Back to series
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Mark, and we’re gong to start reading in chapter 2. If you need a Bible, you can raise your hand, and we’ll bring one to you. You’re actually welcome to keep it if you’ll read it.
We’ve been in a series the past couple weeks centered on the question of what makes us Christian. This series is arising from, just personally, what God has been teaching me over the past several years serving as one of your pastors. What does it mean to be Christian? Until recently, I would have talked about being Christian largely as a matter of belief. Salvation makes you Christian, believing in God, and so it does. But Christianity doesn’t stop at the moment of conversion, and as the apostle James tells us, if your faith does not also have practice paired with it—if your orthodoxy does not also have orthopraxy with it, then your belief is dead. It’s worthless, unhealthy, lifeless, wrote.
I want us all to ask the question, what does a living faith look like? And we’ve talked about several things already. Living faith begins with baptism; baptism, which is a God’s way of preaching forgiveness over us. Right at the very start of our faith, before we do any good works, before we really understand anything about his will and work in the world, he welcomes us into his family and preaches over us, this is my child, in whom I am well-pleased.
And that forgiveness, as Christians, is meant to seep into every aspect of our Christian practice. Forgiveness starts with God—scandalously, regardless of what you’ve done, or how you’ve failed, or what’s been done to you. Christ welcomes into our family people whom we barely want to acknowledge—refugees, materialists, murderers, politicians—and yet in Christ they are our brothers. In Christ you are forgiven, you are welcomed, and you are loved. This is a uniquely Christian idea, because in Christianity atonement is in the past tense, already accomplished by Christ on the cross. And that love, that forgiveness is enough to fill us and pour out of us. Christians are a people who are forgiven and are able, then, to forgive the people around us. Without atonement, even without justice being done, we are able to stand together again, knowing that Christ has picked up and carried the weight of what’s been done to us.
Last week we talked about the unique way Christianity approaches the material world and the things in it. The theological word is sacramentalism. We see the material as filled to the brim with the spiritual. Not only did God create the world, but he dwells in it. He’s restoring it, and in the end he will dwell among us. This is a mystery, and it has everything to do with the incarnation, when God miraculously crossed the divide between heaven and earth and became flesh. And flesh he remains. When we were unable to reach up to heaven, heaven came to dwell on earth.
This week, we’re going to talk about rest. Rest is one of the primary practices of Christianity. Rest is meant to be built into our every day, our week, our year, and our life as a whole. To practice our faith, as Christians, as often as we are called to forgive, we are called to rest. It’s something I’m extraordinarily bad at, and preaching this sermon feels like a farce, but I can’t talk about being Christian without talking about rest. I told you these are things God is actively teaching me, and God usually doesn’t waste his time teaching you things you already know. So go with me to the book of Mark, starting in chapter 2, v.23. [Mark 2:23-3:6] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
Rest begins, of course, at the beginning. God, in the very creation of the earth, at the very beginning of our story of what it means to be human and what humans are created for, he stops, and he rests. For six days he created the universe and everything in it, and for one day, he rested.
You can tell, at that point, that this is an ancient story. If it were a modern story, the minute light was created, if we saw that it was good, that would start our promotional run. We’d call the BBC or whoever did the Planet Earth stuff and see if they might be interested in running a series on this light we’d created. We would need to run a circuit on social feeds, too, maybe work out a book deal. Monetize it somehow, can’t be giving light away free, that would just be unamerican, and besides, we worked hard on it, why should we let other people profit from our hard work? By Sunday, we’d be on the phone with our publicist about it, trying to get Liam Neeson to play God in the feature film—he’s got the most experience.
But God, we’re told, created for six days, and saw that it was good, and then on the seventh day he rested. Have you ever asked yourself why? Why would God rest? For me, in my life, I have a thousand reasons to rest, or perhaps three reasons, for the most part. I get tired. One day I will die, and all of my work will cease. I have limits. As everyone else, God calls me to rest as an acknowledgement of my limitedness, and I hate every second of it. I don’t like having limits. I don’t just want to sit and read a book, I want to write one and be on your shelf. And on Sunday, I don’t just want to go to church, I want church to be as I’ve made it, and this is me confessing my sin and humanness, because if I were more like our God, I would rest.
Why would God rest? I know why I would rest, but why does he? He has no limits. He does not get tired. He will not die. So why does he rest? And when you ask yourself that question, I want you to remember the wisdom of God and his unbridled joy. Part of the answer is that God rested in the midst of his good creation because he was glorying in it. Like a child who makes a creation out of legos or clay and sticks it on a high shelf, so that everyone can see, and no one can ruin it, so our God rested among his creation.
I wonder what he did that day. Don’t you? I bet he spent part of it eating. Maybe I’m projecting, but our God seems to really enjoy food. Every time he rests and celebrates, it tends to be a feast. Maybe he walked with his friends through the garden he had planted, as he does later on, just talking. But the point is, our glorious creator gloried in us, his creation, and he has called us to do that same.
I love the passage we read this morning, because again, as in the beginning, God incarnate is resting, and eating of course, and walking through a garden with his friends. What a beautiful picture of creation, restored. This is a small moment of the kingdom breaking through. After so much labor to right everything that’s wrong—healing the sick, teaching in the temple, feeding the multitudes—Jesus takes the last day of the week to walk with his friends in a field of growing things. God, together with his people and his creation again. A vision in this life of the next.
But of course he catches flack for it, and of course it’s from the religious folk who have managed to convince themselves that they are more righteous than even God, himself, which should teach us something about rest. In a world ruled by business and 24 hour news cycles, in which Soulcycle exists and a social feed passes as relaxing, rest is a subversive act. People will look down on you for it. There is such a thing as sloth, laziness, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.
When I first started pastoring, I received the advice over and over again that pastoring is a 24/7 job. It’s more of a lifestyle, a calling, than it is a vocation. You’re never off the clock. When you’re at church, you need to be intentional. When you’re at home, you should be focused on discipling your own children and your wife. When you’re eating meals or resting, you should find ways to include your congregation. And don’t just rest in any kind of way, be intentional, exercise, beat your body, make it your slave. But this wasn’t the first job where I heard that kind of advice.
My first real job was teaching, and the first time I noticed something was unhealthy was when I told my new supervisor I had just gotten married that summer, and instead of being happy for me, he told me I really shouldn’t have done that because it would distract me from my work. They would use cult language and near religious mantras about sacrificing for the sake of the kids we taught, and it was all aimed at success. We were told, if a student fails our class, we had failed them. That their performance was dependent upon our performance. Work harder, and longer hours, because their entire future is at stake. And what in your life could possibly be more important than a child’s future?
Do you hear the self-righteousness mixed into that messaging? There’s an undertone of, well, I did it. And now I’m a success in this field you’re entering into. I care more than you do about the inequities of the world. I’m willing to sacrifice more than you are to correct them. And it’s not just education. This is the language of our culture. We live amongst pharisees of every stripe, religious, non-religious, even irreligious, who are trying to tell you you have to try harder, work longer, to be as successful and productive as they are. The same kind of pharisaical language and mentality has seeped into almost every industry—even, perhaps especially, into church life.
Wendell Berry says it this way: he writes, “It is easy…to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who want to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.” Machines are successful, arguably more successful than we are at many things. They do not rest, they don’t get tired. Maybe they wear out, but so do we. And machines are remarkably productive. They don’t get sick, or grieve. They don’t have bad days and need comfort. They don’t stop to eat or just to decompress. But my friends, you are not machines. You are creatures. God’s creatures in fact. He is your only true master, and he does not measure you based upon your success or your productivity. The telos, or purpose, of a human life is not measured in how hard you try.
By the pharisee’s standards, they were more righteous than Jesus, which is why it’s so important to measure your life by God’s standards instead of theirs. Before you let anyone else place more weight on your back, take up the burden of Christ. Because it’s light, and he let’s you—no, he insists that you rest.
In our passage, after pointing out the pharisees’ hypocrisy, Jesus speaks the truth of the matter in one simple sentence. “The Sabbath,” he says, “was made for man, not man for the sabbath,” which cuts very quickly to one of the deep truths of Christianity: that Christian practice was created for our sake, not the other way around. We don’t have to strive toward success with God, and we don’t need to perform to please him. He’s not managing employees, or trying to draw fans, he’s raising children. The reason he’s telling us to rest is not so we can work hard and find ways to be the very best resters we can be. He’s telling us to take a break. I know you’re not a machine, as previously discussed, but turn yourself off and then back on again and see if any of your problems disappear.
The Christian practice of rest speaks a beautiful word to the children of God, that we are not necessary. God is sufficient in himself. He, of all persons, is content and joyful, without any help. God does not need your time. He doesn’t need your work or your words. He doesn’t need you to love him. He doesn’t even need you to believe in him. Church, faith, prayer, discipline, and work—it was created for our sake to participate in the joy of God. Like the disciples, to walk through a field on a sunny day, and satisfy our hunger.
You can take a break, and nothing God is accomplishing in the world will falter. You can rest, because it was always more about what God was doing than what you were able to do. In your church life, yes, but also in your family, at your job, in your personal life. The only reason we keep going past our limits—beyond what we really have to give, to the point where we are attempting to live more like machines than creatures—is because somewhere in our hearts and minds, we believe that we are going to save ourselves, or someone else, or some church, or group. Or we, like the pharisees, want to see ourselves as the very best. The best Christian, or teacher, or employee, or thinker, or parent. But for God to love you, you don’t have to work, or succeed, or be the best. You just have to be his child.
Let’s be real, though: in our lives, rest is nowhere to be found, even among Christians. We barely make time to get together to pray and read the Bible. In the Bible, though, rest is everywhere. It starts in the creation, with God, himself, resting. Rest is codified in the law—a sabbath day, feast days, and entire years of jubilee where the whole nation would rest together for a whole year, all loans forgiven, everyone allowed to return to their family’s land. And we thank our lucky stars if we get three three weeks paid. We work well into retirement age, asking the question, “what would I do with myself?”
Here in our passage, and all through the New Testament we see rest enjoyed. God, himself, once again, glorying just to spend time with his creation and us, his creatures. Heaven and the kingdom, for a moment, come to earth. And very soon we will work, pray, and rest in the kingdom everlasting. To quote Hebrews: “There is a rest that remains for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
So coming back to my main point: if rest is a defining feature of what it means to be a Christian, is rest something which characterizes your life? Or is rest something which seems to characterize the life of our church? As a parent, you watch your kids start to copy your flaws. As a pastor, you watch your church do the same. It’s not too late to change, though.
Honestly, what would it look like for you to take a day off every week? Completely off, where you’re not running errands or grading papers, or catching up on cleaning, but resting, spending time with people you love, doing things you enjoy at a pace which actually lets you enjoy them. Would it mean you show up a little less prepared to than you otherwise would have? Would someone at your office have to solve her own problems for once? Would that really be so bad?
What would it look like for you to rest more? To live more like you’re one of God’s creatures, and less like you’re a machine? I remember a conversation towards the end of my time teaching, when I had been fully disillusioned with the chants and the management tactics. I told my friend Courtney, “I’ve decided to become a worse teacher.” And she asked me why, and I answered that by being a worse teacher I thought I might be heading toward being a better human being.
Maybe you need to be a worse teacher. Or parent. Or whatever your job is, if I keep listing things, people are going to think I’m talking specifically about them. A worse maintenance worker at the local seminary. But regardless, slow down. Put the phone down. Be present in the moment with people you love. Go outside. Enjoy creation. Play a game of pretend with a child. Specifically with one of my children. Please come help me.
My point is that our God is a God of rest. The sabbath was made for you, as a gift. All you need to do is take it.
My invitation this morning is for you to lay down the heavy burden you’re carrying, and enter into the rest of our God. Accept his good gifts. “God gives to his beloved sleep.” Come rest a while at the feet of our creator. Pray with me.