Come Away and Rest A While

“Come away to a deserted place
all by yourselves and rest a while”
(Jesus in Mark 6:31 NRSV)

Modern people live hectic lives. So hectic even our vacations leave us more exhausted than the jobs from which we are seeking a break. Study after study reports that Americans are overworked, overstressed, overweight, overextended, and overtired.

While there may be many complex reasons for this situation and by no means am I offering a single fix-it-all solution, but one spiritual discipline that holds out promise toward a solution would be a rediscovery of Sabbath. There was a time not so long ago when Sabbath was a value embedded in our society. Perhaps quaint now, we once believed that Sunday was a “Sabbath” on which work was not to be done unless absolutely necessary. Youth sporting events would never be allowed on this sacred day. Even Wednesday evenings when churches met for prayer and Bible study was granted a quasi-sacred respect. Those days are gone and I’m not altogether disappointed in seeing the quirkier blue laws related to this holy culture set aside, however . . .

However in losing all of what Sabbath once was, we have lost what we now need the most: time for rest.

The biblical story is punctuated with the human need for Sabbath. Sabbath is an interesting word in Hebrew that looks like both the word “rest” and “seven.” So it was an easy association between the need for rest and the seventh day. Even the creation story was told to climax in God resting on the seventh day. The Old Testament has two takes on why the ancient people of Israel should rest at the end of every week. First, based on the creation story, God did (Exodus 20:8-11). Second, however, was that the Israelites had once been slaves, thus forced to work every day, and now God had set them free. Resting then was a symbol of being free (Deuteronomy 5:12-15).

Ironically by the time of the New Testament, Sabbath had become a burden rather than a blessing. Jesus challenged the religious leaders of the day for turning Sabbath into a test of orthodoxy for separating the faithful from the irreligious. Jesus intentionally did his ministry and miracles on the Sabbath and more than once did the powers confront him. In each case Jesus would rebuff them with sayings like

“Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath? … Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:10–12).

Or in another place,

“The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27–28).

Jesus sought to restore Sabbath as a good thing for people. Consistent with this Jesus once invited his busy disciples to “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (Mark 6:31)

We invite you to come rest a while with us through this season of Lent.

Copied from my article in our church newsletter at http://www.fcchammond.org/FEBOUTLOOK2013.aspx.

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Is It Time to Pay the Rent? (Mark 12.1-12)

Jesus once asked his disciples a startling question: “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18.8 NIV). Perhaps the very notion that God will require an account from each and every individual is considered either quaint or ludicrous today. On the other hand, most of us hold out that God will eventually make all the unfixable wrongs right—one day.

One of the most powerful images God uses to help us understand that a day of reckoning is coming is that of the vineyard. As early as the prophet Isaiah (as in Isaiah 5.1-8), God spoke of his loving care for his people in the “Song of the Vineyard.” In this song, God speaks of himself as one who had a vineyard, which he lovingly tended:

He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.

When the time for harvest came the loved one looks for grapes only to find rotten fruit. In exasperation, God asks

“What more could I have done?”

In his anger, God then shares his intent: he will destroy the vineyard so it becomes a wasteland (which it really is already).

Then Isaiah points out, the vineyard is really the house of Israel and the house of Judah (God’s people); so when God came looking for justice and righteousness, he found bloodshed and cries of distress.

When Jesus told the parable about the “tenants in the vineyard” (Mark 12.1-12), it did not take much imagination to see that he was doing an updated version of the “Song of the Vineyard.”

In the parable a man (God as we learn soon enough) planted a vineyard with a wall, a winepress and a watchtower (as in Isaiah 5.2).

When harvest time came the owner sent a servant to collect the rent from the tenants, but the tenants responded in hostility. They did this several times, even killing some of the servants.

Finally the owner decides to send his son, since surely they would treat the heir much better. Yet they reasoned with one another: “This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” Not only did they kill him, they threw his body outside the wall of the vineyard.

After Jesus finished this story, he asked, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do?”

To this question, Jesus also answers, “He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”

The Pharisees wanted to kill Jesus because they knew the parable was spoken about them. However, Jesus merely pointed to one of God’s greatest concerns: that his people be fruitful.

While this is not a pleasant story, and I like it much better when I see it applied to the religious leaders of the first century, it is probably spiritually insightful to ask,

“When the time to pay the rent comes due, what will we be able to show God as evidence that we tended his garden well?”

How Well Do You Hear? (Mark 4.1-20)

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said:

“Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times.”

Then Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables.  He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,

“they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’’

Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?

The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.” (Mark 4.1–20)

The Parable of the Sower, also known as the Parable of the Soils, serves as something of a paradigm parable. In other words, the parable functions as a model for hearing other parables. When the Twelve showed that they did not get the point of parable, Jesus chides, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” (Mark 4.13).

At its simplest, a parable is a story that illustrates. However, what is called a “parable” in the NT can include an extended figure of speech; proverb, or even a short pithy saying. Jesus used parables to draw people into His mission. Parables could also repulse those who could not “hear” what Jesus was saying to them.

In this parable the basic pieces of the story are a farmer, seed, and four types of soils in which only one is suitable for producing fruit. Out of these several points could be made. Since Jesus identifies the seed as the word (4.14), we could see Jesus as stressing the need to sow the seed. Or we could read the parable evangelistically to suggest that we need to target good soils. However, this misses the point that the farmer (presumably representing Jesus or God) still spreads seed on all of the soil types.

However, Jesus gives us clues on how to “listen” to this parable. The first word in v. 3 is “listen!” When he finishes telling the parable, Jesus says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Between the telling and interpretation of the parable, Jesus quotes Isaiah 6.9 as a warning: “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!” Then he asks his disciples if they understand the parable. Notice all words related to “getting it.”

If this is correct, then Jesus calls us to assess how well we “listen.” Some don’t listen well at all—it is as if Satan takes the word away as quickly as we hear it. Other can hear as long as life is easy. Yet others can’t hear the word because worries, wealth, and wants are too loud. However, those who do “get it” are extremely productive.

How well then do you hear?

When the Resurrection is Assumed (Hebrews)

The resurrection of Jesus is largely missing in Hebrews. Have you noticed?

So how could a preacher so committed to making sure his listeners understand what Jesus did for them say nothing about Jesus’ resurrection? For sure, the Hebrews writer believes Jesus is big stuff. This Jesus, the Son, co-created the world and is the very image of God. He is the cosmic glue that holds the world together and he is the one who made it possible the forgiveness of our sins and now sits at the right hand of God (Heb 1:3-4). So where is the resurrection?

Jesus is greater than angels, greater than Moses, and greater than Joshua. He is our great high priest who can both sympathize with our weaknesses on earth and intercede on our behalf in heaven. This high priest is of a higher order than the levitical priesthood, compared with the mysterious Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God. So, again, where is the resurrection?

Jesus’ high priesthood ushers in a new covenant—a new and living way (Heb 10:20). Even more, this High Priest, the Son, offers a better sacrifice than the blood of bulls and goats, he offers his own blood—yet not as a dead victim but as a willing and living sacrifice. Wait a moment… Did you see it?

A dead victim now a living high priest! That sounds like a resurrection had to have happened. Yes, and nearly everything said about Jesus in Hebrews assumes the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is the necessary assumption that makes what the Hebrews writer says about Jesus makes sense. In other words, there is no high priest without the resurrection of Jesus

What would a life be like that accepted the resurrection of Jesus as a given—as the necessary event that makes sense of our world?

Finally at the end of Hebrews, the writer offers this prayer for his reader:

May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (Heb 13:20-21)

Sight Unseen (Hebrews 11)

A journey has a certain open-ended-ness to it. Those who set out on a journey usually have a certain destination in mind, yet there is also a level of uncertainty when it comes to getting there. Consequently, most of us are grateful for an “uneventful” trip—by which we mean nothing happened to prevent us from reaching our destination when we expected.

Yet no trip or journey is exactly the same every time we make it. There always remains before the traveler the potential of uncertainty. A traffic accident can change one’s journey. Road construction can change when one gets to where he or she is going. Personal illness can cause us to be a day or more behind what we had planned. Despite these and other potential challenges we usually decide the risk is worth it.

Life is a journey and faith is what we call the willingness to face the unknown. Faith is leaning into the future without knowing what lies ahead exactly. Faith is being certain about what we cannot see.

In Hebrews 11 we have a list of biblical notables who leaned into God’s future even though it was not always clear what the outcome would be. In each account there are two emphases: (1) by faith people acted “as if” God was in control; and (2) by faith they moved into an unseen future.

For example Abel, by faith, offered a better sacrifice than Cain. Abel’s goal was not to outdo Cain, but to please God, but the “unseen” result is that Abel’s example still speaks to us today. Or, take Noah. He built an ark without water to float his boat. Or, how about Abraham? He left his homeland for the unknown in search of God’s city. (Did he really know that he was looking for a city?) Or, what of Joseph? He spoke of the exodus as the Israelites were migrating to Egypt.

None of these actually found what they were looking for. The preacher of Hebrews asserts,

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Did they know they were waiting for us?

Sacrifice of Praise (Hebrews 13.15-16)

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (Hebrews 13.15–16 NIV)

Throughout the sermon that we call the Letter to the Hebrews, the preacher has emphasized that Jesus is our perfect High Priest; his qualifications is that as God he can connect us with the Father and as a human he can understand and sympathize with us. Better than any of the early high priests Jesus can truly mediate the things of God to people.

Yet one of the most important functions of a High Priest was to offer sacrifices, first for himself and his family, and then for the people. Analogous to this, Jesus, while not needing to offer anything for himself, still needed, in the logic of Leviticus, to offer a sacrifice for his people. Here, the preacher offers his most significant insight: Jesus is both Priest and victim—but he is not a victim in that he is a willing and living sacrifice.

Now we are able to look back at the beginning of Hebrews to see why making purifications for sins before sitting down at the right hand of God (1.3b) is such a big deal.

Since Jesus has accomplished atonement (at-one-ment) with God, there no longer remains any useful reason for continuing animal sacrifices. They simply are not necessary since Jesus’ self-sacrifice in the heavenly temple.

However, there was one sacrifice from Leviticus that was not connected with the “forgiveness of sins.” The peace or thanksgiving offering was a free will offering just to express gratitude to God. In the passage cited above, this offering is transformed into “sacrifice of praise,” also called “the fruit of lips that confess his name.” This would include the public confession of Jesus in word and song.

Yet there is one more form of sacrifice mentioned in this text:  to do good and to share with others. Furthermore, this kind of sacrifice pleases God. Amazingly—to me—the kind of sacrifices that God is seeking through the Letter to the Hebrews are these: to love God by confessing him and by doing good to others.

And so closes Hebrews on the note of loving God and loving people.

True Worship (Hebrews 9.1-28)

Chapters 9 and 10 of the Letter to the Hebrews require some effort on the part of the modern reader to grasp. In this article I hope to give such a reader some help. The basic structure of these two chapters is a comparison or analogy between the ministry at the ancient tabernacle in the wilderness and Jesus’ ministry in heaven. The Hebrews writer has already established that the former is merely a shadow of the latter, which is reality. Therefore, one does not have to understand everything that is said about the “shadow” side to get the “reality” side.

For example, 9.1-10 gives a description of the ancient tabernacle. The conclusion about rituals of this ancient tabernacle: “They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order” (9.10). While this may be interesting to some, the real stuff begins in v. 11.

  • Christ is the high priest of the good things already here!
  • He went through the “perfect” tabernacle (heaven)
  • He entered not with animal blood but his own.
  • Therefore, his blood can cleanse our consciences so we can serve (like priests) the living God!
  • Furthermore, Christ is the mediator of the new covenant and
  • He died as a ransom to set people free!

These are just a few of the high points, and the important points, of Heb 9. Finally, this chapter closes with these incredible words:

But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him (Heb 9.26b-28)

Though the language of the text is dense, this comes through loud and clear: Jesus has paved the way for me, an unholy sinner, to stand before a righteous God. In a sense, we are saved by the “worship” of Jesus in the true tabernacle!