Jesus said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat! (Mark 6:31)
We’re in Mark chapter 6 this morning, dealing with a long and rather spectacular reading, where we see Jesus heal the sick, feed 5,000 hungry people with only a few loaves and fish, walk on the water, and preach to the lost – all in a day’s work, or so it seems!
I’ve had days like that (indeed, I’ve had a few this week) and so have you – not as spectacular, of course, but just as full. We’ve all been there, I think – certainly all the parents amongst us – where the entirety of our day, from dawn to dusk, is jam-packed with teaching, preaching, shepherding the lost, bandaging the wounded, and trying to perform the odd feeding miracle.
And of course I’m not really wanting to pretend that we perform miracles on the scale that Jesus did, any more than we are able to teach and lead with the authority that Jesus had, but there is one thing that we do share in common with Jesus in the work of feeding and caring for our respective flocks, and that is that we are all capable of getting exhausted in the process!
Jesus, by the end of the day that we read of in Mark chapter 6, was exhausted, and as the curtain closes on that day, it draws back on a scene of pandemonium, where Jesus is being swamped by people needing his touch.
“They ran all over the countryside”, we are told, “and began carrying the sick on their cots to any place where they heard he was” (Mark 6:55). Jesus, it seems, found no peace that night. And if we wind back the clock to the beginning of the day we find that He actually began the day exhausted.
Our passage began with Jesus saying to His disciples, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For, we were told, so many were coming and going that they “had no leisure even to eat” (6:30-31).
Now it’s sandwiched in between those two scenes of chaos – with Jesus and His disciples being swamped with well-meaning but needy people – that we find Jesus and his team making a series of attempts to get some solitude, all of which fail.
And you get the impression that, with Jesus, His need for a break was due to more than just normal physical exhaustion, as h the day appears to begin with Him receiving the news of the death of His cousin, John the Baptist.
Now we don’t know for sure that Jesus only found out about John’s death that day, and we don’t know exactly how heavily it weighed on him, but we do know that Jesus loved John, as we do know that Jesus spoke highly of John, claiming indeed that ‘no man born of woman was greater than John’! (Matthew 11:11), as we do know that after this news of the death of John, Jesus made a whole series of attempts to get away by Himself to pray. This attempt at the beginning of our passage today in Mark chapter 6 is the first of those attempts.
Was Jesus simply grieving the loss of His beloved friend, or was there more to it than that? Was He trying to get over the anger He must have felt towards Herod – the only man (so far as we know) that Jesus ever blatantly refused to speak to? Or was there more to it again? Could it have been that Jesus saw in the death of John the writing on the wall for Himself? Did He see His own impending martyrdom in John’s martyrdom, and was it this that was forcing Him to try to take time out to reflect and pray?
In truth, we cannot enter in to the self-consciousness of Jesus. We do not know exactly what was in His mind at this stage, yet we know that He was tired, and we know that he was seeking a place of solitude, and we know too that He did not find it for, we are told:
“many saw [Jesus and His disciples] going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them” and that “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd” And not only does Jesus teach this crowd, we are told, but He feeds this crowd as well!
It was the disciples this time who try to get away from the crowd, pleading with Jesus that He might dismiss them and send them home for dinner, but now Jesus pushes them to take on the problem themselves and feed the crowd themselves, and this despite the fact that he knew that His disciples were exhausted and needed rest!
The feeding miracle is quite bizarre of course, and beyond explanation, as is the miracle that immediately follows, where we find Jesus walking on the water towards His disciples.
You have to read the full story, of course, to see why Jesus wasn’t in the boat with His disciples, but it turns out that Jesus was actually trying to find solitude again, not this time with His disciples but away from them too!
“He made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying goodbye to them, he went up on the mountain to pray” (Mark 6:45-46)
But the disciples, as ever, struggle at sea, and maybe Jesus saw them from the mountain on which He was praying, or maybe He just sensed that they were in real trouble. Either way, He comes to them and bails them out (so to speak) and they reach dry land safely, where they encounter yet another crowd of needy people!
And so we get this bizarre series of increasingly miraculous stories that begin with Jesus’ amazing teaching, followed by his inexplicable feeding miracle, followed by his almost unbelievable water-walking episode, and it would be quite understandable if the wondrous nature of these miracles obscured completely the fact that they take place in the context of a series of complete failures on Jesus part to find rest and peace for Himself and His disciples!
At the beginning of the day Jesus was looking for a place of peace and quiet. By late that same evening He was still looking for somewhere where He could get some time to think and pray. In the meantime he had preached to the lost, feed the hungry and walked on water, but He still couldn’t find a place alone!
How bizarre is it that he who could do what nobody else can do – feed 5,000 hungry men with only a lunchbox full of food and walk across the surface of an angry sea – seemed to be completely incapable of doing what most of us have no trouble in doing – namely, finding a bit of space for ourselves?!
Could not He who mysteriously multiplied the loaves and the fishes have not also have waved His hands and somehow put into the heads of all those present that it was time to go home and give Him a break? Could not He who calmed the wind and the waves have also calmed the crowd for long enough to explain to them that He was going to take a day off, and that nobody was to bother Him for the next 24 hours?
In truth, we simply do not know how these things work. We don’t know how Jesus could fail in His attempt to find solitude any more than we know how He performed His amazing miracles. The apparent failures of Jesus are as impenetrable to us as are his amazing successes! We don’t really understand how any of it works. And yet we do understand why � because we are told. We are told why Jesus abandoned His search for privacy. It was because He ‘had compassion’.
“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.” (Mark 6:34) He had compassion, so He taught them!
And it was the same thing, of course, with the feeding miracle. Why didn’t He send them away to take their chances finding food for themselves? Because He had compassion on them. So He fed them. And why did He walk across the water in the middle of a stormy sea? Because His disciples were in trouble and he had compassion on them, so He reached them in the only way He could reach them from where he was. He walked out to them and calmed their storm because he had compassion.
And this must be our prayer – for all of us who would follow Jesus – that we who share in His exhaustion might share in His compassion also; that we who share the tiredness of Jesus might also be overcome with the compassion of Jesus, such that we might be driven beyond our tiredness.
And I put it that way deliberately, lest anybody should think of ‘compassion’ as one of those lovely, touchy, feely virtues that helps bring balance to a full life. For if one thing is clear from this passage, Jesus’ compassion did not balance out His life. It was what kept it off balance!
Jesus needed rest. He didn’t get it. Why not? Because He had compassion! The disciples needed rest. They didn’t get it either. Why not? Because Jesus pushed them to show compassion too!
“Greater love hath no man than this”, says Jesus, “that a man lay down his life for his friend!” That’s the language of compassion. It’s not the language of inner-health and peace. Laying down your life does not necessarily bring you greater inner peace. What it does bring you, by definition, is death!
Jesus was driven by compassion during His earthly ministry, I believe, and we know full well where it lead Him! Within three years Jesus’ compassion got Him crucified! And, if we might indulge in fantasy for a moment, let me ask you: if Jesus’ compassion had not got Him crucified within three years, how long do you think it would have taken Him to burn out?
Now I know that’s a fanciful question and I don’t really expect any serious answer, but I do want you to take on board this morning that the example that Jesus gives us is not an easy one to follow, and that the compassion of Jesus is a dangerous commodity for all who are willing to take it on!
Even as St Paul says ‘Have this mind among you that was also in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 2:5). We have met Jesus in His exhaustion. We have found Him in the cross. Let us then take on our share of His compassion, so that we might ultimately share in His joy. Amen
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.