This Sunday’s Lectionary Passage: Mark 1: 29-39
29As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. 32That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
So, this Scripture has LOTS of stuff going on, doesn’t it? In one passage, Jesus leaves the synagogue, goes to someone’s house, heals a woman, eats dinner, cures all these people that showed up at the door, and then finally (finally!) in the dark of the early morning gets to go off by himself to pray. Jesus is depicted as a never-tiring, all-encompassing, always-present healer and teacher that was always open to offering his heart to others in love. If this is the life that we are supposed to live, I don’t know about you, but as much as I want to live a life based on the life of Jesus, it sort of seems a little exhausting. Is this what it means to follow in Jesus’ footsteps?
This story seems very chaotic, almost a frenzy of chaotic clamoring as people try to get to Jesus. And the disciples were no help. I mean, Jesus had already cured everyone who had been brought to him and they apparently ran out and gathered more. In fact, the passage says that the “whole city was gathered at the door”. The whole city? (“We need you. Come now. Houston is at your door!) But this time, it says that he cured “many”—not all–many. So maybe Jesus’ purpose was not to do everything for everyone but rather to show us a way to live that aligned with the life that God envisioned for us.
And, so, in the morning, before dawn, while it was still dark, Jesus got up and went to a deserted place, a place without the crowds, a place where he could pray and be alone with God. I think this is the high point of the passage. Because here we see a very human, very vulnerable, and (I would think) very tired Jesus who seeks direction and deeply desires to spend time with God. We see a Jesus that needs to stop and spend time alone in prayer and thought—just like we do. And there he prayed…
But, alas, even Jesus did not have the luxury of unlimited time for himself and his prayer life. We are told that Simon and the others literally hunted him down. (Hunted him down?!?) You can imagine it: “Come on, Jesus, everyone is looking for you, everyone needs you…what are you doing out here by yourself when there’s so much work to be done.” (OK, I think this is rather humorous!) Jesus’ answer? (Wait for it!) “So, they’re all looking for me in town? OK, then let’s go somewhere else.” (GREAT answer!) Because after all, his mission was to spread the Gospel, not to get “bogged down” in answering every need of the town. I mean, that’s why he had called all these disciples. What were they doing? What a great lesson this could provide for us! Jesus did not feel the need or the compulsion to be “all things to all people”. His mission was to be who God called him to be.
So what does this mean for us? We understand that we are called to serve others, that we are called to healing and teaching and loving our neighbors, that we are called to be part of changing the world. Jesus showed us that. But Jesus also showed us that we are also called to a deserted place, to prayer and solitude, to a close and personal relationship with God. And, for most of us, that deserted place is much harder to find amidst the crowds that are lined up, clamoring and chaotic, outside our own door.
But then the words of the commandment return to us. “Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy.” Sabbath rest is not vacation. It is not a nap or even just a break from the day to day. And it is not even limited to a specific day of the week. It is rather setting aside a time with God so that we will experience re-creation, just as Jesus did away from everyone else.
The Hebrew term for “Sabbath” is Shabbat, which essentially means “to cease or desist”. It means to stop: to stop work, to stop worrying, to stop possessing, to stop running, to stop trying to be God and working so hard to ensure our future as we would like it to be. It means to stop creating, which is exactly what God did in the first chapter of Genesis. It means to stop and look around and see all that there is to see.
The term Shabbat also means “to rest”, to enter into the rhythm of life in which God created and invited us to live. Our fast-paced, driven society often tries to convince us that this is a sign of weakness, of laziness, a characteristic of someone who will never succeed or get ahead. But we often forget that life is about rhythms and cycles that support and renew each other. Jesus knew that and, in this passage,, tries to show the disciples and ultimately us just that.
In her book “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly”, Marva Dawn tells the story of a wagon train on its way from St. Louis to Oregon. Its members were devout Christians, so the whole group observed the habit of stopping for the Sabbath day. Winter was approaching quickly, however, and some among the group began to panic in fear that they wouldn’t reach their destination before the heavy snows. Consequently, several members proposed to the rest of the group that they should quit their practice of stopping for the Sabbath and continue driving onward seven days a week. Well, this proposal triggered a lot of contention in the community, so finally it was suggested that the wagon train should split into two groups—those who wanted to observe the Sabbath and those who preferred to travel on that day. The proposal was accepted, and both groups set out and traveled together until the next Sabbath day, when one group continued while the other remained at rest. Guess which group got to Oregon first. You’re right. The ones who kept the Sabbath reached their destination first. Both the people and the horses were so rested by their Sabbath observance that they could travel much more vigorously and effectively the other six days of the week.
We are not meant to just go and go non-stop. God didn’t create us for that. In fact, God didn’t create ANY of creation for that. All of creation is full of seasons, full of that rhythm of doing and resting, growing and fallow, birth and death. Jesus knew that. And so even though there was still more work to do, he went to a deserted place. And there he stopped, and rested, and prayed…
A legend relates that “at the time when God was giving the Torah to Israel, [God] said to them: My children! If you accept the Torah and observe my commandments, I will give you for all eternity a thing most precious that I have in my possession. And what, asked Israel, is that precious thing which Thou will give us if we obey Thy Torah? The world to come. Show us in this world an example of the world to come. The Sabbath is an example of the world to come.” Abraham Heschel says that “unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath [rest] while still in this world, unless one is initiated in the appreciation of eternal life, one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come. Sad is the lot of [the one] who arrives inexperienced and when led to heaven has no power to perceive the beauty of the Sabbath.”
That is why Jesus went to the deserted place—not to just run away from the crowds, but to bask in the beauty of Sabbath rest, to glimpse the mystery of the world to come and have a clearer vision of how to live. And that is why we are all called to our own deserted place—to our own times of ceasing and rest and basking in Sabbath holiness. Because the only way to prepare our bodies for healing, our minds for teaching, and our hearts for loving is to set aside a time when our souls can become one with God and just for a moment glimpse the beauty of the world to come.
Aristotle once said “we are what we repeatedly do.” So do we want to be this wild, chaotic, almost frantic way we often live our life? Or do we want to breathe in the presence of God, who fills us and leads us to life? So go to your deserted place and be blessed with Sabbath joy, renewed in Sabbath holiness, and enfolded with the eternity of Sabbath peace. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. It is the world to come. It is that home to which we journey. It is who you are. Breathe…
Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths. (Etty Hillesum)
Grace and Peace,