest time being interrupted.  This is a far cry from how we feel, when we have our private time interrupted.  I've got four daughters.  I know how it feels to not get a moment to myself.  I want to scream, “get out of here!”  But here is the last thing we have to get past: our places of desolation are not places where we HAVE to be alone.  This is not private time.  This isn't supposed to be a moment to myself.  It's time with God, but God may send people to us in this time of rest.

What do we do when God sends people into our quiet time?  Let's see what Jesus did in today's reading.  Verse 34: “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to TEACH them many things.”

Our places of desolation are also places of teaching and learning.  This is also a place of other people's rest coinciding with ours.  God puts us together in the wilderness, and when we are together, in Christ, in God's presence, we are to learn and grow together.  Teach each other.  Learn from God's word.  Our places of desolation are places of shepherding.  The wilderness is the place where the shepherd goes to seek the lost sheep and bring it back with God's word.  It is a place where the gospel is proclaimed.  Wasn't that the apostle's ministry, and weren't they resting from that?  Yes, but remember that Jesus' yoke is learning, and he claims that it is a very restful yoke.  In Matthew 11:29, Jesus tells his disciples, “Take my yoke upon you and LEARN from me.”

A major part of rest in Christ is teaching and learning.  This is drastically different from what we think rest is.  How much learning do we accomplish when we watch TV?  What if we watch the learning channel?  Immersing ourselves in God's word, learning everything we can about our creator, and sharing with others is what true rest is all about.  God leads us beside still waters, and he leads us through green pastures, but all for his name's sake.  We are to rest, but this rest is a rest of growth, a rest of discipline, and a rest of knowledge of God.