Come to a Desolate Place and Rest

"Feeding the Multitudes" by Bernardo Strozzi
The text for today is Mark 6:31:  “And [Jesus] said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest awhile.”
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Our text begins with the apostles returning to Jesus and telling Him all that they had done and taught during their two-by-two mission tour upon which Jesus had sent them.  But something important happens during this brief “vicarage internship.”  We dare not pass over it or we’ll miss the full impact of this passage.  St. Mark records the death of John the Baptist.  John, the forerunner of Christ, has been executed thanks to birthday boy Herod and his hasty oath.  John’s head is served on a platter, a gruesome party favor for Herodias and her daughter the dancer.  John’s disciples come and take his body and lay it in a tomb. 
The beheading of a prophet like John is big news.  Jesus hears about it.  He isn’t surprised.  That’s the way it goes with God’s prophets.  How much more with the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior, Jesus Himself!  He is rejected by His own hometown of Nazareth.  He has become the object of superstitious fear at Herod’s court.  As the reports of Jesus’ teaching and miracles reach him, the paranoid king worries that John has returned from the dead in the person of Jesus.  Fear and guilt have a way of making one’s imagination run wild.   
Oh, Jesus is not surprised by the report of John’s death.  But that does not mean He is unaffected.  And so when the apostles return to report of their mission tour, Jesus says to them: “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest awhile.”  For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.  So they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves (Mark 6:31-32).
Before we really get into our text, I’d like to draw your attention to one other thing.  At this point in the Gospel, there’s a subtle difference in Mark’s writing style.  Mark is usually an “immediately” guy.  Most accounts begin with action words: “immediately,” “now when,” “while he was still speaking,” etc.  Here, the evangelist slows things down a bit.  Jesus intends to give His apostles and Himself a breather—or at least it seems like He is going to give them a breather.  
Perhaps it is a chance to mourn John’s death… and to contemplate what will happen to Him.  As I was reminded once again this week, the death of a loved one has a way of making us think of our own mortality.  And fully God, Jesus knows where His ministry is leading.  It’s taking Him to the cross.  Betrayal.  Denial.  Brutal suffering.  A horrible death.  Fully human, Jesus understands the need for rest and reflection, instruction and prayer.  And so Jesus bids His apostles: “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest awhile.”
A desolate place.  Look up that phrase and you’ll find a definition like this: “A wilderness; an uninhabited place which offers no shelter or sustenance, especially one which is located in a remote area.”  And certainly by that definition, the other side of the Sea of Galilee is (or was) a desolate place.  But Jesus and His apostles aren’t there alone for long.  Crowds from the cities look for Him.  A whole mass of people, and they are already waiting for Jesus when He gets ashore.  So much for the little time of rest—at least rest in the sense that we generally understand it.  Perhaps Jesus offers another kind of rest?   
As usual, Jesus has compassion on the crowd.  After all, He’s not here for Himself.  He comes as the Christ for all people…whether they reject Him or receive Him.  The people are sheep without a shepherd.  In their synagogues, they are not given the spiritual food they need and are not being directed to the Messiah.  Christ, the Good Shepherd, who can provide them what they need, cannot withhold the food they so desperately desire—the very Bread of Life, Himself. 
Our Lord cannot resist meeting the greatest needs of the crowd and soon is in its midst preaching and teaching and healing.  The day passes quickly and soon it is late afternoon.  The apostles find it necessary to remind the Lord about their other, more practical, everyday needs.  “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late.  Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”  Reasonable and rational… but totally wrong.
Jesus’ answer is short and sweet: “You give them something to eat.”  The apostles can hardly believe their ears.  What can they do?  Why, even eight months of wages wouldn’t begin to fill the rumbling stomachs of this crowd!  So Jesus tells them to take an inventory of their resources.  They scrounge up five loaves of breads and two small fish that, according to John 6:9, belonged to a young boy.  A barley loaf was flat and small, hardly enough for two people.  And the fish—pickled or smoked—was usually served as relish or garnish and eaten with the bread.  It wasn’t much, but at least this boy (or his mother) had enough sense and foresight to pack a lunch when nobody else did.
The disciples seem to finally catch on that something special is in the wind, for when Jesus asks them to seat the people they do so with asking any more questions or raising any other objections.  The sight must have been stunning—a large crowd grouped by hundreds and fifties, seated on the ground for an impromptu picnic.  The word group in Greek is even more picturesque, as it is the word used for beds in a garden, for orderly rows of vegetables.  All sit there on the green grass, lined up row-by-row, waiting to be fed by their Good Shepherd, but totally unaware of what is about to happen in this desolate place.
Jesus begins this meal as He begins every meal—by giving thanks.  Perhaps the meal prayer of the Small Catechism and Old Testament psalter: “The eyes of all look to You, O Lord, and You give them their food in due season.  You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing” (145:15-16). 
It is the usual blessing but an unusual meal.  Jesus breaks the bread and divides the fish, giving it to the disciples, who then pass it on to the people.  Without saying a word, Jesus simply continues to multiply the bread and fish so that there is enough for all and even more left over—twelve baskets, one for each of the doubting disciples.  And don’t forget that more than five thousand had eaten; Mark counted the men but not the women and children.
Now, if we’re not careful we can get the wrong idea about what’s happening here.  We could fall into the Joel Osteen, prosperity preacher ditch and this notion that if you just play your cards right, your bread and fish will never run out, your wine and milk will overflow, your IRA and stock portfolio will grow and grow.  The lure of money for nothing is what keeps the casinos running, and the idea that God is an infinite vending machine of favors to the favored isn’t far behind.  St. John emphasizes that danger in his account.  The people want to make Jesus king on the spot.  A chicken (or fish) in every pot.  Bread on every table.
But Mark emphasizes the desolate place.  Three times within the space of five verses, this phrase is repeated: “a desolate place.”  Jesus intentionally brings His apostles to a desolate place for rest and recovery, instruction and prayer.  An unusual place for a retreat perhaps; but not really if you think about it.  The Lord does much of His best work when He brings His people to a desolate place.
Remember Israel’s wilderness wandering after being “exodused” out of Egypt?  Forty years’ worth of testing and trial and time for personal reflection and spiritual growth.  Forty years of desolation to learn to trust in the Lord and His provision of daily bread.  Forty years to drive home the lesson that “man shall not live on bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3).  Forty years in a desolate place to properly prepare them for the abundance that awaited them in the Promised Land.
And then there was the beginning of Jesus’ own ministry.  Baptized by John, with His heavenly Father’s declaration of well-pleasing Sonship still echoing near the Jordan, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit to the wilderness, to a desolate place, to be tempted by the devil.  Though hungry after forty days of fasting, Jesus forgoes the temptation to use His divine power to feed His own human need, relying upon God’s Word alone for His strength.    
And so it goes today.  The Lord bids you to come to a desolate place and to rest in Him, to trust in Him.  Your desolate place?  There are as many desolate places as there as disciples.  Yours could be a healthcare emergency or chronic pain.  Mourning the death of a loved one.  Marital and other relationship problems.  Unemployment or financial frustrations.   Loss of confidence or identity crisis.  A guilty conscience that burdens your heart.  The consequences of sin (yours or someone else’s) that weigh you down.  Actually, a desolate place could be anything that makes you realize you have come to a point where you cannot count on your own resources, your own resourcefulness, that you must come to Jesus empty-handed, as a beggar, asking Him to fill your need.  All of this is to prepare you for your place in the eternal Promised Land, the kingdom of heaven.
Along the way, the Lord bids His people to come to a desolate place to rest in Him, to come to the ends of their own resources and to trust in Him alone.  The disciples found it difficult to trust Jesus with five loaves and two fish.  How about you?  What is it in your life that seems so immense that you won’t bother Jesus?  What problem is so huge that you can’t tell Jesus?  What sin is it that you won’t trust with Jesus?  Too big for Jesus you say?  Too hard for Jesus?  Nonsense!
With Jesus there’s always enough and even more!  More than you could ever expect.  Whether it’s cancer or freak accident, loss or crisis.  Whether it’s your sin or guilt, death or hell, or even five loaves and two fish to feed thousands.  Jesus is a bigger Savior than we can imagine.  His compassion has no bounds. 
“Bring the bread and fish to me,” He says.  “Sit on the grass everyone.  Relax.  I’ll take care of you.”  Then He looks heavenward.  Blesses the food.  Breaks the bread and says to His disciples, His called and ordained servants:  “All right, boys.  Start handing it out to these poor folks.”
The miracle happens as Jesus makes as little fuss as possible.  No hocus-pocus.  No lengthy praying.  No holy exhortations like: “I’ll feed you only after you give your hearts to Me!”  Just break it up and pass it out.  Jesus so underplays it that the bread and fish probably reach the back row of the crowds before the first row figures what’s going on.  And Mark tells us, “They all ate and were satisfied.”  Jesus took care of them.  And much more than they ever expected. 
Can you trust a Jesus who bids you come to a desolate place to rest?  Can you trust a Jesus with only five loaves and two fish?  Can you?  Yes.  And with anything else.  In fact, with everything!  Especially the most troubling problems of all, the most desolate of places: sin, death, and hell. 
For that there’s Calvary, for a few hours of eternity the most desolate place on earth, a place totally forsaken by God, a Son totally forsaken by His heavenly Father for your sins and the sins of this world.  Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is also your Good Shepherd!  Salvation achieved.  Jesus lived for you.  Christ died for you.  Your sin is His.  His righteousness is yours.  Jesus took your desolate place so that you might find eternal rest in Him.
Now you sit here in rows listening to Jesus’ instruction and praying with your fellow saints.  From time to time, He invites you to come forward.  Take a little bit of bread and a little bit of wine.  What is that in the midst of your desolate place?  In the midst of all your enormous problems and sins?  It’s the Lord’s Supper.  His Body.  His Blood.  And His promise.  Eat and drink it for the forgiveness of your sins that He won for you on the cross.  And with this meal are more promises: life and salvation.  It is the medicine of immortality!
Jesus’ compassion for you knows no bounds.  No desolate place, no problem, no sin, no guilt, no death is too big for Jesus.  You can trust Him with anything and everything!  With Jesus there’s always more.  More than you ever expected, certainly more than you ever deserved—eternal life, salvation, and forgiveness that know no bounds.  Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.


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